Both men have a special connection to my family. In fact, by remembering them I repay a personal debt: Sgt. Alexander helped my nephew Jimmy, a lieutenant on his first tour of duty in Iraq, learn how to use armored vehicles better in urban settings. Doc Robertson was the medic who worked most closely with Jimmy and his men; as anyone who has served can tell you, good medics are worth their weight in gold.
In their Humvees and Bradleys, Hardrock Co. would roam the villages in the Sunni Triangle, but they also got out on foot to rebuild schools, soothe the nerves of local religious leaders and politicos, provide food and supplies Richmonders sent and train the Iraqi army. This is very dangerous work. Jimmy recently handed me a huge chunk of shrapnel from an IED that had buried itself in his Bradley's open hatch instead of his chest. As I hefted the souvenir, it occurred to me how thin the line between life and death can be in combat. A few inches higher or to the side, and Jimmy and I would not have been talking in my mother's kitchen; our family would be getting mail and care packages.
Alexander and Robertson deserve medals, but such posthumous awards are cold comfort indeed. My hard drive has a scanned image of my grandparents getting their youngest son's Bronze Star after he died on Okinawa. As a Navy Corpsman he fell, like Robertson, helping others live. Just from my photo, one detects a pain from which my grandparents never recovered. Thirty years later, they could not speak of their son without weeping. We can only hope that the Hardrock families will fare better as time passes. At least, as they receive cards and gifts from Richmond friends of their unit, they will know we have not forgotten.
As I consider the empty place at the table I think of another one in our hearts. I do not wish to demean the act of placing a yellow ribbon on the back of a car, but our support must go beyond that to be meaningful. No matter where we stand on this conflict, too often we push a blunt fact to the backs of our minds, keep willing it away even as it gnaws at us: More than 2,000 men and women have fallen in battle, and thousands more, such as the young soldiers Alexander and Robertson rescued, are so badly wounded that they may never be quite the same again.
I opposed going to war in Iraq. For those of us who did, who shrugged off the slurs that we were unpatriotic, our nation's daily tragedies provide no comforting vindication of our beliefs. No, they provide no comfort at all. For our leaders who invaded Iraq for dubious reasons and without coherent plans for occupying the country, the daily toll must be a terrible burden. I suppose that they, too, need our prayers.
So at Thanksgiving we will set an empty place and remember, even as we give thanks and enjoy a plentitude Americans take for granted. Even at home such blessings are spread unevenly. The enlisted men in Red Platoon are the same age, yet nothing like my students. One soldier, naturalized under an amnesty for illegal immigrants, crossed our border in a banana truck. Another has no family at all. Others in the unit had received nothing from America until we organized a mail drive, with each soldier getting a magazine or two, a letter or card, and some food from home.
The blunt facts of a Department of Defense announcement do not capture a man's heroism, let alone what he did or thought when the fatal moment came. As I write this, I do not even know exactly who was wounded in the attack, who not. Did one of them have something from Richmond in a pocket? Did any of them give our school supplies to little children whose earliest memories are of our shock-and-awe bombing campaign? I will just wait on more press releases from the DOD, if they even talk about the wounded anymore.
At our table I cannot dwell on such things, no more than I can on the uncounted, probably uncountable, Iraqi dead. "That way madness lies, let me shun that," King Lear warned us, in vain. But even as we give thanks for what we enjoy, we will pray for all the young people who cannot sit with us this Thanksgiving. S
Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.
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