Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Gravediggers

(Note: Due to operational security – a buzzword I’ll use frequently over the coming months – I’ve substituted nicknames for the real names of my soldiers. In the modern American military, the environment of austere professionalism is occasionally tested, but never crossed. Either way, this isn’t some Vietnam spoof, and we don’t actually go by these nicknames. We are almost always “(Insert Rank/Insert last name),” except when we’re in the field and by ourselves. So accept the illustrious acronym OPSEC and accept the pseudonyms. You never know who’s reading, after all. Except for Uncle Sam. You can always count on him, and not just because he works for the NSA now.)

When you visualize the pack of collective undertaking and resolute efficiency that is The Gravediggers platoon, I want you to picture them the way I remember them when I stumbled into our office as a brand new platoon leader. Wide-eyed and self-conscious, I decided to allow them to do all the talking.

There’s the platoon sergeant, SFC Big Country, a corn-fed giant brimming with competence, military bearing, and a no-nonsense brand of Midwestern keenness. The senior scout, SSG Bulldog, struts around, intimidating the junior soldiers into any form of work they can find. Only a deep, Southern rumble when laughing betrays his otherwise flawless manifestation of a Hollywood drill sergeant. My other section sergeant, SSG Boondock, issues instructions with the deadpan earnestness of a Joe Sixpack everyman. The team-leading buck sergeants, they that make the Army go, bark with the power they’ve tasted while still hungering for more; SGT Chico moves in silent effectiveness, while SGT D-Wizzle jolts in frustrated amusement. Our soldiers worship these men, and do so with good reason – on a daily basis, my NCOs teach them how to walk that subtle line between victory and defeat, how to shed that post-boyhood buzz in the name of something far less fun but more profound, and how to listen to the instincts that lead to survival rather than the other instincts that lead nowhere but a tomb in Arlington.

And then there are the Joes, who watch me in questioning regard. PFC Twanger, unimpressed with my college-boy credentials, explains the nuances of the gunner’s cupola in the Stryker. The other gunners, SPC Flashback and SPC Spot, hang on to every word of technical expertise being passed down from the NCOs, while darting quick glances my way. One of the drivers, PFC Big Ern, tries in vain to silence PFC Twanger from talking to the new lieutenant, while SPC Prime, a former trucker, goes into painfully-specific detail about the machinery in a Stryker’s engine. The resident joker, PVT Cold-Nuts, waltzes in ten minutes late with a litany of excuses, and gets verbally power-bombed into submission by SFC Big Country. I quickly realize my life perspective will forever be altered by working day-to-day with these people. Not long after I decided such would be for the better.

Nearly every single one of these men are from Rural America, be it the South or the Midwest - America’s heart and backbone, respectively. While I don’t necessarily convey prototypical West Coast cool, most of the Joes find my Reno heritage interesting, nonetheless. The NCOs have served in the Army long enough to stop caring about the whims of the American society they protect so effectively; the Joes are just removed enough to not fully recognize how the same society that reared them has naturally detached itself from the war we’re all destined to fight. In a volunteer military, we fight for the nation, not with it.

To borrow an analogy from one of our sister unit’s emblems, we were and are wolfhounds bred to keep the wolves away from the masters we’ve sworn to protect. But that doesn’t matter to them, just as I would come to realize it didn’t really matter to me, either. We find honor and sacrifice through one another, and that is enough. More than enough, actually. Even if I was just a new butterbar, still sparkling with collegiate polish and absolute lack of military pragmatism, every single one of my men were still professional enough to call me “Sir” and mean it. They had the muscle, the brains, the passion, the efficiency, the pure American fury. All they needed was a LT smart enough to leave them alone and let them do their thing after my whole planning gig, but dumb enough not to become a glory-hound when it became clear I happened to lead the greatest scout platoon this side of Jeb Stuart’s raiding cavaliers.

I’ve fit the bill, thus far.

Most of those guys are still with the Gravediggers. Some have left and have been replaced by new faces; such is the cyclical nature of any military unit. But mentioned or not, all of them are the men we tend to celebrate in the abstract. Although I desire to have them honored specifically and individually, they wouldn’t want it that way. That’s not what the inheritors of Sparta seek. So I’ll do it for them. I have no such pretensions against shameless self-and-group promotion, and stoicism has never been my style.

Sleep soundly tonight, America. Because we probably won’t – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.


Anonymous said...

Dear Lt. G.,

Your clear respect for the men in your platoon is your most unique qualification for being a fine officer. I salute you and wish all of you well and look forward to reading your blog regularly.

Dice D said...

Got you bookmarked and at the top of the list. The high literary values stand out, as well as your credibility. Good luck, Lieutenant.

Anonymous said...

yours is one of the best analyses of our volunteer military that has been written

america owes so much to our south and midwest, but those on the east and west coasts can't seem to recognize it

good job, keep it up

Grandpa said...

God grant that the gravediggers leave Iraq in safety, and leave Iraq a better place then when they arrived. Your blog is now one of my daily "must read" along with Michael Yon and "the fourth rail". It comes at a unique time. A terrific blogger, Mjr. Olmsted was one of the first American casualties of 2008. I find it a national disgrace that the media will not acknowledge the dedication, courage, and achievement, of what you are doing in Iraq, and that I must search for blogs like yours to find out how you all are doing over there, and how you are handling the preassure of the job, and the sacrifces of your loved ones at home.