Excerpt from my letter home from Iraq, on March 28th, 2008:
On Good Friday, one of the combat controllers from the unit that I am deployed with was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson was 34, and he had spent seventeen years of his life in the military — four as a Marine, and thirteen as an Air Force combat controller. He was married, with an eight-year-old daughter; his wife is seven months pregnant. He was one of the men slated to return from this deployment early for the delivery of his unborn child. Before he went out on Friday night, he had watched his wife’s sonogram video, and we were told that he left in high spirits. And then, after an act of horrifying, deliberate violence, his wife answered the door on Saturday morning to find that she would not be welcoming her husband home in a few short weeks, that she would now bear alone a child who would never know his father.
TSgt Will Jefferson was, by all accounts, warm, generous, funny, good-natured, a devoted and loving husband and father, and a seasoned veteran truly dedicated to the service of his country. He had asked to be sent back out to run with a team for this deployment, to go to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan… to serve with the boys on the ground, to get dirty. These men, in this profession, do not serve to stay safe or to do the easy jobs. They are all here because they could not resist the siren song of real combat, and they all ask for the opportunity to be in the thick of things. They will all gladly jump to go to the places that lesser men are grateful to avoid. It is rare for a combat controller to be killed in action, not because they don’t face serious risks every day, but because there are relatively few combat controllers and they are so well-trained. And still, a coward crouching behind a rock in Afghanistan can end the life of anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. And still, this arbitrary, chickenshit hatred will leave behind an irreparable and empty gash in the lives of our fallen comrades’ brethren and their families. I have read the reports and seen the pictures of the battle damage suffered by the vehicle and the personnel inside after the IED went off, after the vehicle was blown thirty meters from the explosion site. While I cannot report the details here, I will say that they are both gruesome and stark in their brevity.
I never met this man, but I have been in the midst of this squadron’s grief for nearly a week. And though this hollow loss was created by hatred, I have watched a ferocious brotherly love rush in to that vacuum to make things as right as they can ever be. That’s one thing about the special operations community… as a senior captain, a helicopter pilot, half-cynically, half-gratefully told me, “No matter what else I can say about life in AFSOC, I’ll say this: the one thing they do right is to take care of you after something happens to you.” I have seen first-hand that no expense was too great, no inconvenience too burdensome, no obstacle even stood a chance when it came to bringing our fallen hero back to his home and his family and observing his death in a manner that befitted a warrior.
There have been at least four memorial services for this man, and the one I participated in here was the single most moving ceremony I have ever observed during the nearly eight years since I first put on a United States Air Force uniform.
We stood outside in formation in the hazy glare of the Iraqi sun. Almost a hundred and fifty people — most of whom had never met this man — were in silent, voluntary attendance. We were placed at ease, but we stood still for a long time in the late afternoon, quietly, scarcely moving as we waited. The sun was setting when we were finally called to attention. The American flag was raised, and lowered to half staff. Then began the tradition known as “roll call.” Our Senior Master Sergeant called the name of three airmen from my squadron, each responding “Here, Senior.” Then he called for the fallen by his rank and last name. Traditionally, there is no reply, only silence. When we planned the ceremony, we did not even guess — not in a million years — that there would be another TSgt Jefferson in the audience, and when someone responded “Here, Senior,” by pure reflex, there was just a split-second where I could feel the surprise of the other people who knew the way the script was supposed to go. But the tradition also holds that the next line is to call for the fallen by their rank, first, and last name… and after “Tech Sergeant William Jefferson,” there was no reply but silence.
Finally, he called for “Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson.”
Two beats of silence.
And then a response.
“Sir, Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson has been killed in action.”
We were put at ease again, and there were several speeches and prayers… and for a situation where no words can help, my commander — this brave, tough, bold lieutenant colonel who has won so much of my respect during my time here — did his best to pay homage to the life of his brother. There was only one pause, quiet and completely dignified, where I knew he was trying not to cry again, to hold it together in front of all of us. He finished his eulogy. The Chaplain prayed, and the overall mission commander here spoke briefly.
Then… and words will not do this moment justice, but I will try for you because I have to share the importance of this moment, because it carried in it everything that is important to me as an American.
The honor guard returned to the flag. As taps played, they lowered it and removed it from the flagpole. They folded it so carefully, so gently, so precisely. The first honor guardsman handed the flag to the second guardsman, with fierce ceremony, and the second guardsman clutched it to his chest. He turned and marched slowly, deliberately to where my commander stood, and handed it to him… again, with the pride and power due to this flag and everything it stands for. My commander held it to his chest, and strode forward to the base of the flagpole. At the base, they had set up a pedestal with a photograph of TSgt Jefferson, a red beret, and a pair of boots, a rifle, and a helmet, in the traditional configuration commemorating the fallen. My commander knelt and laid the folded flag with tender, simple reverence on the pedestal, at the feet of this small memorial.
He remained there on bended knee.
Time stopped for us all as he honored the life and service of Will Jefferson with a tribute more eloquent than any words could be.
He stood, saluted, and turned to go.
One by one, every single person in attendance filed quietly up to sharply salute Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson and everything he stood for.
My imperfect but heartfelt Catholicism has given me an eye for ceremony, and I honestly believe that if he had seen our memorial service, the Pope himself would have been moved to genuflect, for a moment, at the memorial we left at the base of that flagpole, and at the sacrifice made by this man, who died on Good Friday in a fight — at its root — for what is good and right in this world. I believe that despite the trash and triviality that threaten to overwhelm our nation, the real heart of America beats with the blood of people who know that real freedom belongs to every man and woman on this earth. As long as there are people willing to fight for that freedom, our country has hope.
But still… the virtue and heroism of this brave man’s death are small consolation to his family. Please, if you would — Will Jefferson’s wife and daughter and his unborn child… keep them in your thoughts, and if you pray, keep them in your prayers.
This was my first experience with combat loss, and I wish I could say it was my last. There are far too many stories like this, and we as a nation seem to have grown fatigued with remembering them more than once or twice a year.
I’m not here to guilt you into sadness, or to judge you for how you’re spending your Memorial Day, unless you’re confusing “trying to shame other people for an inadequate display of patriotism” with “honoring our fallen in a meaningful way.” I’m seeing a lot of sanctimony on the web today, with notes of condescension towards what are perceived to be insufficient commemorations of the sacrifices made for our country by our honored heroes. Know this: anyone who has truly grieved the loss of someone killed in combat doesn’t need to be reminded to honor them today, or any of the other 364 days of the year; anyone who hasn’t is unlikely to have their paradigm shifted by a social media post.
I have also seen reminders that today is ONLY about those who were killed in combat. But something to consider: many veterans have lost all semblance of a normal life in service to our country when they sustained disfiguring and disabling injuries, including the kind that don’t leave any scars (traumatic brain injuries and severe post-traumatic stress disorder come to mind, and don’t underestimate the emotional damage to veterans and families who measure their deployed time in years, not months), and in my not-very-humble opinion it’s perfectly OK if you wish to honor all who have suffered for their service to America. Especially since they still need our help.
Finally, recent events have driven home an important point. When someone is killed in combat, whether you believe they have gone on to a better place (and I do) or simply that their pain is over, they are no longer hurting. The people who need support now are their family, friends, and loved ones.
Remember those who have sacrificed so much for our nation privately, or publicly, however you choose. If you feel moved to acknowledge the day in an outward way and find yourself at a loss for how to make a difference, please consider giving to the Wounded Warrior Project, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, or any of the other excellent charities that support our surviving wounded and the families of all who have given so much in service to our country.
Now go, please, and hug your family and friends, do a little shopping if you like, and enjoy your barbecue.