We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
On Memorial Day/Remembrance Day 2007 (okay, slightly after), I'd like to take the liberty of introducing you to a couple of guys I think you should probably know at least a little about.
Meet Mark Daily: twenty-three years old, a registered Democrat, UCLA political science graduate, voracious reader, and (initially) opponent of the war in Iraq. But he was also a outspoken proponent of human rights and the plight of the oppressed. Eventually, in part after reading the writings of Christopher Hitchens (in particular this piece), he changed his position on the war on the moral case for the war and decided that it was his duty to go and help.
He joined the Army, went through Basic and Officer Training, and shipped out for Mosul . . . I'm stopping here, feeling the futility of my attempt to say anything worthy of this guy. He was the most articulate writer on his reasons for going, and you can read his full statement here on his MySpace page. In a letter home, he wrote:
In a letter home to his parents, he wrote: "I am now happily doing what I was trained to do, and am fulfilling an obligation that has swelled inside me for years . . ." In one to his young wife (the daughter of political refugees from Bulgaria), he wrote: "One thing I have learned about myself since I've been out here is that everything I professed to you about what I want for the world and what I am willing to do to achieve it was true. My desire to 'save the world' is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you."
On January 14th, he e-mailed his family: "All is well. More war stories then I can fit in this e-mail. Having the time of my life!" The next day he went on patrol, during which he noticed that the Humvee ahead of his was not "up-armoured"; he insisted on changing places. Shortly after, an explosive device detonated underneath his vehicle, instantly killing him and three of his fellows.
You can read more about him in this story in the LA Times, or in this piece in Vanity Fair by Hitchens, who spent time with his family. I hope you will. I'm pretty sure I don't I have any words that could possibly do justice to this man, or to honor him. I just wanted you to know about him.
U.S. Army First Seargent Paul Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was in an engineering battalion, building an improvised POW area in a courtyard, when his group of maybe 16 guys was attacked by about a hundred Iraqis some of whom ascended to a nearby tower, firing down on them, in an intense cross-fire. He summoned a couple of Bradley fighting vehicles, which initially held off the mass of enemies, but were damaged and ran low on ammo and withdrew.
Smith realised that a nearby medical aid station would be in danger of being overrun if he abandoned the position. So instead he re-organised the defense, personally manning the .50 caliber machine gun of an armoured personnel carrier covering both (alternately) the threatened entrance to the courtyard, and the tower from which they were taking fire above. He fired non-stop, going through three boxes of ammunition while a small team assaulted the tower from the other side.
The tower was taken, and the battle and firing ended at which point Smith was found slumped in the turret of the APC. His armoured vest had stopped 13 bullets, the ceramic inserts cracking in several places. One of the very last shots from the tower had hit his neck and head, killing him. You can read the whole thrilling and tragic story here.
Dan Schilling was an Air Force Combat Controller (a Special Forces role) in Somalia, and one of the guys to shoot his way out of downtown Mogadishu on October 3rd,2003. Readers of the book Blackhawk Down will know the name. (Though I can't recall if he figured in the movie.) Anyway, he's co-editor and one of the contributors to a new book of essays by guys who survived that day: The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger.
Whereas one of the strengths aside from being unutterably thrilling of Mark Bowden's original book was the way it covered the battle from an omniscient viewpoint, roving from place to place . . . this one gives you the view of individual soldiers as they tried to navigate and survive the day, from their own corner of events. They're pretty much all really good; but Schilling's piece, which closes the collection, is worth thrice the price of admission alone. It's literary, sensitive, funny, well-observed, and more harrowing than the best thriller you've ever read. Like all the best first-person literary non-fiction, it leaves you feeling an awful lot like you know the guy. Buy his book.
Incidentally, the guy hasn't slowed down: Last year he broke the world base-jumping record, parachuting 201 times from a 486-foot bridge into Snake River Gorge in Utah. Aside, presumably, from keeping himself feeling alive and challenged, he did it to raise money ($20,000) for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that awards full college scholarships to the children of special operations soldiers who have died in battle. If you want to kick in a couple of bob to help the kids of those who died protecting us, click here.
And while I'm hustling you, here are a few more ways you can pitch in behind those who defend the Republic (short of enlisting and going out to help in person):
- The USO - the original organisation to support the troops
- Any Soldier - want to send cookies, toiletries, or just words of support to our men and women in harm's way? Address it to "Any Soldier"!
- Adopt-a-Sniper - want to send sand-free lube, scope batteries, or better body armour to the Marine snipers who brought the Falluja insurgents to their knees (and their colleagues)? Adopt a Sniper!
- The Royal British Legion - provides financial, social and emotional support to millions who have served and are currently serving in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, and their dependants.