“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. …there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
A war story is just a war story. There are no true war stories. There are some that are blatantly false and made up, told by posers. Most are are recollections. Sometimes they are embellished, minimized, mixed with other memories, or just misremembered. Many people think veterans tell stories to impart some sort of moral or lesson. However, a war story is told to remember a loved comrade, relieve bothersome anxiety, or to get a rise out of the listener. Sometimes the story teller does not know why he tells the story. He just does.
I want to share two war stories today to remember my comrades in arms who died defending freedom. These stories are told from my perspective, what I remember from the time I learned of each death, mixed with conversations of those closer to the Soldier. Fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time, in land far away…” War stories begin, …
(Once upon a time) I remember watching CNN in the day room (in a land far away) at Diyala Provincial Police Headquarter in Baqubah Iraq in late March. There was a report about recent activity in the increasingly violent insurgency. They were showing images of a bridge just outside Ramadi where a truck from the 744th Transportation Company had been blown up by an IED and tossed over the edge. This attack resulted in the first war death of a New Hampshire National Guard Soldier since Vietnam.
SPC Jeremiah Holmes died in that attack. I did not know Holmes, but several Soldier from my battery had been assigned to deploy with 744th. Holmes worked with a Soldier who had been a section chief in my first howitzer section for a couple years. Everyone I spoke with who knew and remembered Holmes described him as a great guy. The 744th held a farewell event for family and friends during Thanksgiving weekend 2003. A picture of him kissing his 10 month old son on the day 744th departed New Hampshire appeared in the paper. That young man never knew his father. Soon he will be learning to drive for himself.
744th arrived a few weeks in Iraq before we did. At the time we felt a little safer being in a fixed site rather than traveling the roads as 744th did. Our sense of safety quickly eroded over the next few days. Attacks around Iraq resulted in injuries to other New Hampshire National Guard members. Two Soldiers from our company were wounded in Mosul, but that is a different story for another time. Even though I never met SPC Holmes, his death changed the way I looked at the war. A few days later the insurgents directed their attention to our humble abode.
The 744th nor SPC Holmes had been in Iraq long enough to learn about IEDs. We all grumbled during training about how sneaky the observer controllers (OC) were about hiding those pesky bombs. On this first attack, 744th learned just how easy the OCs were being on us. The insurgents were experts at hiding roadside bombs. Homes death taught us all an important lesson about situational awareness and the danger we faced during our time in Iraq. This lesson was learned well. The reality was even if we detected 99% of IEDs, it only took 1 missed IED to kill us or a comrade in arms; and that is the beginning of my next story.
I remember (once upon another time…) walking into our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) on 15 October 2004 to see if they knew why our internet connections were not operating. We had been in Iraq for several months and little phased us so the look on the faces of the TOC staff however told me something really bad happened explaining the internet interruption. Before I could ask, the senior NCO walked into the room with the phone we used to call home and secured it in a wall locker. We were in a communications blackout. That could only mean someone died. I hoped it was not one of ours. “What’s going on?” I asked. The answer dashed my hopes as I learned SPC Alan Burgess from the platoon our company had in Mosul died.
The day started like every other patrol in the city. The squad departed the forward operating base and found activity on the streets was normal, always a good sign. The squad and its leader always expected attacks and hoped for uneventful trips. Most days they did find enemy and engaged or were engaged. Today they expected no more, no less.
In fact this platoon had several significant engagements with the enemy during their time in Mosul. In fact one Soldier had been shot in the chest the week SPC Holmes died. After being shot, the squad returned to base and drew a new tactical vest for the gunner and returned to patrol the streets of the city. The gunner and driver had changed places on the second patrol Just before sun rise, the patrol located the insurgents that shot the Soldier earlier and again engaged them in a fire fight. The gunner turned driver dismounted from the armored vehicle, to attack the disable vehicle containing the insurgents. He was shot again but this time in the ankle!
Today was different. The streets were busy. People were engaged in commerce. There was nothing to indicate death awaited them. The squad was stuck in the normal traffic of the city with no where to maneuver. This is exactly what the enemy was waiting for, a sitting duck.
What happened next, happened quickly. A vehicle in the opposite lane charged directly toward the patrol. SPC Alan Burgess saw the danger and began to engage the enemy. According to some witnesses time slowed down as the car came to a stop. According to others time accelerated. Each tells the war story the way they remember it. The driver of the attacking vehicle was dressed all in white, a sign of one who is about to be martyred. SPC Burgess recognized that danger, but a moment too late. As he released his machine gun to seek the safety inside the armored vehicle, the car bomb exploded. Burgess and civilians in the area were killed. Dozens were injured. Alan left behind his girlfriend and four year old son.
Alan was a loved and respected member of the unit. His loss effected everyone in some fashion. Like Holmes death, it served as a reminder about the fragility of life.
Neither story has a moral. The heroes do not live happily ever after. These are war stories, not fairy tales. Sharing these stories however provided me an opportunity to remind people that Memorial Day is not Veteran’s Day. It is a day to remember those who gave all defending freedom. These stories are reminders that real people died protecting freedom. They were not statistics. As members of the National Guard, these two Soldiers are part of a tradition older that the U.S. Army, protecting family, friends, and neighbors from the evil in the world.
As Memorial Day approaches, take time to attend a memorial service. Instead of becoming angry about having to wait for a passing parade, give thanks to those whose sacrifices the parade honors. Ask a veteran to tell you about a lost war comrade. Memorial Day is not about the beginning of summer. It is not about fun and family picnics. It is not a paid, work-free day. It is about remembering those who died so we may live free and enjoy our lives in peace. Remember them.
- WWII Memorial Stars: pxhere.com, no other information provided. pxhere.com license.
- Gold Star Banner: author.
- Jeremiah Holmes: US Government Photo.
- Alan Burgess: US Government Photo.
- Poppy: pshere. ibid.
- About Buddy Poppies: http://www.vfwpost4103.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/HISTORY-OF-THE-BUDDY-POPPY.pdf
- Veteran cemeteries: https://www.cem.va.gov