How Much is Enough?

On a dreary Thursday in February, 2005, while in the midst of a large operation to clear the entirety of the Al Sarai neighborhood in Tal’Afar, my gunner – SGT Frank B. Hernandez – was killed instantly when an IED detonated next to his vehicle. I say his vehicle, because on that day I had loaned him to my Bravo section – to let one of their up and coming Sergeant E-5’s get off of the gun and take a job on the ground as a team lead. Needless to say, it was a horrible day that had implications for my entire platoon, and would leave me questioning my very own decision making process for some time.

That Thursday was eleven years ago today. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that Frank was killed because of my decisions that day – in the route we took, in the battlefield intelligence we had available to us, and the various calls that I as the platoon leader made. But as time went on, I accepted that part of my job may be my asking men to lay down their lives (as I may have done, too). It was real to me when I joined the Army, and when I took a commission and became a leader. But it was more-real after the fact. And though I never have quite forgiven myself, I have often wondered if I am doing enough in my own life to honor all of the men of mine who fell; the friends of mine who fell; comrades of mine who never returned.

And I say ‘my’ soldiers. At some point, your soldiers become someone else’s soldiers, when you leave the unit, and when you give your platoon or troop over to someone else. But inside those are still your guys. Anyone you had under your charge – whom you cared for, mentored or disciplined – these ultimately are your men.  At least to me they are. Some may agree, others may disagree.  And that’s fine.  But to me – the men of Charger Troop [later renamed Palehorse Troop when we re-flagged into 2nd Cavalry Regiment] whom I knew and cared for at some point – mentored, disciplined, talked to, watched over – they forever in my heart will be ‘my’ soldiers.

So when you have four who paid the ultimate price in Iraq – how do you honor them?

This week I am wearing my ‘SGT Hernandez KIA’ bracelet. I used to wear it all the time – Hell, I wore my best friend Neil’s KIA bracelet into Iraq on each combat rotation. But as time went on and the names added up – it got to the point where I had five names engraved in metal on my left wrist.

HPIM0579

A twisted badge of honor to the combat-tested; to memorialize their fallen comrades. The unspoken ‘Yeah I was in the shit and these dudes – my dudes – bought it’ that will mean something to other veterans. And a way for us to remember them daily. To never forget what they did for us regardless of how much time elapses. Nor let their names be lost to time; when there are no more breathes in us and no more wind to carry their name from our lips to whomever will hear.

But can I wear five names? And stay sane? How can I stay sane by NOT wearing five names?

This is the duality of the combat veteran; of the PTSD and the depression and the guilt. The wanting to forget the bad, but to never forget the dead and maimed. But as I went on my own journey of healing, trying to feel more human and ‘normal’ how do I honor and respect them – yet not dwell on the fact of? I eventually took them all off.  And for years I stopped wearing them. I did so because I had been living the year’s by clocking the death-dates of these men (and others). It wasn’t Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July, etc. No – the calendar was Depew, Hernandez, Vrooman, Santoriello, Burks.  The list can go on, between guys I knew from various military schools, or men from the same Brigade who I knew, who mentored me, whom I had interactons with (but weren’t my soldiers). DeMoores, VanKomen, Griffith, Tavae, Edens, Pionk.

How do I honor all of these men? Do I do so through my own healing process and by being a productive member of society? A force for change and good? Do I do it by being involved in Veterans issues and advocating for all of us?

Do I do so by living a full, fulfilled and happy life?

I am still searching on what is the best way to honor all of these men and the countless others – who paid the price so that I may return home, and live. And I haven’t quite figured it out just yet.

But one thing is certain. Today I think about Frank Hernandez. And I thank him for always having my back. And I apologize to him for failing him on that Thursday in February eleven years ago. I apologize to his widow and son. I am sorry to his family whom I still have not had the courage to contact, or reach out to.

I haven’t even visited his grave. Why, I don’t know.  Fear of the confronting reality that is the situation. Shame for the way everything unfolded, and the decisions that I made (or failed to make). Fear I will run into someone from his family and have to explain who I am, and why I have been a stranger.  Perhaps all of those. Perhaps for other reasons still not fully known.

But Frank, I never have forgotten – Every year the day never slips my mind. And I am sorry if I ever did wrong by you. You were a great gunner, and you kept up with the witty banter. And sure, the radio’s weren’t always filled right, and the truck was dirty every now and again. But I was damn proud to have you in the hatch with me.

Never Forgotten.

HPIM0278

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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9 Responses to How Much is Enough?

  1. Sir. I’m sorry for your loss.
    You’ve probably heard this before but you didn’t kill him.
    Your decisions and actions didn’t kill him,
    The team he was working with didn’t.
    It was the POS who planted the IED who did that.

    Only as for decisions that ‘hurt’?
    When working I was told by an old hand that people die in war and God’s not got anything to do with it either. WAR just claims its own.
    Shortly after that this God fearing man got dead.
    A single ricochet off a steel girder behind us who were crouched behind a mighty thick wall.
    Go figure the odds.
    You could have blamed the officer for sending us there, only he was the officer.

    WAR just claims its own.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What Thoughtfullyprepping said, because I don’t know what TO say.

    Bottom line, you know you were a great Captain, and you know you tried your absolute hardest. I’m sure he did as well.

    I would try to think and reflect on all the lives you helped save by being a great Captain, as well as the good you did for the country and people of Iraq. You know the times you made complicated decisions that saved the day, and the times that your experience and sticking up for your men prevented who knows how much bad from happeing.

    Finally, I would try to forgive yourself of any shortcomings that occurred due to fatigue and other realities of war. Any competent leader and study of history knows we sent too few troops and GREATLY increased the stress and number of casualties we incurred because of this reality. That was a decision made FAR above your pay grade, but unfortunately, you and your men had to pay the bill for this huge mistake.

    If anyone should be losing any sleep, it’s the people who made the decisions WAY above your paygrade. And you should remind yourself that quite frankly, most of them ARE NOT losing much sleep.

    We veterans have to move on and continue the fight here by being as gainfully employed and productive as possible, and that means we CAN’T carry all our baggage around with us. And I think those who paid the ultimate price understand that.

    We honor them best by remembering their strength, and by exhibiting the strength they would have shown had they still been here. That’s just my take.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You just honoured him again, just there, all of them!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vickie knickrehm says:

    As I sit here and cry read g your post I want to tell you that he was an amazing young man and he is so missed by so many ppl. His family would never judge you or turn you away. That is not who they are, they are caring loving ppl that knew Frankie was doing what he wanted to do! I pray that someday you do reach out to them so that you can share stories and be part of one of the most amazing family’s there is!
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!
    Frankie I love you and miss you more than words can ever describe! Rest in Peace ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Johnny Hernandez says:

    Sir this was a great way to honor my little brother. He was a great man for such a young life. I would feel honored if you contacted me. I just want to shake your hand and give you my best for a job well done in defending this great nation. The big proud of Sgt. Frankie Hernandez, brother, Johnny H.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Gone, But Never Forgotten… | The Ghosts of Tal'Afar

  7. mike podplesky says:

    Sir, you did your best and gave your all. Frank wouldnt blame you for anything. i hope you find peace and heal.
    Charger Red 4

    Like

    • Thanks MSG P. I go pretty easy and n myself most days but there are things I still think about. I hope you’re well, and I still laugh every time I see that picture of you shaving in the IED crater…

      Like

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