Reflections on Veterans Day
by: Ben King, Former Special Forces Medical Sergeant, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)
January 2010, Gwargin, Urzugan Province, Afghanistan: Once the rains slip beneath the hard-packed desert soil, new life awakens. The tough earth, glaring back at the sun, seemingly able to generate its own heat in the summertime, becomes a different entity in the wet winter months of southern Afghanistan. The transformation of the desert is an amazing process, but at this time, my appreciation of it was wearing thin. Our Special Forces team was bearing the brunt of the weather. We were a few days into exploring our neighboring valleys and the rain had been relentless. It was a dismal January, and it was either rain or Taliban mortars that came falling from the sky, never rays of sunlight.
Rusty was a warrior, a husband, a father, a role model, a comedian, a musician, and an all around good guy from Tennessee. We joked for a bit over breakfast as the day broke across the foothills of the Hindu Kush. He smiled at me that morning. His smile meant something; it said I love my life, and there is nothing in the world like this. A smile that said, “I will live forever.”
Rusty was running the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) clearing team. With the help of a translator, he commanded a contingent of Afghans with metal detectors whose task was to identify and clear the complex lethal bombs hidden under the roads. He led the rest of us, following in gun trucks, as we pushed beyond the invisible boundaries of Coalition Forces/Local National territory. Rusty had already found a handful of IED’s in a short stretch of road. As the medic on the team I didn’t need to be on the forward line of advance during IED clearing operations. I just had to be prepared for a catastrophe. I was a hundred meters back, having a dip behind a steep ridge that jutted out to the South. Then I heard the explosion. No warning. I stood up. My head set dangled off my armor, hooked on the handle of a knife, but I could still hear the excited transmission through the earphones.
Losing a good friend right in front of you turns your heart into a desert. It takes you to a place that you never knew existed, on the outskirts of reality. That early January morning, I stood up and raced around the corner with no clue what I would find. This was week three of my first combat deployment. My heart was pounding as I ran around the steep cliff. The metallic taste of fear in my mouth, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the swoosh-swoosh of my Gore-Tex rain jacket, the pull of my boots in the muddy ground – I will never forget those sensations. They will play like a movie in my mind for the rest of my life. But mostly it is the weight of Rusty’s lifeless body that I will never forget. I will carry the weight of his life with me as long as I live.
We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings -
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, 1916
Browsing the Internet over a Memorial Day weekend several years ago I happened across Gibson’s Poem. The poem is a daily reminder to live my life to the absolute fullest and to enjoy all things—all those things Rusty can’t enjoy anymore. The little things that thousands of American veterans who have paid the ultimate price will never enjoy, so that we can.
“But we, how shall we turn to little things / And listen to the birds and winds and streams . . . ” Then life goes on, the sun comes out, new life takes shape, and I have to do what I know my friend would want me to do. I have to enjoy all things that were “made holy by their dreams.” I have to remember my friend who went “ungrudgingly” into uncertainty and gave the ultimate sacrifice so that I could love the sun and the rain until it is my turn. There were moments when I said the first lines of these poems before I ever read them. Then I recalled his smile in my mind. I fell back in love with the world again. I fell in love with the sun on my skin, the wind around my body, the color of her eyes, the sound of the beat, and it is like that first raindrop that hits the barren desert soil.
On this Veteran’s Day, consider those who have come before us. Because of them, we have the opportunity to complain about our problems and our world. Because of them the words come easily to our lips: “lets go get Kony, or Khadafy; let’s protect Aleppo, or Sarajevo; let’s not forget our oil, or our diplomats.” As we toss ideas around in our classrooms—ideas such as no-fly zone, peace enforcement, blockade, intervention, WMD, R2P, and so forth—consider that there are Americans who will take these ideas and make them a reality. Setting politics aside, men and women have and will continue to put on the uniform of this country and go into the unknown, facing threats no longer imagined but made real, in order to do their job for this nation, the ideas for which it stands, and the people who inhabit it.
Whether you believe it or not, we live in the most amazing country on earth, made so by these men and women. This is real: the Minuteman leaving his family and home before dawn to face the British marching on Concord; the Soldier peering out over the trenches in France, frantically scrambling for his gas mask as the yellow cloud looms closer; the Marine wading through shallow reefs towards the deadly beach of Iwo Jima, burdened with both his equipment and his fear; the Soldier in the Ia Drang struggling in the oppressive heat as he hears the whistle signaling another charge; the young Soldier in Iraq manning the turret of her HMMV as the truck in front disappears in thunder and smoke and the world erupts in gun fire; or Rusty, on that cold January morning, smiling as he checked his equipment and prepared for a day’s work. Where do these people come from? Ungrudgingly, with only a flash of regret for the comfort they leave behind, they clear their eyes, slow their breathing, tighten their grip, and go do their job. Then you and I “turn to the little things.” It is our duty to cherish what they protected, ungrudgingly, every single day.
On January 28, 2010 Staff Sergeant Rusty Christian died of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his patrol using improvised explosive devices in Gwargin, Afghanistan. Before Afghanistan, SSG Christian had served in Iraq. He was a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant with 1st Special Forces Group. SSG Christian was 24 years old. He was survived by his wife Amber and his two children: Taylor (now 5) and Gavin (now 3). He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Meritorious Service Medal. His death would not go without justice. Multiple missions were devoted to finding the insurgents and bomb makers in that very town.