Why I Won’t Guilt-Trip America on Memorial Day
So there I was, a fairly familiar platoon leader, having spent the last eight months training with my platoon from individual skills and Expert Infantry Badge testing through our Mission Readiness Exercise at the National Training Center. It was early-2011, and in a little over a month we would board flights for Afghanistan, headed for a remote outpost in the northern part of Kunar province. We were ready. Our leadership was a cohesive team. The soldiers knew their jobs. I was a bit nervous about how I would perform in combat, but I was confident that my training would see me through successfully.
I came to work that day like any other. The officer huddle was at 0600 hours to confirm the day’s business and publish any last minute changes. I generally showed up around 0530, taking some time to read the Early Bird publication before the meeting. Physical Training (PT) went fine from 0630 to 0800 and it was my habit to hit the Dining Facility (DFAC) for breakfast because you can’t beat a 3-egg omelet, bacon, and oatmeal for under $3.
I got back to the office early and had some time to kill before the rest of the platoon showed up and work started for the day. I was idly cruising Facebook when I saw the notification. A buddy of mine from West Point and the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course (IBOLC), Daren Hidalgo, had been killed in Afghanistan.
Outwardly, I tried to remain calm. I guess I succeeded, because later my soldiers would tell me they didn't realize how affected I was by this. I mentioned the fact to my platoon sergeant, and maybe made a comment about how “he was a good dude” or something to that effect. I’m not sure, though, because it was kind of a blur. Inwardly, I was shocked. I didn't know what to think. I didn't think. Soon, it was time to start training for the day and I pushed his death out of my mind.
I thought about how he was a better soldier and a better leader than me; and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it.
It wouldn't hit me until I was driving home from work that day, in the middle of the H2 freeway, when I nearly wrecked my car. I had time to reflect during the drive and I started thinking about Daren. I thought about how he was one of the most genuine people I had ever met. About how he always had a smile on his face and about how he always brought out the best in people and always gave you the best of himself. I thought about how he was a better soldier and a better leader than me; and I wasn't ashamed to admit it. He was one of the best human beings I've known or probably ever will know.
And then I got angry. My hands tightened on the steering wheel until my forearms burned. The road, the cars around me, the lanes painted on the asphalt, everything got blurry. I felt the tears on my cheeks, but all I could see was RED.
“WHO THE HELL IN THIS COUNTRY DESERVES HIS SACRIFICE?
THESE FUCKING PEOPLE ARE SO OBLIVIOUS, GOING ABOUT THEIR DAILY LIVES AND THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE A CLUE THAT HE’S GONE AND HE WAS BETTER THAN ANY OF THEM!
THERE ISN'T A SINGLE ASSHOLE ON THIS ROAD TODAY WORTHY OF HIS SACRIFICE! NONE OF THESE PEOPLE WERE AS GOOD A PERSON AS HE WAS!”
I don’t know how long these thoughts and others ran through my head, but when I came to I had (somehow) stayed on the road and merged onto H1. My exit to avoid the Middle Street merge and the terrible traffic jam there was coming up.
A few weeks later, just before we deployed, I would share this experience with my platoon. We carried some heavy things to the top of a mountain (because team building) and then rested while the combat veterans shared their perspective on how to mentally approach this deployment. I hadn't been to combat at the time, but felt this experience was relevant. I looked my entire platoon in the eyes and told them I couldn't guarantee they would come back alive, but that I could guarantee them their platoon leader wouldn't put their lives at risk for “freedom” or “democracy” or any other nebulous ideal. We would fight for each other, for the man to our left and right, and we were well trained and we would accomplish our mission and come home.
And now Memorial Day is approaching, and with it memories of friends and family who won’t be with us this year. We’re also starting to see symptoms of that same anger that I felt just over four years ago. It’s popping up as an internet meme, an editorial article, a Facebook status, or a string of tweets.
I’m with you. I also still feel it. It flares in my chest every time I hear a civilian talk about “war-weariness.” And I agree, the American people are responsible for sending us to war, they are responsible for the conduct of that war, and they are responsible for the outcome of that war.
But if Daren were here, he’d smile and plan a BBQ. He’d crack a joke and grab the football and the cornhole boards. He took his beer pong seriously, but not too seriously. And so I plan to celebrate this weekend the same as many other Americans, and you won’t be able to see the extra guest at my BBQ, but he’ll be there.
I don’t think its appropriate to remember Daren by shaming others, because that’s not what he would do.
Montana Gent is a West Point graduate and an Infantry captain currently stationed at Ft. Bragg. He occasionally writes about the military and current events, but prefers backpacking. You’ll most often find him in the woods and mountains of North Carolina and the surrounding states every chance he gets.The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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