Stop the politics today — and remember

Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for
Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for “Chaplain Turner’s War,” a newspaper series and ebook I wrote on an army chaplain. Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC

Amid all the political noise of today, I want to stop and think of all my soldier  friends I met in Iraq and back here at home in all the years I covered the military.

Today is Veterans Day, a time for pause and reflection about the courage and sacrifice of our men and women who served in uniform. I am afraid that they will not get the attention they deserve given the current post-election situation.

Here’s to you, Fig, (see photo caption) and every veteran throughout the land.

You can find Fig’s story here: Chaplain Turner’s War

Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.
Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from other soldiers who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.
Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.

Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day


Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery.

Occasionally, I pick up my iPhone and am pleasantly surprised to see an incoming call from a soldier I met in Iraq. The other night, it was Mike Brown, who helped train Iraqi security forces for a year in Baghdad.

He wanted nothing in general, nothing in particular. Just to say hello.

His call was a good reminder, just ahead of Memorial Day.

There’s a photo that went viral on Facebook and Twitter of a grill. The caption says: Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day. So true.

For many of us, the three-day weekend has become synonymous with the beach or hamburgers or a chance to get away. It means the start of summer, the start of lazy afternoons under a hot sun.

We are quick to forget the true meaning of the holiday.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It used to be known as Decoration Day and was started after the Civil War to remember the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on bloody battlefields. Later, Memorial Day became a remembrance of all men and women in uniform who gave their lives for America.

Mike Brown served in the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, which lost nearly 30 soldiers in the year it spent fighting in Iraq. I covered memorial services for the 48th as well as other brigades in Iraq that lost almost as many soldiers. I attended too many services.

They were men and women who lost their lives too young. They left behind shattered families and communities. I think of them and all our servicemen and women this weekend and salute their courage. I urge all of you to do the same.

Chaplain Turner’s War

Chaplain Darren Turner counsels a soldier at a combat outpost
in Arab Jabour, March, 2008.
Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC
Four years ago, I spent time with an Army chaplain in Iraq because I wanted to write about how war affected American soldiers. His name is Darren Turner. He had only been a chaplain for a few months before he headed to Baghdad.
I discovered through him a world different than mine. In the midst of war, I learned about faith, specifically Christianity, and how it was vital to so many of Turner’s men in the 3rd Infantry Division.
Their battalion was part of the surge and had seen a lot of bad stuff in searing summer months and the rugged terrain of Arab Jabour. Turner had grown weary form memorializing so many of his men.
I met Turner at Fort Stewart, flew up with him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Spc. David Battle was struggling for life. He had lost three limbs in a bombing and Turner recently told me he was the most injured soldier at the time.
A few weeks later, photographer Curtis Compton and I flew to Iraq. My plan was simply to follow Turner around and document everything he did. I did not know how the story would turn out. Every day brought a new tragedy, a new triumph.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the story in June, 2008. Now it is out as a digital book.

The publisher thought it was as relevant as it was when it was written, now that the Iraq war has come to a close for America and in many places, it was has been swept under the rug, almost as though it never happened.
But it did happen. For more than eight long years. It changed lives here – and there – in the most disturbing ways.
Nearly 4,500 American troops died in the Iraq war. More than 30,000 others were physically wounded. Countless others live with scars that can’t be seen.
I want people to read this story and think about the costs borne by their fellow citizens. I want them to know that life will never be the same again for so many of them.
Darren and Heather Turner in Clarkesville, Kentucky, 
Feb. 2012. Turner tried to help his soldiers save their marriages 
but ran into trouble in his own.
A big thanks to Jan Winburn, who edited this story for the AJC – with a broken left arm to boot.
To Valerie Boyd, who had the wisdom to get me on this project and push it as a digital book.
Of course, to Agate Publishers for taking this on.
And to Darren Turner. I was glad to see you again this year and even more glad to know that you are happy again.
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