While I was in the military, I didn’t take a whole lot of pictures. I never wanted to be a “combat tourist,” knowing full well that I could be missing out on some really great memories later in life. Don’t get me wrong, I love looking at pictures of time past, the “man, can you imagine how young we were then” or “Do you remember when the three of us went…”
I do wish that something had come over me in some specific moments, though, that I could have taken a picture at just the right time. There are some memories that I have where words simply do not do them justice. I recall one day at Forward Operating Base Bostick, a memory that I hope will last forever; our platoon had just escorted supplies to the base the night prior, and we were probably getting ready to leave again that night. Sometime in the afternoon, we heard someone outside our tent exclaim, “You have to come see this!” Of course, for veterans, that could have meant any number of things, from some weird wildlife to something cool about to happen with explosives, but not this time.
As I exited our tent, I look to the east and was frozen. There, above the mountains of the Hindu Kush, was the largest, most brilliant double rainbow I have ever seen. The two arcs stretch from mountaintop to mountaintop, vibrant and beautiful. I was amazed at such a striking sight over a combat zone, and full of thankfulness for the opportunity to be at that place, at that time, in order to be able to witness it.
I was also a moron for not taking a picture.
There are other memories, frozen in my mind, that I didn’t know were a picture moment. I sometimes wish I could find one of those police sketch artists so I could describe my memory to them, and I could turn it into something tangible to show to people.
I remember the last time I saw Sergeant First Class Jason Fabrizi. Jay and I weren’t much more than acquaintances; we were deployed in different battalions of the same brigade in Iraq, and we ran into each other from time to time. During the deployment in Afghanistan, he was a Platoon Sergeant for a Cavalry Troop that provided overwatch for us as we escorted supplies to his base.
FOB Bostick, like many of the larger bases overseas, had an MWR building that housed games, a TV, pool tables and ping pong tables, and walls lined with books that had been donated for the troops. I always enjoyed looking at the books, browsing for some hidden surprise. There were two entrances to the room: one, which led to a small porch that overlooked the Kunar river and out to the showers, and another that led out to the rest of the camp. As I was looking over the books in the sunken area near the television, I hear someone come in the door by the porch: it was Jay, obviously coming from the shower. I can see him now, towel slung over his shoulder, on his way out the other door, on the other side of the pool table, a lopsided grin of recognition on his face. I don’t remember the conversation we had…something like, “how’s it been going, rough stuff out there, thanks for what you’re doing” on both of our parts. Probably ended with something like, “I’ll catch you later.” I didn’t. Less than two weeks later, he was gone.
I should have taken a picture.
I have two images in my mind’s eye of Sergeant Eduvigues Wolf, the NCO we lost in October of that year. SGT Wolf and her husband, Josh, were deployed in separate units of the same battalion as well. One of the clearest memories I have is of a training exercise in Louisiana that we all participated in prior to the deployment. We were housed in a large tent, and I recall looking over and seeing Duvi and Josh huddled together on a cot, smiling and laughing about something they were looking at. Most likely, pictures of their daughters back home with the grandparents…but I remember them, heads together, the entire larger world forgotten and replaced by their own smaller world. As it should be.
I recall memories later in the deployment. SGT Wolf had spent some time in our company operations center, working as an Operations NCO for our First Sergeant and Commander. She was often the first person I saw when I came in to talk to the 1SG and CO, and the last person I saw when I left…always positive, usually smiling, the picture in my memory is of her sticking her head around the corner as I’m walking down the hallway.
I should have taken a picture.
I also have memories of the time and place when I found they were taken from us. I choose not to share them here, not because I want to avoid the memory or suppress it, but because I want to choose to celebrate their lives rather than focus on their deaths. Jay was a great leader to his Soldiers, and he trained them well. Duvi was a loving wife, devoted mother, and an outstanding NCO who could be depended upon.
For veterans, memories are both precious and painful. Memorial Day can be both bitter and sweet, and we many times forget that we can choose which of those to experience. Many of the veterans I work with tend to focus on the end of the story rather than the entire story, to focus on the loss rather than the life. We focus on the snapshot, the picture, the freezeframe at the end of the movie and can sometimes forget about the entire movie of their lives.
If you are a veteran and are struggling with the memories you have, you are not alone. While we need to ensure that we remember those that we have lost, it is of no benefit if we become lost ourselves. Reach out to someone so you can talk about what is bothering you, and it will start to bother you less.
If you know of a veteran who appears to be struggling, let them know that help is out there. Support them, try to understand, do what you can to help them through this. Help them connect with a mental health professional that can assist them in getting things back in order.
And take a picture.