Taking the new guys to a memorial
The replacements followed me to the helipad; their gear wasn’t stained from sweat and dirt like mine. They carried useless equipment that Army instructors say are necessary, like a canteen when you’re issued a Camelback. For the first time in a year, I walked onto the bird with only my weapon, body armor, Kevlar, ammunition and eye protection. Typically, I carry my big Nikon, two lenses and enough battery power to keep the lights on in a small Oklahoma town. I felt naked without my baby, which is neatly packed in a huge shipping crate bound for the states. On just their second day, the newbies were assigned to cover the one mission I dread – a memorial. My job was to ensure they arrived at the forward operating base and that they understood their parameters… you have to be cognizant of people’s feelings as they mourn for a fallen comrade. Sometimes, they don’t want their picture taken, but most times, they look at it as a way to remember their brother or sister.
I also had to square ‘em away. You need to tie that off with 550 cord or you’ll lose your ammo pouch on a patrol. You should probably hook your weapon into a d-ring that way you can have freedom of movement. Got extra batteries, lenses and cards? “No.” Go get them. “Yes, sergeant.”
I want them to know everything that took me three months to figure out, so they can do my job better than I. They were surprisingly excited about the mission and receptive to my orders. For most of the month, they’ve been traveling, stuck in airports and waiting at military camps. These guys just want to do their jobs and then go home.
Like me, I’m sure they will never forget their first mission in a war zone. Mine was shooting for the cover of a major magazine. Their first was somber and filled with tears. I didn’t know the Soldier who died, but he sounded like my kind of guy… he got in trouble a lot and always made up for his mistakes with a good work ethic. He lost his life when an RPG hit his Stryker.
I don’t know what number he was, but I get tired of seeing the number of American casualties exploited in the news. Soldiers aren’t numbers; they’re people with families and friends. They’re white, Asian, black, Puerto Rican. They’re brave, friendly, caring, selfless. And it’s at these memorials that you see how truly pure our army is… speaking at this boy’s were several soldiers of different races and upbringings. But in the army, it doesn’t matter what color you are or if you came from a rich Catholic family or a poor urbanite family surviving off of welfare. Anyway, you could tell this private’s soldiers cared about him; it’s our job to convey this to the world. As I sat in the fold out chair, I felt awkward… I wasn’t the one with the camera. Rather, I was watching the replacements and holding on to the kind words spoken of my fallen brother.
As the soldiers talked about their comrade, my replacements marched up and down the aisle, snapping pictures and taping video…still wearing their body armor. You can take that off, you’re inside a FOB. “That’s alright, sergeant, we’ll keep it on if it’s OK.” Hey, whatever floats your boat, Bud. They did heed my don’t-be-so-intrusive advice, which made me proud. There’s nothing worse than taking a private moment away from somebody… flashes and microphones tend to do that.
As the service wound to a close, I began looking for the folks we flew with. For the past year, I’ve more or less hitchhiked all across the country. We either drive with Strykers or MPs, or fly. This time, we flew with the “boss” and he’s a busy man. Want to talk to a buddy, too bad, got to go. Of course, the new guys don’t know this. That’s why I was there. I circled my index finger in a twirling, 360 motion, signaling the replacements that it’s go time. Then, I hear a loud cling. “Sorry, about that sergeant my weapon hit the ground when I knelt down.” That’s alright; just don’t let it happen again. The camera takes pictures; the weapon saves your life.
When we returned to our camp, one of the replacements came up to me and said, “Hey, sergeant, I really appreciate you showing us around and helping us out.” No problem, specialist, good to have you here.