I put the cigarette in my mouth and took a long drag, periodically wiping away the tears that kept forming with the back of my uniform sleeve. It was the morning of Dustin’s funeral and I had just given a short eulogy I had written the night before in my pocket notebook. We were only three months into our seven-month deployment and we already had four K.I.A. and four wounded. In the larger scheme maybe that’s not a lot, but for a platoon of 25, it’s a 32 percent chance you won’t finish this deployment with your best friends.
I ripped out my little speech from my all-weather notebook and crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage can behind me. I was so frustrated with the war and the dying and the unfairness of it that I wanted to get rid of any memory I had of it. Throwing out the speech wasn’t a big gesture, but it was something I could control, and it was the beginning of my preferred method of coping: compartmentalization. I began locking away these events and memories so that I could move on with my life.
I’ve been out 10 years now. And it’s actually hard for me to hate the wars and hate 9/11 like I used to. I hated the initial cowardly attack as I watched the planes crash into the towers from my college dorm room at the University of Missouri-Columbia shortly before I enlisted. Sure, I was fueled with enough patriotic passion to enlist and avenge my country’s black eye. But in retrospect, that terrible act seemed to bring our country together. Enlistment numbers soared then. People from all over were joining the military to do their part and stop the radical jihadists. Things were so pure. So black and white. There was a distinct and clear-cut enemy. The simplicity and naiveté of it all was beautiful.
Then the lines blurred. I joined Marine Recon and pushed myself past the limits I thought I had. I lived in Okinawa, Japan for several years and was immersed in another culture beyond what I’d known my entire life. I met amazing friends and was chosen for strong Recon platoons that accomplished great things. I deployed to Iraq and there I witnessed the full spectrum of man. I observed terrible things, even from my own friends. I observed great compassion, even from civilian Iraqis whose country and homes we were invading. And every clear-cut good/evil line in the sand I previously held onto vanished. Some would even argue that I grew up (believed by many from my earlier days to be an impossible feat).
When I got out of the military I knew I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to reflect, uncover, and unbury everything I had worked so hard to suppress. I wanted to be a rock star musician in a funk band and flail around onstage gyrating to music that helped me feel happy and helped me ignore my inner problems. But a funny thing happened. A year after I got out of the military, while I was deep in the throes of my undergraduate experience as a slightly older student I received a message over Facebook from a buddy in my old Iraq platoon. He posted my eulogy on Facebook and told me that he had loved it so much that he had fished it out of the trash can and kept it, thinking he’d need or want it someday. Then he told me that I had to write, and that I was the only person in the platoon with the ability to keep our stories alive. That I was the one who could keep the memory of Gary, Jose, Kyle, and Nate alive, along with others who died later—killed on other deployments or by inner demons. It was just the kind of burden and heavy responsibility that I needed.
When I think about 9/11, it’s no longer a single day or event for me. It was an opening into a completely different life than I envisioned for myself when I was younger, meeting interesting people that I had no idea existed. I recently attended a lake trip in Chicago with some friends from the Iraq days. It may have been the greatest weekend of my recent life. The lake water was warm and inviting. The boat was gassed up and ready. The wakeboard was sturdy and ready to rip. The beer and stories flowed easily and we caught up from our long absence away from each other.
September 11th and the Global War on Terror may have stripped me of my innocence, but it gave me something I never expected: an extended family. It showed me how to love more than hate. I am blessed to have these people in my life. I am blessed to have discovered what I am, and am not capable of doing. I am blessed to have fought for something greater than myself. I am blessed to have watched this country unite and fight for a greater good. I am blessed. And after teaching several years of high school and watching some of my students enlist in the military for the same reasons I did, I know that my country is, and always will be, fucking awesome.
Remember these men:
Kevin Dempsey, Killed In Action, November 13th, 2004.
Jonathan Simpson, Killed In Action, October 14th, 2006.
Kyle Powell, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.
Jose Galvan, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.
Nathan Krisoff, Killed In Action, December 9th, 2006.
Gary Johnston, Killed In Action, January 23rd, 2007.
Dustin Lee, Killed In Action, March 21st, 2007.
Luke Milam, Killed In Action, September 25th, 2007.
Michael Ferschke, Killed In Action, August 10, 2008.
A Eulogy From The Memorial For Corporal Dustin Lee
Before I ever knew what poetry was, or took a class or workshop through a university, these were my words. This will forever be my most honest and raw piece of work. These words were borne from the thoughts and minds of the men of Third Reconnaissance Battalion. These words blanket our dead. Rest in peace, brothers.
How can you know what sharing is, if you’ve never given your last dessert to a friend? How can you know what laughter is, if you’ve never been so miserable, the only thing left to do is laugh? How can you know what failure is, if despite all your training, you still have to hold a brother during his last breaths? How can you know what hate is, if you’ve never cursed God and His will? How can you know what a brother is, if you’ve never had one taken from you?
This is war. It doesn’t matter if it’s right. It doesn’t matter if we believe in it. It only matters that we’re here.
Home is a distant memory. Family is the man ducking down next to you. You’re only as good as your last mission and your sole existence is to complete the next one. Those of us that live through this will die in our beds, forgotten.
Those of us that gave all will be remembered forever.
* * *
Gerardo Mena is a decorated Iraqi Freedom veteran. He spent six years with Recon Marines as a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman. He was awarded a Navy Achievement for Valor. He has been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writer's Magazine, and elsewhere, and has performed his work alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, John Turturro, and others. His book of war poems, The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters, was published in 2014.
Visit his website, gerardomena.com.