Today’s a day of reflection for me. It’s not a day to have picnics. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with picnics. It’s just not that kind of day for me. On this day, your mother and I take our family to Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield and we walk through the different sites, talking about the men who gave their lives here. Yes, it’s a good walk. Yes, it’s a chance to inject some not boring conditioning into my garage gym existence.
It’s not why we do it. It’s a reminder. I know you might not understand why we don’t just relax and go watch fireworks like other families. Why I insist on walking the battlefield and reading what’s on the monument markers. Why deaths from a long ago war matter to me. Maybe this will help.
Twelve years ago, I was living a mostly normal life. Training in my garage four days a week, going to drill with my Marine Corps Reserve unit once a month or so. 9/11 had changed America in some fundamental ways but for me, the biggest change was my newborn son. He was the son I would get to watch grow up from start to finish; no missed days. No milestones somebody else had to tell me about. I didn’t know that in two months, we would be activated. That I would spend my next birthday at Camp Pendleton sharpening my skills for war. That I’d do so much training in that sixty days, both with my unit and in the excellent base gym that I’d win a Gym Rat t-shirt. I won’t even bother to tell you how many hours of training it took to qualify for that shirt. You wouldn’t believe me. Just know that it took logging formation runs and other unit PT, plus daily trips to the gym to lift and run sprints on the treadmill to get it.
I didn’t know that in four months, I would be stationed outside the city of Falluja, Iraq. The absolute worst spot in the Iraq theater. The place where American contractors had been executed and common criminals masquerading as revolutionaries terrorized the population if any of them had the gall to try to better their lives by taking advantage of the job training skills Coalition Forces offered. I didn’t know that I’d get some of my most memorable workouts between mortar attacks in a cave hollowed out by heavy equipment with sandbags on top to keep out shrapnel. That I’d do more bench presses than I remember lying on even more sandbags with dumbbells I’d “negotiated” my way into acquiring from a skinny but enterprising Iraqi who needed money for his family enough to drive to Baghdad and back with weights he couldn’t pick up alone.
I didn’t know that I’d get accustomed to running with a rifle slung across my body and lifting in the base gym with that same rifle stacked within arms reach, flak jacket nearby in hopes that I’d hear the mortar warning and be able to grab it before a stray shell pierced the thin zinc skin of the gym’s roof. I didn’t know how motivated I’d get watching a Recon Marine bang out pullups with 45lb plates hanging from his waist that I’d decide to try it. Since I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that I’d only manage one with a single 45lb plate the first time but five by the time I left Iraq.
I didn’t know that Marines will set up a gym anywhere they’re stationed for longer than a week and they don’t mind liberating equipment from anywhere previously owned by the enemy. That’s how I ended up deadlifting in a dead man’s house still wearing my helmet and flak jacket. No I wasn’t the one who killed him. At least I don’t think so. Our artillery shell craters were all over the yard but I can’t know if one that I aimed was the one that made the house vacant.
I didn’t know that seven months after I returned from Iraq, just as I was adjusting to a “normal” life, just as I stopped twitching so much in my sleep, just as my youngest son stopped crying out and reaching for your mother when I picked him up; I would be sent to Louisiana to help look for bodies and provide aid to displaced people in New Orleans. I didn’t know that seeing the devastation there would hit home to me in ways that seeing destruction in Iraq didn’t.
I didn’t know but I could have told you that I would find ways to exercise there also. Including sneaking out of our camp and hopping a fence to lift weights in a deserted apartment complexes fitness center. I didn’t steal anything and I cleaned up after myself. Hope they didn’t mind.
I especially didn’t know that my Marine Corps career would already be over by this time. I didn’t know that your Aunty Sandra was so sick you see. Didn’t know that your grandfather would ask me to stay home instead of redeploying so I could take care of her.
I didn’t know that my oldest son, the only one of you to live through all of my times away, would follow in my footsteps. That he would fulfill a pledge made as a four year old. That what I thought was a childish whim wasn’t. That when he said, “I’m going to be a Marine!” he meant it.
So I can’t just go have a picnic today. I have too many memories linked to everything I just told you. The men who died at Kennesaw Mountain would have had memories too. Memories they couldn’t and maybe didn’t want to shake. Devastation in American streets that they probably never imagined. Friends lost. Brothers, cousins dead.
I just cried because I remembered Pearce, Taylor, Sutherland, Matthews, Donaghey and Cody Warren.
There’ll be no picnic today. I hope you understand why. I have no regrets. But I hope you understand why.