For Memorial Day, here’s an excerpt from my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. The name of the deceased has been changed and the exact location of the ceremony obscured out of respect.
Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson, in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 rifle into his mouth and blew out the back of his skull. He was college-aged but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat-related.”
I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smelled coppery. It reminded you that you were not welcome. Even if you’d never smelled pooled blood before, you didn’t have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place.
The death of any soldier reverberated through our Forward Operating Base. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were best kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was that the chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia, for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the DFAC, the workaday talk of soldiers.
There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag. You could see a few red zit marks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo.
The program was strained. As with every other briefing they gave the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man’s job had something minor to do with radios and most present didn’t know what to say beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible. He understood why we were all here, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.
The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased. In today’s ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this base. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide at this place made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.
But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in awhile somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Lieutenant rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”
This was how the Army healed itself. It was a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who came together for their own reasons, lived in austere conditions, and existed to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. Simply, we will miss him anyway because he was one of us. The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the president, hate the Iraqis, but we could not hate one another.
The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.