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August 23, 2006

The Boys Of Summer

By now it's beginning to show
A number of people are numbers that ain't coming home
I could close my eyes it's still there
Close my mind, be alone
I could close my heart and not care
But gravity has got a hold on us all...

The email dropped silently into my Inbox sometime while I was sleeping:

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the deaths of Sgt. Jason Cook and PFC Natchez "Little Fawn" Washalanta. Attached please find a picture of Wash. The newspaper column is wrong. It was two years ago today.

Also, I'm copying the column written about Wash.

He has no one to remember him but us.

Good night.

Wash.jpg I stared at the photograph for a long time. I was thinking, oddly enough, not of Wash but of names, and numbers, and how we remember our fallen warriors; the two halves of America. We who support the war, and those who oppose it. I was thinking of Judy Vincent, an Oklahoma mother who lost her son, Corporal Scott Vincent, in Iraq only to find that his name was being used on the back of t-shirts being sold to protest the war.

Oddly enough, when I tried to find more information about Sergeant Cook (apart from the standard one-paragrapher in the faces of the fallen lists) I kept running across references from various anti-war sites. "Sergeant Cook died for George Bush", said one. Funny. Somehow I doubt that's why he thought he was over there. A military source gave a more human picture of Jason's life:

Marine Sgt. Jason Cook of Okanogan made sure his fellow Marines in Iraq knew his wife's name. They couldn't miss it. He named their armored vehicle after her. Cook met his wife, Yovana, at a party while he was assigned to guard the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Because of his military assignments, they spent only eight months of their two-year marriage together. So Cook found an ingenious way to honor her: As the officer in charge of his squad's armored vehicle, Cook named it after her, relatives said. "The relationship we had was almost perfect," Yovana said. Cook, 25, died Aug. 21, 2004, during fighting in Anbar province. He was based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Cook joined the Marines in October 1997, a few months after graduating from high school. He was in his second deployment to Iraq. "There just wasn't anything Jason wouldn't do for you. He was right there for you," said his stepfather, Del Miles.

How many times, in how many articles, have I read those words? Years ago, as a brand new Marine wife, I struggled to put my finger on the difference between the Marines and the Navy world I had grown up with. Certainly Marines were a bit gruffer, a bit less cosmopolitan. They are quicker to correct each other, both in public and in private. Sometimes you wish they would relax, open up, talk a bit more. But the most essential difference, at least to me, was that Marines are always there. You can count on them - they will never let you down. That is the quality that made me fall in love with my husband. Certainly Marines are not perfect. Often they are a bit larger than life, and their virtues as well as their flaws tend to be a bit outsized. But when the crunch comes, there they are, just where you expected them to be:

He came from Ardmore, Okla., some small town where opportunity doesn't exactly shoot up from the hard-packed red earth. I remember that he hadn't had an easy life. He told me he had "screwed up" a few times back in Oklahoma. He was a tough guy who didn't talk much. He either said what he thought, which usually wasn't the right thing to say to your boss, or he simply clammed up.

You could tell he never fit in anywhere before ... until he joined the Marines.

nachez2.jpg Wash lived sealed up in a metal boxlike compartment where he drove our 12-ton behemoth. Since the survival of the vehicle, hence the crew, depended on instant mobility, he had to stay behind the wheel. He was in effect a prisoner to the vehicle. He had to keep his hatch sealed, because a 25mm automatic cannon swiveled only inches above his head.

Wash called it his "metal coffin."

He ate less, smoked less and slept much, much less than the rest of us. Wrapped in a chemical protective suit, like a plate of leftovers in Saran Wrap, Wash baked inside even when the rest of us popped out of our hatches for a moment to drink in the speed-induced "wind" our movement produced.

A few weeks into the war, as I saw Wash off by himself smoking a cigarette, I realized that I hadn't shot any pictures of him while his crewmates had been in my newspaper or other newspapers many times. I guess I felt guilty. So I asked him if he would show me how he drove.

He suddenly shot me a rare half smile and with quiet professionalism and obvious pride offered me his seat as he explained the various dials and doodads he used to pilot the vehicle.

I still don't understand how he actually drove, because he could never truly see where he was going sealed inside his compartment.

In the daytime, he looked through devices that were basically periscopes. At night, he drove by a small TV screen which turned everything alien green.

Wash wasn't the greatest driver. I remember enthusiastically joining the others in cussing his name as he bounced us unmercifully over half of Iraq.

Later, he sheepishly apologized, explaining that he was new to driving.

"I don't want to be a f – -ing driver," he said. "I joined the Marines to fight."

Much later, near Tikrit, he got his chance.

While the company was engaging fedayeen fighters, Staff Sgt. Mike Kolek, the vehicle commander, called on Wash to "pop up" so Wash could engage the enemy with his M-4 carbine. I got another half-smile as he told me about it.

But as much as Wash hated his role as a driver, which he told Mike about four times a day, you could tell he was really trying to master the unwieldy machine.

One day south of the Tigris River, Wash got the vehicle stuck up to its axles when a dike we were crossing gave way on the right side. Mike turned the air blue yelling at Wash, even though everyone, probably including Mike, knew it wasn't really Wash's fault. Everyone except Wash, of course.

I remember seeing the tough guy, the I-don't-take-crap-from-anyone guy, standing off by himself with his head down. I walked up to him. He had tears in his eyes and said softly, "I really f – -ed up. I let the staff sergeant down."

He hadn't, of course. I told him that, and later Mike told him the same. But Wash wasn't buying it. His pride wouldn't allow that.

Washalanta wasn't a poster Marine. He sure wasn't the type a press-relations officer would want you to write about.

After returning from Iraq the first time, he went "over the hill," or absent without leave, back in Oklahoma. I'm sure he had to pay for that. But the important thing is he didn't go "over the hill" when it was time to go back to Iraq. In my book, that's what real Marines are truly made off.

I can still hear Mike screaming at Washalanta, who was living on half the four or five hours of sleep the rest of us got, to wake up after our dawn routine of mounting up and watching out for attack. Sometimes you could actually hear Wash snore. We'd all giggle like schoolgirls as Mike banged on Wash's compartment and screamed "Washalanta. WASH, dammit – WAKE UP!"

After weeks of little to no sleep, Washalanta could be almost immune to Mike's raving. Usually he awoke with a "Huh?" that launched the rest of us into howls of laughter.

But now, my humorous memory has taken a horrible turn. In my mind's eye, I see a much different scene. I see Wash lying in the dirt on some pocketed Iraqi road bleeding to death. I hear his Marines screaming "Washalanta, WASH, dammit – WAKE UP!"

How often have I wished that this were all just a bad dream I could wake up from? That there would be no more somber dawns when I check my email hoping for a joke and learn, instead, that somewhere halfway across America a uniformed Marine waits on a silent doorstep, dreading that moment when he must forever shatter someone's world? Or know that someone like me is haunted by the memory of suddenly stilled laughter, a remembered joke, or just the gladdening sight of that brightly haloed energy that seems to forever surround the young? They seem to get younger every year. To those of us with children of our own, they often seem just babies. Our children. Our darlings.

Our own.

The thing about Wash is this: I didn't know him, but someone I love did. Someone I have never met, but who has come in that odd alchemy that is the Internet to be incredibly dear to me. And so I mourn for him too. He has become family. I don't understand this, but it is one of the strange changes that began to transform me on September 11th. I don't think I will ever be the same person I was before that awful morning. It was so much easier for me to shut things out then, to pretend they had nothing to do with me. To close my eyes and pretend they weren't there.

But the thing I understand, though I didn't know Wash, is that he was there when it counted. It was important to him to be there. Whatever he thought in the still hours of the night when the stars slip out one by one to stand watch with lonely men half a world away, he wasn't a child or a fool or, as those links I didn't click on stridently averred, someone who died for George Bush. He was a man, a warrior, someone who took pride in what he did. Someone who, even though he joined the Marines to fight, did his job well and without complaint.

Don't worry. We will not forget him.

2002575805.jpg And we will not forget Sergeant Jason Cook, who named his light armored vehicle after the love of his life, Yovana. What an odd and lovely name for a steel beast. Only a Marine :)

As long as America can produce such men, we can justly hold our heads high.

Update: Carrie adds a bit more about Wash and Jason.

Wash had the worst family life ever. Father went to jail and mom was/is a drug addict. It became clear early on that Wash's mom was not a good caregiver and the same judge who put his father in jail put him and his little brother in the custody of a great aunt.

Later, when the great aunt could no longer keep up with the boys because of age, he put Wash into foster care. I know nothing more about his brother after this point. If I remember correctly, Wash bounced around foster care a bit but finally ended up with a good family.

He stayed with them until he graduated from high school The same judge that had watched out for him while he was growing up suggested that he consider joining the military. He was thinking of the Air Force or the Navy but Wash wanted to be a Marine.

Wash ended up with 1st LAR and went to Iraq in 2003. While he was there, both of his foster parents died. The foster father died just weeks before the unit returned to the US. Wash went on leave after being counseled by his NCO's to "not do anything crazy or stupid". He did anyway.

By then, Will was his CO. 1st Marine Division has a very clear zero tolerance policy and Will was just fine with kicking him out. Wash asked to speak with him. He pleaded with Will to let him stay because he had nowhere else to go. He knew that if he went back to Ardmore, it would just be bad. Terrible.

Will relented and let him stay. Wash was busted down to Private but he got to stay with the Marines.

The column is incorrect in how Wash died. The vehicle flipped. Sgt. Cook was the gunner and so when it flipped, he was crushed.
Wash was inside the vehicle and had terrible internal damage. He was conscious for a bit and kept saying things like,"Jjust give me a second, I'll be all right". He died about 20-30 minutes later.

When Will was told that Sgt. Cook had been involved in an accident, he didn't think much of it. Jason had been involved in several accidents and incidents and had come out unscathed. It had become a kind of joke in the unit. It just wasn't a joke that day.

Jason's wife, Yovana, lived at Pendleton and was working at the time the CACO attempted to make the notification. She had great relationships with the Key Volunteer wives in the company and battalion. I remember a lot of amazement from the other wives. She was actually comforting them.

She is that strong.

Yovana was a Columbian but after Jason died, she decided to become a US citizen. She took the classes and right before the day that she was to become a citizen, she happened to mention the ceremony. She was going to go down by herself.

We talked her into letting us drive her down to San Diego. The ceremony is a big production and we settled into the back of the theater. Yovana was somewhere in the front, we couldn't see her.

All of a sudden, she's up in our section waiving us down. The good people at the Naturalization office in San Diego put her in the front row and allowed us to sit with her as her guests.

They knew she was a widow and they treated her like a real VIP. The head honcho at Naturalization/San Diego gave her the papers personally. I have the picture of her holding it and proudly smiling.

After the service, we took her out to lunch. She talked a lot about Jason. How he took care every night to lay out his uniform. He never wanted to look less than perfect in it. He was a coffee snob. She used to fuss at how much he spent on coffee. She told us alot of things about Jason and she did it with a proud smile on her face.

Jason was an only child and after his death, his mother asked Yovana to come and live with them. She moved into their house and is going to college in Washington State.

While we were driving from California to Virginia, we took a detour to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Ardmore is exactly what you'd think it was. Small, not high rent, dusty. The Gene Autry museum is there.

We met the judge who'd had been such a part of Wash's life at the cemetery and talked with him for about an hour. He gave the eulogy at Wash's funeral. Said that there weren't very many people there. Mostly guys from the local VFW.

The judge made sure that the great aunt who had first taken care of Wash received a flag. The mother was there but the look on the judge's face when he referred to her made me not want to ask more. I know that the CACO warned me off of her.

She had somehow grifted money out of the Marine Corps and they were all pretty disgusted with her.

After Wash's foster parents died, he changed the beneficiary of his SGLI to his foster sister.

I always think about that and it makes me sad.
He didn't have anyone else to leave it to.

Posted by Cassandra at August 23, 2006 06:08 AM

Comments

Thank you for telling us; that was much better than just some meaningless statistic...

Posted by: camojack at August 23, 2006 08:18 AM

Ahhh...what a beautiful post. I'm not sure it's good to be wiping away tears before your first cup of coffee but it was the good kind of tearing up.

Let me tell you a little more about Wash and why he means what he does to us. Wash had the worst family life ever. Father went to jail and mom was/is a drug addict. It became clear early on that Wash's mom was not a good caregiver and the same judge who put his father in jail put him and his little brother in the custody of a great aunt.

Later, when the great aunt could no longer keep up with the boys because of age, he put Wash into foster care. I know nothing more about his brother after this point. If I remember correctly, Wash bounced around foster care abit but finally ended up with a good family.

He stayed with them until he graduated from high school The same judge that had watched out for him while he was growing up suggested that he consider joining the military. He was thinking of the Air Force or the Navy but Wash wanted to be a Marine.

Wash ended up with 1st LAR and went to Iraq in 2003. While he was there, both of his foster parents died. The foster father died just weeks before the unit returned to the US. Wash went on leave after being counseled by his NCO's to "not do anything crazy or stupid". He did anyway.

By then, Will was his CO. 1st Marine Division has a very clear zero tolerance policy and Will was just fine with kicking him out. Wash asked to speak with him. He pleaded with Will to let him stay because he had nowhere else to go. He knew that if he went back to Ardmore, it would just be bad. Terrible.

Will relented and let him stay. Wash was busted down to Private but he got to stay with the Marines.

The column is incorrect in how Wash died. The vehicle flipped. Sgt. Cook was the gunner and so when it flipped, he was crushed.
Wash was inside the vehicle and had terrible internal damage. He was conscious for a bit and kept saying things like,"just give me a second, I'll be alright". He died about 20-30 minutes later.

When Will was told that Sgt. Cook had been involved in an accident, he didn't think much of it. Jason had been involved in several accidents and incidents and had come out unscathed. It had become a kind of joke in the unit. It just wasn't a joke that day.

Jason's wife, Yovana, lived at Pendleton and was working at the time the CACO attempted to make the notification. She had great relationships with the Key Volunteer wives in the company and battalion. I remember alot of amazement from the other wives. She was actually comforting them.
She is that strong.

Yovana was a Columbian but after Jason died, she decided to become a US citizen. She took the classes and right before the day that she was to become a citizen, she happened to mention the ceremony. She was going to go down by herself.

We talked her into letting us drive her down to San Diego. The ceremony is a big production and we settled into the back of the theater. Yovana was somewhere in the front, we couldn't see her.

All of a sudden, she's up in our section waiving us down. The good people at the Naturalization office in San Diego put her in the front row and allowed us to sit with her as her guests.
They knew she was a widow and they treated her like a real VIP. The head honcho at Naturalization/San Diego gave her the papers personally. I have the picture of her holding it and proudly smiling.

After the service, we took her out to lunch. She talked alot about Jason. How he took care every night to lay out his uniform. He never wanted to look less than perfect in it. He was a coffee snob. She used to fuss at how much he spent on coffee. She told us alot of things about Jason and she did it with a proud smile on her face.

Jason was an only child and after his death, his mother asked Yovana to come and live with them. She moved into their house and is going to college in Washington State.

While we were driving from California to Virginia, we took a detour to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Ardmore is exactly what you'd think it was. Small, not high rent, dusty. The Gene Autry museum is there.

We met the judge who'd had been such a part of Wash's life at the cemetery and talked with him for about an hour. He gave the eulogy at Wash's funeral. Said that there weren't very many people there. Mostly guys from the local VFW.
The judge made sure that the great aunt who had first taken care of Wash received a flag. The mother was there but the look on the judge's face when he referred to her made me not want to ask more. I know that the CACO warned me off of her.
She had somehow grifted money out of the Marine Corps and they were all pretty disgusted with her.

After Wash's foster parents died, he changed the beneficiary of his SGLI to his foster sister.
I always think about that and it makes me sad.
He didn't have anyone else to leave it to.


Anyway, thank you again for this beautiful post. I know that Emily's greatest fear is that people will forget her Nich. I figure that's true for all of them. As long as we remember them, they aren't completely gone.

And just so you know, I feel the same way.

Posted by: Carrie at August 23, 2006 09:29 AM

Carrie,

Thank you. Vaya con Dios.
Always.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 23, 2006 10:05 AM

Carrie, darlin, can I add part of your comments to the main post? I was so crushed that I couldn't find more about Sergeant Cook. And I think it would be nice to have the extra information about Wash in the post, in case readers don't make it down here to the comments.

I have almost wiped VC out so many times, but I have always thought that if I ever do there are certain things I would pay to have left up. The tributes to the fallen are one thing I don't think I could bear to see taken down. I don't know if anyone ever comes back and reads them, but I just feel that they should be up there. I like to think that maybe someday someone in the family will search, like I did with my father in law, and come across them. Or maybe a friend or fellow Marine, and know they are remembered.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 23, 2006 10:08 AM

Cassandra,
Feel free to use whatever you like. I can't believe how long winded I was...

FWIW, one of the incidents that Jason Cook emerged totally unscathed from was the attack that killed Nich Dieruf. I just remembered that...

I don't know what I'd do without my more than daily dose of VC. Thank you for what you do.
Thank you for this.

Posted by: Carrie at August 23, 2006 10:20 AM

Thank you for that beautiful tribute, Cassandra. I understand what you mean about no longer being able to be disconnected from these losses. I'm the same way now.

Carrie, thank you for making sure Wash is remembered (I didn't realize you were stationed here in SoCal).

And I fear we are about to lay another Marine to his rest this week. It was almost inconceivable that he could have survived his first minutes, but his warrior spirit has been fighting for six weeks now.

Posted by: FbL at August 23, 2006 10:25 AM

FbL,
I'm so sorry. I knew it wasn't going well but just hoped that youth and strength might overcome the injuries he is suffering from.
He and his family have been in my prayers since you first started writing about them.


Yes, we were there at Pendleton from 2003-2005.
I liked being out there. What a beautiful place.

Carrie

Posted by: Carrie at August 23, 2006 10:39 AM

What a beautiful, beautiful tribute Cassie! This alone is worth the price of admission! :-)

I don't know who to applaud more, you or Carrie. These young Heroes WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN as long as you two are alive!

Thank y'all on behalf of us all! :-)

I've got sort of the same problem Cass. Now that Kris is no longer with the Bn the page is just sitting there. I initially started to keep up with the Bn after he left but it's simply a ton-o-work and hard to do. But all those posts, tributes, Heroes, pictures. Man! four years of a Bn's history. What to do eh? I've tried to hand it off but no takers. *sigh* It's amazing the contacts I still receive from there. Still receives around 100+ hits a day. The young Marines looking at stories of their exploits and friends lost. Parents just wanting to relive some portion of their children's lives. It is important, even if only for those that need it. What to do indeed! :-(

Hey B, I'm so sorry. It is hard and doesn't get any easier. Not what you wanted to hear I'm sure but just know that it is also a time of celebration. As John always says, "It's a time to dance"! The Honor, Duty, Sacrifice. These young Heroes LIVED!

Fair Winds Sgt Cook and Wash.
Heaven's perimeter is secure!

Posted by: JustADad at August 23, 2006 01:57 PM

Thank you for the beautiful memorial.

Reminds me of why I love my Marines, as infuriating as they can be.

Posted by: Sailorette at August 23, 2006 05:14 PM

Sgt Cook and Wash...I've known squads and platoons of them. I've driven to Pender County Jail to get them out so they don't miss formation and I've watched young NCO's grow into great Marines. The Corps is big on redemption. Wash came back and committed to being a Marine. 'Nough said. This was one of the most moving posts I've ever read. It validates the honor in which I hold every young man and woman who wears the uniform of the Marines. I know of the valor and skills of all our US Warriors, but I relish the reality of the warrior caste in the Marines which provides a moment to shine, a time to laugh, a time to play chess and share comic books with college boys. Two different souls, a member of the Marine Security Guard Battalion and an Okie from the end of the line...sharing an armored vehicle in Iraq and accepting, tolerating and finally relishing the combination and synergy inherent in their differences and their one common denominator...Marine Corps.

That they were killed when the vehicle flipped is tragic and detracts in no way in the notion I have giving them heroic honors for being where the hell they were.

Jason and Wash have a measure of immortality in my heart and in the hearts of others. Jason's parents earn my highest praise for bringing his wife into the family's protective sphere. It shines...as the old mountain men used to say. This is the country I love.

I'll use the word validate one more time...this Post on VC validates the importance and relevance of the site.

No man could ask for a finer memorial. Jason and Wash, we love you, you are part of the Marine reality. Good guys in harm's way. Semper Fi.

We miss you.

Posted by: Nolan School at August 24, 2006 04:37 PM

Carrie is a lot to live up to.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 24, 2006 04:43 PM

I laughed and cried when I read this about these marines. I was Jason's best friend in washington. I miss him dearly and think about him everyday. Coffee,oh jeeze did that boy love coffee. I remember a time we were driving from western washington over to okanogan and we had stopped 4 times so he could get more coffee. We stopped atleast 5 more times so he could go to the bathroom too. The last time before we pulled over to the side of the road Jason had to go really bad. He was asking me to pull over " Passmore I need to go piss again" I told Cook we were 15 miles away and it already took us 7 hours with all the stops we had to make, he proclaimed " Passmore i am going to piss my pants, I will try to hold out for until we get there." Two minutes later he was like " Alright dude, I really got to go" I was like we are almost there just hold it bro. Jason started to hold his midsection and waving his legs back forth and said " Dude,Passmore Pull the F**ing car over I am going to piss my pants!!" I tried to have him just hold it for a couple more minutes, I finally pulled over,about 1 mile from our destination, And he got out and I swear that dude pissed like he hadnt pissed in a week. I asked him if he was a camel, and he said " Dude,what dude, a camel? F-U dude I am not a camel" The memories of Jay that I have and stories will always be with me until the end.

Posted by: jeremy passmore at January 15, 2007 07:36 PM

Jeremy I just read this again.

I love it when you guys come by and leave remembrances. That is the very best thing.

I know somewhere Jason is laughing.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2007 09:06 PM

I am Chez's beneficiary. Please know we loved him as our own. Still do. My children still don't equate that he is not our blood relative. In our hearts and minds he belonged to us like the children I birthed.

Thank you for writing about him. The Times sents us the still photos after he perished.

God Keep You..Jelam

Posted by: Jennifer Elam at May 10, 2007 09:29 AM

Oh, I am so glad Jennifer.

Thank you so much for coming by. For some reason Wash is one of the ones who haunts me. I think of him every now and then.

I don't know why, perhaps it's that photo of him. God bless you, and your family too :)

Posted by: Cass at May 10, 2007 09:50 AM

What makes our young men and women in uniform special is the fact that they are always doing special things. Some, unfortunately, end up being even more special than the rest. I used to call them "my kids," and they would laugh, but that is exactly how I thought of them.

Posted by: RIslander at May 10, 2007 12:51 PM

An old post, but worth some reflection.

Posted by: Rislander at May 10, 2007 12:52 PM

It is one of my favorites, RIslander.

I wish I'd had more time to do the subject justice.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 10, 2007 04:58 PM

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