Like all veterans, my memories are filled this Memorial Day with endless instances of pride at being able to serve this great country of ours – pride at being an American and even more pride at having been able to wear the uniform.
Of my many memories, over 60 years’ worth, none is more striking than that of a dusty afternoon in 2008 in a bombed out building in Sadr City, Baghdad. It wasn’t about my own service. It was about someone else’s.
I was accompanying my friend Aaron Tippin, a country music legend, as he visited and entertained troops during the Thanksgiving season. It was an annual event for him during the war and I was often fortunate enough to accompany him. On this particular afternoon, at one of many stops, we were at a Forward Operating Base with a battalion of the storied 82nd Airborne Division.
The scene was literally out of a Hollywood movie – a bombed out building in the midst of a crowded commercial neighborhood. The inside of the building was dark and dusty, with shards of light darting through the holes in the outer walls. In the quietness of the rotunda, some troops were coming in from patrols while others were preparing to go out. Others still gathered around a small stage which had been set up for Aaron to perform, eager to listen to songs which many of them were quite familiar with.
We were an anomaly in the midst of a chaotic, dangerous war. The building, reminiscent to me of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, was home to the battalion while they worked and fought in one of the toughest areas of Iraq at the time – Sadr City: home to the Shiite militias.
We learned shortly after arriving that only a few days previously one of the battalion’s squads had been ambushed on a nearby street. Three soldiers were killed in the initial fight and others were gravely wounded. The engagement had raged briefly while a reaction team was sent to provide support. Even the local lraqi police unit, with whom the battalion had been working and training, rushed to help. Over in just minutes, the battle had taken its toll on the battalion. Here at Thanksgiving, they were still bearing the grief of loss.
As Aaron finished singing, the battalion commander asked if we could stay long enough to see one of his soldiers re-enlist in the Army. The Command Sergeant Major brought the young man forward and introduced him. He was a kid-faced Specialist, and in the hazy light I could see that he was dark skinned, possibly a Native American.
To my amazement, he was a member of the squad that had been in the costly battle just days earlier. He had seen war at its very worst, lost fellow brothers in combat, his Army time was up and he could go home in time for Christmas, and here he was asking to stay in and extend his commitment to the Army – and to America.
We stood there quietly, watching the young man swear the oath of office and commit to four more years in the Army, surrounded as he was by his friends and comrades. At that moment, forever seared in my memory, I realized I was witnessing America at its absolute best – selfless dedication and undaunted courage in the name of America.
All of us who have served have pride at having had the opportunity to do so. And I was proud to be there and witness a moment which reminded me in such glaring terms of the greatness of our country and the men and women who serve. I am indeed proud to be an American.