As the Stryker rumbled around a corner, I began to drift out of consciousness. Having rolled into Baqubah only a few hours earlier—and still unsure of our surroundings—we were confident our armored vehicles would intimidate the enemy here as they did in other areas. Though it was only mid-March, the temperature was flirting with triple digits as we strained under the weight of armor and ammunition. My eyes grew heavy as the radio squawked about conditions outside the windowless green truck.
The streets were suddenly desolate, except for a group of kids sitting on the courtyard wall of a school. In seconds, the radio chatter followed, as it began to mirror the sense of foreboding that swept over the men in the hatches. No cars were on the roads and shops and cafes were empty. The ghosts of the city watched silently as we passed concealed roadside bombs and abandoned houses rigged to explode. As we approached the school, the kids on the wall plugged their ears and grinned in depraved anticipation. They had been waiting for us all morning.
The blast that killed Brian Chevalier tore through armored steel like a bull colliding with a thin red sheet. His Stryker took flight for just a moment, corkscrewed through the air and landed on its side. Broken bodies poured out the back and were loaded onto other trucks as machine guns fired on rooftops lined with insurgents. Chevy was placed gently into a body bag as the school courtyard wall was being eaten by monstrous Bradley guns. The kids either ran away or lay dead in the compound. Chevy was not the only one who slipped into darkness that day.
Even as a young kid, I reflected on my distant relative killed at Gettysburg, and the men my grandfather and uncle knew in Korea and Vietnam who came home in flag-draped transfer cases. But a turn down a trash-strewn road fundamentally changed the concept of love and loss for many in the platoon. We were young soldiers and unaccustomed to death. It was no longer something only our grandparents had to worry about. Suddenly we were eulogizing our brother who never had a chance to grow old and live a full life.
Memorial Day is meant to remind folks of the sacrifice borne by those who fell in battle in defense of the country, as well as their families. But once you lose someone in combat, Memorial Day bleeds across the rest of the calendar. Chevy’s name is written across the steel bracelet I wear on my wrist, and it’s as indelible as any memory of him that I have. It would be unconscionable to keep his memory constrained to one day a year, and the same goes for the other men we lost. The anniversaries of their deaths have become somber rallying points for the platoon. We call each other, share stories and catch up on old times. We toast and drink over the phone. The guys get back together across telephone lines and Facebook walls.
I hope civilians find more solace in Memorial Day than I do. Many seem to forget why it exists in the first place, and spend the time looking for good sales or drinking beers on the back porch. It’s a long weekend, not a period of personal reflection. At the same time, many incorrectly thank Vets or active duty folks for their service. While appreciated, it’s misdirected. That’s what Veterans Day is for. Instead, they should take some time and remember the spirit of the country and the dedication of those men and women who chose to pick up arms. They never came home to be thanked, and only their memory remains.
Chevy’s death sent shock waves through our unit and took a soldier from his men, and a father from his daughter. It was the moment we realized we weren’t invincible or young anymore. We grew up on that schoolhouse road. Memorial Day has simply become another day to think about him. But for those who haven’t lost anyone in battle, I hope they can, at least for a moment, share in the sorrow and incredible pride I feel for after having served with him. He remains forever a soldier.