BAGHDAD – Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.
April 25, 2006
We have been on blackout for about two days now. After a soldier dies, whether it is by enemy fire, illness or suicide, the unit that lost the soldier has its Internet and phones shut off until next of kin is notified.
Blackouts usually last between one and three days for our unit. This may seem like a strict policy, one that would bring down morale, but I assure you it is one of the smartest things the Army can do to ensure that the fallen soldier's family is notified properly, professionally and in a timely manner before rumors of a soldier's death start circling.
Could we find a computer with Internet or use a personal cell phone and disregard the order? Probably. But with the blackout, the message is very clear: It's not about me or anyone else calling home — it's about the family of the soldier who can't.
When blackout occurs, it is often the first time soldiers find out that someone in their unit has died. It’s difficult, because that is usually when soldiers want to call their loved ones the most.
Blackout also means that a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldier will soon follow. We have held a memorial ceremony for each soldier in our brigade who has lost his or her life since we arrived.
Ceremonies are held for multiple soldiers if they die at the same time or in relatively close order. We have held memorials for up to four soldiers at once. I've lost count of how many I have attended so far, and there have been more that I could not attend due to not being in the area at the time.
Each ceremony touches you in a different way, and it is certainly one aspect that separates us from our enemy. Every soldier is important. We value life like no other Army in the history of the world. I knew a couple of the soldiers we lost but was not close to any of them. When you attend one of these functions, you can really see how not only combat, but the military makes brothers out of complete strangers.
The ceremony itself is fairly simple, with comments from the leaders and friends of the soldier, boots in front of a rifle with a helmet and dog tags, and a picture of the soldier in front of the flag he or she fought for. Roll call, a 21-gun salute, followed by a rendition of "Taps" and "Amazing Grace." No glorious speeches by generals in shiny uniforms, no motivational “now let’s go get ‘em, boys.” Simple, professional and absolutely gut wrenching.
I get a lot of questions about this from readers and friends and family back home. They wonder how soldiers live and work here knowing they could die at any moment — from an IED, a rocket or mortar attack, or in a small-arms fight.
My response is always the same: I ask how they drive to work each day knowing they could die in a horrible car accident. It sounds like a stretch, but here is my analogy.
Anyone who drives a car or steps onto a highway knows full well the risks. Thousands of people are killed or injured each year from falling asleep at the wheel, being hit by a drunk driver or their brakes giving out. To mitigate the risks, you take certain steps. You wear a seatbelt and have an airbag, you get the car repaired when you notice a problem with the brakes. But even when you do everything you can to prevent an accident, there is still a chance something will happen. If it does, it's random, and it’s just your time.
In the same manner, when soldiers prepare for missions, they do everything they can to mitigate the risk of injury or death, from wearing body armor to gathering intelligence on the ground. Most incidents I have seen here were completely random and out of our control. If a mortar were to land on me as I type this column, it’s just my time to go. It’s random, and there is no rhyme or reason to it.
I am not saying the average person has the same chance of being killed on a highway as we have of being killed here. Far from it. Take the analogy for what it is: A description of how we prepare for combat, not an argument that driving on a road here is just like cruising down the Long Island Expressway.
Now, some places in Iraq are more dangerous than others. I liken this to driving in bad weather: You do it, but are much more careful and alert when you do. When you have done everything you can to reduce the risks, you can better focus on the job.
We have to drive to work, too. But here, it’s always under bad weather conditions.