Veterans Day and the Burden of Vigilance
General Robert B. Neller
(Small Wars Journal 2012)
Veterans’ Day occurs on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date stemming from the Armistice Day of the First World War. Unfortunately, “The War to End All Wars” did not live up to its title, so we honor the veterans of many more conflicts: the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq; in addition to the many other actions of the Cold War and our new post-Cold War world. In peacetime and in war, members of the military are the sheepdogs of American society, always on the watch for predators that lurk in the night. And the burden of this vigilance is high.
One day in the fall of 2006, I met a young Marine lance corporal who shouldered that burden—the burden of the watchstander. The burden of those left behind, wondering why it was their buddy, and not they, who paid the price. I was traveling the road from Fallujah to Habbiniyah that day. Although we had three observation posts—OPs—on the road, it was still littered with IEDs. The first one was called OP Redskins, located on an overpass over a railroad track. I had visited the OP before and planned to push through it this day as we were running late. Engineers further down the road were still sweeping for IEDs, though, and we had to wait until they were complete. So, we entered the serpentine of concrete jersey barriers and made our way into the OP to wait. On our way in, I noticed a blackened hole in the road surface, surrounded by pieces of shattered concrete—a reminder of the constant threat.
Once we were inside the OP, I got out to stretch my legs and noticed that most of the Marines were sleeping, obviously having spent the previous night either on post or on patrol. Doing my best not to disturb them—and hoping that no one would start waking them up because “some General is here”—I headed to the guard tower at the west end of the OP. I could see the silhouette of a Marine standing watch so I decided to go up and say hello. I approached the ladder, sounded off, “Neller coming up” (it is not good to sneak up on a guy with a loaded weapon) and climbed up into the post. As I entered I was greeted by a Marine Lance Corporal. He was about six feet tall and lean, with a scraggly moustache. His gear was clean and neat and he was clearly wide awake.
Being wide awake as a watchstander is no small thing. First off, being on post, especially if you are doing it right, is an exercise in interminable boredom. Second, this Marine had probably been up most of the night on patrol, as he had been for nights on end. When you are in combat the first thing you notice in men is their eyes. The eyes of a combat Marine, regardless of their age, are usually somewhat recessed and dark underneath. These are the eyes of men who are tired, have seen hardship, danger, and sometimes the carnage of combat. This Marine had combat eyes.
“Who are you,” I asked.
“Lance Corporal Christ” he said.
“No sir, I am not kidding. My name is Lance Corporal Christ. C-H-R-I-S-T.”
“What’s your first name?”
I had just met Lance Corporal Tyler Christ, USMC.
“OK, LCpl Christ. Tell me what is going on.”
He proceeded to tell me his sector of observation, the responsibilities of his post and gear he had with him. I asked him what the daily routine was in the area and he gave me his thoughts on that.
Tyler was 23 years old and had been a student at the University of Minnesota. Although there are quite a few Marines who are college graduates or have some college it is not something you run across every day. I then asked him the usual question. “Why does a guy going to the University of Minnesota join the Marines?”
His immediate response was, “I needed a challenge.”
I asked, “Did you get one?”
“Yes sir, and more.”
We talked about a few more things—family, home, the small talk of normality.
Then I asked him, “I know you guys had a Marine hurt by an IED the other night. I thought I read it was to the southwest,” and I pointed in that direction. In reality, I knew he had been killed.
“Did you see the shot hole on the side of the road when you drove up,” he said calmly. “It was there. That was my squad. Do you know what happened?”
I said, “No I don’t. Do you want to talk about it?”
He paused for a moment and I could feel the memory of the event coming back to him. Then, in a calm clear voice, he told me the story of what happened that night. He recounted the name and position of each man in his squad on the patrol. He was the last man, rear security. At the bottom of the road one of the Marines in the middle of the formation stepped on a pressure initiator, triggering an IED hidden behind a jersey barrier. The Marine was badly hurt. Christ ran up to him, applied a tourniquet, and administered immediate first aid. A medevac was called and the Marine was taken to one of our surgical units which was nearby, but it was too late. His injuries were too serious and we lost him.
Christ paused and neither of us spoke for about a minute.
“You know sometimes you can do everything right and it just doesn’t work out,” I said. “If your buddy were here he would tell you that you all did the best you could and that you needed to press on and accomplish the mission. That you and the rest of the squad need to move on as best we can and take care of today. To do otherwise would be to dishonor his memory.”
We talked about how the squad was dealing with the loss. They had taken it pretty hard, he said, but people were adjusting. We talked a bit more, but the hour was getting late and I had to go. I thanked him for his service and I told him how proud I was to be able to serve with men like him.
He thanked me and we shook hands. I climbed down the ladder, got into my truck and we drove away. He remained on post; vigilant and upright, despite the weight of the gear, the heat of the day, the boredom of watchfulness, and undoubtedly the ceaseless memories of his deceased friends. As I reflected on what had just transpired I realized I had just experienced something extraordinary. I had met a young man who had faced death and given his all to save his brother Marine. A man who mourned the loss of his friend, but still had the discipline and perseverance to get up the next day, strap on his gear and do what he had to do in a very dangerous place. To accomplish the mission. To take care of his fellow Marines.
He shouldered the burden and carried on. And he will carry that burden for the rest of his life, just as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines of every generation have done. You see, that is what makes our military and our Nation great. People talk about this generation or that, but the truth is that America has called a portion of every generation of Americans to serve. Every generation has answered that call and answered it honorably. It is not the career officers or the generals that make our military great. It is the young men and women like LCpl Christ—citizen soldiers who serve with a pureness and innocence of dedication to the mission and to each other that only the young can have—who have always carried that burden and always will.