On Memorial Day, Americans paid tribute to the men and women who have fought our nation’s wars, especially those who didn’t come home. My new colleague Mark Thompson, who has generously invited me to contribute to Battleland, had some powerful observations about the Pentagon news releases that have trickled down in a “drip-drip-drip of death,” since our current wars began.
On May 18, the Department of Defense issued such a news release that hit close to home. The message reads, “The Department of Defense announced today the deaths of four soldiers who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. They died May 16, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked their unit using an improvised explosive device in Zabul province, Afghanistan.” The first name on the list is Staff Sgt. David D. Self, of Pearl, Miss.
It was the nearly 6000th such release since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. According to Department of Defense figures, more than 4,400 service members have died in Iraq and more than 1,600 in Afghanistan. Each time, the DOD has released a similar message that broke the hearts of a family and a community.
The May 18 release was personally crushing because Staff Sgt. Self was, for a short time, one of my soldiers. What the news release doesn’t say is that he served a combat tour in Iraq with the 2nd Infantry Division before joining my company, just in time to deploy to Iraq again in the early winter of 2005. The clip doesn’t say that Staff Sgt. Self was a quiet, steady non-commissioned officer who knew his job well. If a combat zone is ever a place where a soldier is entitled to gripe, we never heard him complain about anything.
The news release doesn’t mention that on October 15, 2006, Staff Sgt. Self was commanding a humvee driving on Route Penguins, a deadly farm road northwest of Baghdad, when a buried artillery shell exploded underneath him. The blast ripped through the 12,000-pound up-armored vehicle, right where the engine block ended and the cab began. Although he was stunned by the blast, Staff Sgt. Self calmly helped evacuate his gunner who had been wounded by shrapnel. It would be an understatement to say the crew was lucky; the insurgent who set off the Improvised Explosive Device timed it a split second too early, the closest in a tour filled with close calls, resulting in only minor wounds.
News releases never say how many tours a soldier has served; when he died, Staff Sgt. Self was on his fourth. He returned to Fort Hood, Tx. just before Christmas in 2006, trained a new squad of combat engineers and in March 2008, he went back to Iraq for a third time. He shepherded his men through a quieter, but still dangerous tour, and when it came time to reenlist, he chose Germany, hoping to see another part of the world.
I’m not sure how he felt when he was told that, after spending three years in Iraq, he was headed to Afghanistan. I never got a chance to ask him. When I visited other former soldiers in Kandahar, many on their fourth, and one on his fifth tour, they wanted more than anything to be home. But this was where the job had taken them. The news release would never say so, but the Army is filled with non-commissioned officers who, after a decade of impossibly close calls, are still out there, doing the dangerous business, again and again and again. They deserve our gratefulness on Memorial Day and on other days, and they deserve more than two sentences when they don’t come home.