Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'll Miss It When It's Gone

“An IED killed three soldiers in Tikrit early this morning,” the new anchor orates, and continues by regurgitating the Department of Defense official statement which tells nothing more than that a roadside bomb detonated on a US foot patrol, killing three. We turn off the TV, grab our coffee, and head out the door for work. For perhaps five seconds, we conjure an imagine of those three soldiers. They’re wearing flak vests, helmets and carrying rifles, and standing around in ACUs looking imposing. They’re wearing sunglasses in our minds, but they have no faces and they have no eyes beneath the ballistic lenses. We don’t create faces because we don’t want to see them. We don’t want to see eyes, because then we’d see the window to their souls. That requires acknowledging they’re more than anonymous uniformed combatants. They’re more than humans. They’re servants, citizens and patriots – and for us. They need faces.

“Troop Surge Secures Baghdad Outskirts With Tight Cordon,” reads the article, which we will skim for a few moments before moving on to celebrity news – which is notably more interesting. We think briefly about grand strategies and military policy, and how it all sounds terribly complicated. The 30,000 men and women who ringed Iraq’s capital city and dismantled the insurgent supply chain, however, remain unmentioned – at least individually. Nobody discusses their names. Nobody writes about the M240G gunner in the turret of the lead humvee in the convoy. Nobody mentions he’s only 19 and has already been struck by four IEDs, or that he can’t wait to come home and marry his highschool sweetheart. Nor does anybody write about the schools that have reopened and the children that have backpacks and textbooks for the first time in their lives. The fact that thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have comported themselves honorably as fierce yet compassionate warriors goes unnoticed. They’re just guys with guns and uniforms. If they die, we’ll call them heroes. They volunteered, anyway. Somebody knows them; we don’t, though. Yet we should. These troops need names.

“Truck Bomb Kills at Least 63 in Northern Iraq,” read today’s news, and we thought, “how awful,” before skipping down to the list of headlines to the article about Amanda Knox, on trial for a perverse sex crime and murder. That seems more real somehow. Bombs are always going off in Iraq, anyway. “It must be hard for them,” we might ponder. Undoubtedly. But who has asked an Iraqi mother how many sons she’s lost to sectarian violence? Who has asked an Iraqi to describe living in perpetual fear of unwarranted attack as he goes about his daily business? Who cares, we think. It’s 6,940 miles away. We’re just glad it happens over there and not here. We don’t think or particularly care about the horror they suffer. It’s not real to us. But it should be.

One of my fondest memories of summer here in the mid-Atlantic US is the aroma of fresh-cut grass. It’s peaceful, and it’s somehow stronger as the sun sets and the fireflies come out. Somewhere in the distance, you can always hear a lawnmower. It, too, is relaxing. It’s summer.

A motorcycle ride through any suburban neighborhood hints at a dozen barbeques and reveals twice as many children playing in sprinklers or riding bikes in the street. A few still throw baseballs here and there. They’re young and energetic. They’re enthusiastic about life. When I want to feel like a kid again, I just watch them for a little while. That was me playing there just a few short years ago. That’s what summers were for.

The rivers are slowing now, as the spring rains give way to the summer heat. This is swimming weather, and I need only lose my shoes and jump in. The rocks are showing in the low waters, and it’s nice to hop out and dry in the sun. There are catfish in the deeper holes, and it’s been awhile since I’ve caught any. I’m going to miss it all this year.

In 2006, I returned from my second tour in Iraq, whereupon I promised my parents I would never go back again. I was finished, I told them, and soon I’d be out of the military. Seven months later, I reneged on my vow, extended my contract, and volunteered for a third tour. By the middle of 2007, I was out of the Marines for good, presumably terminating all likelihood of deploying again. Yet now, two years later, I’m leaving for a fourth, and this one without a gun.

I have received dark looks from friends, especially the ones whose weddings I am missing. I was supposed to be in one of them. I have been told I’m crazy a few times, and I can’t find any poignant words to disagree. I’m going to miss my little sister’s birthday again. I missed it in 2004 and 2008 – her 21st. I’ve missed just as many Christmases over the years.

Three times I have written letters to each member of my family – letters they are to open and read in the event that I didn’t make it home. Mostly I tell them I love them and that I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I will be writing these letters for a fourth time this week, and I imagine they’ll say the same thing as they did the other times. I’m their only son and brother. Deployments are typically harder on families than they are on those that are gone. We’re busy, but they have time to think about our absence. This is my greatest regret.

It all begs the question why I would do this, why I’ve agreed to do it for free, and pay my own expenses. I have a hard time putting it to words. But there’s something I must do. Those soldiers need faces. Those Iraqis need their daily horrors told. Those Marines need names. And an effort that has demanded the service of more than one million citizens of this country and the lives of more than 5,000 needs to be real to us. We need to know it, and we need to know them.

When I was explaining my writing to a stranger recently, her eyes filled with tears and she looked at me. “I loved a veteran once.” She said little more. There wasn’t much else to say, and I knew what she meant. A week later I saw her again, and I gave her a hug.

It was once written, quite eloquently, that, “to love is to suffer.” And it’s true; though such suffering is brightened with frequent moments of absolute bliss. Such is the nature of love. Would that this whole nation might love a veteran. They are ours. They are us. And herein lies my reason for going: this romance begins with knowing them. And knowing them begins with hearing their stories. I depart in twelve days.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. As the missionary Jim Elliot put it, "He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." I equate what you're doing with what the missionaries do. They go into uncertain territory in the name of Christ to minister and to serve. May God go with you.

  2. I feel the hot breath of the desert on my neck and can hear whispers in the breeze. "Benjamin, Benjamin..."

  3. I have mentioned this request to you before and this is another reminder.
    Please tell that anonymous Private or Lance Corporal that you may come across that his or her story matters to me and many Americans. The top brass may be making those decisions but they are the ones that follow through. Their individual commitment, successes, and struggles are stories that worthy, very important and rarely reported back home.
    Ben this is where your work will shine.

  4. There is a need, and you are filling it.

  5. Ben, I hope those letters never need delivery.

    Just don't jump in front of any moving bullets and don't ride in any vehicles about to blow up. Simple instructions - just follow them.

  6. I understand your need to go back. I feel it too, every day. I did my part for our country, now it's time for me to do my part as a mom. I will keep you in my prayers and I applaude you for what you're about to do. Tell their stories. They need to be told.