"On Friday the 13th, May 2011 my friend Scott, veteran of two tours in Iraq and an Army Sniper, got into his full dress uniform. It was late morning when, having walked out to his drive way he put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
This set things into motion.
No one is sure who started the chain reaction. But the word went out among the veterans of 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry who served in Iraq in 2008 to 2009. Old Army friends saw Facebook messages sent to a friend who could no longer read them; expressing sadness at his death. Old friends then called each other and sent more Facebook messages. At first the news traveled slow, but as more found out the news of tragedy picked up steam. Then it became a tidal wave.
The wave reached me Saturday afternoon, in the form of a voice mail on my phone from Doc Nunn, my old platoon medic. Instead of bothering to listen to yet another drunk call message from an old war buddy, I simply returned the call. “Scott killed himself yesterday,” Nunn told me, “Funeral is on Tuesday. If you want, when I drive up from Texas I’ll pick you up.” It wasn’t so much an invitation; it was assumed I would attend. Of course I would.
Instead of packing I got into my car and drove around, having first informed my chain of command that I would be needing some leave. I drove fast, and I drove in silence. The highway extended before me into the endless Kansas horizon coming faster and faster, and my mind was blank. No thoughts, no questions. Blank.
At three A.M. Monday morning Nunn and another buddy arrived at my house. They were tired, and crashed on my couches, and I went back to bed. My mind usually turns constantly, I’m always thinking. Sometimes the noise inside my head keeps me awake for days. But now my mind was quiet. The Soldier in me knew we needed to sleep, at least for a few hours - just like before a mission. My friends and I instinctively knew we needed as much rest as possible to prepare for the coming days of mourning that awaited us. Those days like our days in combat would hold sleepless nights behind them.
I awoke before my companions, and having already picked up my leave papers from base we set out into the endless Kansas horizon. We first headed east, and then turned north toward Scott’s home near Chicago. Elsewhere many other Soldiers who had served with Scott began their journey to Naperville: The place we would leave him forever. We had few details of what had happened. Only the contents of a few phone calls and sporadic Facebook messages to guide us. We talked to pass the time, but when the subject turned to Scott’s death a tension filled the air. We quickly changed subjects.
When we had left my house we had no idea where we would stay. Speculation ran from crashing in a friend’s hotel room to sleeping in the car. Text messages sent by friends coming in from the east told us of where we to go. One online revue of the motel described it as “The best place to find hookers, drugs and get murdered in Naperville.” It was perfect. For a bunch of guys who shared the Al’Zahari school building’s filth in Sadr City, Iraq it’s less than impressive revue didn’t intimidate us and it was just what we needed. A motel that wouldn’t ask questions and wouldn’t mind Soldiers drinking and screaming till the wee hours of the morning; hurting at the loss of our friend.
It was about 30 miles outside of Naperville that we got the call from our buddy CJ- his was the first group to arrive in the Chicago area, “We’re at Scott’s parents. His dad wants to see all of us. Go there.”
We did, and stayed till late in the evening drinking many beers. It was a cathartic experience. The Zaur family welcomed us like long lost sons, and we were glad to be with them.
We left the Zaur home late and moved our drunken mourning to Scott’s favorite bar, where shots were on the house. At 2 A.M. my friends filed out, and I thought we were leaving as a group since the bar was clearly closing. Once outside Scott’s former squad leader Staff Sergeant Koski, unceremoniously pressed play on his cell phone without so much as a word; playing the voice mail Scott had left him shortly before committing suicide. I’m not sure if any of us had any idea that was coming.
Scott was speaking to his squad leader, but it seemed to me he was talking to each of us from beyond the grave. What followed was agonizing to hear. His intentions in the message were quite clear in hindsight, but he'd been to a thousand suicide prevention classes in the Army and knew how to mask his intent - knew what not to say to alert his friends. It only became obvious after he took his own life.
Scott clearly knew what he was about to do and was planing for it, and I think he felt he needed to explain and say good bye. Scott’s former team leader Trout, then played a voice message Scott had sent shortly before his death. Upon hearing it the Army Sergeant and Sniper broke down. “It was three in the morning and I didn’t answer the phone,” he said “Why didn’t I just answer the phone?” he cried. We closed around him in a phalanx and held our brother up, our bodies blocking out the pain of the world, shielding him from guilt he shouldn’t feel. The greatest fear of infantrymen, real infantrymen, is to let the brothers down. Not bombs, not bullets, not death, the fear is failing the guys. Zaur's team leader clearly felt this. “It’s not your fault,” we told him. “Never again, this can’t ever happen again to any of us,” Trout said back. "From now on, we answer the god damn phone." I’ll remember the look on his face forever.
We drove back to the hotel, and drank till the sunlight peeked over the horizon, numbing our pain.
The civilians at the funeral said we gave them chills. We did a combat funeral. Soldiers lined up in front of the body, and one by one we approached the casket at attention, and slowly saluted our friend. 23 vets saluted the body of Scott Zaur. When it was over, CJ broke down, and again we formed the Phalanx of brotherhood around him, holding him up. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
We drove to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and there we buried our friend. The tidal wave that Scott set in motion crashed, and the tide broke upon the shore of his short life. When the guns of the salute fired, we saluted. The flag that draped Scott's casket was given to his mother, and we wept. When it was over, the civilians watched as we fell out of our ranks, and picked up the spent cartridges from the ground around Scott’s casket making sure to account for all 21. The civilians watched this simple act in wonder and quietly observed us honor our friend. It’s an old tradition most civilians never know about. The Soldiers of the honor guard presented three casings to the Zaur family, one each for his father, mother and sister. We divided the rest amongst our selves.
I now have one of Scott’s spent casings, and it will add to the many I have collected from the ground of other fallen. It now sits next to my Grandfather’s, in a special box. There are now 27 casings in the box arranged in order of how I collected them... yes I know each one by sight. Unlike my Grandfather’s, most of them belong to young men like Scott.
The rest of the day for me was a bit of a blur. We ended up back at the Zaur home, and again we found some catharsis. Mr. Zaur told us over and over again how much it meant to him we had all come from so far. I’m truly glad this helped him in such tragic times but in truth we could have done no different. It’s tradition, and it’s our way.
The old ways are dying, and I think we can all feel them fading. The funeral of Scott Zaur to me at least, felt like reading Tennyson's "The Charge Of The Light Brigade." There will be a new military soon, one unrecognizable to we who buried Scott Zaur. Less a brotherhood the military is becoming a vast, bureaucratic agency. War... by accountants and lawyers. Every day the old ways and traditions fade to be replaced by a cold sort of professionalism. That may be all well and good, and maybe the Army doesn’t need Warriors anymore - but I feel the loss of the Warrior culture that I have been a part of, and it makes me sad. I had some sense that what I was seeing last week was not only the end of my friend’s life, but the end of a period in my life. As the war in Iraq passes into history it's veterans are beginning to take stock of what we've done. We're a special group, and I'd be a lier if I said I don't sometimes miss it. I didn’t just help bury Scott Zaur last week, I said good bye to the old way and on Friday when I returned to work at Ft. Riley I said hello again to the new one. I don’t like the new one. It doesn't feel like home. It feels alien and these new soldiers are strangers. With the loss of Scott Zaur, there is one less man who shared the experience of Iraq and the extraordinary things we saw there... and it makes me at least, feel a little more empty and hollow for the loss.
As for the question that was on the minds of everyone who buried Scott, “Why?” the answer is this: There was no why. There was no logic to his actions, only illogic. Nothing in his life justified his actions, but he was our brother and we buried him in our way. As our brother, we forgive him and will love him forever. Our loyalty to him goes on and on forever... just like the Kansas horizon.
Here is what you do, friends. Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him. That's all I know. That's all I can tell you. You ask "what is the opposite of fear?" I tell you it's love. This is what drives men to valor.
-Dienekes the Spartan, 320 B.C.
Monday, May 30, 2011
"Brothers" By Free0352
This is re-posted from Free's Blog. For those that haven't already read it, it is a heart-wrenching account of a recent, devastating loss suffered by Free and his 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry brothers. Always poignant, but even more so on this day...