I woke up to news this morning that I could scarce comprehend: a soldier of mine had lost his life, cause undeclared.
I was always conflicted about serving in the Afghan war – college wrought an idealogical transformation that put me forever at odds with the government’s foreign policy – but I was never conflicted about my commitment to the wellbeing of my soldiers. It was my greatest joy to put every single one of them on a plane back to Germany at the end of the deployment, perhaps a bit roughed up, but alive and well; I didn’t have to live with the terrible burden of informing a mother of her son’s passing. This one thing I ardently believe: no woman ought to live to bury her son.
But nature is indifferent to our beliefs.
The same day that I gained my freedom, my old platoon medic lost his life. He was 21, having deployed to Afghanistan at 19 and showing us all what a man under fire can be. He was disarmingly young, baby faced even, yet despite his youth, he was a fierce soldier. When he, with a steady hand amid a cloud of acrid smoke, patched up two men who had been wounded by a detonating suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), he showed us just what army training coupled with personal mettle can produce. I was proud to see him pinned his Combat Medic Badge, though the dude was so stunned by the pinning that he passed out and fell over – a comedic moment for sure. The young kid was no worse for the wear.
I left my platoon leader position for a desk in an office midway through my deployment, but I never lost sight of the soldiers that my non-commissioned officers and I personally prepared for combat. I also personally laid the coordination to send them home, and as I was sifting through flight manifests, I checked every single one of my soldiers against those manifests, my mind put at ease as the list of the missing narrowed down to zero.
Of course, I knew that there had been no combat casualties in my platoon; working as the chief of operations for my unit, my job was to aggregate and publish each day’s significant events. I did this from the time I left my platoon until my unit left Afghanistan. I also knew that other units had borne terrible losses – a helicopter full of men went down in the mountains to the northeast of us, killing all of them; a Ranger raid to our north went bad, killing many, among them Jennifer Moreno, a friend to my friends; a lone young soldier in an anonymous uniform walked into a deserted dining facility at Kandahar Air Field, put his rifle to his throat, and pulled the trigger. All events were tragic, but none were directly personal. And yet, I grieved for all of them, for shattered youth, for dreams forever deferred.
I thought we had made it back whole. I was proud of those boys, those fantastic young men who had banded together to face the most significant experience of their young lives and surmount the slow itch of sheer boredom and the the thrill of frenetic activity together. I thought that we would all remain forever connected, our lives irrevocably intertwined. But the passing of years coupled with the way that people flow in, out, and around the army wears at relationships – not that the commitment to one another fades, but the frequency of contact certainly does. Even in this era of eternal connectivity, I lost sight of Doc Nieto.
And then I woke up to news of his death.
There’s an oft touted statistic – 22 veterans commit suicide a day. This is used as a rallying cry to do something about an epidemic raging through the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. This statistic is disputed; the majority of veterans committing suicide are over 60 years old, Vietnam vets undoubtedly in need of greater care. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans kill themselves at closer to one a day – but even one needless death is too many. I respect the motivation behind the 22 push-up challenge going around Facebook, the work to bring awareness to a blight on our nation, my brothers and sisters. I respect more the effort to tell the stories of our fallen: moments shared, memories relived. Every story is worth the telling; every life has worth; and every death is a tragedy.
I don’t know what Doc Nieto was going through, nor do I know the cause of his passing. One of my peers, seemingly perfectly healthy, died on a run – just fell over and was done; another died peacefully in his sleep. Weird things happen. But at such a young age for such a physically healthy young man, one cannot help but draw logical conclusions, and it hurts. It hurts that I was not there for him. It hurts to think that he suffered to such a point that he felt death preferable to life. I know this pain; I credit music, literature, family, and friends for sustaining me through some very rough times. And now, I’m pursuing my own dream, deferred no longer.
Life is worth living. Dreams are worth pursuing. It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to learn something new – and it’s certainly never too late to reach out to somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. So write an email. Send a text message. Make a phone call. They matter. God, do they matter.
Just do it.