I posted the following on my personal Facebook timeline. I did it because it's something I don't think a lot of people know and, the more people that know the difference between the holidays, the fewer awkward moments I'll experience when someone thanks me for my service on Memorial Day.
But OIL manager Lance Zerger, who has completed three combat tours himself, provided an alternate take on the subject that I thought was worth sharing:
Dear Fellow Veterans,
Good point, Zerger. I'll be thinking of both Landrum and Lawson, as well as SGT Jeremy King. After the jump is my memory of the day he died.
When I was in Mrs. Riner's junior English class at MacArthur High School, we read a short story titled "The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever. The premise was simple. A couple in the 1930s were given a special radio that allowed them to hear all their neighbors' conversations. At first they were elated, but, ultimately, they were haunted by the miracle of their ability. They could hear all the horrors of society that usually go unnoticed or are covered up and sterilized . . . and they couldn't turn it off. They couldn't change the channel. It took seven years, but I eventually felt their horror and understood the story more than I ever had.
August 24th, 2006 was a routine day for my squad in Baghdad. We had gone to Traffic Headquarters, and I had gotten to visit with Ali. Business taken care of, we started to make the familiar trek back to Camp Liberty. It was a hot day, over 120 degrees, and I stood up just a little higher than usual with my sleeves unbuttoned to let the air circulate inside my body armor and clothing. It had been a good day.
Back on Route Irish, we were on the home stretch when the call came out over the radio:
"Eagle Dustoff, Eagle Dustoff, this is Red Knight 7* over"
"This is Eagle Dustoff, over"
"Eagle Dustoff, I need MEDEVAC; my gunner has been shot by a sniper."
The voice went on to recite the nine-line MEDEVAC report, and I marveled at how cool, calm, and collected he sounded. My squad leader plotted the grid coordinates and found that this occurred only a couple blocks away from one of our two main destinations on Market Road.
"Cliburn, go ahead and get down; someone might be aiming at your melon right now," CPT Ray said. SSG Bruesch concurred and I sat down, listening intently to the radio transmissions that I couldn't turn off even if I wanted to.
Five minutes in, the voice on the radio was losing his cool.
"Have they left yet?! He's losing a lot of blood; we need that chopper now!"
In the background, you could hear other soldiers yelling, screaming, trying to find any way to save their friend's life. At one point, I swear I heard the man gurgle.
Ten minutes in, the voice on the radio was furious.
"Where's that fucking chopper!? We're losing him! He's not fucking breathing! Where the fuck are you!?"
Every minute to minute-and-a-half, the voice was back on the radio demanding to know what the holdup was. And, every minute to minute-and-a-half the other voice on the radio, a young woman's voice, tried to reassure him that the chopper was the way from Taji. She was beginning to tire herself; I could hear it in her voice. She was just as frustrated as he was.
All the while, there I sat, sitting in the gunner's hatch, listening to life's little horrors with no way to turn the channel. No one in the truck was speaking. The music was on, but no one heard it. There was just an eerie silence. All I heard was the radio transmissions; I watched as the landscape passed me by in slow motion. I didn't hear wind noise or car horns or gunfire or my own thoughts. I was only accompanied by the silence of the world passing me by, interrupted only by the screams of the voice on the radio.
At this point, I was as frustrated as I had been all year. Where the fuck was that goddamn chopper and why was it taking so long?! What if it were me? Would I be waiting that long? Would this pathetic exchange be included in the newscast if the guy dies?
I was angry, upset, frustrated, and anticipating the next transmission in this macabre play by play account. Forget about TNT, HBO, and Law and Order: this was drama. This was heart-wrenching. Seconds seemed like hours; minutes seemed like days.
Finally, after several more non-productive transmissions where Eagle Dustoff attempted to reassure the voice, after 20 minutes and a few more frantic, screaming transmissions by the voice, the voice was calm again.
"Eagle Dustoff, cancel the chopper. He's dead."
. . . and that was that. The voice had gone from being the model for the consummate soldier (cool, calm, collected, professional) to the more human screams and frantic pleading for help you'd expect to, finally, solemn resignation. Now, the voice was quiet.
"Eagle Dustoff: requesting recovery team. We can't drive this vehicle back; we need someone to come get the vehicle and body. Over."
"Do you have casualty's information?"
"Yes. SGT King, over."
I sat in that gunner's sling in a fit of rage that I couldn't let out. I had to be a soldier; I had to keep my cool. We all did. I was so angry about being an unwilling voyeur, forced to listen to the gruesome play-by-play of another soldier's life and death.
We'd been told the insurgency was in its last throes, that they were just a bunch of dead enders. No, not this day. Today, SGT King was in his last throes, and I was there to listen to the whole damn thing, whether I liked it or not. A soldier's death isn't anything like the movies. There was no patriotic music; there was no feeling of purpose. It's just . . . death. I wasn't there physically; I didn't see him, but I was there.
Any sane person would have wanted to turn the channel. No one wants to hear the screams of a man losing his friend, but I couldn't turn it off. We were required to monitor that channel. Either way, it didn't take long to become emotionally invested in it; was he going to make it? I needed to know, damnit. I hung on every word until I got the final, sobering news.
My truck was the only one in the convoy monitoring that net. When we got back to base, no else had heard it, and SSG Bruesch, CPT Ray, and I didn't discuss it. I don't think we ever did.
A few days later, I felt like I had to find out more about this soldier. I felt like I had lost a friend, yet I didn't know anything but his name and rank. Looking back on it, I should have just let it go, but I didn't. Using the miracle of the Internet, I found out all I needed to know about the young man, and to this day I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
SGT Jeremy E. King was 23 years old. He was from Idaho, where he played high school football. He had joined the army to get out of Idaho and see the world. He was one year younger than I was, and he was dead. He sounded like any of a number of teammates I played high school football with. What irked me the most was how sanitized the news account of his death was:
A Fort Hood soldier from Idaho has died in Iraq of injuries sustained when troops came under fire during combat, the Department of Defense said Friday.
That's it? That sounds almost peaceful, maybe even heroic. I can attest that the whole thing was anything but peaceful, anything but heroic. Who am I, though?
I've replayed that scene in my head more times than I'd ever want since that day. I don't believe in fate or karma or any type of predestined event, but I often wonder what made that sniper hole up on North Market Road instead of South Market Road, where I often found myself. If it had been me, would SGT King have found himself in my shoes, reluctantly following the play-by-play of my death?
I was fortunate enough in my time there to never have to call in MEDEVAC. I didn't bury any of my Oklahoma brothers-in-arms, but I will always remember what it was like listening to the miracle of modern communications, the radio, and for the first time in my life being terrified, much like the couple in the story over 80 long years ago.
This August 24th (and this Memorial Day), remember Jeremy E. King: Rest in Peace, SGT King.