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The Airmen

The President honored our veterans for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan the other day by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marking the official end of the War in Iraq. That’s a good thing. Now he must further his commitment to our veterans by addressing the shame committed to our airman whose remains were dumped in a landfill in Arlington, for the sake of their families and their own dignity.

This is not the President’s get, but Barak Obama must address it, and no less than the Secretary of Defense should investigate why the partial remains of 274 Air Force personnel killed in Iraq was dumped unceremoniously in a landfill in Virginia. When culpability is determined, the responsible person should be fired.

There are few memories about my service in Iraq that bring me any happiness, in fact most make me feel the need to take a shower and get clean again. I wasn’t wounded, I didn’t fire my weapon. My job didn’t require it. I was just surrounded with a bunch of TOC snipers (tactical operations center) where the staffers cared more about promotions and medals and careers than for the soldiers they were there to support. Leadership matters and when it is absent, soldiers suffer.

A staff officer writes operations orders that directly affect the lives of soldiers he will never see. And so, when he writes them, he should be cognizant about the second and third order effects of what he has written. I found that many staffers didn’t give a crap. We actually had an officer write himself up for a medal for hiding under his desk during an air raid. The sad thing is; he got it! Meanwhile a senior master sergeant friend of mine who risked his life all the time to make sure the food service at the remote radio relay points on the dangerous supply routes was stocked with safe food was denied a medal after his convoy was attacked because the goddam sergeant major of the brigade didn’t like him. Memory of this fact makes me very, very angry. Master Sergeant was doing his job, keeping up morale and welfare of troops, but a political squabble prevented him from getting the recognition he deserved.

If I had been close enough to the enemy to fire, I hope that I would have had the courage to fire back, vindicating myself with honor. As it was, my job didn’t require it. I was in logistics, pushing papers and making phone calls and trying to get my soldiers and my brigade’s equipment there and back again unscathed. I guess you could say I failed. We lost 25 soldiers dead and I don’t know how many were injured. We lost a soldier on leave in Qatar after he dared in a drunken binge for another soldier to stab him in the chest with his knife. His buddy unfortunately complied and the young fool bled out in a bar room latrine. We lost another one here at home when, drunk again, he crashed a party he really shouldn’t have. I guess he made a scene because the nice people there stole his gun and shot him dead with it. His most recent Facebook posting said that all he wanted to do when he got home was drink himself to death.

I’m getting over what happened to me there, but I will never be the same as when I left. When I returned from my 15-month stint in Iraq, I had all my fingers and toes, and a very bad attitude. I got off the plane at Bangor Maine for a stopover and there received a hero’s welcome. Crusty old heroes of Vietnam and Korea greeted us there, with a hand shake and a hug and a “Well done, my boy! We are so proud of you! Welcome home!” A man with a wrinkled face, a VFW hat, and a smile came up to me with a cell phone in his hand. “Call your people, young captain! Let them know you’re all right!”

Sometimes I choke up, with a memory or a thought, usually coming at inconvenient times. People will say, “Jeremy you look tired. You’re eyes look puffy.” That’s probably one of those moments when a memory has occurred to me and I’d rather be anywhere but in the company of other people. Close friends will tell me, “Get over it! It was a long time ago! YOU FREAKIN’ GET OVER IT! Would be my response, if it had been appropriate to respond. Most of the time I just bite my lip or tell a joke.

The only time I had to duck for cover was when the Hajis fired rockets at my little base at Camp Adder in Southern Iraq. They made a helluva noise, which is why I don’t care for fireworks anymore. Crowds don’t do much for me either as we often would gather on what I would call “Meet Your Neighbor Night”. In the closeness of a dusty bomb shelter we would all cram in together and try not to leave any body parts hanging out over the edge as the 120 millimeter rockets fell from the night sky. “Hey First Sergeant! Captain Griffith here. What were you doing before Haji reminded us that he’s still out there and doesn’t like us very much?” I often joke about the event as just a matter of human nature and routine.

“You see this local Iraqi got an earful from his six wives, for something he did or didn’t do, see?” I’d explain to a co-worker or friend. “So he’d go out and in order to blow steam, he’d buy a couple of rockets from the local Iranian Revolutionary Guard rep. Then he’d gather up some of his buddies and they’d set them up on egg timers and fire them at the base, just for fun. Like fireworks. They’d skitter off, laughing at us as we’d duck and cover. Then Haji would go pick up the kids at soccer practice and head home for dinner! Just an average day in the life of an Iraqi in the middle class.” Routine.

I did go out on a couple of convoys, before I found out that many of my fellow officers were ducking that opportunity for the relative safety of the FOB (Forward Operating Base). My biggest accomplishment I think was to keep two young lieutenants from killing each other. When on patrol, you are supposed to stop if you detect a possible roadside bomb, and everyone behind you is also supposed to stop. Convoys can remain idle for hours while bomb disposal teams come out to determine whether a real threat exists or if that was just another inexplicable mound of dirt left there by nature to freak out the convoy commanders. Jaded lieutenants take risks and bypass other convoys because they’ve been on the road a lot and they’re tired and they want to get home to their FOB and sleep and many of the possible IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are just false alarms anyway. I guess some take the attitude that when your time is up, your time is up. My lieutenant took offense to being bypassed there in the dark and resolved to tell his peer that very thing at the next opportunity. He caught up to the other lieutenant in a movement control team’s trailer at the next FOB and let him have it. Before it came to fistacuffs, I intervened. I suppose I could have let them go at it, but I felt compelled. Even though I was just a high ranking heavily armed passenger with no responsibility what so ever, I was senior. It was the right thing to do.

I explained to the young officer that he was wrong, and he should follow the procedure and that in the future he should take better care for the sake of his men. He just stalked off, muttering something about HIS unit’s SOP (standard operating procedure) and HIS unit’s way of doing things, and that HE didn’t feel a need to change. Later back in the States, I attended an Army school with another captain with a similar experience. A young lieutenant from an active duty unit was corrected by a National Guard captain after the captain pointed out that he was doing a snap TCP (traffic control point) wrong. The lieutenant thanked the captain politely but assured him that he was following his unit’s procedures and he didn’t need advice from a reservist. The captain smiled and went away shaking his head. Dad always says some of life’s lessons are hard. Really hard sometimes. That lieutenant and eight of his men died minutes after that young captain departed, a victim of a vehicle born IED that got too close to his small cluster of troops. Really hard! I hear stories like this and I catch my breath. Where’s the leadership?

And so I am left with even more anger when I see that a lack of leadership in the political realm has left the remains of our brave servicemembers abandoned unmarked in a trash pile. I wonder what family members of these brave fallen must feel like knowing that their loved one left them to fight for their country and their liberty only to be treated in the end in this shabby manner.

Shame on you, whoever you are who did this thing to our troops! Shame!

They deserve so much better.

It embarrasses me when people thank me for my service, when so many did so much more. They will not hear our thank-yous. Their families are rewarded with tears, and sometimes with jeers as the funerals are met with protesters and signs. So I guess for all their sakes I will be their proxy and listen politely to your “thank you for your service” comments.

Citizens and veterans groups are you listening? We should all contact our legislators with our petitions that this shameful thing should not happen again and that our leaders are held to account for what they have done, or haven’t done. The SECDEF should meet with families to apologize and the President should give a speech to give solace to families and to outline a plan of action. No less action is appropriate.

I’m not a hero, but my brother is. He built a well in Afghanistan, for poor villagers under the thumb of an evil war lord. Before he came, the villagers were paying the thug for the right to use his murky, unclean water. When Jason got there, he robbed the baron of revenue and built a new, clean well, a gift from the taxpayers of America. He built a monument to fallen heroes of the newly formed Afghan Army, men he trained, who died in defense of their country. Their comrades wept and gave anguished speeches at a ceremony in their memory. My brother has the photos.

Jason returns next month to Afghanistan, his second tour there, his fourth overall. A newly minted Major, he leads a team of “Space Cowboys” who will assist the Marine commander there with advanced weaponry and satellite communications and imagery. That is how I know the “war” isn’t over. Thanks anyway, Mr. President. Jason is a rare leader who really cares for his soldiers and the people he serves with. He is my role model, and my best friend. He embodies for me the decency and bravery of the average American Trooper. I would be very unhappy indeed if anything were to happen to him over there.

At one time our mother kept a small flag with three blue stars on it. It was a gift from the local VFW symbolizing her three sons on combat duty all at the same time. Imagine if someone had come to her door and told her that one of those sons had perished in service of his country. Imagine if that were your own beloved service member. Then, imagine how you would feel if someone told you that instead of carrying the honored dead all the way home to you, they instead couldn’t be bothered with the effort and so carelessly and thoughtlessly discarded the remains.

Pray for our honored dead. Remember their families over this Christmas Season. And then tell your congressperson what you think they should do. God Bless our heroes.

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