What Memorial Day Means to Me
I remember being a young boy in the late 80s, playing with my vast collection of GI Joes and watching the GI Joe cartoon every morning before school. I even had a GI Joe themed birthday party when I was probably 4 or 5. I remember my Grandfather showing up in his WW2 garb, complete with carrying a .22 long rifle. I thought he was so cool, and he was! I wanted to be just like him one day and serve in the Army myself. Boyhood dreams faded away as I grew older. Sports became a big part of my life. The team aspect of playing sports helped develop my passion for a team espirt de corps. I even had a couple opportunities for small time college football, however when 9/11 hit, it’s those boyhood dreams that suddenly kicked back in. I remember everything like it was yesterday. I was a 17 year old junior in high school, sitting in history class that morning when the teacher rolled the tv cart into the room and turned on the news. I remember seeing the second plane hit. Feelings of confusion quickly turned to feelings of anger and a need for vengeance. I remember coming home from football practice that day, and my mom was outside getting the mail. I got out of the car and told her as soon as I turned 18 I was enlisting. It’s like she already knew. There was no look of shock or disappointment on her face. So after about a year, I finally did what I said I was going to do. I went to the recruiter’s office and told him what I wanted. I remember telling him “I don’t know what it’s called, but I want to jump out of planes, and I want to fight on the ground.” He got me an Airborne Ranger Infantry contract and so that’s how I began my career. Little did I know what exactly I was getting myself into.
Vengeance became my mantra in the following years. Hell, I even have the word tattooed on my chest. These days, I have found peace, but it’s always there to remind me of who I used to be and what it took to drive me to be the best Soldier I could be. That team espirt de corps that I always found comfort in was in full effect with the Army. I was part of group; something bigger than myself. I always appreciated brotherhood and camaraderie but never before had I experienced it like this. Over the years, I met some of the best friends I ever had; some of the best men I ever knew. But when you’re in the Infantry, you know in the back of your mind, when your unit is called and it’s time to suit up and get to work, that it’s a definite possibility that you could lose a friend, or in my case, several. You see, when we were in the states, training, it’s like practice for a football game. We would go months preparing, and then our unit would get the word and it was time for the big game. Over that time training together, living together; you develop a bond like no other. Many platoons I was in were really tight. We would go out to the bars and clubs as a group. While I was at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, on weekends, we would get into the occasional brawl with the Marines from Camp Lejune, or frat boys from UNC. The team environment created rivalries. Army Infantry always rivals Marine Infantry, but it goes all the way to the smallest level. Units in the Army rival others like the 82nd Airborne and the 101st “Airborne”. I put that in quotations because they aren’t really Airborne. They haven’t been since WW2. So there’s that rivalry, but you could even take it on down further. Brigades would rival other Brigades in the same division. One time in the middle of the night, some Paratroopers with the Devil Brigade (the 504thParachute Infantry Regiment) went over to the Panther Brigade (the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment) and spray painted their huge black panther, pink. We woke up that morning, running down Ardennes Street for PT only to see our beloved Panther painted pink! Battalions would rival other Battalions within the same Brigade. I remember in the summer of 2006, we were gearing up for a year-long deployment to Iraq. I was in 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Our barracks was right next door to 1st Battalion’s. There was always a tension between the 2 Battalions, but this one specific night, it boiled over. So, the week prior, some of the 1st Battalion Scouts jumped one of ours at a bar. The next weekend, several of the Paratroopers from the barracks; boys from Alpha Company, Bravo Company, Charlie Company, Delta Company, and our Scouts grabbed whatever they could find and marched over to 1st Battalion’s courtyard. It resembled a quad at your local university. There must have been about 50 Paratroopers standing outside their barracks, calling them out. Several of theirs came out and it became an all-out battle. Fists were flying, clubs were smashing, I even recall one kid getting decked across the face with a skateboard. It was pure mayhem. The entire MP unit assigned to the 82nd came out and had to stop it. It was probably the most intense physical fight I’ve ever been in on this side of the world. Rivalry would trickle down to the Company, Platoon, Squad, and even Team levels. Rivalry was what fueled the overflowing amounts of testosterone pouring out of the Infantry Paratrooper. But that’s where it ended. Once we were overseas, all of that bullshit was thrown to the side, and we became one again. The brotherhood, camaraderie, and team environment was ever so strong in the states, but once we were suited up and it was time to get to work in real life, it only increased.
We started out as friends, but friendship turned into brotherhood. We became brothers. So, when we went to war, we knew some of our brothers wouldn’t make it back. It stung that much more when it was someone you were particularly close to. Over my 6 combat deployments, I lost over 24 brothers in battle. Some, I would consider best friends. Each time, it became harder than the last. I remember each instance like it just happened, but the ones that happened when I was there stick out more; like the first time I lost some buddies. It was night-time on the 15th of October 2006. We were on our way to cordon off a suspected IED. En route to the site, the first vehicle and two in front of mine struck 2 land mines. The driver, PFC Stephen Bicknell, and the gunner, SGT Lester Baroncini were KIA instantly. Bicknell was only 19, fresh out of high school and just married with a baby on the way. I had a bond with Bicknell because he was from my home state of Alabama and was the quarterback for Prattville High School. He even played Hoover in the 2004 state championship game. That baby boy must be about 14 or 15 now. What a proud son he must be. It was my 3rd deployment, but the first time I had friends die, and especially in the same Platoon. Then there was the “Samarra 7”. I wont go into graphic details but the second vehicle struck an IED. Without hesitation, the vehicle’s crew behind them got out and went to render aid, when a secondary IED struck that was hidden under a pile of garbage on the side of the road. It was a devastating loss, losing 7 guys in one incident. SPC Ryan Bell was among them. He was one of my best friends. My wife and I hung out with him many times in the past. He was a short and stocky troublemaker but had a big heart. Among them were also were SSG Justin Estes, SSG Robert Stanley, SGT Andrew Perkins, SPC Justin Rollins, SPC Joshua Boyd, and PFC Cory Kosters. I remember beating Estes in the Charlie Company Combatives Tournament just before we deployed. You can find an iconic picture of Stanley wading through the flooded waters of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The 505 was sent down there to aid with recovery and help control the looting after the massive destruction of Katrina. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Rollins’ grave a couple times when I went to DC. He is buried at Arlington. There is the intense story of SGT Joshua Morley and SPC Tracy Willis. It’s a long and grueling tale involving a sole survivor, SPC Christopher Corriveau who received the Distinguished Service Cross from the President of the United States. To make a long story short, their small kill team was in a building in downtown Samarra when a flat-bed truck of over 30 Al-Queda insurgents bombarded them. Again, without going into the gruesome details, Willis and Morley died defending their position. Corriveau took out close to 30 enemy combatants by himself. It is a sad but remarkable story that you can hear about if you youtube Christopher Corriveau’s name. There was PFC Jalfred Vaquerano who was hit by a sniper in Charkh, Afghanistan. Also in Charkh, I lost a hell of a buddy in SSG Roberto Loeza. Loeza and I were squad leaders together in the same Platoon. He was KIA after an 82mm Chinese rocket went straight through the top of our TOC. I along with my Platoon Leader had to carry him to the MEDEVAC bird. I will never forget that, but what I will remember the most are things like his guilty pleasure of watching professional wrestling, and his passion for college football. He would always smack-talk me because I am a Bama fan, and him a Texas Longhorns fan. He just never could get over that whoopin’ we put on them in the 09 National Championship game. Lastly I’ll remember guys like SSG Marc Scialdo. Although I was not deployed with him when he passed, he was one of my best friends and such a great friend to me and my wife. We did some recruiting time together in Peachtree City, GA. He was a greasy Italian with a pinky ring; I’d always give him hell for that, but he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. There were many times that he made me laugh when I was having a bad day. I miss him terribly. I miss all these guys terribly. The list goes on and on, but these are just a few stories of men that gave their life to protect our great land and way of life.
These men and all the men and women that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country are the standard for what a human being should be. In war, it’s easy to forget the politics of everything because in war you’re trying to survive, but you’re also trying to watch your brother’s back; and I think that’s ultimately what it’s all about…being there for your fellow man and woman. I used to keep up with each one of their death dates and would tend to celebrate their life on those days, but when it got to be too many, I just decided to do it all on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a heavy day for me. Even the week leading up to it is hard for me. About a week out, I put out my little American flags along the edge of my yard. Often, I will get a “thank you for your service”, and I appreciate that, but I have to tell them who say that to me on Memorial Day, that today is not about me. If you want to honor me, you can on Veterans Day, but today is about those that cannot be here. Today is about the ones that gave all. Today is about the ones that paid the ultimate sacrifice. May their memory always remain. Thank you to every veteran who died for us in battle, from the very beginning with the Revolutionary War all the way to the modern day Global War on Terrorism. You may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten. That is what Memorial Day is all about to me.