Dead Soldiers

From the Congressional Medal of Honor Citation of Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller:

While conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through the Gowardesh Valley, Staff Sergeant Miller and his small element of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers engaged a force of 15 to 20 insurgents occupying prepared fighting positions. Staff Sergeant Miller initiated the assault by engaging the enemy positions with his vehicle’s turret-mounted Mark-19 40 millimeter automatic grenade launcher while simultaneously providing detailed descriptions of the enemy positions to his command, enabling effective, accurate close air support.

Following the engagement, Staff Sergeant Miller led a small squad forward to conduct a battle damage assessment. As the group neared the small, steep, narrow valley that the enemy had inhabited, a large, well-coordinated insurgent force initiated a near ambush, assaulting from elevated positions with ample cover. Exposed and with little available cover, the patrol was totally vulnerable to enemy rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapon fire.

As point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements, and less than 20 meters from enemy forces. Nonetheless, with total disregard for his own safety, he called for his men to quickly move back to covered positions as he charged the enemy over exposed ground and under overwhelming enemy fire in order to provide protective fire for his team.

While maneuvering to engage the enemy, Staff Sergeant Miller was shot in his upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight, moving to draw fire from over one hundred enemy fighters upon himself. He then again charged forward through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover. After killing at least 10 insurgents, wounding dozens more, and repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while moving from position to position, Staff Sergeant Miller was mortally wounded by enemy fire. His extraordinary valor ultimately saved the lives of seven members of his own team and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers.

Staff Sergeant Miller’s heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty, and at the cost of his own life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

 

Each year, usually around Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, I try to visit the nearest national cemetery.  No big deal, I just drive out, and spend 30 minutes or an hour wandering around saying hello and thanks to the guys.  Sometimes, randomly, I stumble upon the chance to put flags on the grave markers or help the local veteran’s group do some other task around the cemetery, which gives some tangible sense of purpose to my visit.  I was a scout in the Army for seven years (yes, the Army still has scouts!), and I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of the guys I ran around with in the various infantry and armor units I was assigned to didn’t make it back from Gulf War I or Gulf War II.  If you’ve ever been to a large national cemetery, with its hundreds of thousands of identical grave markers, you know that it’s unlikely I will run across the grave of one of my buddies.  But I like to think of it as visiting my old buddies anyway, and as a small way to say thanks to the really old guys from WWI, WWII, and more recent wars.

 

So here’s the corny part.  Each deceased veteran has a very brief military profile on his gravestone, date of birth and death, unit served, wars fought, things like that.  The Congressional Medal of Honor winners, however, get a nice plaque above their gravestones with a recital of their commendation.  Some of these read like heroic myths, amazing tales of one man taking on 100 enemy combatants by himself.  Others are quieter, stories of a soldier who has the option to dive over a nearby wall and save his own life who instead makes the split-second decision to dive onto a live grenade and save the lives of two or three of his buddies.  Either way, I can’t help the lump that rises in my throat or the occasional tears welling in my eyes as I read the official citation.  When I’m done reading, I glance around, and if no one is around (and there usually isn’t a soul in sight), I snap a quick salute and say a quiet thanks to these guys.  Remembering their sacrifice is the least I can do.

 

When Nate was four, I happened to have him on Memorial Day weekend.  On Sunday morning, I ask him if he wanted to go to the National Cemetery with me.

“No, not really daddy.  I want to go to IHOP for pancakes.  What is a cemetery?” he says.

“Well, it’s where all the dead soldiers are.  I think we should go say thanks to all the old soldiers,” I say.

“Okay, but can we go to IHOP for pancakes first?  And can you read me the comics while we wait for our pancakes?”

After IHOP we drive to the cemetery, sited on a gorgeous peninsula with steep cliffs, the Pacific ocean on two sides, dramatic views everywhere.  It was a beautiful day, sunny with a few clouds, a nice breeze kicking up the ocean waves.  We drive past the vast fields of identical markers.

“Daddy are all of those dead soldiers?”

“Yes, some of them died fighting the bad guys so we could have all the stuff we have, like our house, and toys, and our freedom.”

We walk through the rows of graves.  Nate was pretty excited, stopping every few feet and asking me to read the marker.

“So he is a dead soldier right?  And this one too, and this one too?  And they fought the bad guys?”

“Yes buddy, he fought the bad guys.  So let’s salute him and say thank you to him for fighting the bad guys for us.”

Nate’s grandfather taught him to salute years ago, so he had no problem snapping off a quick salute and a “Thank you dead soldier” at each grave at which he stopped.

I didn’t want to overwhelm him so after a few minutes I say, “Ready to go buddy?  We can go hike at the lighthouse and check out the tidepools.”

“No daddy.  I want you to read me some more of the stones, okay?”

“Sure, no problem.”  I catch up with him, read him the marker at the grave he chose, and he runs ahead to a new one.

He turned to me.  “Daddy, are their heads under the stone? Are the dead soldiers standing up?”

I laugh.  I guess there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t be standing up.  “No, they usually bury people lying down.”

“Oh.”  He stops and thinks for a few seconds.  “Daddy, is this heaven?”

Wow, I wasn’t ready for that one.  “No buddy, it’s not.  This is where our bodies go.  Our souls and our minds go up to heaven.  This is just where people rest when they die so their families can visit them until they can all be in heaven together.”  I had no idea what I’m supposed to say to a four-year-old, but that was all I could come up with.

We walk some more, and find some flags that had blown down.  Nate fetches a good-sized rock and we pound in flags for ten minutes, him holding the stem and me hammering.  A middle-aged couple stands near a grave with a fallen flag trying to push the flag into the hard ground.  I grab Nate and we step over to them.

“Excuse me, would you like some help with the flag,” I say, holding out the rock.

The man holds out the flag without a word, and Nate kneels down and holds it on the ground in front of the grave while I pound it into the earth.  I read the marker while I am hammering and realize that the grave is only three months old, and its occupant is a twenty-three year old soldier.  Suddenly I realize how much we’re probably intruding.  I grab Nate and we back away.

“Salute the flag and say thanks to the soldier” I whisper.

Nate stops while I back away to a respectful distance.  He snaps a salute and holds it for a few seconds.  “Thank you soldier,” I hear him say before he turns and walks to me.

The man and woman hold each other and cry.  “Thank you, thank you son,” they call to Nathaniel, and I nod to them, tears welling in my eyes.

We pound in a few more flags and I spot a Medal of Honor grave in the distance, the plaque with the citation setting it apart from all the others.

“Hey, let’s go check out that one,” I say, pointing to it.  “That soldier won the Medal of Honor.  He is a real hero, actually a superhero in real life, not just a movie or cartoon hero.”

Nate runs over to the grave.  He waits for me.

“Is this the superhero grave, daddy?  Can you read me what it says?”

I read the citation, about a sailor who volunteers to enter a burning hold filled with ammunition to put out a fire and save his ship and fellow sailors.  Nate loves the story, and wants to find all the rest of the superhero graves.  We find a recent grave, with a lot of flowers and Navy mementos covering it.  The grave holds a Navy SEAL named Michael Monsoor who was awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save his team-mates, when he was the only one who could have escaped the blast from the grenade.  Nathaniel intuitively seems to pick up on the fact that Monsoor was a special man, and he has lots of questions, most of which I can’t answer.

We see a couple of other superhero Medal of Honor graves and walk over to them.  By now Nate is calling the Medal of Honor winners the “super-duper-superheroes,” an accurate description as any.  He loves hearing the stories on the citations and wants to hear some of them three or four times.

Nate is happy to be outside and to hear war stories and I’m happy to just be with him walking and talking, but finally it really is time to go.  We stop at the last Medal of Honor grave before the car.  I read the citation and together we render our final salute to the man and say thank you.    It is a beautiful day, the ocean breeze at our backs, the sun reflecting off the marble slab.  A line of ants crawled across the marble and Nate reaches out a finger and touches the ants.
“Daddy, are the ants eating the dead super-duper-superhero soldier?” he asks.

“No buddy, they’re not.  They’re just walking across the stone,” I say.  “Come on, let’s find the car, okay.  I want you to see the tide-pools here.  These are the coolest tide-pools you’ve ever seen, with all kinds of animals and things crawling around.”