By: Dennis Anderson
Sometime a day or two ago, the “Alpha Dogs” of the 1/3 Marines flew into Hickham Field, Hawaii. My son, Garrett, was in that number. They left Kuwait six or so weeks ago. Part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, they dropped anchor for a couple of days of liberty in Thailand, and steamed on to Okinawa.
The work that the “Lava Dogs” of the 1st of the 3rd Marines completed in Iraq was concluded a couple of weeks after the Jan. 30 elections that set the Iraqi people on an uncertain but hopeful walk toward the future.
Yesterday, the walking wounded, the ambulatory of 1/3, returned to the unit’s home base, Marine Corps Base Pacific, Kanoehe Bay, or “K-Bay” for short. These were the guys who caught shrapnel, had knees, legs and arms torn up and broken, took splinters in the face, the ones who could make it back to base to rejoin their battered but unbowed battle buddies.
When I got the call from my boy it was 3 a.m. local time in Hawaii, 6 a.m. in California and I asked what was in the works at that hour, exotic even for that resort paradise. “Our wounded got back,” he said. “We’re having some beers.”
And so it went. Moracruz–shot in the leg. Munoz, legs busted up, other injuries from the hand grenades that turned ugly a few feet from his aiming point. He was throwing hand grenades like a Yankee pitcher, and the bad guys returned the favor. Good thing the ones the bad guys hurled were lousy Soviet cold war issue, or there wouldn’t be a reunion.
And there will not be a reunion for a lot of the “Lava Dogs.” Their unit took a pounding, in Fallujah, and out in the desert. About two dozen killed fighting in “The City” in November and December. Everybody just calls it “The City.” Another 27 Marines from the 1/3 died Jan. 26, the crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter out near the Syrian border. A sand storm, we are given to understand.
With the dead topping 50 and the wounded of 31st MEU counting at 221, their losses recall with other tough fights Americans waged at places with other formerly obscure names, like Carentan, Cotentin, Seoul, Hue City, Beirut and Mogadishu. Most of the dead were infantry, grunt soldiers.
My son is among the surviving soldiery of a unit that got their orders and accomplished their mission, the way Marines pride themselves in doing. He is 19 years old. And he is old now. Young, still, but also old. Old in a way that all his former school chums with Ipods and first jobs and idle weekends will never be able to understand or touch.
It’s a lot of ink and paper to devote to writing about these fellows, but they’ve earned their pay, and any good recognition that comes their way. And a couple of beers, too. They have more than earned that.
An economy fare flight carries me to Honolulu. Father-son reunion. We’ll find some stretch of beach that James Jones wrote about in “From Here to Eternity,” one of the great books about the harsh dream of being an American that sheds blood for country. That story, still fresh, was set at Schofield Barracks just before the Zeros and Zekes upset America’s Sunday slumber forever. Schofield is still there, with the G.I.s and the Rangers, just down the island road from the jarheads of K-Bay.
I asked my young man if he ever believed he would be flying into Hickham Field, in uniform, and under arms. “I never believed such a thing could happen, old man,” he replied. “It’s surreal.”
The hard-ass young men of this generation of warriors chuckled at Ben Affleck in “Pearl Harbor.” They had already seen enough black-and-white footage on the History Channel to know that the soap opera version was b.s. Less b.s. were the hard and scary scenes from “Band of Brothers” and “We Were Soldiers.” But war movies are to war what lightning is to lightning bugs, as Twain put it.
In our great towns of the Antelope Valley, we shake hands with history. My boy and I have shook hands with men who sent hot lead back at the Japanese torpedo bombers and fighters strafing Hickham and bombing Pearl. Men who still walk among us, thank God.
Lance Cpl Garrett Anderson’s joy in surviving comes with the profound sadness of loss. Loss of dozens of their friends. Enough to fill a couple of high school classrooms. These young people didn’t lose friends to alcohol, or drugs, to gang violence or unsafe speed. They knew their friends like brothers until they were snatched away from them in sudden terror of moments they had to live through or die in. It’s a lot of knowledge of good and evil, a lot of weight to carry.
But they will carry that weight. Because that is what the infantry does. The infantry and the combat arms carry the weight.
So, headed toward meeting some of the friends this particular 19-year-old lance corporal shared his hours, days and weeks among, during what Lincoln called “the fiery trial,” I am glad and happy to have lived long enough to see again what kind of people find the heart to put everything they’ve got on the line. I return to the letter a son wrote to a father as he prepared to board ship to sail toward a more peaceful shore after his fight was finished.
?Tomorrow or the day after I will return to the ship that floated me across that endless ocean to bring me to a yet unknown destiny. Now I am on the opposite side of that journey. It is strange. I put so much thought into the way over and almost no thought about the way back. Who picks who lives and who dies? Who knows, but for now I live.
?I live, two words packed full of literal meaning. I live until the day I die, but it will never be in Fallujah during 2004-2005. If I am to die of a heart attack tomorrow the bonus months I was alive until then will have been a great triumph and success. There will be no more death before my time, my time was in Fallujah, but now I have walked out of that den of lions, to hell and back. It could have been me, not Cohen or Sweger, or me along with Cohen and Sweger as the bullets were abundant.
?The blood still flows as the water still flows as the world still turns and I am alive to see it, to feel it, to taste it and to smell it. I remember we all signed the same contract and we knew what it meant, and that the ones I knew were all among the greatest men to walk this earth.
?What do you say to the ones who walked out of the lion’s den? Or about the ones who fell? Whatever it is, it should be said softly, and with respect. And then fall silent for the bugler at taps.?