I did something stupid once.
Admittedly, I have done many different things at many different times that could be viewed as questionable from an intelligence standpoint, but here I’m referring to a particularly stupid thing that was done at a specific time.
As my unit was leaving Iraq in December of 2007, we had to load onto helicopters to fly from our relatively small base in northeast Baghdad to the larger base in the west of the city. Since our battalion was a pretty large number of Soldiers…numbering in the hundreds…the aircraft that transported us was the workhorse of Army Aviation, the CH-47 Chinook. I’m not an expert on military aircraft, so I beg forgiveness if I get some stuff wrong, but a Chinook configured for troop transport can carry around fifty troops at a time without a problem.
On this particular night, as I mentioned, we were loading onto these helicopters to be flown out of our camp. This was the first step in a journey home after a fifteen month tour at the beginning of the Iraq surge; our brigade had begun what I call the “concretization of Baghdad,” construction of giant barriers to protect Baghdadi neighborhoods from the incessant vehicle-bored IEDs that were tearing through the markets. The 2008 Battle of Sadr City was less than five months away. It was a critical time in the Iraq war, and as our mission was complete and handed off to our capable replacements, it was also time for us to head home.
So, back to that night. I was in charge of an entire group of Soldiers assigned to our helicopter. For those of you unfamiliar with military terminology, I’m going to go into a bit of explanation here; for my brothers and sisters in arms, just bear with me. When loading troops onto an aircraft in the military, an entire group of Soldiers loading onto the aircraft is called a “chalk”. If there are four or five different aircraft, there are four or five “chalks,” one for each bird. This night, if memory serves correctly, there might have been six helicopters, taking roughly three hundred troops out. For each “chalk” there are two “sticks,” one for each side of the aircraft. If each chalk consists of about fifty troops, then each stick represents twenty-five. Each “chalk” and “stick” has someone in charge of that group, a “chalk leader” and two “stick leaders” for this aircraft, for example.
I was the chalk leader for our bird. If you’ve been in the military, you can imagine what this entails; if you’ve not, allow me to attempt to describe. You have fifty troops, including yourself, that you have to make sure gets on the right aircraft. That aircraft is separate from the five other aircraft, and your troops are separate from the 250 other joes milling about. You have to make sure that everyone is accounted for, by name and roster number, not just in person but also on the printed aircraft manifest that you’re holding in your hand. You’re responsible for all of these troops and their equipment, especially sensitive items; weapons, scopes, night vision devices, etc. For every Soldier, there may be three or four different pieces of equipment that has to be accounted for by serial number. This night? One of the Soldiers in my chalk left their weapon in a port-a-potty. Huge problem, not just for that Solider, but for his leadership. We found it, no big deal, but I say that with the distance of time between us. Imagine having all of this responsibility, the Battalion Sergeant Major breathing down your neck, with a bunch of troops that are just eager to get the heck out of there. Oh, and it’s all being done at 1 A.M.
Everyone gets on the bird, all of their stuff accounted for, and I take my seat next to the tail gunner. I’ve mentioned before about how I often have memories that I wish that I had taken a picture at the time, and this is certainly one of them: flying out of Baghdad in 2007. I had spent the last fifteen months on the ground, seeing Baghdad from the window of a truck, but on this night, with the tail end of the helicopter open, I could see all of Baghdad spread out below me. I didn’t see chaos, I didn’t see firefights or riots. A week before Christmas 2007, I saw a huge city spread out below, some bright spots, some dark spots, but I saw a job well done and felt a huge sense of satisfaction with what we had accomplished.
Here’s where we get to the stupid part: I then realized that I didn’t have any earplugs. I had spent the whole night checking on everyone else, hollering, herding, double-checking, that I never took the time to see if I had actually gotten my own stuff squared away. I opened my ear plug case…empty. No big deal, you might say; the noise level in the cargo area of a Chinook is about 102 decibels. The sound of a motorcycle is about 100 decibels, and you’re not in an enclosed space; I sat there, contemplating the vast history of military operations in the middle east, while shredding my hearing with a twenty-minute helicopter ride in the noisiest environment possible. It was not until a week later, when I was already back in the states, that the ringing in my ears stopped. Like I said, stupid.
All of this happened nearly nine years ago, so why now? What brought it back? Last week, I had the pleasure of taking my daughter to a concert. It was a pleasure solely because of the joy that it brought my daughter; the band was 5 Seconds of Summer. Don’t feel bad if you’re never heard of them, because I’m right there with you; they are not a “boy band,” but their legions of dedicated fans are made up in a large part by teenage girls. Nothing against teenage girls…I love mine to death…but as I was sitting in this auditorium with thousands of them screaming for ninety minutes straight, I was reminded of the last time I heard such sustained high-decibel noise. And I once again forgot my ear plugs.
Then it hit me; the strange absurdity of being lost in thought about flying out of Baghdad nearly ten years ago while at a concert in Denver. It wasn’t a flashback or anything, just a remembering, a contemplating. That’s the combat veteran’s life. The memory wasn’t painful or emotional, other than a tinge of shame of a reminder of my stupidity for not checking for my own ear protection. But I thought to myself; how many other moms or dads in this audience right now are thinking to themselves, “this reminds of the time I flew out of Iraq?” My daughter standing next to me, having the time of her life, didn’t have that experience…and for that I am glad. She did sacrifice in her own way, with me being gone for a large portion of her and her brother’s childhood, but in my family, only I had the experience of looking over Baghdad with the satisfaction of a job well done.
We did that so they didn’t have to. That’s what this means. That night, I was reminded that the ultimate gift that I had to provide was one of sacrifice. If you’re a veteran, appreciate that. The next time you see someone do something because they can, you sacrificed for their right to do that. Doesn’t matter if they don’t realize it, don’t appreciate it, or even hate you for it. That’s what the veteran does: bear the burden so that others don’t have to.
Sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of that.