The lump in my throat wouldn't go away. I twisted off the cap to my canteen and drank down a big gulp of water, hoping it would help. Nothing. It sat there like a frog on a lily pad waiting on a fly. The butterflies in my stomach wouldn't disappear either. Why would it? As the sweat dripped down my back I sat up in my turret, thinking perhaps if I looked around and focused on something external I would feel better. Looking off to my left, as far as I could see were my brothers, lined up in tanks, armored personnel carriers, bradley fighting vehicles, 5 ton trucks, and humvees. All of us feeling pretty much the same, a sense of dread mixed with the excitement you only get when doing something completely insane and dangerous. But we are all young men, and young men crave that element of danger.
I looked toward the North West at nothing. The Iraqi desert lay ahead of us, with miles of dry hot wasteland between us and the nearest opposition. For the last 24 hours, the Air Force had been laying waste to hard targets along the border, and special operations forces had been calling in air strikes on ground forces who would threaten the initial border crossing of the main element. I was on lane 8A, paving the way with our engineer element, the 11th engineers and the 3rd Infantry Division.
The order came down to cross that evening. We slowly rolled over the border which we had previously blown open for our lane with the assistance of a few bucket loaders and a few hundred pounds of explosives. We knew we wouldn't run into anything or anyone for a while due to the bombardment, but that didn't make that feeling in our guts take a nap. As we approached the first check point across the border I checked my .50 cal for the hundredth time to ensure she was locked and ready to go. It was then that I saw the signs of war. Enemy vehicles lay charred and smoking along the roadside, our Panther pushing them out of the way in front of us. Bodies of fallen enemies were unrecognizable as such, their former selves burned and mangled beyond all description. The smell was stifling, making that lump and butterflies disappear in an instant. This was the real deal.
This was real war. An entire nation's army going against an entire country, bent on destroying a regime and freeing a people from oppression. The thought that goes through every Soldier's mind at least once went through my head. What am I doing here? I quickly answered that question with a reassuring statement to myself. It doesn't matter what I am doing here. What matters is that I am here, and that it's my duty to get the job done and get me and my boys home all in one piece just like we arrived.
The following days and nights were a virtual blur. We moved mostly at night under the most beautiful sky I had ever seen. We became used to moving around in the gray/green world of night vision. The battles we waged were very brief compared to the ones to come in subsequent years. Every time the first round would go off, I would think back to my grandfather who stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. If he could get through that hell, I could surely manage to get through this. We moved as a unit, destroyed the enemy, and in just a few weeks we were sitting at Baghdad International Airport drinking tea with British SAS troops. It was hard going along the way, but we made it through it as a team. Many of my friends didn't make it out of there alive, and in the years to come, I would lose even more people who I had grown close to in only the way two fighting men can. Today is about those men and women who gave their lives in service to our nation, and I will always remember them for how they lived not how they died.
I am still serving in the Army, but I have many friends and close associates who are either retired, medically discharged, voluntarily separated, etc. Even though the benefits to service are excellent, they are not - unfortunately - all inclusive like some may think. Veterans need our help with everything from someone who will listen, to basic necessities. Below is a list of organizations who I can vouch for from first hand experience that can help our nation's veterans. If you feel so inclined please visit their websites or facilities.
http://www.honorflight.org/ Honor Flights helps WWII Veterans make the trip to Washington D.C. were they can see the newly opened WWI Memorial. We lose many of these veterans everyday. I have participated in an Honor Flight tour, and let me tell you, I have never felt so honored and humbled to be in the presence of such great men.
http://www.vfw.org/ The VFW is traditionally thought of as a bunch of old coots who meet up, wear funny hats, and drink whiskey while telling war stories. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you are a veteran there is almost no better organization to belong to. They lobby for veterans rights and benefits constantly on capital hill.
http://iava.org/ This organization is strictly for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They lobby in Washington for vets rights and benefits, and also link veterans and their families with much needed services and support.
http://www.amvets.org/ AMVETS doesn't just focus on veterans of foreign wars like the VFW does. Any who have served can become members. They help boy scouts sell Christmas trees, hold donation drives, an even will pick up old furniture and cars for donations to help vets.
http://www.patriotguard.org/ These men and women help shield the funerals and homecomings of American service members from protestors. Enough said. Ride Hard!
(Addition by 3k)
http://www.nrd.gov The National Resource Directory has more than 14,000 resources connecting Wounded Warriors, Service Members, Veterans, their Families and Caregivers with those who support them. They also offer more than 1 million job opportunities through the Veterans Job Bank, identifying positions which employers have designated as Veteran-committed.
If you know of any other good organizations out there, please add them in the comments!
I started out today wanting to write something for Memorial Day. I didn't intend to write that brief aside about the beginnings of the Iraq War. Sometimes when you sit down to write words just come out of you and onto the page as if something or someone has taken control of your mind and fingers, and its not you at the keyboard.Thank you to all the men and women of our nation who are serving and who have served, and to the families of those service members who all to often must sleep alone.