Good afternoon. I am sharing an important story today, one that I have shared previously. It is one that means a lot to me, and is one of my “touchstone” stories - a way that I better understand the world, and myself.
I share the story also because it is May, and Memorial Day looms. For most Americans, war is an abstraction. Something that occurs somewhere else and involves other people, and other people’s kids. For some us, war is an every day thing. It is ongoing.
Before I get into the story, I have a couple of administrative notes. First is that I am taking brief hiatus from all social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I need some time to clear my head and think again about how to engage those platforms well. Mostly, I recognize that much of social media as it is currently constructed leads me down paths I don’t want to walk. While I want to be an informed citizen and caring friend, I also have to value my own healing path. And May is a hard month. Above all else, social media is designed to keep our attention. And, frankly, my attention needs to be elsewhere right now.
Second, and this is related to the social media break, is that I will be disabling comments on my blog posts for a while. They may come back at some point, but for now, I invite you to simply read and reflect. If you have comments, you can always email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply respond to this email.
Now. To the story.
One of the things that I think is interesting about these kinds of core memories is the way that they shape us and we, in turn, shape those stories. The things that happen to us and around us can be so profound, and so impactful. And yet the stories themselves shift with time. Some details are remembered. Some forgotten. We age and change. Different details become important. And it is important that we tell these stories, and remember.
I tell THIS story to remember. To remember Sam. To remember Iraq. To remember war.
It may seem odd, this desire to remember something so hurtful. And make no mistake. Trauma hurts. That’s why it’s called trauma and not “happy fun times with friends” or something. I am sure there is a German word that means that.
Remembering trauma is how we start to process it. By telling our traumatic stories, we loosen their hold on our present. We can start to heal by first being as honest as we can be about that which has hurt us.
War is hell. I know that first hand. I could have read about it in a book. There are dozens and dozens of really good ones. But I am stubborn and had to learn first hand. War is hell. War dehumanizes us. It affects all of us. And it keeps on impacting our lives. War makes it hard to trust. Hard to believe in the good.
But to know true peace, you must remember war. You must remember so that you never make the same mistake again.
And so I tell this story. And I will keep telling it.
There are parts of it I haven’t told. And won’t tell. Some parts are still too painful. Some are stories that aren’t mine to tell.
I tell what I can. I remember what I must.
17 years ago tomorrow, I turned down a ride to Baghdad.
In my place rode SSG Samuel T. Castle (Sam), a 26 year old from Naples, Texas, was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle just outside of Ramadi, in Anbar Province, Iraq. Sam died instantly.
It should have been me.
In 2005, I was assigned to a Marine unit headquartered at Al Asad airbase in western Iraq’s Anbar Province. This was the deadliest area of Iraq, during the deadliest year of the war for American forces.
My home battalion at Fort Bragg was headquartered in Baghdad, but there were companies from the battalion scattered around the country. Including one - Alpha Company - at Al Asad. That meant that while I lived and worked with my Marine unit, I still got to see some of my friends from my “real job” around the base.
One of the Alpha Company folks I got to see was SFC Scott Beadell, one of my best friends. Scott and I had spent a year together in Korea and had become very close. He was from rural Michigan and loved everything about it. He talked often about wanting to retire and move back home with his wife and 3 daughters.
When I was bored or frustrated with the Marines, I would often head over to Alpha Company, where I would hang out with Scott and his team. I would tell them stories about the Marines and listen to the latest Alpha Company gossip. It was classic bored soldier stuff.
Occasionally, Scott would ask if I wanted to help lead a convoy to Baghdad. Alpha Company frequently had to go back to battalion headquarters to get supplies, brief leadership, or participate in special events. If I didn’t have anything pressing with my Marine team, the Marines were cool with me helping out my home unit by leading a convoy. Scott and I trusted each other completely, and made a great convoy leadership team.
On the morning of May 11, Scott called me and said that they were putting together a convoy for later that day. They had to go back to Baghdad to pick up some sensitive equipment. It would be small, he said, only 5 vehicles. Quick. In and out. Drop off some paperwork, get the supplies, eat chow at the amazing chow hall at Camp Victory and then back to the war.
Did I want to come? I would be in the lead vehicle, A111.
Yes. I desperately wanted to. It had been a busy few days. General Hagee, the Marine commandant, was planning a visit to Al Asad, and had apparently taken an interest in the work of our team. We had been working on a briefing for him. So I had spent most of my time the previous few days reviewing the same 3 PowerPoint slides. In between, there had been a couple of trips to Ramadi, including a rough one just a couple of days before. I was tired, but the team had work to do.
I told Scott I really wished I could go. But I really needed to stay and support my team. He said okay and hung up. A little while later, Alpha Company’s commander called. Dude, she said. I would feel a lot better if you would come be part of this. I told her I wanted to but really needed to stay. She said that it was okay. Sam (SSG Castle) wanted to see his wife anyway, so he was going to take my seat. Sam’s wife worked at battalion headquarters, and he would often join convoys so he could see her, even if it was just for a few hours.
Later that day, on the evening of May 11, 2005, the Alpha Company convoy rolled out of the gates of Al Asad, with Sam in the front passenger seat of A111 - the seat I was supposed to be in. SPC Monroe was driving. PFC James occupied the machine gunner’s seat.
Approximately an hour into their trip, they rolled over a well buried Soviet made 1980s era artillery round that had been rigged with a pressure plate. The IED detonated just as Sam’s seat - my seat - was directly over it. The blast ripped the armored Humvee apart, twisting it like a child’s toy.
Sam was killed instantly. Monroe was thrown from the vehicle, and suffered lacerations and burns down the right side of his body. PFC James was thrown head first some 30 feet into the Iraqi desert. His brain injury was so severe that he would spent 18 months at Walter Reed re-learning his ABCs. And how to walk.
The Marines knew that there had been an IED with casualties based on the activity in headquarters. They didn’t know which unit or which convoy.
I was sick at my stomach. I knew.
A few hours later I got the call from Scott. He said quietly “It’s Sam. He’s dead.”
17 years ago. Feels like yesterday. Feels like 10 lifetimes ago, in another universe. Everything. All the time.
There were a lot of shitty days in Iraq. This was one of the worst. This whole week, in fact, 17 years ago was the hardest of my life. In the days that followed the IED, I would inventory and pack up Sam's belongings while his best friend sat on the cot next to me, crying and asking why. I would help organize and lead Sam's memorial service. I went to the attack site and helped recover the damaged vehicle.
It was a bad week. War is hell.
I know intellectually that I was not responsible for Sam’s death. But for 17 years have been haunted by the same thought… it should have been me.
Every moment with my family, every laugh, every smile. They all feel a little bit stolen. Like I cheated the universe to get here. Sometimes I feel like I am living a lie.
I have done enough work on myself to know that this isn’t true. And that shit happens, and life is random. In the years since, I have even tried to decontextualize this day. Yes, this happened. There is also so much else happening in the world.
Because nothing - not even today - is one thing.
There are still nights when the dreams come and I see Sam and I tell him I am sorry. He always says the same thing, in that country Texas drawl. “All good, bro. All good.”
I don’t know that it will ever be all good. I do know that I am sorry.
And I am trying to be okay.
That is all any of us can do.
I pray for peace in Ukraine. I pray for healing in our deeply divided country. I pray for continued chances to show that love wins. Forgiveness matters.
Especially when you start with yourself.
Be well y’all. Have a great day today. I know I will.
And, no matter what. No matter what challenges or setbacks or struggles. No matter what joys or gifts or smiles. No matter what…
Keep pounding the rock.