Memorial Day gets personal

It’s Memorial Day, a day Americans set aside to honor and remember the thousands of men and women who’ve lost their lives in service of our country. As someone who served in the military, Memorial Day has long held special significance for me. But now it’s a particularly sad day: My cousin, who’s in his mid-30s, just lost his dear friend Dan (not his real name).

He and my cousin Jim grew up together, born only a few months apart. They lived on the same suburban street. They were like brothers as children and youths, and as adults maintained their closeness even as their chosen careers took them in opposite directions. My cousin is chief of staff for a Democratic California state legislator.

Dan was a Green Beret. He died in Afghanistan yesterday.

I understood why America sent combat troops to Afghanistan after the horrific terror attack on our country on September 11, 2001. The mission to destroy al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the wilds of Afghanistan and hunt down al Qaeda leader and Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was, even to a life-long peacenik like me, right and just.

My opinion is that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the camps were obliterated and bin Laden escaped was, and still is, a terrible mistake. It’s hard for me to understood why, after nearly 10 years, we are still sending our soldiers there to fight and die. I know the Taliban are very bad people. But they are what the people of Afghanistan know and understand. Their culture and society is the polar opposite of our own and always has been. Wanting to bring democracy to them is a noble undertaking, but doing it at gunpoint defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? How do you force freedom? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Dan, obviously, believed much differently. This was his second assignment to Afghanistan, and he was excited about going back. He wasn’t allowed to tell his family and friends much about his upcoming mission, but said that he’d be working closely with Afghan tribal chieftains, wearing Afghan attire so as to mix in easily with the locals. He went through months and months of special training for the assignment, and recently emailed Jim a gleeful photo of himself sporting a new, thick beard. I’ve found an Associated Press article that talks about what the Special Forces, which includes the Green Berets, are doing as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It sounds very much like what Dan said he’d be doing, as cryptic as it was. You can read the article here.

Dan had been in country for only about three months when he died.

I wasn’t around much when Jim was growing up. In the Air Force when he was a toddler, I later lived and worked in Germany for six years. When I came back to the States I went to work as a journalist in another city. I saw him only during holidays. He went away to college, went to work, got married, had two baby boys. But Jim’s best friend Dan always figured large in my aunt’s stories about Jim over the years, and I saw her much more frequently. She and Dan’s mother became dear friends, too.

I finally met Dan at Jim’s wedding five years ago; he was Jim’s best man. I remember a tall, dark-haired, handsome, quiet young fellow with a natural, innate gentleness that seemed incongruous to me, given his profession. There was also a glint of mischief in his warm, brown eyes when he smiled. I immediately liked him, and I understood instantly why Jim loved him so.

I’m sad today, knowing that Dan is gone forever. My heart breaks for his poor mother, who I’ve also met and like very much, and for my aunt, who loved Dan, too. But most of all, my heart breaks for Jim. He’s devastated. A single child, he’s lost his brother.

As a kind of consolation, I remind myself that Dan’s career was serving his country—and he was doing the work he loved when he died. His hard work and dedication earned him the distinction of being a member of an elite, very select group of Special Forces soldiers, the legendary Green Berets. According to Wikipedia,

“The United States Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets because of their distinctive service headgear, are a special operations force. Army Special Forces are tasked with six primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, hostage rescue, and counter-terrorism. The first two emphasize language, cultural, and training skills in working with foreign troops. Other duties include combat search and rescue (CSAR), security assistance, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, humanitarian demining, counter-proliferation, psychological operations, manhunts, and counter-drug operations …”

I’m guessing that like all human beings, Dan didn’t really believe in his own death. Sure, we all know that we’ll die someday, but it’s an intellectual concept, one that, until we do die, we can only understand second-hand.  At 35 years old death is still an abstract, it-won’t-happen-to-me concept—even to a realistic, combat-tested soldier like Dan. Yet he knew the risk he was taking. He knew he’d be in constant, deadly danger.  Dan went willingly into harm’s way in spite of the risk. He believed in his mission, which was to fight terrorism while helping the Afghan people understand and choose democracy over feudalism, and to encourage them, as a nation, to become a friend and ally of the United States. Such accomplishments can only bring benefits to America, including our increased, long-term security.

I don’t know if such an outcome in Afghanistan is possible. The Afghan people have lived under religious and secular oppression for literally thousands of years; it’s their history and an integral part of their culture. But Dan believed in the possibility. He worked to make it happen and in the process, lost his life.

I sincerely hope he was right. Dan was courageous and patriotic, tough but gentle, a beloved friend and loving son. He’s gone, but he lives in our memories. And he’ll always be a hero.

Thousands upon thousands of American soldiers have lost their lives while serving in wars and conflicts since the United States of America declared independence on July 4th, 1776. Since the conflict in Afghanistan started nearly a decade ago, 1,517 men and women have died while participating in Operation Enduring Freedom (numbers via *) Fifty-four U.S. soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan just this month (and maybe more, as Dan’s name has not appeared on the iCasualties list of the fallen as of this writing).

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,454 American soldiers have been killed to date, serving in Iraq. They, and those who died in Afghanistan, were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads, cousins and nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and yes, dear and much loved friends.

Today is Memorial Day. Take a few minutes out to remember and honor the many American citizens who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for their country—and for us.

7 thoughts on “Memorial Day gets personal

  1. Oh Wren, I am so sorry for all who were personally touched by Dan’s life. He sounds like a wonderful young man. Not just anyone can become a Green Beret- it takes a truly special kind of person to become an elite soldier. My heart is bleeding for his family- including your aunt and cousin. It also bleeds for the men and women of his unit who also lost a brother.

    As much as I hate, hate, hate the losses we as a country have endured in these conflicts fighting against al-Qaeda and this war on terror, I know several young men and women who have spent one or more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who truly believe that the work they have done and are doing is making a difference in this world.

    I don’t know how long it will take to end this. I don’t know how many more brilliant young lives we will lose along the way. I only hope that they are remembered as the heroes that they are.


  2. I am so sorry. Having come from a military family (my nephew is about to be deployed stateside again after his second tour in Afghanistan), your story is especially poignant. One day is not enough to honor the sacrifice that our military makes for us every day. Thank you for such a beautiful post.


  3. Dan is a hero and like many others, he was willing to sacrifice his life for the freedom we so dearly enjoy. His sacrifice is unmatched and he is someone who will not be forgotten. At 35, given his training and discipline, I think he understood his sacrifice and accepted with more dignity than anyone can imagine. I think that we all have a purpose on this great Earth, some of that purpose may bigger than others. However, we all know when we have given all and Dan gave all. May he Rest in Peace and may his sacrifice never be forgotten. Happy Memorial Day to you Wren as I know you have bravely served this great nation as well and I am sure you have lost friends along the way. Thank you for the role you play.


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  5. I hate every time I read of something like this. I know there is a family grieving while a nation seems numb to this anymore. Dan died a hero and I appreciate all of his hard work, training and sacrifice.


  6. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Such a loss and so many others. I agree with you on the wars but I also understand the desire to serve…we have to in service now in our family. Every day until they arrive safely back home I am waiting to exhale. My heart goes out to his Mom, my prayers go out to those who continue to fight…truly every day should be Memorial Day.


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