I had a friend. I’ll call him X. X because he was a Ninja, and the Ninja Creed was carved with blood and gun-smoke in his soul: “You walk the walk and never talk.”
He’s gone now (hence the “had”) but I’m going to honor his wishes and his memory today, since it’s Memorial Day, and that’s what old soldiers do, especially moody and morose Welsh-Filipino Old Soldiers, on Memorial Day. We remember our friends and those others who’ve fallen. We remember them and in so doing honor them.
I’d met X when I was still in the Army. He’d already swapped his uniform and green beret for plain clothes back then, and I think I only saw him once, in the 35+ years since then, wearing his dress blues, at a party for General Singlaub. They might have had to sew an addition onto his uniform to make room for all the decorations he’d earned but never wore and never spoke of.
He loved to tell stories, but wouldn’t utter a word about himself unless he knew and had worked with every single person in the room. And even then, whether out of long ingrained OPSEC or an even more deeply ingrained personal modesty and humility, he was never the hero in his stories. It was always somebody else.
He was a consummate and gifted professional warrior. His skills at hand to hand, knife, CQB, and the nuances of operational tradecraft were legendary. He was a man’s man, in the Old School tradition. One of his gifts was friendship. It was also one of his skills — he was first and foremost a professional operator and as such understood how to leverage relationship.
His definition of a true friend was rigorous: If you called, they came. They lived Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up.
As he did in all things, he walked the walk and never talked.
He just showed up. At several junctures in my life, he’d pop in to pluck me out of a mess. And then he’d go on his way.
But you know what I remember best?
His sense of humor. We would laugh and laugh for hours, and he was the instigator in many a wild-ass practical joke that would leave us helpless with laughter years after the fact.
Like many operators who served in the Global War on Terror, he loved the movie TEAM AMERICA. He’d watched it so many times he could recite the entire script by heart, and was given to spontaneous outbursts of “AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!” when he was having a good time, which was often.
X took a number of bad hits, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Part of that was the wear and tear of an unrelenting operational tempo that uses special operators up; part of it was .gov/.mil structure that doesn’t yet, after all these years, understand how to ease and heal a War Horse that’s headed out to pasture. There was cumulative injury from gunshot and chemical agent and blast injury and broken bones and the accretion of damage from hard use.
Part of it was just being tired.
Many operators, when they are medically retired, have a very hard time adjusting. Part of it is, for the first time ever in a life lived as an uber-competent Alpha Male, dealing with real physical frailty and disability. When you’ve been the most dangerous human in the room for most of your life, it’s very difficult to deal with your own weakness.
It’s difficult when you’ve spent your whole life doing dark and dangerous things on behalf of others to be around people who could care less, even if they knew; and it’s hard to accept that the men (or women) that you’d led have moved on and that each day you are less and less relevant to the world they worked in.
X had a hard time with that.
He had a great network of friends who were also out or retired. No family, no wife, no children. Memories and friends.
Once when i was visiting him, we were talking about what its like to lose physical ability when you’ve lived a life defined by that.
“I can’t even run anymore,” X said. “I get these headaches, and I stagger like I’m fucking drunk.”
“Try running sober,” I said.
“Can you drink?”
“Can you smoke a Cubano?”
“Can you still chase women, assuming you can find any that would have you if you caught them?
“Fuck you, Marcus.”
“Get the fuck out! Are you serious? What CAN you do?”
“I can stagger after women, if there were any that would have me…”
“You don’t need any more, dude. Three wives and you’re out, Old Dog.”
“I can drink coffee.”
“I can eat ice cream.”
“That’s something. Hell, that’s downright American. AMERICA, FUCK YEAH! C’mon, you pathetic old cancer survivor. I’ll buy you a fucking ice cream cone and a bib so you don’t drool on yourself.”
And he did. Dairy Queen, large size chocolate, like the kind I used to share with my son.
But I passed on the bib.
That was the last time I saw him.
He’s gone now. He’s one of the twenty-two American Veterans who commit suicide everyday.
Twenty two. Every single day.
So, if you’re reading this, and you’re not a Warrior, or you don’t understand Warriors, here’s the takeaway:
There are hundreds of thousands of men and women — your neighbors, your co-workers, your family members, your friends — who walk among you with wounds they volunteered to take on to protect YOU.
They got hurt so you didn’t have to.
Twenty two dead, every day, because the pain they carry is too much to bear. Pain they took on behalf of others. Pain from going in harm’s way on behalf of others.
So on Memorial Day, don’t just remember. Act. See a veteran. SEE THEM. Acknowledge them. Honor them. Respect them. Thank them. It’s simple. Extend your hand and say, “Thank you for your service. It’s seen and appreciated.”
It’s that simple.
Think about that tonight.
Get up tomorrow and do that simple thing. Every day. Not just on Memorial Day.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the one person who will give one of those twenty-two a reason to keep going. A simple act of kindness that might save a life. Only takes one person.
Be that person.
America. Fuck Yeah.