ON this Memorial Day, more than two years after the invasion of Iraq, American troops are still fighting and dying. Their deaths have become a staple of the evening news, a permanent column on the front page. Most of the time, we don't even notice anymore. Until death touches someone we know, or someone we used to be.
On the morning of Jan. 26, while I rush my daughters through their bowls of cereal, brush their hair and get them ready for school, I learn that a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter has crashed in western Iraq, killing 31 men. Twenty-six of them are part of my old unit: Company C, First Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay.
My co-worker looks over at me from his desk and says, "Did you know any of them?"
No, I didn't know them.
What I know is the base where they lived. The way they ran up K.T., Kansas Tower, this giant hill in the middle of the base, gasping all the way to the top. I know the view from the apex, overlooking the vivid blue of Kaneohe Bay, a rainbow in the background. I know how good a cool breeze felt when they reached the top, after running past the flight line, beyond the beach where their leg muscles burned and their feet sank into soft, warm sand. I know what drives a marine, at the end of his endurance, choking back vomit as the battalion runs in a huge formation, to suddenly break ranks and run to the man carrying the Colors, the battalion flag, and take it from him, sprinting around 800 marines in a giant circle before returning it and dropping back in line. I know what they smelled like when they were sweating out the beer they drank the night before.
No, I didn't know the marines who died, but I miss them just the same. I go to work each day, safe in my cubicle, checking the news for word of the war dead, looking for friends and thinking about that recruiter's card in my wallet.
I know exactly how this guy feels. I felt great pride the day members of my old outfit, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, rescued downed pilot Scott O'Grady in Bosnia f'rinstance. They've been in Haiti recently, and then in Fallujah for the elections. I wish they were at Camp Lejeune with their families, or, for the single guys, getting drunk in J'ville and trying to make out with the bar hogs (Not, I hope, with the same ones I tried to...).
There's a lot of guys like me and we will never forget.