I’ve had a few rough days. Most days are easy, forgettable, cyclical placeholders between the perpetually “next amazing thing” in our lives. Yet some days change the trajectory of our lives forever. Just a little over a week ago, I got a call from a family member asking me if I was aware of the “crazy stuff” going on in Chattanooga. As a southern boy, from Dalton, Georgia, the neighboring town 32 miles north across the state line is not only geographically close to home, but close to my heart. I learned in the days following what is now known as “The Chattanooga shooting” that the recruiter’s office this evil young man shot at was the last stop I made the day I left for Marine Corps boot camp as an 18 year old boy awaiting manhood. I also learned that the four Marines and Sailor killed belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, Mike Battery. A reserve unit I’ve known intimately for over a decade.
I know Mike Battery. My middle school football coach, Major Jeff McDonald, left the early years of what would later become a 30-year teaching career in 1991 to help command Mike Battery through battle in Operation Desert Storm. He and his team of weekend warrior artillerymen found some of the first hidden stock piles of SCUD missiles. They came home heroes to a grateful community in Northwest Georgia and Southeast Tennessee. Destined to leave a lasting impact on my life, Jeff’s son, Chris McDonald, was my best friend. Chris, our friend Keith, and myself were inseparable and each found ourselves serving after high school. Chris left military college for a semester to join his father’s alma mater, Mike Battery, as a reserve Marine. Chris was proud of his dad and proud of me, we were Marines together and many times, when home on leave, Chris would take pride in introducing me to his fellow Marines at Mike Battery. Our Marine Corps lives kept us a country, sometimes-even oceans apart. In 2008 we were both fighting Al Qaeda in separate parts of Iraq, I came home filled with vigor to do more, Chris came home both physically and psychologically beaten up. In 2012, Chris fell victim to PTSD; he was self medicating an injury he didn’t understand and had developed a pain killer addiction. His Dad, Keith and I fought hard to save him, but in an altered mental state, one of disparity, he took his own life.
Those were tough days. I rushed home from my fellowship in Washington, D.C., to be with my extended family. I asked to assemble Chris’ Dress Blues and went to the funeral home to put them on him myself; my brother, my Marine deserved it. When it came time to bury Chris’ body, one of a statistical 22 veterans who fall victim to their own demons daily, in the Chattanooga Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Mike Battery Marines carried his body, fired 21 shots and folded a flag given to his mother.
Mike Battery knew me. It was June 2010 and I was over five months into a deployment in Afghanistan that had all but broken my will to keep going. I’d lost count of the times I had died in my own imagination by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) just seconds before disarming it. One hot night, I sat down at a desktop computer and could smell my own disgusting mix of sweat, blood and dirt covering my gear. My eyes were swollen from the blast of an IED I had detonated a few hours before and while waiting for Facebook to load, I looked around me. The Forward Operating Base wellness and recreation center was the remnants of a school house which had been taken over by the Taliban, then bombed by U.S. Hellfire guided missiles, and later fought for and taken back by Marines just months before I got there. The tragic irony behind where I sat, complaining about a slow computer, was a kid once upon a time sat in the same place, only worrying that the lone #2 pencil they owned would break. The even more tragic fact was that it wasn’t till full-fledged war –not until many of those kids were captured, beaten or even worse, abused – and not until Marines, lonely for home, would a rudimentary slow desktop computer appear in that classroom. In that moment, I stopped complaining about the slowness of the device that I used to catch up on the “praying for you over there” messages and began thanking God that my own son would never see such a fate – not on my watch.
A few months later, I received word I would be sent further south to provide Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) support for an operation designed to neutralize a town, Safar Bazaar, which was riddled with enemy actors and materials used for making IEDs. I again sat at a computer and this time, wrote my mom. I told her I loved her, I thanked her for my birthday wishes. Most importantly I told my mother – a woman who's devoted love for me had already pushed her to the point of hysterical worry – that I was about to be “out of pocket” for a few days or weeks, but to not worry unless Marines cloaked in Blues came walking down her driveway. I told her I was too stubborn and hell bent on raising my son to die and that the IEDs in Afghanistan weren’t big enough to kill me even if one went off while I was disarming it. I’m not sure if she believed me, but she said she did anyway.
On August 6, 2010, I was challenged to fulfill my promise to my mother when an IED detonated under my feet. Losing blood out of three limbs, as well as internally, I was sent to a hospital in northern Afghanistan where I remained in country a few days as my body fought to stabilize. It was a tough day. Mike Battery got the call to notify my mother that I was severely injured and to deliver the message that my fate was truly “unknown.” This meant my parents were prepped to travel to Germany (if I lived long enough to make it there) to say goodbye.
So, when fate punched my ticket and the call came to notify my mom, the Marines at Mike Battery didn’t just pick up the phone, they didn’t just stop by to tell my mom her son was clingy stubbornly to life, no – they donned their Dress Blues and came to my parent’s house with honor, and respect for me and my relationship with a family that had served multiple generations in their unit. When I finally returned to Dalton after my injury, one of the first to greet me were those Marines, who apologized to me for what was probably a comically tragic evening when my hysterical mom saw them walking down her driveway.
After I got the call about the loss of those Marines and Sailor at Mike Battery, I drove home from Texas to be with the men who had been with me and my loved ones during the two, “toughest days”, of my life. When I arrived at the makeshift memorial in front of the recruiting station people looked at me with pride, sadness, and most importantly, hope. They saw in me, a survivor, a defiant symbol of perseverance in the face of tragedy. With the help of my friends, I knelt down on two prosthetic legs and pushed a dollar store American flag into the now sacred soil and sea of American flags, handwritten signs and homemade memorials telling the world that Chattanooga loves its fallen heroes. In that moment, I too was a Chattanoogan. I was no longer saddened. I was vehemently stirred, my body shook in anger and my hands trembled with a scarily familiar itch for vengeance.
Yet, I also stood with pride and focus. I stood with the pain and suffering of a million local Americans squarely on my shoulders. These men were killed with an evil intent of scaring our community, and our country, into panic. Some radical Muslim extremist prompted this man to act, just as one had placed a bomb in the ground the day I was injured. Yes, these Marines and Sailor died, and yes, I lost my legs, but their spineless attempt at scaring my beloved countrymen into submission had failed just as their attempt to take my life had five years ago.
As I reflect on the events that have so intimately affected my life, I have a message for anyone in this great country aspiring to act with evil intent against us: Your plans are in vain and your hope is flawed. Look around you and listen. It’s not the sound of disparity you hear, but the voices of millions of Americans standing stronger today than a week ago, chests filled larger today with American pride than before the tragedy in Chattanooga. In over a decade of war, you haven’t broken our will, you haven’t wavered our stead, you haven’t undermined our beliefs, nor have you changed our way of life. We are here. We are free. We believe in a forgiving God and we stand, ideologically ironclad, in the belief that radical Islam is a true evil in this world. We are exceptional, and you are nothing, we are pure and you are corrupt. If you succeed in an attack we will quickly sweep away every trace of your existence, there will be no heaven, no reward, no legacy of martyrdom. If you find yourself at the end of our strong hand of justice please do not revert to a corrupt prayer for mercy, you’re actions have earned its veto, pray for a swift and clean death unlike that which your evil cohort has given to our beloved. If you survive such an attack on our soil, you will die forgotten and will be erased from our memories, and your victims, our heroes, will live forever as a reminder of the unfair byproduct of a truly free society. With every action you take you strengthen our faithful bond and our way of life. Know that you cannot win; with love, freedom and divine fate we have already won.