Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Letter from a Marine's Dad

Major hat tip to Smoke Signals for posting the following email he received:

Darrell's message:

My Marine son, Adam called me a few minutes ago. For the first moment or two I didn’t recognize his voice; it was raspy, tired and older than when I spoke with him last. I suppose that is to be expected. One doesn’t endure the hell that he has and go on with business as usual.

“Son, are you okay? “ I asked quietly. The response was forced. “I’m not sure,” he said.

“Adam, I’m so sorry. I am so very sorry,” I struggled to get the words out.

His whispered voice screamed with pain. “Dad, I was supposed to be on that helicopter. That should have been me.”

As most Americans know by now, we lost 31 of our boys last Tuesday when the CH-53 Sea Stallion they were flying in went down in an Iraqi field about 200 miles west of Baghdad. When the incident first crossed my news wire I was only seconds from going on the air. It took my breath away and I prayed a quiet prayer for all of the families but, to be honest, I never even considered that Adam, a Lance Corporal in the Corp, would be in that part of the country. Days earlier he told me his team would be moving out but even he was uncertain where they would land.

As the day progressed and the news said the guys were from Charlie Company I became even more concerned. My wife, Laurie, and I awaited word but it didn’t come. As the minutes ticked into hours every devastating thought a person can have ran through my mind. As Laurie paced and emailed, I sat in my office working on the next show. I had to stay busy. I had to keep my mind off the “sandbox” and the tragedy that had just changed families’ lives forever. Finally, 17 hours after the accident we heard from a source that our son had been spotted on the ground and that he was okay. We breathed for the first time all day.

I’m a pretty strong soul and a man who doesn’t often express emotions, but since that fateful day I find myself tearing up as my mind races to that point in time. Today, though, was the worst. Today, I heard the full story. It broke my heart.

“Dad, I was the last guy on that helicopter. I stowed my pack and was inside when an officer from the other copter yelled out my name. ‘Ankarlo, jump out of there and climb into our copter. We need you to be stick man’.” Two of Adam’s good buddies were sent to take his spot.

The night was windy. It was draped in a heavy desert fog but still the Stallions had to fly. Charlie Company had just received their security orders. And so, off they went. Our helicopter pilots have to fly their crafts close to the ground, with few lights on, to avoid enemy fire. They stay low so the surface-to-air missiles won’t blow them out of the sky. In fact, at this low altitude the enemy fire actually bounces off the helicopters before they can explode.

“I am so numb dad. I’m just numb. I saw an explosion and looked out a side window but wasn’t sure if the flash came from the other chopper or not. To avoid fire our pilot swerved back and forth and finally shot straight up. We actually lost power for about 15 seconds and were plummeting back to the ground when he finally regained control. We were sure we were all gonna die but we thought the other copter was okay,” he explained in an honest but devastated tone. “It wasn’t until we landed that we were told it had crashed. At first we were told a few guys had died, and then it was 10; then it was 20 and finally the whole group. Dad, I knew every one of those guys. They were my friends. Now they are all dead. Dad, they’re all dead.” A long paused followed. He was in too much pain and I didn’t have a clue what to say. What does one say to a guy who just saw all his friends get wiped out? A tired cliché would be the worst route. We sat in silence.

“Dad, why am I alive? I was strapped in and we were taking off. Why was I yanked off that copter?” His hoarse voice strained to say more but he couldn’t. I cried with Adam for a moment. “Son, who can explain this? I certainly can’t. I will tell you that thousands of people are covering you in prayer and I don’t doubt that played a major role; but your pop can’t explain the questions you are asking. Only God can do that, and He may choose never to do it,” I offered the only comfort I knew.

Around Christmastime Adam sent us some movies he had taken of his pals. There is serious war footage from the day they took Fallujah but there was a lot of time devoted to guys in their twenties just cutting up and having some fun. “Dad, almost all the guys on those tapes…” his voice trailed off. He didn’t have to say another word. I knew where he was going. It was just too surreal. The next pictures I will see of them will include their families crying around their flag-draped coffins. War hurts.

After a few minutes Adam wanted to share a few more details, “We went back to the wreckage but the biggest piece left was only about four feet in diameter. Everything was torn to bits,” he explained. “I looked for my pack but it was incinerated. Every letter, every thing I have over here was burned. Dad, your book, the one you wrote and that I have shared with about a hundred guys over here, is nothing but ash. I should have been with that pack.” I finally jumped in, “No you shouldn’t have. You are suffering from something called Survivor’s Guilt. Why them and not me? It’s a natural emotion and you have to work through this, but in the end, if you believe in God and know that He’s looking out for you, then you have to believe He knows what He’s doing. I don’t understand it but that’s all you have to hold on to.” We prayed a short prayer and choked back the tears. “I’ve gotta go dad. They just called us back to action. They are loading us on to another helicopter. We’ve got a mission to do before Sunday’s election.”

As he started to go I whispered, “Stay safe.” It sounded so trite when it fell off my tongue. “Stay safe,” what kind of advice was that I wondered? “I’ll try. I love you dad.” For the first time, he sounded like he really was on the other side of the world and with that, the call disconnected.

For the longest time after our conversation, I sat quietly; privately. While staring at a darkened room I realized in the deepest sense of the term what the ultimate price of freedom is. My son, America’s son, painted its picture in stark detail. Its color is red and it has stains that flow like rivers. Those rivers came when a few Marines and God Himself poured out their tears like rain to create a priceless portrait of sadness and hope.

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