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.