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.
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.