August 12, 2006, nine years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I always had a sense of immortality and invincibility and until that day nothing could have proved me wrong. The naïveté of a 20-year-old child on his first deployment. We had been at it for months, and no matter what was thrown at us, we came out on top. Call it overconfidence, or complacency, but I convinced myself that nothing was ever going to happen to us.
Death was all around us, but we seemed to be untouchable. We went days sometimes, waiting out the Commo Blackouts as the families of the killed were notified, but it was easy to distance yourself from the reality of it when it was not one of your boys. They were faceless, and as busy as we were, it was best to keep it that way. It sounds callous, but it was the only way you can keep going knowing damn well that the next Commo Blackout might be for you. As anyone who has ever been there knows, death, especially in war, doesn’t discriminate.
The first time death became real for me was with a squad leader from another platoon. I got to know him before we left for Iraq, and even more so during that deployment. He was someone who respected, watching him like privates often do with leaders. We had stood up the company before the deployment from scratch and all of the lower enlisted came to the unit right out of basic training. Most of us had been in the same basic training company and were transplanted into this unit with leadership who had been pushed over to us after the first deployments to Iraq. We were close. We were family. He was one of the squad leaders brought in to take a bunch of brand new privates on a deployment in a particularly violent time in the war. We looked up to guys like him at a level bordering on hero-worship. They had deployed and come back. They were going to be the ones to bring us home, and we trusted these men with our lives.
At first, we were all called in we were told about him getting hit and that he was still alive and flying to the green zone, we were instantly relieved. He was going be fine because he had to be. If we were untouchable, he was Superman and nothing could possibly take him down. It was only a couple of hours later when we found out that he had died en route to get treatment.
He was killed by a sniper at a checkpoint. I can’t put to words what I felt when our Platoon Sergeant told us. The feeling in my stomach like someone had reached in with a pair of rusty pliers grabbing my guts and twisting them into a thousand knots. I just wanted to lay down, but there is no pause button on a deployment so we kept going and doing our jobs with heavy hearts.
This time it was real and you couldn’t help but wishing it was all a bad dream. We may not see him for days at a time because we were in different platoons, but this time we knew he wasn’t coming back. I saw it on the faces of the soldiers that were there when he was killed. The toll of him not being there anymore, and being taken away from us.
We had a small chapel on FOB Rustamya where the company held his memorial service. We all got the afternoon off from patrols to attend. What I didn’t know, was that this was one of the most influential days in my life. There were rows and rows of chairs with the programs for the service sitting on them. On the cover was a picture with the dates of his birth and death. The air felt thick, making it feel like I couldn’t breathe. Gravity felt like it was stronger in that room, pulling me hard into the fold out chair giving the illusion that it would be impossible to stand no matter how hard I tried. I sat with my fire team and took in my surroundings.
On the pulpit was his rifle, bayonet attached, pointed down at the ground where his boots sat empty. His helmet sat on top of the butt of his rifle with his dog chains hanging lifelessly around the hand guard. Leaned up against that was a framed picture of him. A young man with a square jaw in the prime of his life. On one side was his purple heart and the other his bronze star, both still in their cases. A CIB was placed in front of the picture, along with coins that all the commanders who we shared the FOB with had left for him. The backdrop was a projector screen displaying a slide show of all the pictures his soldiers had taken of him, and ones of him and his family. There was an eerie silence, only broken by the music that those who knew him the best had chosen, because they knew that those were his favorite songs.
A numbness overtook me and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I felt like I was no longer in control of my body and I was watching the proceedings hovering above myself. The services started with an invocation from the chaplain. Then the Battalion commander spoke, followed by the company commander. Then some of the soldiers who served under him, including his gunner who was next to him when it happened. None of them were able to speak without choking back tears.
I don’t even remember their faces or what exactly they said. I couldn’t look away from the slide show. Pictures of him sitting and smiling on a cot in the big tents we stayed in Kuwait waiting to fly into Iraq. Pictures of his Mustang. He loved his Mustang and customized it and took care of it like it was his child. I remember being jealous of that car every time I got into my 88 Dodge Ramcharger and vowing to myself several times I was going to buy a badass new car after deployment. Pictures of him on patrol from both of his deployments. Pictures of him and family members from when he was on leave. The worst were the pictures of him and his pretty young wife. They were clearly in love. I couldn’t help but think about what she was feeling at that moment. As much as we felt his loss, she had that empty spot in their bed forever.
Before I knew it, I was snaped out of my reflection when the first sergeant called us all to attention. Amazing grace played its hauntingly somber notes. After, 1SG started calling his role. One name, HERE FIRST SERGEANT! Second name, HERE FIRST SERGEANT! Jenkins, silence. Kenneth Jenkins, silence. SSG Kenneth Jenkins, Silence. The final role call. The service concluded with the 21 gun salute and the playing of taps. I didn’t want taps to end because of the finality it represented. As long as we all sat there together it felt like he was still there somehow but it had to come to an end.
At the conclusion everyone was invited to the front of the room to say goodbye. As everyone shuffled to get in line to pay their respects to the monument of our fallen friend, I stood still and just watched my surroundings. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. What was even more shocking to me, were all of those leaders I looked up to openly bawling in front of everyone. These were the hardest men I had ever met in my life. Chiseled from granite. Crying. A few of them fell to their knees when it was their turn to say goodbye, and had to be helped to their feet by those around them. I eventually had my turn to say goodbye and all I said was I’m sorry. I was sorry he was not ever going to smile again. I was sorry he was not going to drive his mustang again. I was sorry he was not going to see his family again. I was sorry he was never going to pose for pictures with his loving wife again. I was sorry I was not there when he died. I asked myself if I had been there, could I have somehow made a difference? I didn’t shed a single tear the whole time. I wanted to. I felt like I should have. I felt bad that I couldn’t. Later on that night my team leader asked me how I was able to do it. I had no answer. I wasn’t proud of the fact that I ‘stayed strong,’ I felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to cry for the loss of my comrade.
Weeks later, the Iraqi sniper released a propaganda video showing all the videos he had taken of himself killing American soldiers. I was able to get my hands on the video. I convinced myself that I needed the video, because being a sniper, I might be able to figure out how the other guy was able to kill so many Americans without being caught. The video wasn’t the best quality, but I swore one of the the first soldier getting killed in the video was him. I was willing to bet anything. I watched it over and over again. I tortured myself studying that video. I knew damn well I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to catch the asshole, but I felt like I needed to DO something, anything.
I started volunteering for everything I could. Especially when I could take the place of someone with a family. I couldn’t bear the idea of people with so much to lose possibly dying when I didn’t have a wife and kids. I would gladly take the place of any one of them so that their children. Could grow up with their father. Those pictures of him and his wife kept flashing through my mind. Then the video of him losing his life.
I hated that feeling. I never wanted to feel it again. I vowed to myself that I never wanted to wonder if there was something I could have done to prevent it. The aftermath of his death changed my life. It shaped me into the leader I would eventually become. It made me train harder. It made me learn more. It made me teach with a passion all the lessons I learned from all my experience.
It also led to me pushing people back home away. I could risk more if I felt I had less to lose. Over the years, I have not done a good job keeping people in my life. The only acception were those who stood next to me overseas. Now I am leaving the army and people are still going to fight, and I feel guilty it’s not me. If someone should go, it should be me.
When I enlisted I was only going to do my 4 years and get out. That feeling has kept me in for 11 years, and the fact that I do not have a choice about staying in the army is probably for the best. I find that feeling creeping up constantly, and given the opportunity, I would probably find a reason to continue shouldering that weight, no matter the consequences. He was not the last person I lost over the years, but that was the day death became real, not just a far away concept of heroic sacrifice I saw in the movies growing up. The day that the real world reared its ugly head. Those men and women who died over seas may not be with us anymore, but they live on through the people whose lives they helped to shape, like mine. I won’t squander the gift they gave me and will live every second of the rest of my life making sure that everything I do honors that sacrifice.