This post has nothing to do with transition, but instead deals with an integral part of being a Marine. Just a few days ago, on September 19th, a Cobra attack helicopter crashed while conducting a training flight at Camp Pendleton, California. Two Marines died, good men both, as they trained and prepared to defend our country. It is a tragedy in the truest sense, but it is also sad and inevitable part of what we do. Many of my friends have asked me over the years what I thought about death and dying, and it is a very difficult question to answer for someone outside the profession of arms. So in an effort to provide a little insight into death and how it affects those of us who travel with Death as a constant companion I am writing this post.
The military is an inherently dangerous business, and by definition a violent one. In time of war it is expected that some of us will die. That is the cold cost of doing business; the enemy gets a vote, and he delivers his ballot in the form of a bullet or a bomb. Just as a fireman battles conflagrations Marines fight our nation’s enemies. Sometimes the fire wins and a firefighter falls. Sometimes a Marine does everything right but a sniper’s bullet finds him anyway. There is no fairness, there is no equity. It is what it is and we have all come to terms with it.
In my case, my reckoning with mortality came on a September day in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. I had been in country for a few weeks, and it was my first combat tour. I lived and operated out of Forward Operating Base Junction City, which was also known as FOB Ramadi. It was a vast fort-like compound that held a thousand or so of us, and it was in the heart of the Sunni Triangle at a time when the insurgency was approaching its peak.
My first days were disturbing, to say the least. Tanks and armored vehicles rumbled by as attack helicopters flew their patrolling orbits overhead. Fighter jets streaked by thousands of feet overhead, and gunfire ebbed and flowed in the distance. Our FOB was attacked by rockets or mortars pretty much daily, and sometimes several times a day. I found myself thrust into this maelstrom, in charge of my Marines and Sailors but less experienced in actual combat than a lot of them.
I couldn’t sleep. The helicopters never stopped flying, and the tanks came and went at all hours. Charlie Med, our field hospital, was a hundred yards away and the casualties arrived around the clock. It was a frantic place, one with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and I was disoriented by the whole experience. My heart felt that it would explode with every incoming rocket; the thump of mortars in the distance made me weak at the thought of a steel projectile flying through the air with me beneath it as it hit. I ducked at the small arms fire, and warily looked for cover to dive behind when the next attack hit. I was a bit of a nervous wreck- the fear of the unknown became palpable. I was afraid of death, and the fear of dying unsettled me to no end.
Then came that day in September. I was supposed to go to a nearby base for a briefing- riding in my armored HMMWV and travelling with a platoon of Cavalry in vehicles just like mine, except where I had an armored roof they had turrets with machine guns.
We met at a staging lot at 0815, and as we stood in a loose circle of drivers and passengers discussing the route rockets screamed into the base. One struck a barracks about 100 meters or so away, another landed in a motor pool, and a third impacted just outside the DFAC (Dining FACility- fancy new term for chowhall). In an instant, one Marine was killed and a Soldier was mortally wounded. They didn’t do anything wrong- fate had just snuffed them out. It was arbitrary. They never had a chance. It was capricious. They never saw it coming. It was the spectre of Death incarnate; his cold and bony finger touched them, and in that instant they joined the ranks of the fallen.
We had no time to reflect or mourn. Five minutes later we were on the road, passing through the redoubt and into Indian country as it was commonly known. We drove about five minutes, and slowed our advance to cross a bridge that led to the other base. Our little four vehicle patrol had no sooner driven onto the narrow span when machine guns began barking their angry chorus as a firefight erupted on both banks of the river. The bridge was cut off, and we found ourselves in the extremely uncomfortable position of being on a bridge between to forces that were shooting at each other, and we couldn’t quite figure out which side was which.
That didn’t last long. Rocket propelled grenades hissed across the narrow river and rocked a bus onto its side in an explosion of bright flame and black smoke. We don’t have RPGs- but the insurgents do. Red tracers flew in the direction where the RPGs came from- we use red tracers, so the gunners in our tiny convoy opened up on consonance with our compatriots on the river bank. Soon enough, there were rockets, grenades, and bullets flying around everywhere- and all I could do was sit there and watch. I was riveted to my seat. What do I do? Get out of the vehicle (our training said no- never leave an armored vehicle, but the exploding bus was a compelling argument to get out!) or open the window and start shooting? (Again, our training stayed my hand- I could not identify a clear target- and without Positive Identification, or PID, I wasn’t supposed to shoot).
So I sat and watched. The thump and crack of heavy machine guns was accompanied by the staccato rip of their smaller cousins, and in an eternity that lasted a minute or so the far end of the bridge opened up and we started moving again. In less time than it takes to read this sentence we were pulling into our destination, FOB Hurricane Point.
I wasn’t shaking, but adrenaline had replaced all of the blood in my system. I was sweating, hot, cold, hysterical, aloof, thirsty, nauseous- it was a wrenching and visceral rollercoaster of feelings and emotions. I stepped from my truck and looked around. My cavalry friends were joking and laughing and talking about football. My more experienced Marines broke out a pack of smokes and lit up. I couldn’t believe it- the most harrowing experiences of my life had just happened, and it wasn’t even 0900 yet!
It was then that I felt a something come over me. My pulse slowed, and my breathing came back to normal. The pensive tension that had sat like a festering knot in my gut melted away, and for some reason I felt that everything would be all right. In an instant, I passed a threshold into a different place, and became a different person. It was as though someone had placed their hand on my shoulder, and with their touch all of my fears fled back into the recesses from which they came.
I had joined the ranks of the fatalists. Fatalist sounds like a harsh word, but it really isn’t. There are two types of people in combat; those who are afraid to die and those who have accepted that they will. I left the camp of the former and joined the happier band of the latter, the band of men and women who had experienced the epiphany of mortality. I came to accept that death was inevitable; maybe in the next minute, maybe tomorrow, or maybe at the end of a long and happy life. We are all going to die. What we are able to do in the face of that staggering knowledge defines us, however. When the weight of fear fell away I found myself free to lead and fight and kill and, if necessary, die without worrying about it. It was a true revelation.
I still feel that hand on my shoulder from time to time when things get stressful. It is not an uncomfortable feeling, really, but actually one that is a little reassuring. The hand on my shoulder is a bony one, and it belongs to Death. It is his reminder to me that he is coming, and some day he will take me away. All Marines feel his presence, because he is always at our side, reminding us that we all join him sooner or later. On Monday afternoon Captain Jeffrey Bland and 1st Lieutenant Thomas Heitmann slipped the surly bonds of earth in an attack helicopter and Death took them before they could return home. They died as any one of us could, and there but by the grace of God go any one of us. Death comes for us all, and in our business he shows up frequently. It is the knowledge that he is forever at your side that frees your soul, because living with fear isn’t really living at all. Knowing he is there, patiently waiting to take you to the other side, is a truly liberating feeling. He cannot be cheated; he always wins the race to take you across the mythical river Styx.
Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.