By Mark Hertling
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America started the hashtag campaign, #GoSilent for Memorial Day. They’ve asked citizens to take just one minute to reflect and honor fallen friends, family members and acquaintances lost in America’s wars.
But given the number of photos in a box I possess, one minute isn’t quite enough. I wrote an article about that box for CNN.com last year. But there’s more to tell about it.
This box was one I saw in a cigar store window after returning from Iraq in 2004, and it seemed a perfect place to hold cards that bore pictures of our fallen comrades from a recent deployment.
The cards with the pictures were the idea of our Division Commander, then-Major General Martin Dempsey. Marty is a soldier’s soldier and like all great commanders he loves his troops. When a soldier made the ultimate sacrifice and we were about to honor him at a memorial service in Iraq, General Dempsey would ask his aide to laminate a picture of the fallen with specific relevant information: birthday, hometown, family information, date, time and place of death. He would give copies of these cards to his division command sergeant major and his two assistant division commanders — then-Brigadier General Mike Scaparrotti and me. We would exchange looks and then whisper what would become our catchphrase during these memorial ceremonies: “Make it Matter.” By the end of that tour in 2003-2004, we all held 121 cards.
I bought four of these boxes, asked that the phrase “Make it Matter” be engraved on the lid, and then I sent them to the members of our team. We placed our cards inside and since then we all have given that box a place of honor in our offices or homes. All of us have had additional deployments and unfortunately have added more pictures to that box. Mine now has 253 cards.
Last year I wrote about how the pictures in the box represent America’s diversity. Given all that has transpired in our nation this year, now more than ever the pictures of those honored in this box should serve as a reminder of who we should try to be: A unique mix that makes our military — and our country — great.
There are 20 African-American soldiers. Staff Sgt. Esau Patterson was a terrific young leader killed when his mounted patrol was attacked by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). Sgt. First Class Miguel Wilson, weighted down by his gear, drowned while attempting to save one of his soldiers who had fallen off a patrol boat on the Euphrates River. Sgt. Edward Brooks was a tanker killed when a terrorist torched-off a suicide vest next to his tank. Private DeWayne White was killed when his Quick Reaction Force came under fire.
There are 17 Hispanics: Private Rey Cuevo was loved by his fellow soldiers and his leaders and was killed by an IED; we named an operating base after him. SPC Alex Gonzalez was on a route-clearing team early in the morning — paving the way for convoys that would pass later in the day — when his team was hit by snipers, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire. Pfc. Marius Ferrero, Pfc. Luis Moreno, Sgt. First Class Luis Gutierrez-Rosales, Sgt. Felix Gonzalez-Iraheta are others that share space in the box.
Five women find peace in this box. Staff Sgt. Carletta Davis, a medic who volunteered to go on a patrol when one of her soldiers wasn’t well, left behind a family in Alaska. Private First Class Rachel Bosveld, scheduled to receive her first purple heart in an awards ceremony for being previously wounded, would get two instead. Specialist Michelle Witmer was a tough Military Policewoman who was shot in a small arms attack at a police station.
We had allies in our ranks, too. An Estonian sergeant –Andres Nuiamae –was an excellent sniper who lost his life to an IED. US Navy Petty Officer Second Class Kevin Bewley, an explosive ordnance demolition specialist who took a lot of ribbing for being one of the few sailors in an Army task force, was killed by an IED.
There are many non-commissioned officers — young corporals and grizzled sergeants — memorialized in the box. Sgt. Nick Tomko was killed in an ambush. Sgt. Cody Legg was involved in a tough firefight in which insurgents were relentless in throwing grenades and firing small arms. Corporal Chris Nelson’s patrol was hit by a suicide attack. All three of these leaders were under the age of 25.
An unusually large number of officers, too. Second Lt. Lenny Cowherd was a West Point graduate who I had met right before he graduated; he was marrying the daughter of a West Point classmate of mine. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Donald Clark and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christian Humphreys were flying an OH-58 scout helicopter in support of ground forces when their aircraft was shot down. Major Andrew Olmsted was on an “advise and assist” team with an Iraqi unit when he came under sniper fire. Lt. Kenneth Ballard — a tanker by trade — was on a dismounted patrol near the Kufa mosque when he was shot by members of the Mahdi militia. Captain Mike Medders was killed by a suicide vest as he tried to save a group of Iraqi citizens from the blast.
Many faces on those cards. Young faces. Diverse faces. Americans and immigrants with too many dreams, hopes, lives and love taken way too early. Too many spouses, families, children, friends still missing them today, now identified with a gold star.
There’s a famous story about World War II Lt. Gen. Lucian Truscott Jr., who surprised everyone, at the dedication of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Italy, when he turned away from the crowd and began speaking to the gravestones of his dead soldiers.
“Everyone tells leaders it’s not their fault when their men get killed in war, but every leader in their heart knows that’s not altogether true,” Truscott said to the men lying in their graves. Then he asked for their forgiveness for any mistakes he might have made to contribute to their death.
When I went to visit that same cemetery, I saw that the soldiers in those graves were laid under crosses, Stars of David, and a few Muslim crescents. But there were also African-American soldiers in those graves, too, members of the 92d Division and the 370th Regimental Combat Team. Even though many in the US did not support the integration of “colored” soldiers into the Army. They fought alongside Japanese-American troopers of the 442d Regimental Combat Team, who fought so tenaciously they were called the “Purple Heart Battalion.” That relatively small Japanese-American unit suffered over 9,000 casualties, with over 600 killed in action.
War is serious business, battle is not glorious. Truscott rebelled at being “thanked” for his service and most veterans today will do the same. Memorial Day isn’t a day for thanking, it’s a day for reflecting. Reflecting on the devotion and the diversity of those who serve and a re-dedication by the living to our nation’s values: respect, the dignity of our fellow citizens, and selfless service to liberty.
And reflecting on how all of us should want to “Make it Matter.”