[September 23, 2020] General Douglas MacArthur once said that “Old soldiers never die – they just fade away.” He was talking symbolically, of course, because our soldiers and our veterans do pass away, and being who we are, we must confront that end of life with dignity and with honor.
A good friend of mine who served with me in combat is dying. This news I received this morning is depressing, but I am glad that he called me to say so. He lives far away, so I will not see him again, but that does not mean we cannot talk … and talk we have done. My wife and I sat together to hear him tell of the times we experienced together as soldiers doing our duty that we were sworn to do.
Sitting on a rooftop of our headquarters building in late 2004, eating an MRE, he spotted the first mortar round coming our way. By the time I looked up, we had heard it pass by. We kept eating our MREs. After several more mortar rounds landed nearby, we thought it the better part of valor to go inside, put on our armor and grab our rifles. I remember smiling and saying, “They haven’t got us yet.” Kind of a dumb comment to make, but it was true.
We continue to hear about how so many young people are protesting “systemic racism” in our country today. I’m not so sure about that. My friend and I had people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds in our Engineer unit. It did not matter where you were from, what religion you were, or the color of your skin. What was important was your word and whether you dared to walk onto the battlefield with the rest of us.
The battlefield is a tricky place to be. For those who never experience the sights and sounds of battle, consider yourself lucky. I hope and pray you never get to see it. My friend and I had very different backgrounds. We were Army Combat Engineers, but he was from the “city,” and I was from a town so small it still doesn’t have a traffic light. He grew up Catholic; I was Southern Baptist. He lived in the Northeast, and I lived in the Deep South. But we hit it off immediately.
I remember him teaching me several Taekwondo moves to take down an opponent. You never know when you’ll need a little advantage against an aggressive enemy. One day we were not allowed into a Special Forces compound at the south end of the military complex. I asked the guard if the SOF guys had adequate power, water, food, sewage, and electricity. He said, “no.” I told him that the two guys sitting here in the HUMMV were responsible for them all and that tomorrow they would have nothing. We were allowed in and given the VIP tour.
Dying is something we all do. Nature eventually catches us. He is only 55 years old, too young to die. As I write this, they are taking him to the Emergency Room.