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I’ll never forget the Marine memorial ceremonies I attended in Fallujah
Editor's note: this story originally appeared in 2017.
How you die matters. Ten years ago, on Memorial Day, I was in Fallujah, serving a year-long tour on the staff and conducting vehicle patrols between Abu Ghraib and Ramadi. That day I attended a memorial service in the field. It was just one of many held that year in Iraq, and one of the countless I witnessed over my 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Like many military veterans, Memorial Day is not abstract to me. It is personal; a moment when we remember our friends. A day, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth."
Wherever a Marine is killed, we pause for a moment to remember. But memorial services “in country" are different than most people think. First, there is no body or casket — those are already on their way back to Dover and their families in the United States. What serves in its place are a pair of boots and a rifle stuck into the ground by its bayonet, a set of dog tags hanging from the pistol grip of the rifle and a kevlar helmet resting atop.
These are the desperate attempts of young men and women with so much of life ahead of them to cope with death and to come to grips with life's finite quality.
Marines observe a moment of silence in honor of Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, a dog handler and mortarman who served with Weapons Company, 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, during a memorial service, April 22, 2012.(U.S. Marine Corps photo)
The service begins with the chaplain offering a prayer, followed generally by two readings from the Bible. Rarely is the New Testament selected. The Old Testament seems more germane. The comrades of the fallen don't want to hear talk of salvation, but instead long to find comfort in knowing that this life, the here and now, may be spent on a worthy cause. Three verses are most common: first is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which reminds us that “to everything there is a season." The other two are the 23rd Psalm, reassuring us that, yes, indeed, the Lord is our shepherd, and Isaiah 6:8, which triumphantly exalts the willingness of those to serve: "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I. Send me!'"
The ceremony takes a breath, and music, such a vital part of military rituals, sends the assembly into quiet reflection. Often it is the haunting, despondent call of a bagpipe as it moves through the notes of “Amazing Grace." At this point in the service, close friends of the fallen are called to offer their reflections. If they lack the eloquence of accomplished public speakers, they more than make up for it with heartfelt tribute, unspeakably tragic.
In one service on that Memorial Day 10 years ago, a corpsman of a reconnaissance team reminisced about the moments with his dead friend, a corporal, and what a unique experience of comradeship they shared. They didn't get drunk or raise hell in town. No, there was no chance for that in Fallujah. What they shared was battle. He paused, trying to regain his composure, and spit out his most meaningful line: "He died a warrior's death." Soldierly virtue is valued above all else.
In another ceremony, a young corporal noted how his friend, a lance corporal, with his saggy pants and eyes of mischief, came into the Marine Corps because he was a troubled teen in a broken home; he wanted to become a man. He recalled playing endless hours of pool, and how in Iraq, his friend had displayed a quiet confidence that made people want to follow him. “He was the most persistent person I ever met. I would have followed him anywhere."
In yet another, a young private first class spoke of his company medic, the most complete leader he ever knew, who pushed everyone to be his best, who volunteered for patrol after patrol, only to be killed by a sniper's bullet two days before he was to fly home for his two-week furlough to witness the birth of his first child.
And in another, a sergeant shared remarks obviously rehearsed several times over, but even with all the preparation, he was still unable to compose himself. He paused, took a deep breath, and prematurely concluded, “I'm sorry. It's just that he was my best friend."
Marines kneel down beside the battlefield cross to pay their final respects to Sgt. Bradley Atwell during a memorial ceremony, Sept. 20, 2012.(U.S. Marine Corps photo)
We are witness to what is most hideous about war: its waste of life. A nation's treasure is in its youth, and their loss is beyond measure because it is irretrievable. They were singularly trusting. They solicited no assurance on the prompt surrender of their lives. They demanded no social privileges, no distinctions, as they willingly walked into the valley.
Finally, a last tradition is observed. The company first sergeant marches to the front of the room, faces the assemblage, calls the room to attention, and calls the roll. One by one, each Marine replies "present" in a loud, firm voice. Then, the first sergeant calls out the name of the fallen, only to be met with a somber silence. Again, the Marine's name is called, and again no response. Finally, after this second pregnant pause, the Marine's full name is announced. First. Middle. Last. Physically and symbolically, the Marine is missing from the formation, signifying that he or she will never be with us again. A bugle in the rear plays "Taps."
In a speech delivered on May 30, 1884, at Keene, New Hampshire, Oliver Wendell Holmes reflected that on Memorial Day, “we are in the presence of the dead. … Young and gracious faces, somewhat remote and proud, but with a melancholy and sweet kindness. There is upon their faces the shadow of approaching fate, and the glory of generous acceptance of it."
Holmes does not lament their passing, but exalts them, for they devoted their lives to something larger than themselves, as all generations, perhaps, should. He notes that any generation that carries out a war “has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing."
He concludes thus, “But grief is not the end of all. … Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring."
There is a duality in Holmes' messages: He does not deny the reality of man's inhumanity to man, or prate of glory and intrepid gallantry. He sees war as a part of the human condition, yet he sees nobility in living life to its top, spending youth in a worthy cause.
I saw evidence of his reasoning every day when I was in the Marine Corps. He said it eloquently. I observed the eloquence in human form. And I remember.
Scott Cooper is a retired Marine Corps officer. Today he serves as the National Security Outreach Director at Human Rights First, leading their project Veterans for American Ideals, www.vfai.org.
Moments before Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia went back into the house, journalist Michael Ware said he was "pacing like a caged tiger ... almost like he was talking to himself."
"I distinctly remember while everybody else had taken cover temporarily, there out in the open on the street — still exposed to the fire from the roof — was David Bellavia," Ware told Task & Purpose on Monday. "David stopped pacing, he looked up and sees that the only person still there on the street is me. And I'm just standing there with my arms folded.
"He looked up from the pacing, stared straight into my eyes, and said 'Fuck it.' And I stared straight back at him and said 'Fuck it,'" Ware said. "And that's when I knew, we were both going back in that house."
Former Army Special Forces Maj. Matthew Golsteyn will plead not guilty to a charge of murder for allegedly shooting an unarmed Afghan man whom a tribal leader had identified as a Taliban bomb maker, his attorney said.
Golsteyn will be arraigned on Thursday morning at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Phillip Stackhouse told Task & Purpose.
No date has been set for his trial yet, said Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, a spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
John Wick is back, and he's here to stay. It doesn't matter how many bad guys show up to try to collect on that bounty.
With John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the titular hitman, played by 54-year-old Keanu Reeves, continues on a blood-soaked hyper-stylized odyssey of revenge: first for his slain dog, then his wrecked car, then his destroyed house, then ... well, honestly it's hard to keep track of exactly what Wick is avenging by this point, or the body count he's racked up in the process.
Though we do know that the franchise has raked in plenty of success at the box office: just a week after it's May 17 release, the third installment in director Chad Stahleski's series took in roughly $181 million, making it even more successful than its two wildly popular prequels 2014's John Wick, and 2017's John Wick: Chapter 2.
And, more importantly, Reeves' hitman is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest action movie heroes in recent memory. Few (if any) other action flicks have succeeded in creating a mind-blowing avant garde ballet out of a dozen well-dressed gunmen who get shot, choked, or stabbed with a pencil by a pissed off hitman who just wants to return to retirement.
But for all the over-the-top acrobatics, fight sequences, and gun-porn (see: the sommelier), what makes the series so enthralling, especially for the service members and vets in the audience, is that there are some refreshing moments of realism nestled under all of that gun fu. Wrack your brain and try to remember the last time you saw an action hero do a press check during a shootout, clear a jam, or actually, you know, reload, instead of just hip-firing 300 rounds from an M16 nonstop. It's cool, we'll wait.
As it turns out, there's a good reason for the caliber of gun-play in John Wick. One of the franchise's secret weapons is a professional three-gun shooter named Taran Butler, who told Task & Purpose he can draw and hit three targets in 0.67 seconds from 10 yards. And if you've watched any of the scores of videos he's uploaded to social media over the years, it's pretty clear that this isn't idle boasting.
The Navy's electromagnetic railgun is undergoing what officials described as "essentially a shakedown" of critical systems before finally installing a tactical demonstrator aboard a surface warship, the latest sign that the once-beleaguered supergun may actually end up seeing combat.
That pretty much means this is could be the last set of tests before actually slapping this bad boy onto a warship, for once.
The Justice Department has accused Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) of illegally using campaign funds to pay for extramarital affairs with five women.
Hunter, who fought in the Iraq War as a Marine artillery officer, and his wife Margaret were indicated by a federal jury on Aug. 21, 2018 for allegedly using up to $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use.
In a recent court filing, federal prosecutors accused Hunter of using campaign money to pay for a variety of expenses involved with his affairs, ranging from a $1,008 hotel bill to $7 for a Sam Adams beer.