As Memorial Day approaches, I plan to once again share my list of Memorial Day Rules. This list helps everyone - especially those who have never served - better understand Memorial Day, what it means and, most importantly, why it can be an especially hard day for those of is who served.
The list, however, needs greater context. Fewer and fewer Americans have served in the military, and currently fewer than 1% of citizens are in the military. In a group of 20 random people (at least when groups of 20 random people were a thing), statistically only one or maybe two would have served in the military. It is simply a distant experience for most Americans.
At the same time, the country has been at war for 20 years. We have people in harm's way right now - today - as you read this. War affects its participants in unimaginable ways. And we all lose something... friends, health, relationships. And some pay the ultimate price. That's what Memorial Day is about, and I hope to capture that the next few weeks.
I do not share this as some kind of tragedy porn. Nothing is one thing. My military experience and the people I connected with during that 12 years is as much a part of who I am as my charming personality and winning smile. I am not sharing this to add to the sorrow in the world. God knows there's plenty.
I offer these stories as a way of increasing understanding. To grow our shared humanity. Because to be fully human means to see our lives in their fullness and complexity. To share our joys and to share our sorrows. Thank you for reading. And I hope these stories help you better see my world.
Today is a hard day for me. One that brings up a lot of memories.
On May 11, 2005, 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. I hadn’t been outside the wire on a mission in several days and I was getting bored. 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.
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, 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.”
There were a lot of shitty days in Iraq. This was one of the worst. This whole week, in fact, 16 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.
I know intellectually that I was not responsible for Sam’s death. But for 16 years I have been haunted by the same thought… it should have been me.
Every moment with Justin, every laugh, every smile. They all feel a little bit stolen. Like I cheated 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. It is also the birthday of a dear friend.
Because nothing - not even May 11 - 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.