Friday, December 26, 2003

Death of a Great Leader on Christmas Eve; Tears for Christmas in Baghdad

26 DEC 03 2300

Yesterday was Christmas – and one I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the whole week. It’s been a holiday of bitter sweetness and deep reflection on the subject of death. We lost our brigade sergeant major on Christmas Eve, CSM Francis. At the time he was killed by an IED, SGM Walker and I were at Alpha Company at the Martyrs’ Monument – along with the lieutenant colonel, SGM Sanders, and Santa Claus (a plump enlisted man from the scout platoon). The lieutenant colonel and Santa flew in on a Blackhawk helicopter. We picked them up on the helipad. Just a few days before, the same Santa was at our NCO dinner – as well as CSM Francis – one of the only sergeants major that I deeply respected. I didn’t write in my journal about that dinner night, but oddly enough – I wanted to write about what he said to us in his quick Christmas speech.
“Knights, these dinners and the events that you plan are all signs of a great organization. Good organizations take time to get together,” he said. He had a stoic face, a chin that struck forward in anticipation, a look of deep preoccupation behind his eyes – but always positive. He had an air of thoughtfulness. I remember him offering me a ride in his van when we were getting ready to deploy to Kuwait. He stopped along side me in his Army van (he would just drive alone around post in Friedberg to see what was going on) and asked if I needed a ride. “Hey specialist,” he asked, “You need a ride?”
‘Na, Sergeant Major,’ I responded, noticing he was the new brigade sergeant major – and relieved that I recognized him and saved myself some embarrassment. ‘I’m just going to the back 40 (field on the backside of our base where we were lining up trucks).’ I didn’t think I had much farther to walk. (I’m pretty upset right now, I could cry – I am a bit. It hurts.) I didn’t want to inconvenience him. I guess he caught on to this.
“Na, hop on in, I’ll take you up there,” he said waving his hand to motion me forward. I ran up and jumped in. He slowly pulled forward, his chin out, starring straight ahead. We didn’t speak, but I appreciated his gesture. I didn’t know if I should say anything – it’s always a question of wait until spoken to, or speak first. From now on, I’ll speak first. We pulled up to the field and he stopped. I got out.
‘Thanks Sergeant Major, I really appreciate it!’
“No problem! What’s your name again?”
‘It’s Specialist Thompson, Sergeant Major.’
“Well, Specialist Thompson, you stay safe and have a good day.”
‘Thank you Sergeant Major, you too.’
“You bet.”
He seemed like such a nice guy, a grandfather figure. He had a wide, hardy smile – a smile that betrayed perseverance through field rotations, hard times, all kinds of weather, pain and happiness. A smile that said something was real about this man. He never showed his teeth when I saw him. It was the smile of a thoughtful and considerate man. When I look back, that chin of anticipation, that look of preoccupation, is haunting. It’s a face that almost looked as if it knew his fate. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can’t erase this impression from my mind. It doesn’t seem real that he’s gone – and on Christmas. I just want him to come back. Going back to the NCO dinner night, I remember him giving a great, short speech that implored my applause and actually made me proud to be in Baghdad helping. He put our mission and purpose in a positive context – at a time when all you hear about is “kill” and “attack” and “raid.” More about this later.


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