Thank you, to America’s best and brightest
December 27, 2005
This Christmas season, as private jets muscle one another for precious parking space at Sardy Field in Aspen and real estate agents lick their chops at the prospect of selling $10 million castles, Americans all over the world are grieving. While the super-rich eye each other up and down at parties, coldly scanning their opponent’s designer labels, jewelry and cosmetic surgery for critical analysis, Americans are fighting and dying in dirty countries far from home.The Associated Press has published an ongoing series, “Portraits of Valor,” about American servicemen and women who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of this morning, 2,164 Americans have died in these wars; I give The Associated Press great credit for publishing these vignettes of American lives.I’m sure the Bush administration would rather the AP not do this, but the AP has done an outstanding job of putting a personal face on each death. No doubt it’s a factor in the president’s rock-bottom approval ratings. It’s one thing to read that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Mosul, but it’s quite another to read about his success on the wrestling mat in high school, how he proposed to his fiancee, and why he believed it was his duty to serve his country.No doubt there have been some jerks who met their end in a blown-up Humvee on a dusty road in Iraq, and a few of them probably won’t be missed. But I believe the great majority of these Americans represent our best and brightest.They came from all states, all colors, all religions, all backgrounds: Honduran immigrants, inner-city African-Americans, country boys from South Carolina and Washington state, surfer dudes from California, Kiowa and Sioux Indians from the Great Plains, kids with Italian, Algerian, Mexican, Chinese and Scotch-Irish surnames, Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians and Guatemalans. Among the dead are high school valedictorians, all-conference tight ends, cross-country champions, buckle-winning team ropers, all-state basketball forwards, motocross riders, swim team captains, West Point graduates, debate champions, Future Farmers of America, National Merit Scholars, artists, poets, musicians and singers.Strangely, I don’t see any mention of country club golf champions, sailing champions, attendance at exclusive private schools, summers in the Hamptons, or other manifestations of privileged elitist backgrounds.They were lance corporals and PFCs, lieutenant colonels and chief warrant officers, specialists and staff sergeants, captains and sergeants first class. Many were on their second or even third tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some had served in Kosovo, Somalia and Haiti. They were tank drivers, platoon commanders, mechanics, helicopter pilots, medics, special ops troops; they represent just about every job description an army can have. They had earned degrees in economics, electrical engineering, history, criminal justice, computer science and any other degree course commonly offered at American colleges and universities. Every man and woman killed or wounded represents a tremendous loss, not only in emotional terms, but in terms of millions of dollars of training, as well as volumes of experience, expertise, professionalism and lost earning power.They liked to play video games, go hunting and fishing, ride their motorcycles, go out on the town, stay at home and cook, work on their cars, watch football games, go to church, sing, dance, joke, play poker, pray, go trail-running, skiing, mountain biking, ice climbing, four-wheeling, shooting, surfing, swimming. They were soccer coaches, church deacons, boy scouts and volunteers.Yes, the men and women who went to Iraq and died there were all volunteers. They were warriors and they were patriots. They were the kind of people that you’d like to go fishing with, the kind of folks who would help you jump your car if it wouldn’t start. They were capable, tough, motivated and well-trained.I have a friend who is a big George Bush supporter, and he says that 2,000 combat deaths are statistically insignificant, that more than 2,000 Americans die each year falling off ladders. The price is well worth establishing democracy in the Middle East, he claims. Maybe. Maybe so.But try telling that to all the wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, stepbrothers and stepsisters, fiancees and best friends who have lost someone very, very important to them. A quiet wave of grief is rippling through the country, because these soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors represented the very best of America.Many of them had children, sons and daughters, stepsons and stepdaughters of all ages, from infants to college age. Thousands of American boys and girls will grow up wondering what their father was like and why he chose to go to war in Iraq. And for every dead American, another dozen or so will bear the scars of battle. Many will spend the rest of their lives suffering from grievous wounds borne in the name of our country.Whether you believe in George Bush’s motivations for attacking Iraq and the manner in which his administration has conducted the war, you have to believe in the soldiers who have served and died there. They’ve been crawling through the mud and dust, fighting in cemeteries and swamps, never truly knowing who their opponent is, and spending their extra money on shoes, candy and soccer balls for their opponents’ children.Our pilots and crews have been flying on a wing and a prayer with planes badly in need of new parts and maintenance. Our soldiers don’t know the meaning of the term “business hours,” as it’s a 24-hour-a-day duty. They’ve signed up, served a tour wearing flak jackets and carrying 50 pounds of gear in 140-degree heat, and then they’ve gone back for another year of the same duty. They’ve respected their opponents’ houses of religion even as mosques have been used as firing positions to kill them. Thank you, soldiers. Thanks, Marines. Thank you, sailors. Thank you, airmen.Gary Hubbell and his wife, Doris, own OutWest Guides, LLC, in Marble, Colo., where they outfit summer horseback rides and autumn elk and deer hunts. Gary is a freelance writer and photographer and a native of Carbondale.