By Aaron Ward
As I near closer to the big “3 -0” I often find myself looking back at my adult life as it stands so far. I’m married to a stellar woman, father to a rambunctious three-year-old son, and the wife and I just bought a house that in my estimation as a former Infantryman is just freaking huge. I’ve got a group of friends that some would envy, with our own traditions, laughs and supportiveness that seems to be missing in many interactions with others these days. By any measure, I’m a lucky man. I recognize this, but at times it feels lonely. I miss the days of being a 19-year-old grunt.
My war is ten years in the past. I caught the tail end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, one of the last Marines to patrol the city of Ramadi prior to the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. At least prior to Iraq almost falling to ISIS. My battalion’s time there will probably be summed in less than a paragraph in some history book somewhere and forgotten by an increasingly uncaring or uninterested population. One that grows increasingly war-weary. And increasingly removed from it. But for me, it still serves as a pivotal role in setting me down my current path. Holding a chapter in my own history.
Being a Marine is ingrained in me. Beyond the tattoos, and uniforms hanging ready for an inspection that will never come. The thing that has ingrained the Corps in me wasn’t something material, not a motto, a rank attained, or awards earned. Looking back now, it was the smiles, the jokes and laughter of the Marines I “grew up” with. My life is a fulfilling one no doubt, but I miss them and can see their faces clear as it was yesterday in my memory. I find myself yearning to see these men again. Rehash old stories, and patch up old grudges.
Perhaps this isn’t a new thing to warriors. Once the fighting is done, careers finished, and uniforms hung with reverence in a closet, we all find ourselves trapped in our youth to a certain extent. In 2019 it seems easier than ever before to remain in contact with your boys. Track their lives, their families and big events. And as much as I’m thankful we no longer have to disappear one day, only to reconnect decades later like so many veterans of the past. It almost seems harder. The Marines I deployed with are no longer in a stasis of sorts, locked safely as arrogant, self-assured teenagers. Rather again just as I am, a little older, a little fatter, a lot wiser.
Now, why did I say life can seem lonely, even as I’m surrounded by a loving family, great friends, and a successful life? Well, it’s simple in my mind at least, while some in my life has surely been around for its entirety of length. No one really was around for the whole opening act of becoming a man. But those guys were, we suffered, and laughed together. Through it, we learned who we were and who they were, and it seems that bond never truly fades. With phone calls, texts, or messages back and forth the guys to this day know me better than I know myself. Reconnecting with them, sharing a beer(s) with them I think will reconnect me, with a part of me seems lost. Possibly living on in their heads waiting to be reacquainted with me. Or maybe it was never really gone, and I’ve just dipped into the melancholy that comes with perspective.
To be sure of one thing, between the demands of life, work, being a father, husband, moving into a new home, and a whole mess of other things, it seems the thing I’m looking forward to the most is walking into Bastards in Downey, CA on March 16th to see the faces of my brothers.
I spent the day moving and organizing the new house. Rushing through the motions of the work hoping to get done faster, with the task that I’m still working on weeks later. As if I’d be able to knock these out, and somehow they would make the time count down faster to when I’d get on the road with the wife to Bastards. It didn’t count down any faster but, that nervous, excited feeling never settled down. The whole day I felt that feeling that was so familiar from a decade ago. When you get briefed on the plan for the night. Going over your gear, making sure your weapon was clean (at least inside, who cares what she looked like). Going over radios, and trucks and double checking your stuff again and checking your boy’s gear. All bidding the time for the green light to step off outside the wire and into the night and do your thing.
I moved through the motions with this feeling all day. So much so that my wife noticed this below the surface energy seemingly vibrating my skin. Radiating outwards for others to see. The minutes clicked onwards, finally, time to leave. I grabbed a few of the old patches we had made years ago to display our belligerence and discontent. Now serving more as a trigger for those memories and a source of a good laugh.
Once we pulled up to the bar after a nearly two-hour drive, it seemingly disappeared. Walking up to a crowd of familiar faces. Albeit we’re all older, fatter and a ton wiser then we were those long years ago. I felt an intense, and foreign and strange sense of ease I hadn’t expected to have. I felt less tense, less on edge. My all but destroyed back, with the ever-present pain seemed to dissipate. I hadn’t realized I’d left my wife sitting sipping her beer for about half an hour as I continued to greet Marines as they walked into cheers and jeers from the assembled cluster fuck. It seemed we were able to call out who was walking up, far before faces could be recognized, all thanks to years of identifying each other by each unique body movements, a fingerprint of sorts that didn’t seem to change much despite the years passed.
The hours passed, we drank, told stories off the past. Recounting to our wives the debaucherous, the scary and the funny. We caught up on lives we each split off to as we left the Corps. Raised glass to our brothers that are gone now, and retold their stories.
Then it hit me as to why we were so close. Yes, the shared hardships and training led us to grow close. But it was something deeper than that. I couldn’t place a finger on it in my inebriated and jubilant state. But the drive home, with the XO (the wife) driving, I sat drunkenly replaying the night and attempting to think deeply on my partial epiphany. And it clicked into focus, like the sight picture as you bring a rifle up onto target and start flipping that selector switch off safe. We weren’t just friends, or brothers and arms. But also living hard drives, carrying our friends within our own memories. As we told stories of our boys who weren’t present, or no longer with us, we could recount the slightest details of their mannerisms, the way they spoke, and strangely specific details of their lives. I drunkenly tried to explain to my wife all of this and I couldn’t string together much beyond a rambling that was all but incoherent.
The next day, nursing a hangover that would’ve made the young Lance Corporal (me) laugh, I was able to formulate this into a coherent idea. We carry each other, and that’s why we were so close. It seems to be an unspoken, agreement between men who go to war together. We who make it home will make sure that not only our brothers (and sisters) names aren’t forgotten, but them as a whole. We knew that if we bought the proverbial farm, the Marines around us would carry us with them. Tell stories of us, for the rest of their lives. These men would tell my story, as much as I would tell theirs. With that came a comfort that eased some of the anxiety of our possible deaths. Once we came home, this silent contract wasn’t dissolved as we went our separate ways.
So with this knowledge now, I make a point to retell these stories of all of those men. When my son sits with me at night, I like to show him pictures of my younger years, I tell him who each of the faces are in every picture I show him. I want him to know that these guys aren’t just faces, but people that are real. Hopefully, he carries it with him as he gets older, realizing that history as a whole isn’t just a boring subject, but someone’s life story. Most of us have families now, and I hope that they’re doing the same.
So with that, I pose a challenge to you. Remember every one of the guys and gals you served with. Entertain your friends and family with their stories. None of us will live forever, but maybe with those of us still alive and kicking passing along our comrades’ stories we can all stick around a little longer. Tell some stories of your boys or girls, funny or sad, with us or not. And maybe with that, we can carry each other forward a little farther into the future.