"...for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies." ~ Psalm 23
My last month in the valley was completely insane. That month, I was on the receiving end of enemy fire every single day, many times more than once. Incredibly, not a single soldier with me was killed, with only one man wounded with some shrapnel bits. There is a 6-day break in my journal of enemy contact, where I visited troops at "safe" forward operating bases to the east of our valley. Otherwise, the attacks were so constant that I took to wearing my helmet and body armor around at Able Main.
I should have been dead - repeatedly. My life was only seconds and inches from ending, again and again. I built relationships rapidly in my new, temporary "home". God had, indeed, "prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies."
As we prepared to leave Able Main - the last combat outpost (COP) that was "easy" to attack because of its location in the bottom of a bowl of mountains - the enemy stepped up their pace. The recoilless rifle that had been used against Blessing and Michigan now made an appearance at Able Main, with the typical impressive results. Clearly, they were also using up their extra heavy munitions. Yet the men survived, fought, endured, and prepared to leave.
The last night was a blur. I knew at what time we were supposed to go, and where I was supposed to be when we did. Until then, once it got dark, I was just in the way. I had no night vision goggles, and no task I could really help with as the leadership completed the handover to the Afghan troops. So, I climbed into the gunner's hatch of the vehicle in which I was scheduled to ride, and waited. I figured that, if it hit the fan, I could contribute from there...until it was time to reload, of course!
But, it never hit the fan. Sometime after midnight, we left, and rolled into the next COP, where I would spend my last week or so in the valley. The enemy kept up their regular pace of attacks, but they were far less effective. The terrain just didn't lend itself well to dominance by the enemy like it did at the three other COPs.
We left the Pech Valley, for the most part. The unit that replaced us didn't live the lives that we did. And, to be honest, there wasn't much that endured beyond our departure. However, there was one thing that did: a memorial. The commander tasked me with designing a memorial for all of the men who had died in the valley - in our unit, and in the units prior. That's not really in my wheelhouse, but I put together something I thought would honor those men and their sacrifices. It wasn't completed before I left, but a year later I saw it on the Army website - it's the picture at the top of this blog entry.
All gave some. Some gave all. I will never forget a single one of those - pogues and warriors, dirtbags and men of honor, leaders and followers, men of faith and men who had no faith at all. They answered the call as best they could, and when all was said and done, no one else really cared...who didn't already care about them beforehand.
Let's be honest - most people don't care. They don't care what those men did, they don't think it accomplished anything of note, and they don't want to hear how living that life in the valley of death makes you feel now. They might sit through a war story, and pass on a "thank you for your service", but then they want to get back to their comfortable, distracted lives. That's just how it is.
Nevertheless, we will never let pass a Memorial Day, or the anniversary of the death of those who didn't make it home, without raising a glass to honor those warriors. May we live lives that honor them even more, taking advantage of the opportunity they didn't get, to show their sacrifice was worth it. To do anything less would be to echo the disdainful silence of the world around us, who doesn't understand, doesn't want to understand, and hopes you'll shut up about your war scars. Instead, wear the scars proudly, love fiercely, seek truth, and make the life you live the one the fallen would have wished for you - for life is a gift from above, from the Father of Lights, who doesn't give gifts accidentally or take them back. In fact, He even gave the gift of His Son so that we could have the life truly worth living.
Let us start today.