In Lieu of MPs

HHS (FWD) 2BN, 197th FA (ILOMP) musters for the first time in Berlin, NH. Photo courtesy MAJ (r) Matthew Boucher

In 2004, I was assigned to be a Platoon Sergeant for 2nd Platoon, Headquarters Battery (Forward) 2nd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment (In Lieu of Military Police). We were a bunch of highly skilled cannon cockers, fire direction specialists, wrench turners, and clerks. Some of us had experience in law enforcement but none of us ever trained to be MPs or Infantrymen. It did not matter. The Army needed MPs, not artillery, to fight the insurgents in Iraq so we received 10 or 14 days of training and became MPs. The training was squad-centric, nothing for platoon or company leaders. As a result, none of the Platoon Leaders, Platoon Sergeants, the First Sergeant, nor the Company Commander received any training to be or lead MPs. With our little training, we boarded planes and headed to staging areas in Kuwait determined to do our jobs to the best of our humble abilities.

When we arrived in the Middle East, our company was split and served in three locations, Mosul, Tikrit, and Baqubah. The Baqubah mission was to provide 24/7 force protection to the provincial police headquarters building downtown and train Iraqi Police. Everyone knew Mosul and Tirkrit were dangerous. None of us had ever heard of Baqubah. It had to be relatively safe, right? I had the opportunity to visit the newly renovated police training facility in Mosul. It was nice, rivaling the academy police officers in New Hampshire attend. Given the quality of the Mosul police academy, the perceived safety of Baqubah, and the opportunity to complete a mission that would help the locals develop security forces to protect themselves, I volunteered my platoon to execute the Baqubah mission. When we arrived at the Diyala Police Provincial Police Headquarters we all realized that not only were we not in New Hampshire anymore Dorthy, this place looked nothing like the facility in Mosul!

One of the Soldiers in my platoon, Aaron Marshall, is writing a book, Baqubah; Bones and Blood, about his experiences during that deployment. He provided me an advanced copy of his manuscript. He expects it to be ready for publication in 2020. Marshall reminds me of Medal of Honor recipient Maynard Smith who demonstrated exceptional bravery under fire, but always found trouble when the bullets were not flying. Marshall is a very brave person but always had a knack for finding trouble. Still, he was someone I wanted by my side when the shooting started.

Squad members training in the snow at Ft Dix to prepare to fight in the desert of Iraq in 2004. ibid

I have published a veteran based post each Memorial and Veterans Day since starting my blog. After reading Aaron’s manuscript, I thought he did an excellent job of describing many parts of the experiences of combat veterans. I asked permission to publish an excerpt of his book here for Veterans Day. He granted me that permission. What follows is a brief excerpt as written by him with a few edits for clarification. His writing is graphic and may be offensive to some readers. I decided to publish this post using his graphic words because war is both graphic and offensive. I will post when the book is published.

Please read and reflect on the words and experiences of PFC Aaron Marshall.

My call sign in Iraq was “Spoonman”. We were told to come up with our own call signs, and I loved the song by Soundgarden so I went with that. At that point I had never tried heroin and wouldn’t until my second divorce about 7 years later. But that’s a story for another time. An even darker tale of the human experience; loss, tragedy, insanity, and redemption. Now that I think about it, it was sort of a self-induced experience very similar to Iraq; to War. I relived the terror of death on a daily basis with that drug, but I was one of the lucky few who was able to kick it before it took me completely.

I had too many experiences with death. Too many. I’ve felt the breeze created by a snipers bullet gently flow by my face. I’ve been hit with anti-tank rockets so close it made me think the world had ended. I’ve had septic shock, pancreatitis, renal failure, and felt the peaceful calm that comes over you when you die. I’ve overdosed too many times and woken up to people standing over me crying.

Humvee of Platoon Leader, 4th Platoon/293rd MPs. ibid

And I’m still here. I’m still trudging forward, marching on. To what I haven’t the slightest idea. I have no idea why I’m still here. Dumb luck maybe? A purpose I don’t yet know? I would go with dumb luck over fate. Regardless, I give thanks to the people around me. If I gave thanks to a supposed god, I would be squandering an opportunity to make an actual difference in the world. That was one of the original ideas behind me joining the military in the first place. After September 11th 2001, most young men my age were jolted by a sense of duty to do something, anything. But still only a few signed up to voluntarily fight in a War that we all knew was coming. We all wanted it. There was that part of the collective unconscious of the country that needed war; vengeance, justice. The same type of situation occurred in Iraq in 2004 when a Sergeant (SGT) From the 3rd ID and a Lieutenant (LT) ended up both losing one of their arms during an RPG attack on a patrol. We all felt completely helpless immediately after.

Searching within ourselves for the answer to the question why? Why did it happen? Why did the RPG enter the front of the Humvee like it did? Why that road? Why them? Why not me? And every single man and woman at the Police Station wanted vengeance, justice. We knew we would get it but we just didn’t know when. It was part of all our collective unconscious at the station. We would get it. At least that’s how I felt about it.

Diyala Provincial Police HQ, our home for 13 months. Note that we used sand bags in the windows to keep out sunlight for those working the overnight sifts, and what ever projectiles came our way from the city around us. ibid

During one of our QRF (Quick Reaction Force) missions shortly after the SGT and LT were severely wounded, we would get our revenge. We needed to kill one of the enemy, a hundred if we could, to make us all feel like we were doing something good for our wounded family. My team got called out to pick up a soldier that had been wounded by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device, commonly called a roadside bomb) just down the road from us on what was called “RPG Alley”. When we went to pick him up, it was a dangerous feeling, a feeling like something bad was going to happen. I’d get that feeling from time to time, and I learned to trust it. Over time that feeling was correct more often than not, and at the very least that feeling would heighten your senses so you’d be even more ready for an ambush.

You never knew when and if another IED was going to be set off after the first one. But we had to get the wounded out. The soldier was in good spirits. Pretty bloodied but happy to be getting the hell out of there and onto a base with medical care.

A village along RPG Alley. author

Halfway to F.O.B. Warhorse we were ambushed by some AK-47 fire that pinged off the vehicle in front of me then skipped just over our vehicle. I got out of the kill zone by ducking down into the vehicle. When the gunfire stopped hitting our vehicle my SGT yelled, “shoot!” I popped up, unlatched the turret, swung it counterclockwise, locked the turret back in, and looked down the barrel of my M249 SAW. I didn’t even have to aim. I was looking directly at a man slightly crouched beside a wall, exactly where the gunfire was coming from, holding a weapon. I didn’t even think about it. I let loose as many rounds as I could and I’ll never forget how he instantly slumped to the ground when my first bullet hit, and stayed motionless (Marshall said that the gunner in the next Humvee behind him also engaged the insurgent. Karl rarely received credit for his role in that fight. Marshall remembers hearing the gun firing). I ducked back into the Humvee and said the SGT, “Holy shit I got him!”, and we called in the confirmed kill.

When I got back to the Police Station you could see the look of everyone had changed from a somber mood to a look of vindication. None of us ever had a conversation about these feelings. In fact, at least with those I associated with, we didn’t really talk about feelings at all, ever. The way I perceived, it was that we got our revenge for what happened to the SGT and LT. I think that helped us move past the incredible horror of being helpless for them. It helped me move past it and not dwell on the event so much. Of course there was nothing we could have done. But you still feel like, and always feel like, there is something you could have done to prevent it.

It’s still hard to piece everything together; the entire year. Where to start; how to finish telling it. It doesn’t help that I had multiple head traumas while I was there and multiple head traumas when I returned home. But I’m determined to tell my story, our story, the story of the 2/197th FA unit that went to Baqubahh, Iraq in 2004 as hastily trained MP’s. The Army owned us and we would all do our part to make sure every last one of us got home. We would do our best, and that’s exactly what we did, our best. I wasn’t trained to be a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee but by the end of the tour, I guarantee I was one of the best. That’s not cockiness in the sense that I thought I was better than anyone else, but a sense of confidence in my abilities. A turret gunner needs that confidence to do his or her job. Without it, fear can creep in and take over, rendering you useless. No, I wasn’t better than any other gunner in the war, I was simply one of the best. I hope that now makes sense.

Most of Marshall’s squad training at Butler Range in eastern Iraq. They managed to get an armored Humvee stuck in the only mud hole for a 100 miles! Author
Marshall’s book cover.

To paraphrase one of my favorite schools of Philosophy, the Stoics, and more specifically, Epictetus; there are things in our control like our opinions, desires, and inclinations. There are also things which are not in our control like our body, possessions, honor, and reputation. So why worry about the things that are not in our control? Well, that turret and anyone around it that wanted to do us harm was in my control for that year. I made it my mission to be the baddest motherfucker I could possibly be. It was out of my character. But like an actor that gets stuck in role after making a movie, I became a machine gunner. I became the turret. It was my home. That 2 inch wide strap for a seat was my bed, my home, my church, my religion, and baptism by fire is not an understatement. Some jobs you ask for in the Army, but for the most part you just do what you are told as an enlisted man. And I was told to get in the turret. I did my job and I did it well.


Marshall’s book is now available. You may purchase it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble in paperback. Hard cover is not available for retail at this time. Search for Baqubah Bones and Blood at your favorite online book store.

Building and Maintaining Trust

If character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone of the foundation.

In an earlier post http://bit.ly/2N0pCwi I proposed that the foundation of leadership was character. I still believe that to be true. Character is the sum of your habits that tell others what you value. Leaders should adopt habits so others know they value their organization’s guiding principals. Organizations make a big deal out of their organizational values or guiding principals because those behavior are what they want the world to think the organization represents. Rarely do people talk about the corner stone of the foundation. However, if character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone. If trust is so important, you have to wonder how do you develop and maintain trust. Like being a good leader, developing and maintaining trust takes effort.

Trust often exists in new organizations whether a company, team, or partnership. The same principal applies when new people join an organization; for the most part they are trusted. People generally trust each other. In spite of the warnings our parents gave us as children, and we as parents admonish our children, people trust strangers. That is one reason scammers are successful. Even scammers are trusting of others. Just watch any of James Veitch’s Scamalot videos on YouTube or Mashable to see him scam the scammers. The scammers trust him to do what he says he will do, well, until they realize he is jerking them around.

Humans learn to trust early. Trust is an important survival tool learned in families and with friends.

Trusting one another, family, friend, or co-worker is an important human quality. Early humans had to rely on each other to survive. As a result our brains developed to release certain hormones when we trust and cooperate with other people (Sinek, 2014, pp 33-38). Someone had to guard the existing provisions while another group went to hunt. The guards had to trust the hunters to hunt. Hunters had to trust the guards to protect what little they already gathered.

Today we have the same need to rely on others to survive and thrive. Military commanders rely on their higher headquarters to coordinate resources they require to accomplish missions. They also rely on subordinate commanders to execute tasks without direct supervision as well as their peers to their left, right, and above (l mean in the air over the battlefield) them. Each risks potentially life threatening tasks with little but a promise that those around him or her will complete their tasks and the others rely on that commander complete his or hers.

During World War I Major Charles Whittlesey found himself in command of his 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment along with attachments from other 77th Division units in a pocket behind enemy lines. The plan was that the division would attack to a phase line with several units on line and in mass to overrun the German trenches. As the attack progressed the units on Whittlesey’s flanks began to break and retreat. Commanders on his flanks warned him they had lost contact with units to the regiment’s left and right. Division headquarters assured Whittlesey several times during the attack his flanks were covered. He reached his objective that day, but was the only American unit to do so. The Germans restored their lines by the end of the next day and surrounded the 1-308th(+). Whittlesey trusted Maj. Gen. Alexander when he continued to press the attack. In spite of that let down, he continued to trust that the General would find a way to relieve them. Alexander had sent for reinforcements, but only a small number reached Whittlesey’s position before they were cut off from the Allied lines.

LTC Whittlesey receives his Medal of Honor. He trusted his senior leaders would relieve him and his Soldiers. He encourages his Soldiers to also have faith in their comrades efforts to come to their aid bolstering their trust.

Whittlesey established a strong defensive position and encouraged his men to fight well and have faith they would be relieved. His phone lines had been cut off by the Germans requiring him to rely on carrier pigeons to communicate with his regiment and division. The Soldiers of the 308th fought through six days of repeated German attacks rather than surrendering. They trusted their fellow Soldiers would fight their way forward to relieve them. In the movie version of this story, Major Whittlesey tells his junior leaders that they will win the battle. He trusted MG Alexander would be determined to relieve them. Whittlesey was right. Alexander trusted that Whittlesey would hold out as long as he could. Alexander used the Lost Battalion to motivate other units to fight hard. He continued to pressure the German lines to reestablish contact with Whittlesey and his men. The Germans could not continue to stand against the pressure on the lines while also trying to dislodge the 308th. The 77th Division broke through and finally relieved Whittlesey and the men of the 308th Infantry (Durr, 2018 & Carabatsos, 2001).

In this example there was lot of reason not to trust, but leaders did trust each other. The leaders passed along their trust to the Soldiers. The result was an Allied victory in the Argonne Forrest that led to the cease fire several weeks later on November 11, 1918.

As Veitch’s Scamalot videos show, sometimes it is easier to trust strangers than people we already know. Strangers have yet to do anything to cause us not to trust them. We know the flaws of those around us which may cause us to not trust them as much a those strangers. This is where leadership happens. Establishing trust is easy. Maintaining trust within existing organizations takes the most work. It would have been easy for Major Whittlesey to surrender and stop trusting his commanders. They had let him down by not telling him the truth about the other units falling to the rear.

Trust, like solid stone, can erode over time. Leaders recognize factors that cause trust to erode. They make small corrections and repairs along to prevent the foundation from collapsing.

Trust erodes as people are unwilling or unable to live up to expectations. Jim is unable to complete a project on time because Pam did not budget enough money to complete her assigned task. Pam did not know the task would cost that much because she relied on a vendor’s quote. The vendor was out of stock so Pam had to order from another supplier and request additional funding. Both took more time than planned and jammed up Jim. Now the manager does not trust either of them, and neither Jim nor Pam trust each other. None of the people in this story intended to behave unethically. The vendor did not predict Pam’s order and ran out of stock. Pam trusted the vendor had a good supply of what she needed. Jim trusted Pam had checked out the vendor. Michael, the manager, trusted Jim could lead the project and complete it on time and within budget.

On the surface keeping trust is simple. As the above example shows it only takes a small mistake to loose trust. However if people live by the organizational principals, difficult situations can be navigated so lessons learned are applied in the future. People have to take responsibility for their mistakes. Leaders have to forgive those mistakes and reestablish trust.

It is easier to make small repairs when trust is breached than to try to rebuild trust after things fall in around you.

Leaders are responsible for building and maintaining trust. They do this in several ways. Leaders define their organization’s guiding principals through regular communication, education, and setting the example. Leaders allow others to make mistakes, analyze what went wrong, and learn how to avoid those mistakes in the future. The final step for leaders is to allow the employee to try again. Doing so shows he still has trust in the employee and has faith he will succeed. Leaders respectfully share employee mistakes so others learn what not to do. You do this by setting them up as the new subject matter expert. Employees rarely act to sabotage you and the organization. If they do, you need to take appropriate disciplinary steps which also establishes that you can be trusted to make hard choices.

There are times when bad things happen out of the leader’s control. When handled poorly, those events destroy trust between key players. Rebuilding trust is difficult. Leaders ensure trust is rebuilt after a crisis. There are several ways to reestablish trust such as using some sort of mediation process to settle disputes between aggrieved parties; reassigning people to new positions to reduce friction; terminating those who willfully violated the organization’s guiding principals; training about roles, responsibilities and shared values; or celebrating victories through teamwork over extreme challenges. Regardless of the reason trust has been lost, it is the leader’s responsibility to regain trust within the organization. The leader takes action allowing others to regain trust.

Trust is the cornerstone of character, the foundation of leadership. Leaders are responsible to establish and maintain trust in their teams and organizations. Often it is easier to trust a stranger than the person you worked with for years because of many large and small transgressions violating trust. Trust however is the force that inspires others to do more than they thought they could do. Leaders consistently communicate organizational guiding principals and live those principals as a model for others to follow. Leaders keep open lines of communication to detect the earliest signs of mistrust to do what is necessary to repair transgressions. Sometimes leaders have to face the fact that someone deliberately did something wrong for selfish reasons and needs to be separated from the organization. While rare, failing to take such action causes increased distrust. Leaders allow honest mistakes by reviewing causes and effects with employees and developing means to correct those mistakes. They treat the mistakes as a learning opportunity for everyone which shows respect and builds trust. Like Soldiers on a battlefield surrounded, without food, water or ammunition, organizations with strong ties developed by trusting relationships can accomplish deeds that seem impossible. Trust is the strong cornerstone of every leadership foundation.

References

Photo Credits

  • Cornerstone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Trusted adult by Liane Metzler from unsplash.com, used with an Unsplash license
  • Award ceremony LTC Whittlesey from the National Archieves
  • Eroded stone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Reconstruction by Milivoj Kuhar from unsplash.com used with Unsplash license

Three-Part Recipe for Workplace Success: Developing Procedures

Soldiers execute a standard battle drill in the desert.
Formal procedure create leadership freedom, allow rapid responses, and provide for internal communications.

“Contact right!”, shouted the point man at the sound of small arms fire. The team reacted instinctively. Every member of the team came on line and returned fire from covered positions. The team leader assessed the situation and reported back to the squad leader.  The squad leader directed his second team to flank the enemy position. When ready they laid down suppressing fire drawing the attention away from the first team. The second team leader came up on the radio, “Shift left!” The first team adjusted their aim to the left as the second team began to move across the enemy position. As the second team neared the middle of the enemy position he called for the first team to cease firing and they did. Once across the position, the second team leader advised the first team leader. The first team leader led his Soldiers across the position 90 degrees from the second team’s assault. Within a few minutes the shooting stopped. The enemy was suppressed and withdrew. The squad was victorious. 

React to Contact is a critical Infantry battle drill. It is the foundation of ground combat tactics used by Hannibal during the Second Punic War.  A well drilled squad or platoon can execute the drill with the few words shared in the above story because every squad and platoon in the Army does it the same way, well at least the successful squads and platoons. When executed well, a smaller force has the ability to defeat larger forces. This basic principal of movement is a procedure known to all Infantrymen because it works. This drill allows leaders to initiate action with few words and little direction. In this example the squad leader was the senior leader yet the only decision he made and direction he provided was to a single team leader to flank the enemy. In this battle drill there are only three decisions for the squad leader to make; commit your second team to suppressive fire and allow the platoon to flank, execute the flank with your second team, or break contact. Infantry squad leaders and team leaders rehearse this drills hundreds of times so they know when to suppress, when to attack, and when to withdraw.

Leading an organization of any size becomes easier with formal, practiced procedures. Formal procedures appear to remove a leader’s freedom to make decisions. The opposite is true. Well thought procedures allow leaders to detach from the current crisis and plan for what comes next. Benefits include increased speed by reducing the number of decisions required of a leader, specified lateral lines of communication increase responses, and required actions for teams and individuals without additional instruction. 

Reducing Decision Options

Freedom is defined by dictionary.com as the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint; or the power to determine action without restraint. Formal procedures may confine some leaders because they have limited choices. However, well thought out procedures identify best practices and offer a short menu of options proven to work reliably. Formal procedures allow leaders to stick their heads above the weeds and make big picture decisions

Standard operating procedures allow leaders to look at the bigger picture rather than getting stuck in details.
Procedures free leaders to look at the big picture rather than restrict their attention to what is happening in the weeds.

At the front-line level of the React to Contact Drill, the squad leader has a variety of choices. He can direct the supporting team to provide additional fire power to suppress the enemy and ask the platoon to flank. The squad leader can establish a base of fire from the flanking element and have the element who established contact to maneuver across the enemy’s front. He can call for artillery or air support. He can withdraw. However, it is only through the actions of the team in contact, executing without direction, that he as the freedom to evaluate the situation and determine which course of action is best.  Without this drill, the squad and team leaders would have to solve each problem as it occurs.

In organizations outside the military the same principals are true.  The front line leader has a process to execute. For example, a new employee is assigned to work in the leader’s team. If the organization has a process to orient new employees, none of the leaders need to spend much time figuring out what the new person needs to learn. The leaders follow the check list, tailor the learning to the new person’s position, and the new person quickly becomes a functioning member of the team. Without a procedure to welcome new team members, leaders loose time figuring out what the new person needs to know. They make lots of decisions about what parts of what organizational documents new team members need to read. The leaders need to figure out what administrative processes must be completed to ensure the employee is paid, receives benefits, and knows what is expected of him or her.

A new employee orientation procedure takes away some decision making from leaders but only because the leaders decided earlier what new team members needed to do. Now instead of spending a few days figuring out what to teach the new guy, who should teach it, and where the information is stored, the leader turns to the procedure and execute. The procedure frees his time to decide on other matters.

Lateral Lines of Communication

Allow leaders to communicate with their peers to coordinate actions and permit senior leaders to continue to look forward.
Lateral communications ensures leaders are not bombarded with information they do not need and only to make decisions appropriate for their level.

Establishing internal lines of communication allow lower level leaders to coordinate actions and support without having to always run to the boss. The boss does need to know what is going on, but does not need to make or approve every decision. Establishing peer-to-peer communication channels frees up senior leaders to look farther ahead. Procedures specify what types of decisions senior leaders make and what types of decisions leaders lower on the org chart may make.

In the infantry squad example, peer leaders, the team leaders, directly communicated their intentions and directions to move and shift fires. This communication allowed the squad leader monitor the situation. The squad leader had the freedom to call for more resources and determine what actions to take after the enemy attack was stopped.

A non-military example of this principal is a nonprofit providing a service to their clients.  A new client is referred for service and appears at the office. The person meeting with the client knows the organization has a procedure for new client intakes and referrals. The employee welcomes the client and moves them through the intake procedure and determines the client’s needs. The employee directly contacts outside organizations necessary to provide resources and services for the client without having to clear each referral through a manager. Organizational leaders recognized the needs for those services and previously established processes to refer clients. As a result, the clients receive services and resources quickly because the number of people involved and the levels of communication are reduced. 

Action without Instructions

Formal procedures provide direction so others know what to do in a variety of situations without direction.

Formal procedures provide direction to employees about how to perform their jobs. Procedures spell out what kinds of decisions employees can make and what decisions and information require the boss’s attention. In the infantry squad example, each team member knows when they received contact to move on line to ensure they had clear lines of fire towards the enemy and to find a place of cover to return fire. They did not have to wait for direction from the team leader. They were expected to take those actions without directs in order to free the team leader to report the situation to the squad leader.

In an example from the private sector, Tim Ferriss talks about how he empowered his assistants to deal with customer services issues in his book The Four Hour Work Week and several of his podcasts. He found his assistant was reaching out to him several times every day for him to decide how to deal with unhappy customers. Tim realized he was not able to focus on growing his new business when he was dealing with those types of issues. He developed a list of ways the customer service assistant could offer help without consulting Tim and what types of customer issues he reserved to resolve himself. As a result, Ferriss was able to return his attention to growing the business and his customers received improved and faster resolutions to their problems.

Procedures receive a bad rap because organizations implement them poorly and never review them to determine their continued relevance.  The purpose of procedures is to create leadership freedom by providing a menu of choices for common events rather than problem solving every time something similar happens. As a result, the leader is free to focus on developing teams and improving the organization.  If the decisions a procedure allows become irrelevant, they need to be changed. Therefore, leaders must periodically review all procedures for relevance. Failing to do so causes confinement rather than freedom.

Quality procedures help leaders at all levels achieve freedom, increase the speed or response, and improve the quality of service by reducing the number of decisions leaders need to make. Communications improve communications laterally and vertically because leaders only receive the information they need to decide. Employees are more effective when addressing problems and opportunities.

Leaders and workers frequently view formal procedures as limiting their freedom, however, they provide a structured format for leaders to take action without additional control or restraint. Employees who are trained well know what is expected of them in many situations allowing them to make decisions without always running to the boss for guidance. Like the well run battle drill, formal procedures direct action without additional inputs and free leaders to lead.

Reference

Definition of freedom was retrieved from: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/freedom on 8/28/19.

Photo Credits

  • Infantry Attack from pxhere.com with a 0CC license. No attribution provided.
  • Dictionary by John Mark Smith from unsplash.com with a CC Attribution license.
  • Tin Can Phone by Chris Tag as CWD802 from pexel.com with a pexel.com license.
  • Arrow from pxhere.com with a 0CC license. No attribution provided.

War Stories

Gold stars from the National World War II Monument in Washington DC.

“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 Gold Star Banner displayed in a home means a family member was killed in action.

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.

Jeremiah Holmes, Died March 29, 2004.

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.

Alan Burgess died Oct 15, 2004

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.

The poppy was inspired by the poem, Flanders Field, by John McCrae based on his reflections of poppies growing in a WWI cemetery between the white head stones.

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.

Photo Credits

  • 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.

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