In the U.S. Armed Forces, we don’t leave anyone behind. It’s one of the basic pillars of what the Army calls the Warrior Ethos: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, several troops were captured and held prisoner. Some, like Jessica Lynch, were rescued quickly; Bowe Bergdahl has been held for three years. On April 9, 2004, an Army fuel convoy came under fire near Baghdad Airport, and after emerging from the chaos, the unit was missing nine people – two soldiers and seven civilian drivers. One of the soldiers was found dead, while Specialist Matt Maupin had been captured. A week later, Maupin appeared on a videotape that was broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
(VIDEO: Instant Icon: Jessica Lynch)
Two months after Matt Maupin was captured in Baghdad, I completed officer training and was commissioned an Army lieutenant. Later that summer, news reports said Maupin had been killed. But when I arrived in Baghdad in December 2005, Maupin was still listed as missing, and though the trail had gone cold, the units in the area where he was captured were still searching for him, investigating any leads, large or small.
In June 2006, my unit moved from southern to western Baghdad, to the area where Maupin was captured. Later that summer, one of our companies received a tip from a prisoner who knew where Maupin’s body was buried. The next morning at daylight, we cleared a field where Maupin was said to be. Heavy engineers used ground-penetrating radar to look for remains. Bulldozers dug up the earth, hoping to discover the soldier’s resting place. In the end, we came away with nothing. Dry hole, we said, and returned to our base.
When I called and emailed home that week, I told my friends and family about searching for Maupin. “Who?” they replied. Their confusion wasn’t out of callousness or lack of compassion. Because I was fighting in Baghdad, my friends and family paid close attention to the war. Maupin had simply disappeared from the country’s collective memory, replaced by the demands of daily life and other news from the war zone.
Several more times information on Maupin came our way. Several more times, we suited up and rode into the inferno of an Iraqi summer and spent the day combing, digging, hoping we would find him. Like the first mission, when hope was high, we found nothing. Soon the trail went cold and Maupin disappeared from my thoughts, replaced by other ongoing missions in an increasingly chaotic war.
We returned home six months after searching for Maupin, and a year later I was on my way back to Baghdad. When I arrived in March 2008, I wondered if we would ever find Maupin. On March 20, a unit finally found Maupin’s remains north of where we had previously searched. They had relied on a tip from a local resident and named the recovery mission Operation Trojan Honor, after the mascot from Maupin’s high school. We were far removed from our own efforts to find him, but the news was still a great comfort. Maupin’s family back in Ohio finally knew what happened to their son, and he was laid to rest in their hometown cemetery, not a farm outside of Baghdad.
To this day, more than 73,000 troops remain missing from World War II alone. Unlike Maupin, most of them will never be found. But the search, though it may be in vain, will never end. The oath to never leave a fallen comrade is a promise made to each other, that even if we die, our brothers in arms will do everything they can to bring us home. It’s a mission that hasn’t ended, and as long as wars continue, it never will.