I received orders to deploy, on April 16, 2004, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. With the death toll of US Service Members increasing each day, we knew that the number of Soldiers we come home with would not be the same number of Soldiers we deployed with.
I just recently found the below “letters” on my hard drive which were last saved on August 19, 2004. I remember thinking how dumb it was to write these letters at the time.
Death seemed INCONCEIVABLE at the time.
I will be honest; I was naïve in the beginning of our deployment. I really thought we would be kept out of harm’s way. We were initially assigned to a relatively safe area of operation, if those existed, in Iraq. We would hear of bombs going off in/around our area and civilians and/or servicemembers dying in those bombings, but once again, I thought we were safe. I thought I was safe.
Yes, I thought there was a chance I may die while deployed but I felt the possibility of death seemed NOT LIKELY.
Not until about 2 or 3 months into our deployment did that feeling start to dissipate. Fear was encroaching on my mind. Our unit moved south to a new base in a more rural area of Iraq. The insurgent activity in the area started to increase with our units finding unexploded roadside bombs, on one of the two corridors in and out of our area of operation (AO), on multiple occasions. The insurgents knew we entered/exited on two roads and the odds of killing or seriously injuring a US patrol was high. Their assumption was correct. We lost a number of Soldiers in our unit and many more were injured.
We went on patrol 6 out of 7 days of the week for 365 days. Each day/night everyone in our vehicle would joke prior to entering our AO by holding our “junk” and yelling absurdly as we drove over a canal crossing that was a prime target for vehicles. If we made it over the canal alive, we would all laugh and continue on with the mission.
Instances like this made the feeling of possible death seem bearable. Just another one of the many coping mechanisms to get through the unbearable.
As time progressed, Soldiers I trained with, laughed and joked with, started to get injured and sent to Germany for additional, long term medical care. Others, I would never see again.
The reality of it all started to set in and death seemed LIKELY.
The tipping point occurred during one of, if not, our toughest weeks while deployed. Soldiers had been injured and some had died earlier that week. Insurgent activity was high and our units were continually attacked with roadside bombs. The culmination was a night that started as a routine patrol by one platoon. The platoon came under heavy attack and every willing and able body from our unit geared up and departed the base in hopes of saving their brothers. At the end of the night, as the site of the attack was secured by adjacent units, our units started to trickle back to base.
Name after name after name started to circulate who was injured or did not make it back alive.
I retreated to my room to try and make sense of it all. All I remembered was a feeling that all the walls were closing in. I felt death was getting closer and closer. I tried to cry because I felt that was a normal response to all the events of the night/week. That was how my body should react, but nothing came out. My eyes were dry. I was confused. I wondered if I was so hardened or numbed by the circumstances, I could or would not allow myself to feel any emotions.
At this point, death seemed IMMINENT.
Before we deployed, we were told to write “death letters” to our loved ones and have them completed by the end of that day. The letters would be sent to the recipient(s) posthumously.
Sorry for the informal typed letter. I did not have time to hand write the letter. I guess I should start this letter off like all who have passed before me. And that is, if you are reading this letter this can only mean that the most unforeseeable has occurred. I have given my life in the line of duty defending our country. I first want to say that if there is any way I can pass away in this life, this would be at the top of my list. I can only hope that I passed under honorable conditions and in a way that my friends, family and peers can be proud. Please do not mourn my passing, but be proud and smile that I passed away defending this country and doing something that I was finally proud of doing in my life.
To my mother and father,
I have always tried to make you guys proud of me. I know that you have always told me and showed me, however, this was not enough to me. I wanted to accomplish something in life to make me feel that you are, or were, proud of me. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had to be proud of what I was doing, before I can ever allow your acceptance of what I am doing…if that makes sense. I also want to say that I hope you know that I love you guys and I would never have had anything different. I could have only hoped I talked to you guys more and would have been more open. However, I just never felt comfortable talking openly to you guys. That’s not because of something you did, it was because of me and not ever opening up to you guys. You guys have always been there for me and my family and I can never thank you enough or show you how appreciative I am of that. I hope whenever you think of me or have memories of me, you will remember how proud you were of me and what I did. I know I never showed you, but I want you to know that I love you mom and dad more than a person can ever love his parents.
To my brothers,
You guys have always been my role models. I am sorry I never came to San Diego and worked with you, but I have always tried to succeed in life on my own. Just so you guys can be proud of me. You guys are so successful at what you do, how could I compare? I hope that you guys will always be proud of me and my memory will bring a smile to your face. Please watch after my kids and don’t ever let them forget right from wrong, and under no circumstance EVER let them forget their father and what he stood for, and ultimately, what he died for. I love you guys and I hope you continue our legacy and our family lineage by raising beautiful children. I love you guys.
To my daughter,
What can I say to my “baby face”? I love you dearly. You are and will always be my little spitfire, my little outgoing socialite. I know you will have no problem accomplishing any goals you may have in life. You have been and will always be successful in whatever you do. I only wish that I could have watched you grow. I looked at you everyday and just saw a beautiful flower blossom in front of my eyes. I can only say, what people have told me throughout my life, that I can tell you have the potential to do whatever you want. But you need to put the time in to practice and perfect whatever you do. If that is with sports, education or just anything in life. Your potential will not make you successful, it is how you supplement your potential with hard work and determination. Please remember me always, and know that I loved you sooooooo much. I miss the times we would stay up together, long after lil’ guy and mommy fell asleep, and watch TV together. I miss the times I would squeeze the end of your nose and kiss you on each side of the cheek for almost a minute. I miss the times you would exercise with me and hang from the bar and attempt a pull up. I miss the time just watching you grow. I miss you.
To my son,
Every time I look at you I see me. That is a scary thing sometimes. By saying that, I know because we are so similar in our personalities, mannerism and also our metabolism. You were my ‘lil guy, my mirror reflection. Every night, every day, you would go to sleep or play, I would sit there and stare at you. I would gently stroke your face or your head because you are me. You will go through life facing the same challenges I did. I just want you to know that through hard work and determination you can and will accomplish anything you set your mind too. I know that because I used that same mindset to accomplish my goals. Please always listen to your sister and take care of our family. You are the man of the house now. Don’t hate me for the course of action I have chosen in my life. Please know that I chose this profession because I knew if I were to pass away, you will be proud of what daddy was doing when he passed. When you think of your daddy, I want you to think of an honorable man who died defending everyone in this country. I want you to walk around with your chin up when you think about me and say, yes, my dad is gone now, but he passed away defending this country. I can only hope that whatever you do in life, will have an impact on other people. Don’t ever be selfish in life. But don’t ever forget about yourself. If you don’t look after yourself nobody will. I love you ‘lil guy.
The reading of those letters now brought me to tears just as the writing of those letters did 16+ years ago.
To survive in war, I had to completely abandon the emotional connection to my life back home. I had to make every decision based on the mission, not whether or not I wanted to see my family again. That weighed heavily on me for years after war. The military did not teach Soldiers coming home how to change their mind set of mission first back to family first. I always felt something was wrong with me.
Not until I started practicing compassion, awareness and gratitude did the tides of the ocean start to shift within me. Those are the pillars that continue to provide structure and enlightenment in my life.
There are always more questions than answers regarding my experiences. But there is a story in Chinese martial arts lore about “The Peaceful Warrior,” that helps bring some peace to my life.
A young apprentice asked his teacher why, if he was striving to be inwardly calm and at peace, did he need to learn the ways of a warrior.
“Would it not be more tranquil and serene to be a gardener and tend the plants?” he asked.
“Tending the garden,” the master replied, “…is a relaxing pastime, but it does not prepare one for the inevitable battles of life.”
It is easy to be calm in a serene setting. To be calm and serene when under attack is much more difficult, so, therefore, I teach you that it is far better to be a warrior tending his garden rather than a gardener at war.”
I am slowly finding peace tending my garden.
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings