Luke Flowers argued on Friday in this column that we need less babying of our junior enlisted ranks. “We need to empower our junior NCO’s and junior enlisted to make jokes so that when they have to go pick up someone else’s cadavers they can laugh afterward,” the retired Army lieutenant claimed.
I remember the first time I saw a “cadaver.” It was January 31st, 2012. We stepped off from COP Taghaz early that morning with an unusually large element. Rather than the usual eight-man patrol, we had more than 20 – including a Forward Air Controller. It was the wrong day for a local Taliban leader to pick for a show of force. An enemy element was spotted by our aerostat blimp assembling in a nearby town called Krum – a place from which another section of my platoon had been ambushed twice in the last month. Those two engagements had surprised my platoon. The enemy laid effective fire with machine guns until they ran out of ammunition, then easily egressed south to the other side the Helmand River, across which we could not pursue.
This day was different. We had advance warning of their movement. We had a much larger patrol. And, with a FAC, we had the ability to easily call in air support. After maneuvering for more than an hour, our patrol had them pinned down in some tall grass on the banks of the Helmand river. A-10 gunships made a number of runs with their 30mm cannons and killed four of the enemy. The rest fled.
After the gun run, we had to conduct a bomb damage assessment. Some fellow E-3s and I closed the 400 meters that had separated us from the enemy during the engagement and started searching.
One by one our platoon found three bodies in the grass. The sector I was walking didn’t have any. I was holding a security position on top of a berm above the grass while our platoon leadership dealt with the bodies. A crusty old staff sergeant looked up at me from below, saw me trying to catch a glance.
“You want to see, Lucy?”
“I do, Staff Sergeant.”
“Come on down here, it’ll be all right for a bit.”
I walked down the steep, sandy embankment. Staff Sergeant stood over a thin, frail body. A weapon lay fallen right next to the corpse. It was face down – the back was an unrecognizable mess of torn flesh, dark red spots staining dirty clothes, bits of brown skin clinging to bone and meat in odd places. Those 30 mm rounds hadn’t left much that resembled a human.
I stood and stared. My mind was blank. I was unable to make meaning out of the physical details in front of me. I could not connect it to a high order idea. No profound thoughts filtered up in my twenty-two-year-old brain. Looking back now, I think of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:
“It was easy to read the message in his [Snowden’s] entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.”
I didn’t learn much in Afghanistan. Today, I have more questions than wisdom. But I do know what I learned as a junior in high school – spirit gone, man is garbage. I remember that I was glad I didn’t have to carry the Thor that day – a heavy piece of equipment.
My eyes came back to that crusty Staff Sergeant, a veteran of so many Iraq and Afghanistan deployments already.
“Get back on your security position, Lucier.”
“Aye aye, Staff Sergeant.”
We didn’t laugh about that body. We laughed about lots of things, my platoon. Many of them inappropriate. I’m not proud of all the jokes we made. But I’m eternally grateful to that Staff Sergeant who guided me through that moment, with grace, with poise, with solemnity. It was my first encounter with violent death. He saw me, and knew I wanted, I needed to see, and knew to not say the crass thing, the cheap thing, the funny thing, but to let that moment sit, and seep into my memory. Then he knew when to bring me back to the mission, to where my attention needed to be.
I’m not a leadership expert. I don’t have the answers to personnel problems. I won’t tell you I know how to find physical fit recruits, or how to deal with “millennials.” But I spent the better part of four years as an E-3, the rank Lt. Flowers spends so much time on. So I can offer this much – a bunch of dick jokes, all the “politically incorrect” nonsense we so prided ourselves on, all the macho tough guy bullshit I ate up as a junior Marine — none of it carried me through the moment of contact with the ugly truths of the world. It was a Staff Sergeant acting with a maturity and quiet confidence.
If we can find a way to inculcate and train that, I think we’ll be much better off than hand-wringing nonsense about E-3s getting soft, or haranguing some strawman notion of “social justice.”
Peter Lucier served as a Marine infantryman from 2008 until 2013. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. Lucier is currently a high school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Everytown Veterans Advisory Council. Follow Peter Lucier on Twitter @peterlucier