May 31, 2010
What Memorial Day Means to a VeteranBy T.J. Woodard
When I was a young seven-year-old, I noticed my neighbor's mother crying. I learned that her brother-in-law, a helicopter pilot, had been killed in Vietnam. I felt bad about it, but to me, it was just a story.
When I was a high school student, my Uncle Bob, a police lieutenant, sat in our living room and told us of a police officer who had been killed in the line of duty. I remember Uncle Bob sitting there, wiping tears from his eyes as he explained the officer's actions that day. Uncle Bob was on the scene and was about to take command when the shooting occurred. "It was a hell of a brave thing he did," my uncle reported. Uncle Bob's story was of valor and sacrifice, but still only a story to me.
Sacrifice became real for me many years later in Iraq. I was the executive officer (second in command) of a newly formed task force -- Task Force Tacoma. We had the mission of preventing mortar attacks on the largest American air base in the country, the security "outside the wire" for 20,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians. It was a difficult mission. The area was known as "mortaritaville" because of the constant threat of attack by rocket and mortar fire.
The reality of the war hit the task force on 22 June 2004. Alpha Company, 579th Engineers, California Army National Guard, were conducting search and seizure operations north of the base. Most of the men were dismounted, walking and searching for hidden weapons caches. A company of Iraqi National Guard (ING) troops were also on the mission.
Shortly before 1100 hours, the radio crackled with "Contact! Small arms fire!" The gunfire was close to the base's fence line, and we heard the very brief exchange. Our ING "allies," the very people we were there to help rebuild their country, had ambushed part of the patrol. Our scout platoon provided overwatch. The scouts reported something that stopped every heart in the command post. "We have one KIA and two wounded. We are evacuating to the north gate. Get that gate open so we can get to the CASH [Combat Support Hospital]." We did so, and the patrol quickly got our men to the hospital.
It was too late for First Lieutenant Andre Tyson. Twenty minutes later, we learned that Sergeant Patrick McCaffrey also died of his wounds. Specialist Bruce Himmelright was critically wounded. In an instant, the reality of war hit three hundred men and women. I spent the rest of the day coordinating the actions of the quick reaction force, ensuring the mortar platoon was ready to fire to support any further enemy contact, calling brigade headquarters to inform them of the casualties, and coordinating with 1st Battalion, 77th Armor to the north, and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team headquarters. I worked nonstop until 2300 hours (11 pm) that night.
Our world was shattered in an instant. That night, after the graves registration team did their job, nearly the entire battalion assembled on the ramp at the airfield to put our men, our friends and comrades, on a C-130 aircraft for their last trip home. It was a somber experience.
Events calmed down for the next six weeks. In early August, the commander's gunner (the man who mans the .50 caliber machine gun on his vehicle), Specialist Donald Roy McCune II, asked to go on a patrol with the scout platoon. He told the battalion commander, "I like working in the headquarters section, Sir, but we just don't go on patrols often enough. I need to get out there in the field." He was volunteering for his last mission.
Just before 1800 hours (6 pm), the radios came alive. "Shawnee 6 hit an IED [improvised explosive device -- Shawnee 6 was the radio call sign for the scout platoon leader]!" Three 155-millimeter artillery shells were wired together for detonation. The explosion caused a crater eight feet wide and four feet deep. The HMMWV (High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle) was thrown in the air and landed upside-down next to the crater. The engine of the vehicle was destroyed -- everything forward of the engine block was gone. A patrol found a tire from the truck 300 meters from the site of the explosion.
The blast broke First Lieutenant Tim Ozmer's back. He crawled from the truck. Specialist John West was critically wounded, hanging upside-down by his seat belt. Sergeant Robert Johnson, who was not seriously wounded, pulled his crew from the vehicle. Specialist McCune suffered serious internal injuries when he was thrown from the vehicle.
Another long night of work followed. At the hospital, I met the remaining scout platoon men and briefed them on their fellow soldiers' injuries. I had never felt such strong emotions before in my life -- the desire to kill the enemy, the pain of seeing healthy young men broken and bleeding, and the exhaustion from conducting one mission after another after another in a very stressful environment.
In November we lost Sergeant First Class Michael Ottolini, who was also killed by an improvised explosive device. Mike never knew what hit him -- he was here one second, gone the next.
As an executive officer, I did not experience much action as a member of the few patrols I did go on. My job entailed running the command post, not being in the field. I engaged the enemy on occasion, but I did not see the amount of action the rest of the unit did. However, I often met the helicopter at the hospital to assist in offloading the wounded. On one occasion, Alpha Company had struck another IED. Most seriously wounded was Private First Class James Huff, a young man who had arrived in country about two weeks earlier. Huff bled profusely from a wound in his side. I grabbed one corner of the litter and with three others rushed him into the emergency room. As we transferred him to a table in the ER, PFC Huff's blood spilled all over the floor. I slipped in it and nearly fell. Not being a medic, I knew it was time to get out of the way and let the professionals work. I backed up to the waiting area nearby.
I stood there, watching the medical team work on PFC Huff. They were proficient, working quickly, and soon had things under control. Fortunately, the hospital had been augmented with some excellent Australian Army medical personnel. A young Australian corporal was busy cleaning up the blood trail on the floor left by the wounded men. When finished, she turned to me and said, "Sir, there is nothing more that you can do. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
I about fell over. This young Australian soldier saw that I also needed some "attention." I politely thanked her and told her I knew where the coffee was, and I was sure she had better things to do than get a major a cup of coffee. She smiled and went back to work. I went to the coffee pot.
Lieutenant Tim Ozmer would go to Germany, have surgery, and his back would heal. He would return to Iraq later in 2004 and again in 2009. He is still serving in the Army at the rank of Captain. He has the skill and experience to go far in the Army.
Unable to get information through the chain of command while in Iraq, I contacted a friend of mine, a nurse, stationed at Walter Reed. She told me John West was physically doing as well as could be expected, but would often wake up thinking he is still hanging upside down from his seat belt in that HMMWV. John West is a disabled veteran now, but he can walk and talk and has all his arms and legs. John is a brilliant young man who will do well in a civilian career.
Sergeant First Class Ottolini was the father of five grown children. He had come out of retirement from the Army when his unit was mobilized. He would not let his men go into harm's way without him. He is missed by all who knew him.
Bruce Himmelright lives in California. He testified against one of the men who shot him through a video teleconference for a trial in Iraq, after one of the men had been captured. Bruce is a well-adjusted "wounded warrior."
James Huff healed from his wounds. I last saw him at the commissary at Fort Lewis, Washington at a voter registration table. He immediately asked me "are you registered to vote, sir? You have to vote, sir." He continued joking with me and other soldiers.
Specialist Donald McCune would die of wounds in Germany. His loss hit the unit hard. Don had just celebrated his twentieth birthday. He was a tall, skinny kid with a silly grin who reminded me of my own son, only three years younger.
In 2006, I visited Specialist McCune's mother, Darcy, in Michigan. I was on leave for my parents' 50th anniversary, but I made a point of stopping to see her. We met at a local restaurant, then drove to the cemetery, where emplaced was a wonderful marker for Don. When I saw it, all I could do was weep. My wife and I had a nice chat with Darcy. We placed flowers there and watched the deer walk around the beautiful cemetery.
The next morning, my wife asked me if I had been in the command post when Don was killed. I said, "Yes, why?" She replied, "Because you were talking on the radio last night in your sleep." I did not realize I carried any "wounds" of my own. Back at Fort Lewis, where I was stationed, another unit was conducting exercises near the house. At about one in the morning, a burst of machine gun fire would wake me and my wife. Instantly I was on my feet, looking for my helmet and body armor and ready to run to the command post. It took me a moment to realize I was in my home, safe and sound, and the gunfire I heard was from an exercise -- blank ammunition -- as another unit was preparing to deploy.
To many Americans, Memorial Day remains a day of stories. Stories about heroes. Stories about valor. Stories about sacrifice. But to veterans like me, Memorial Day is about men and women, friends no longer with us, feelings of emptiness. It's about men like Mike Ottolini and Patrick McCaffrey, Don McCune and Andre Tyson. But it is also about men like Tim Ozmer, John West, James Huff, and Bruce Himmelright. It's about the heroism of Sergeant Rob Johnson, about the incredible things the medics did to keep men alive.
To a veteran like me, Memorial Day is about people. It is about people who gave their all, people who gave of themselves and people who loved their country and their friends more than themselves. It is about those who died, those who suffered horrific wounds, and those who have serious wounds that we cannot see by looking at them.
It is about people who will never be exactly like they were before they went to war. It is about heroes.
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TJ Woodard is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. During Operation Iraqi Freedom he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Combat Action Badge. He is a 40% disabled veteran.