Memorial brings closure: this week’s column in the North County Times

Last weekend I was extremely fortunate to join many of comrades in arms from my first tour in Iraq.  I had not seen many of them since the 6th of March 2006 when I left the war-torn city of Ramadi and began the journey back home.  We gathered at a memorial service for the 83 Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines who were killed in action during our shared deployment.

It was a truly cathartic experience.  I was thrilled and honored to be able to join friends I had not seen in over half a decade as we paid our respects to the fallen.  I wrote about the experience for the North County Times:

I have been writing about PTSD for the last few columns because it is something that every combat veteran, including myself, faces upon his or her return to polite society. It is neither good nor bad, but instead just a fact of life that most veterans do their best to shut away in the dark corners of the soul.

There are occasions when light penetrates those corners, however, and this past weekend was one of them. A few short days ago I was privileged to be part of something that for me was visceral and heartrending and heartening and wonderful. I went home in a way that only those who have felt the bony finger of Death pass by without lingering understand.

Last Sunday, I attended the memorial dedication for 83 of my fellow warriors who died in Iraq.

It was a particularly emotional ceremony for me because it provided a bit of closure that been eluding me for over half a decade. It also brought me back together with comrades in arms whom I had last seen carrying rifles or driving tanks in the dust and heat of Iraq.

I spent two tours there, both in the war-torn city of Ramadi. I served there at the nadir when it was savage and bloody and relentless, with my first tour beginning in 2005 and my second ending in 2007.

Although I was a Marine, my unit specialized in fire support and liaison and we were tasked to integrate with non-Marine forces. We provided liaison and fire support to the infantry, tank and artillery units of the 2d Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division, a U.S. Army National Guard unit from Pennsylvania and 30 other states. We linked them into the 2d Marine Division.

We fought side by side for months on end. I made tremendous friends with the Guardsmen and women, and was never short of amazed at how hard they fought and how well they worked together as a team. It was an honor to serve with them, and an even greater honor to be counted as one of their own. It was with these Guardsmen that I first saw the elephant, and it was from them that I learned to surmount fear.

Many, too many, gave their last full measure in Ramadi.

I chatted with my friend “Mac” McLaughlin on a chilly January morning before he went out to recruit candidates for the Iraqi police forces, little knowing that he would be struck down by a suicide bomber before lunch. Brent Adams, another Pennsylvanian, took care of my vehicles as if they were his own when we could not get support from the Marines. He was snuffed out by a rocket before I could express my gratitude. Mark Procopio, a promising young Vermonter, was mortally shattered by an IED as he came to my aid in a tough fight.

This past weekend, you see, was the dedication of the 2-28 Brigade Combat Team memorial in Boalsburg, Pa. The memorial, conceived while the unit was still in the fight in Iraq, was completed with Sunday’s dedication and remembrance of those who died. It was also a celebration of life for those of us who could meet, break bread, and pick up conversations that lay silent for over half a decade. It was the catharsis of sorrow and joy that only those who have seen the elephant together can fully understand.

It was an honor to serve with the Pennsylvanians and the Vermonters and the Utahans and the North Carolinians and the countless other Army and Air Guardsmen and women who made up the brigade. It was a thrill to see so many of them again on Sunday, and it was closure to finally lay to rest those 83 souls who gave their all.

It was a light that makes the dark corners a little less so, and one that will stay lit.


Getting the band back together

Thursdays come and go once a week, so generally speaking they aren’t particularly significant.  Compared to Friday. which is everybody’s favorite weekday it doesn’t amount to much.  Pretty much everyone agrees that Thursday is better than Monday, but it can’t hold a candle to Saturday or Sunday.  Nope, Thursday is pretty much just an average day in the grand scheme of things.

Except for this past Thursday.  Last Thursday, March 1st, marked the 61st anniversary of the birth of the Marine Corps unit that I served in during three tours to combat.  On March 1st 1951 the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company unfurled its flag on its way to fight in the hills of Korea.  Since that time ANGLICO Marines and Sailors have deployed across the globe and fought in places like Beirut, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  They stood on the frontiers of American interests during the cold war and set the unequalled standard for professionalism and skill in the realm of fire support (employing things like mortars, artillery, naval gunfire, attack helicopters and jets) and communications (with the capability to talk via radio to pretty much anyone, anywhere, and at any time).

So this past Thursday, March 1st, was special because it was the 61st birthday of such a fantastic organization.  It was even more distinguished, however, because the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors who currently serve in 1st ANGLICO threw a little birthday party and they invited any and all veterans of 1st ANGLICO to come on down to Camp Pendleton and share in the big day.  And come we did- from those of us just down the road in San Diego to others who traveled thousands of miles across the country to share in the big day.  All told there were nearly 50 veterans and their wives in attendance, with veterans who were with the company when it was brand spankin’ new and headed for Korea to those of us who just left last year.

And what a day it was!  The Marines and Sailors of the company set up a series of briefings and displays to show how the unit operates as it enters its seventh decade of existence.  We saw the newest equipment and were briefed on the latest combat techniques, and it was truly impressive to see such a great bunch of Marines and Sailors so proudly share their trade with the older generation.  Before lunch in the most excellent new chowhall on Camp Las Flores (which is the home of 1st ANGLICO) there was a brief but impressive ceremony where a birthday cake was cut and the eldest ANGLICO veteran shared the first slices with the commanding officer.  The vets were then honored to be present as a half dozen or so Marines were promoted to the next higher rank; the Marine Corps promotes their best and brightest at the beginning of the month, so we were fortunate to be able to attend such a significant event in the lives of these young and motivated warriors.

Then, off to lunch.  For me it was a tremendously rewarding experience because I was able to break bread (or in my case, a turkey Panini sandwich) with brother Marines that I had served with during my last tour.  Now that I am retired I am no longer Lieutenant Colonel Grice (even though my retired ID card says so), but instead the exalted rank of Marine, which all of us who served proudly share.  We are all now brothers unseparated by rank and position, and it was a great time to have lunch with brothers Barnette, Fortson, and Brantley.  We talked about life, deployment, chow, and everything else, and it was a great time.  With men such as these keeping the wolf from the door our nation has nothing to fear.

The afternoon was spent observing the newest training technologies, which was interesting.  For me, it was more thrilling to meet and talk to the veterans of ANGLICO who had served in so many far flung places and had cemented the legacy of the unit into the story of the Marine Corps.  I finally met Vance and Tom, who had served in Vietnam and were simply the most amazing supporters of deployed ANGLICO units as they led care package drives that sent us literally hundreds of boxes from home as we served overseas.  I met Buzz and John and Walt and Joe and countless other vets, and it was truly my privilege and honor to be counted as one of their ranks.  To be with them was to walk in the shadow of giants, and it was truly a thrilling honor just to be around them.

We had cocktails at the old Officer’s Club later that evening, and I was able to chat with another John, with whom I had served in Iraq as well as with a half dozen Marines with whom I had served during my last deployment to Afghanistan.  There were over a hundred people packed into the bar that evening, and the mixture of camoflage uniforms and retiree’s ballcaps was impressive to witness.  Veterans who fought a half century ago traded tips with Marines who were yet thirty years unborn when Korea was hot, and regardless of age or war the connection was genuinely made.  It eclipses nostalgia and enters the realm of true brotherhood, and I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of it all.

So my hat is off to the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors of 1st ANGLICO for putting on such a marvelous event.  I thank you on behalf of all of us who served, and to all who attended, it was simply magnificent to meet you.  It is times like this that wash away the pain, the anguish, and the anxiety that comes with serving the hard master that is the Marine Corps in time of war.  It is times like this that that rejuvenate the soul and remind you that, after all, no matter what you did or where you served, it was all worth it.

For that all to brief moment in time the cross generational band that is 1st ANGLICO got back together, and it was a sight to behold.  To all members of 1st ANGLICO past and present, I say congratulations on your 61st Birthday and Semper Fidelis!