I carry a list. We all do. Some of the names on my list are more prominent for me than others. Some were friends; some I knew in the way you know and like people you work with but couldn’t say their kid’s names; some are faceless names associated with the freshly fallen I saluted as they were carried aboard a cargo plane for a last ride home. I started the list in 2004, before I understood that it was open-ended work I’d be adding to well into a second decade.
Every year on this day, I read The List aloud to make sure that I never forget The Names, a possibility that seems remote, but less so as the gulf of years between the men on The List and I becomes more vast. The wars are still here, though diminished, and I still serve, but the sharp, individual edges of the pain have dulled; collectively leaving a more blunt, crushing type of injury, one caused more by mass and weight than by immediate impact.
The very distance, more than a decade in some cases, makes me think that The List deserves more than a simple recitation. This year, as I prepare to spend Memorial Day living the life they were denied, The Names require personification. They deserve a minute to explain, if not who they were, at least how I knew them or knew of them, and how I understand their sacrifice.
Marine Sergeant Foster Lee Harrington was the first, and even now, the one I was closest to. Foster put me through the Reconnaissance Indoctrination Program with the same enthusiasm he brought to everything else. We became friends over six years of training together, then deployed to Iraq in two different platoons of 2d Force Reconnaissance Company; I as a Platoon Commander, he as a Team Leader.
On Sept 20, 2004, I was in the Combat Operations Center of the infantry battalion with which we were working, discussing an upcoming operation, when I thought I heard the radio code word for a unit requesting an emergency medical evacuation. The call was faint, clouded in static, and when I asked the radio operator if he had heard it, he had not. I jogged back to our own unit operation center and asked our own radio operators if they had heard a call for a MEDEVAC. They were similarly unaware. But I knew. I ran back to where they again denied hearing it, but by the time I got back to our Company, the MEDEVAC was landing and our Chief Corpsman was asking me if I knew the man aboard. I did. Every man in my platoon knew Foster, and soon enough we all knew he had been shot through the head on a street in Husaybah, Iraq and was dead. My Commanding Officer held his hand till he passed.
After that came Major Alan Rowe. In the way of our tribe, we met for the first time and shared a two-hour conversation about the Corps, our families, and friends before taking a familiarization ride of our communal area of operations. The next day Al was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device that also killed Lance Corporal Nicholas Wilt and First Lieutenant Ronald Winchester. The same day I met Al, I shared a Humvee ride through our area of operations with Lance Corporal Wilt, Corporal William Salazar, and Lance Corporal Nicholas Perez. All three were killed by IEDs before they could reach twenty-four years of age. Only two of the five men in that Humvee survived that tour. I think about that from time to time and have no idea what to do with that information. It’s a meaningless coincidence, but one that remains with me nonetheless.
I never met Army Staff Sergeant Aaron Holleyman. I arrived in Iraq just after he was killed, but I carry his name because I fought beside the men of his U.S. Army Special Forces team and he meant something to them. It is the way of our tribe.
My platoon was blessed. While almost half were wounded over seven months, we all came home alive. The other three platoons distributed across Iraq at the time were not similarly blessed. Sergeant David Caruso died in the second battle of Fallujah on November 9, 2004. Sergeant Ben Edinger was killed on November 23, 2004. Sergeant Thomas Houser followed them across the river in December, leading the way into a house that was essentially a bunker full of explosives.
Corporal Corey Palmer, with whom I attended Marine Combatant Diver School, died from horrific wounds sustained in an IED attack. He was, like me, a slow swimmer with a self-deprecating humor and, unlike me, a good surfer. Unlike most Marines who drive sports cars and monster trucks, he drove an Oldsmobile with surf racks. He was a character and I love a character. I only found out he was dead when I saw his name on a bracelet on another Marine’s wrist. He told me Cory’s death was a blessing, given his wounds.
Captain John Maloney and I went to college together but I barely knew him. He had just arrived as a Sergeant seeking a commission and I was a graduating senior getting ready to put on my Lieutenant’s bars. He died leading a Marine Infantry Company in Ramadi. Posthumously, the Marine Corps awarded him the Leftwich Trophy as the best Company Commander in the Corps. I wish I’d taken the time, I might have been a better man for it.
Major Douglas Zembiec was my best friend’s roommate and an incredible warrior. I met him at my best friend’s wedding. His story has been told more times far better than I could here. I was standing on a landing zone at Camp Lejeune, attempting to get the Secretary of the Navy aboard an aircraft following the kind of VIP dog and pony shows that most Majors oversee at some point, when my best friend called me to ask if it were true that Doug had been killed. Only with Doug’s death did I truly understood that we are all mortal.
Staff Sergeant Ryan Means was another Army Special Forces soldier I really didn’t know. He was a friend of a friend and one day in Baghdad he looked in the mirror and realized his eyes were yellow. I shared some emails with him and his family and less than a year later he was dead of a particularly aggressive cancer. The enemy didn’t kill him, but he gave up a comfortable, country club life to serve his country in a dangerous assignment and he lost his imminently finite time with his wife and kids because he chose to do so. I count him amongst the men I must honor and remember.
Sergeant Michael Roy and I were both early members of Marine Special Operations Command. We were in separate battalions but we shared one tiny building because we were battalions in name only. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. A year later, Gunnery Sergeant Robert Gilbert was shot in the head twice, dying on his 28th birthday. Rob described advising a company of Afghan National Army soldiers in the incredibly dangerous mountains along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as “pretty much the coolest thing ever.” He was an incredibly funny man who made squatting in a South Carolina forest in the rain in February a hysterically enjoyable experience. I sacrificed a lot of sleep to sit next to a fire and laugh in a steady drizzle with him. I miss him and who he would have become
Later in 2010, I was in Afghanistan. By then, as a Lieutenant Colonel, I spent much more time near coffee machines than on the streets of Iraq or in Afghan villages. During that six months I saw no blood. I bore no danger save the odd rocket attack that I typically slept through. Nonetheless, I learned to tell from the cast of a man’s voice on a radio whether a casualty would live or die and I went to fourteen memorials for men on the other end of the radio. Specialist Jonathan K. Peney, Specialist Joseph Dimock, Sergeant Justin B. Allen, Sergeant Anibal Santiago, Master Sergeant Jared Van Aalst, Specialist Bradley Rappuhn, Sergeant Andrew Nicol, Specialist Christopher Wright, Sergeant Martin Lugo, Chief Collin Thomas, Sergeant First Class Aaron Gryder, Sergeant First Class Lance Vogeler, and Staff Sergeant Kevin Pape. I didn’t know them. I will never forget them.
Sergeant Nicholas Aleman was not meant to die as a Marine. I often marveled that he WAS a Marine. He was stunningly intelligent, had no driver’s license, lived an ascetic lifestyle, didn’t like to get dirty, and seemed to have no interest in comparing testosterone levels with his fellow Marines; all of which seemed to coincide to make him an exceptional intelligence analyst. He exited the Corps to attend college at home in New York City, his eyes set on Columbia and a career in the Foreign Service or Intelligence Community. He remained a Reservist and was killed by a suicide bomber in a market in eastern Afghanistan. I still periodically turn to the internet to confirm it was indeed that Sergeant Aleman. I keep hoping he’ll give me one more surprise and show up somewhere, even though I’ve seen the memorial his family maintains on Facebook.
Sergeant Christopher Wrinkle and I worked together in the Operations Section of Marine Special Operations Command. We both eventually escaped to battalions. He was an infantryman who became a dog handler. He died when he returned to a burning building in western Afghanistan in an attempt to save his dog. No greater love indeed.
Sergeant First Class Kristopher Domeij is another man I didn’t know, but his influence over men who mean a lot to me is huge and thus his memory is one I bear, because I love who my friends love and respect who my friends respect. I remember the day he died on his fourteenth combat deployment as a U.S. Army Ranger. I was home and safe and sitting in an office far removed from the sights and smells of the places where men go to fight and die. I feel guilty for that. It’s the way of our tribe.
Hospitalman First Class Darrell Enos was a Sailor, husband, and father to six children. We served in the same battalion. He was calm and decent, the kind of man who cares for a wife and six children. He was killed by an Afghan he was training in 2012.
In 2013–2014 I was again in Afghanistan, on the staff of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. I did not know Marine Corporal Alex Martinez, but I stood in a Memorial Day formation with his father, a US Navy Seabee who enlisted late in life because it was the only way he could get to the place where his son died. When I learned that, I held it together long enough to promise him I will always carry the name of his son, killed in action Afghanistan April 5, 2012. Then I went back to my room and cried in a way I could not before I became a father. God forbid I outlive my child.
Captain David Lyons was an Air Force officer assigned to a unit I worked with regularly. By all accounts he was an extraordinary man. He was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan on the way back to his base after visiting his wife, a fellow officer, at hers. Watching a burning vehicle via surveillance camera, I called a friend at that unit to tell them I thought their convoy had been hit by a suicide bomber. Sadly, I was correct. I watched as his wife was helped aboard the plane that carried her home with his body and tried to imagine trying to carry that weight.
Again, as a Lieutenant Colonel on a staff, I was safe, warm, and well fed but, as is the way of our tribe, lower ranking members still sought and found the enemy. Staff Sergeant Daniel Lee, Sergeant William K. Lacey, Specialist Christopher Landis, Sergeant First Class Roberto Skelt, Master Sergeant Aaron Torian, Sergeant Shawn Farrell, Staff Sergeant Jason McDonald, Staff Sergeant Scott Studenham, Corporal Justin Clouse, Private Aaron Toppen, and Specialist Justin Helton gave the last full measure across the length and breadth of Afghanistan. The best I could do for them was to stand and salute at their memorials and remember them now and forever. It seems a paltry promise but it’s what I have.
I flew home from that tour with Marine Staff Sergeant Kerry Kemp, Staff Sergeant Liam Flynn, SSgt Trevor Blaylock, Staff Sergeant Andrew Seif, and Staff Sergeant Marcus Bawol. They were tight in the way men who have faced danger together are. As a guy who was not with them in the fire and as the senior service member on the plane, I was a stranger, but we laughed and shared family stories. On return to North Carolina, I was assigned to a training billet while they began training for another deployment along with Captain Ford Shaw and Master Sergeant Thomas Saunders. I saw them periodically, sharing a quick word, a handshake, a sarcastic comment then all seven died in a helicopter crash March 10, 2015, along with the four members of the air crew, a stark reminder that ours is an inherently dangerous profession.
On Dec 11, 2016 I found myself on a plane to Washington D.C., looking forward to 90 minutes of reading a book and not talking to anyone. Then a Gold Star Mother, easily identified by her pin and the shirt with her son’s photo on it, sat down next to me. We talked for the entire trip. She was on her way to visit her son, buried amongst his brothers and sisters in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery. She told me about coming twice a year, in summer and winter, to spend a day with her son. She asked me if I thought her son’s sacrifice was worth it, whether America would remember her son and what he gave up. PFC Jalfred Vaquerano was shot in the head in Charkh District, Logar Province, Afghanistan on December 11, 2011. He died two days later in Landstuhl, Germany. His mother and sister were with him when he passed. He was twenty years old. He couldn’t drink a beer in America but he could die with his face to the enemy.
On July 10, 2017, the unthinkable happened. Again. Sixteen Marines died when the C130 cargo plane they were aboard crashed into a field in Laflore, Mississippi. Nine of the Marines were aircrew from a New York Marine Reserve Squadron. I didn’t know Maj. Caine M. Goyette, Capt. Sean E. Elliott, Gunnery Sgt. Mark A. Hopkins, Gunnery Sgt. Brendan C. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Joshua Snowden, Sgt. Owen J. Lennon, Sgt. Julian M. Kevianne, Cpl. Daniel I. Baldassare, or Cpl. Collin J. Schaaff, but our tribe is small and a friend assigned as their active duty Inspector/Instructor described the impact of losing nine Marines from one geographic area to me. The remaining seven Marines were fellow Raiders assigned to the same Team that lost seven members in the 2015 crash. They died in a plane crash as replacements for men who died in a plane crash. It’s another piece of information that I can’t categorize, a coincidence. But it’s another weight that must be carried. One Raider, SSgt Billy Kundrat, was a man I’d known for the better part of a decade. We’d both recently left duty at the Marine Raider Training Center, I for the Pentagon, he for a Team. Hospitalman First Class Ryan Lohrey was the U.S. Navy Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman assigned to the Team. The other five Raiders were new men whom Billy and I had trained for nine months in the year before they were killed. Staff Sgt. Robert Cox, Sgt. Talon Leach, Sgt. Chad Jenson, Sgt. Joseph Murray, and Sgt. Dietrich Schmieman were young, smart, and enthusiastic Marines who carried themselves with the confidence of young men who know they’ve been tested and found fit. There’s a bridge in Frederick, Maryland named after SSgt Billy Kundrat now. It’s next to the bridge named for his childhood friend and fellow Eagle Scout, SFC Lance Vogeler, a friend of friends who was killed during my first tour in Afghanistan. In Richland, Washington, there’s a Post Office named after Sgt Dietrich Schmieman. It seems unnatural to know the stories behind the names on so many structures. It makes me think we ought to ask our leaders just how many generations of bridges we mean to name.
I’ve not added a name to The List since 2017. I hope to never add another. But on this Memorial Day, as friends and compatriots are deployed to hard places around the globe, it seems unlikely. Ours is not a safe or easy profession. Our work is not to be taken lightly or begun blithely by people who have never stepped through the door with muzzle ready, or walked the streets scanning trash piles, or squatted in the dirt with a village elder. It is a deadly, dirty, necessary business that demands blood sacrifice. Our Nation is worth that. But to deserve men and women like these, our Nation and its leaders owe a debt to remember, to learn, and to consider the possible outcomes of our collective actions. That debt is absolute, because even when the Nation fails us, we will not fail to answer its call. It is the way of our tribe.