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July 25, 2008


Last weekend I traveled back in time.

Back then the world was different. Younger, more innocent; and not just because I was younger too. Spring, Summer, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas: the seasons of the year moved at a majestic and unhurried pace. None of them rudely jostling each other for position on the calendar, none impatiently leap frogging or butting in line.

We were not so insanely preoccupied that we bought live Douglas Fir wreaths the last week in October only to watch them turn brown and sere in the Southern sun by Thanksgiving. As yet unspoiled by an endless array of cable TV choices and the Internet, we were content to wait until December to begin putting up our Christmas lights and making our holiday preparations.

On Saturday morning I woke up in Atlanta and drove through the countryside for a few hours. As it had a little over six months ago, I felt the heavy red clay and gently rolling hills begin to work their magic upon my battered soul:

God seems closer out here. That can be jarring for those with a more modern, urban sensibility. There is something primitive about strong faith, something that stretches back beyond our earliest memories, our most basic human programming, something we can't quite put our collective fingers on. Something that doesn't quite seem rational, logical, empirical.

At the end of the road, I stepped from the car up onto the porch and the memories rushed up to greet me like sweet, slightly sticky kisses:

My darling son,

Where you are, it's your birthday and you've turned 22. I don't know where the time went. When did you get so "adult"?

I remember the night before you were born. I knew you were coming and had your dad come home from TBS. We had BBQ. I threw it up. Gross, right? Funny the things that you remember.

I won't bore you with the details of labor. One day, you'll be in your Dad's shoes and you'll know. We'll share a beer, you and I, and talk about it as we celebrate the arrival of your first child and my first (gulp) grandchild.

My oldest son. The light of my life.

Standing on the porch, with my grandson in his arms. Does he know? Can he ever know how dear he is to me?

I remember the day they first laid him in my arms. The love, it hits you with the force of a small hurricane. You don't expect it.

I was that way with both my boys. They had rooming in at the hospitals. It was new, daring. You had to insist upon it, but it was the 70's and I was, like, totally organic. Nursing. LaMaze. Natural childbirth. I wanted to do everything the right way. I was so young. We drove to a hospital that was over an hour away from where we lived because they were the only ones who would do natural childbirth and I was convinced they would hurt my baby if they used forceps.

I had nightmares about it.

They let you keep the baby in the room with you after the delivery. The nurses put him in the incubator, looking for all the world like a funny little caterpillar wrapped in his little blanket and hat. I kept taking him out and laying him over my heart.

I wanted him near me. The nurses fussed. "You'll fall asleep. You'll roll over and crush him.", they said. As if I wasn't smart enough to put him back before I went to sleep.

My mind drifts back to the present. I am watching my grandson Army-crawl across the living room floor. He is intent upon chasing a stuffed giraffe. Every now and then, he stops what he is doing, looks over one shoulder and flashes a big, goofy grin. He is enjoying the fact that the adults in the room are watching his every move.

Little boys are so amazing. I never had a daughter, but boys suited me just fine. They are tiny engines of business, stopping only to get their batteries recharged with mountains of hugs and kisses which they find delightful only until some shiny thing catches their eye, and then suddenly they're off without a word or a backward glance in your direction.

And if you're a wise parent, you let them go: cheerfully, happily, proudly; even knowing that within the next few hours they'll likely as not come tearing back with a knot on their forehead or a big bruise or a bloody knee and a flood of pent-up tears they're trying manfully to hold back because big boys don't make a fuss when they go flying over the handlebars of their bicycles.... again. And you hug them (but not too much!) and put a band-aid or an ice cube over the boo-boo, and let them go.

Again. Sometimes I think most of raising a boy is the tension between holding onto them when they need you, and letting go when they need that, too. The holding on is important, because without a little direction all that energy can get him into a lot of trouble. A boy needs a lot of love and guidance. He needs discipline, so he learns to channel his energies wisely, and compassion so he uses his strength to protect and serve rather than to harm those weaker than himself. But the letting go matters too, because a boy's fighting spirit is what makes him into a man, and you don't want to break that, or make him ashamed of his own nature.

In the end, that's what I thought of when I heard that we'd lost nine good men in Kunar province:

• 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Aiea, Hawaii. • Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24, of Long Beach, California. • Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia. • Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25, of Seattle, Washington. • Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee. • Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia. • Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina. • Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20, of Florissant, Missouri. • Pfc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, of Morganfield, Kentucky.

Each of those nine men had a mother and a father who loved him.

I wish I had the words to do each of these men honor. I can't do that in a single post. What I can do is to ask each of you to read about them, and remember them.

They went down fighting hard:

Outnumbered but not outgunned, a platoon-plus element of soldiers with 2nd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team accompanied by Afghan soldiers engaged in a fistfight of a firefight.

After maybe two hours of intense combat, some of the soldiers’ guns seized up because they expelled so many rounds so quickly. Insurgent bullets and dozens of rocket-propelled grenades filled the air. So many RPGs were fired at the soldiers that they wondered how the insurgents had so many.

That was July 13. That was when Stafford was blown out of a fighting position by an RPG, survived a grenade blast and had the tail of an RPG strike his helmet.

That was the day nine Chosen Company soldiers died.

The first RPG and machine gun fire came at dawn, strategically striking the forward operating base’s mortar pit. The insurgents next sighted their RPGs on the tow truck inside the combat outpost, taking it out. That was around 4:30 a.m.

This was not a haphazard attack. The reportedly 200 insurgents fought from several positions. They aimed to overrun the new base. The U.S. soldiers knew it and fought like hell. They knew their lives were on the line.

"I just hope these guys’ wives and their children understand how courageous their husbands and dads were," said Sgt. Jacob Walker. "They fought like warriors."

The next target was the FOB’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others — Stafford among them — were wounded.

When the attack began, Stafford grabbed his M-240 machine gun off a north-facing sandbag wall and moved it to an east-facing sandbag wall. Moments later, RPGs struck the north-facing wall, knocking Stafford out of the fighting position and wounding another soldier.

Stafford thought he was on fire so he rolled around, regaining his senses. Nearby, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling, who later died in the fight, had a stunned look on his face.

Immediately, a grenade exploded by Stafford, blowing him down to a lower terrace at the observation post and knocking his helmet off. Stafford put his helmet back on and noticed how badly he was bleeding.

Cpl. Matthew Phillips was close by, so Stafford called to him for help. Phillips was preparing to throw a grenade and shot a look at Stafford that said, "Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first."

This was only about 30 to 60 seconds into the attack.

Kneeling behind a sandbag wall, Phillips pulled the grenade pin, but just after he threw it an RPG exploded at his position. The tail of the RPG smacked Stafford’s helmet. The dust cleared. Phillips was slumped over, his chest on his knees and his hands by his side. Stafford called out to his buddy three or four times, but Phillips never answered or moved.

"When I saw Phillips die, I looked down and was bleeding pretty good, that’s probably the most scared I was at any point," Stafford said. "Then I kinda had to calm myself down and be like, ‘All right, I gotta go try to do my job.’ "

The soldier from Parker, Colo., loaded his 9 mm handgun, crawled up to their fighting position, stuck the pistol over the sandbags and fired.

Stafford saw Zwilling’s M-4 rifle nearby so he loaded it, put it on top of the sandbag and fired. Another couple RPGs struck the sandbag wall Stafford used as cover. Shrapnel pierced his hands.

Stafford low-crawled to another fighting position where Cpl. Jason Bogar, Sgt. Matthew Gobble and Sgt. Ryan Pitts were located. Stafford told Pitts that the insurgents were within grenade-tossing range. That got Pitts’ attention.

With blood running down his face, Pitts threw a grenade and then crawled to the position from where Stafford had just come. Pitts started hucking more grenades.

The firefight intensified. Bullets cut down tree limbs that fell on the soldiers. RPGs constantly exploded.

Back at Stafford’s position, so many bullets were coming in that the soldiers could not poke their heads over their sandbag wall. Bogar stuck an M-249 machine gun above the wall and squeezed off rounds to keep fire on the insurgents. In about five minutes, Bogar fired about 600 rounds, causing the M-249 to seize up from heat.

At another spot on the observation post, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers laid down continuous fire from an M-240 machine gun, despite drawing small-arms and RPG fire from the enemy. Ayers kept firing until he was shot and killed. Cpl. Pruitt Rainey radioed the FOB with a casualty report, calling for help. Of the nine soldiers at the observation post, Ayers and Phillips were dead, Zwilling was unaccounted for, and three were wounded. Additionally, several of the soldiers’ machine guns couldn’t fire because of damage. And they needed more ammo.

Rainey, Bogar and another soldier jumped out of their fighting position with the third soldier of the group launching a shoulder-fired missile.

All this happened within the first 20 minutes of the fight.

Platoon leader 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Cpl. Jason Hovater arrived at the observation post to reinforce the soldiers. By that time, the insurgents had breached the perimeter of the observation post. Gunfire rang out, and Rainey shouted, "He’s right behind the sandbag."

Brostrom could be heard shouting about the insurgent as well.

More gunfire and grenade explosions ensued. Back in the fighting position, Gobble fired a few quick rounds. Gobble then looked to where the soldiers were fighting and told Stafford the soldiers were dead. Of the nine soldiers who died in the battle, at least seven fell in fighting at the observation post.

These words have been far too long in coming because, to be honest, I have struggled to find the right words - any words at all. I don't have them. Sometimes, you reach way down and there is just nothing left except grief that you can't find a way to express. I keep waiting for this to get easier and it never does.

I suppose I would just like the families of these men to know how very sorry I am, and how proud that America produces sons of this caliber. No matter what one thinks about the war, no one can ask any more of any man but that he do his duty.

I remember when my son decided to become a police officer. After a while I lost track of the number of people who said to me, "You must not very happy about his decision."

I was always puzzled by that remark, and a bit hurt. No one ever wants to lose a child. I think that must be the most awful thing in the world. But on the day my first son was born, I knew that some day I would have to let him go. For eighteen years, I poured everything I had into my children.

And then I opened the door, and let them step through it with my blessing. I never presumed that it was my place to decide for them what they should do with their lives, and if my son takes what I gave him and uses it to protect others, that makes me proud.

I hope the families of these men take some small comfort in knowing how very much they are honored for their bravery and their service.

We will not forget. We should never forget.

Posted by Cassandra at July 25, 2008 06:12 AM

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People die for their country much like they die for their families. But genetics and birth is not a choice, loyalty to your nation is.

We are instinct bound or driven to defend family members because they are us, genetically speaking, and will continue long past the date of our death.

We do the same thing for our nation, hoping that the peace, justice, and prosperity of America will extend beyond the person of "I" to many others, whether we know them or not.

But a person's nation and country is not dictated by instinct or genetics. Not given today's technology and prosperity in the Western World, if you happen to be born in the Western World, that is.

If a person chooses that his nation is important and good enough to warrant their life and their work, then we, who belong to the same nation, must ensure the continuation, preservation, and improvement of that nation.

Loyalty goes both ways, and when it does not, then comes the crashing down of people and nations.

So long as there exists a nation that enforces the rule of law, the deaths of those nation's protectors can never be forgotten. For we are all the results of the lives and deaths of those that have gone before us. That is as true for a family... as it is true for a nation.

Many people speak about soldiers fighting for pay or loot like common mercenaries.

Here's a singular truth most people don't seem to get. Loyalty to family cannot be bought and neither can loyalty to one's nation. If they can be... then you were never part of our family or nation to begin with.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at July 25, 2008 08:34 AM

This post truck close to home. It is disturbing because we are learning to not be grateful for anything, let alone a sacrifice of that magnitude.

As a mother, I would be grateful to read that he did his job and did it well, and then part of me would explode with the magnitude of my loss.

Sacrifice and loss; it really is about giving up something good to get something great, but we have taken our freedom and security for granted for so long.

Thank you for them, thank you for standing that line.

Posted by: Cricket at July 25, 2008 10:14 AM

A good point, Cricket. The culture has taught many not to bother with gratitude. Here is something that merits it: for mother and father, as well as for the son.

Posted by: Grim at July 25, 2008 10:48 AM

"I support the troops, they're doing a great job" is an easy abstraction. This type of reporting makes clear how awesome, heartbreaking, and hopeful the reality of "the troops" actually is. Thank you, Cassandra.

Posted by: EliseK at July 25, 2008 11:59 AM

This is part of an answer:


Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 25, 2008 09:58 PM

A good point, Cricket. The culture has taught many not to bother with gratitude.

Given that many people believe AMerica is literally invulnerable to threats, except from the inside due to politics and "debts", there's not much people can be consciously grateful towards unless they admit that their security is extremely precarious.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at July 25, 2008 10:06 PM

It's not any easier for mothers of daughters. Some of those daughters choose to join the fight as much as they are allowed to, and others choose to marry and nourish your sons who fight and sacrifice.

When your son marries into a family like mine he is taken as one naturally born to us. My daughters have brought sons to me who I care for as much as I do their wives.

God Bless Sons-In-Law.

Posted by: Donna B. at July 26, 2008 01:16 AM

That's right, Donna, and all the more reason we do not ever forget that while those who died on the battlefield on not forgotten, we must not, cannot forget the families they leave behind, and be grateful and supportive.

Posted by: Cricket at July 26, 2008 07:41 PM

Thank you, Donna. That is a good point, and one I was not qualified to comment upon.

Women are involved in this war to an increasing degree, and that I didn't write this in a gender-neutral way was not meant as a slight to their service or their bravery. It was more a function of two things: the fact that women still are excluded from the combat arms, and that the nine fatalities in this case were all male and it made sense, therefore, to write it from that perspective.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 28, 2008 09:09 AM

And besides Cass, if I had to re-post that excerpt from Gates of Fire, the ground might get muddy from the rain.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at July 29, 2008 12:12 AM

Amazing story ... thanks for the link. I was out of touch when this happened and was very anxious to learn the details. The tactics are similar to the April 2005 attack on Abu Ghraib.

Posted by: Frodo at July 30, 2008 09:13 AM