Media outlets are bursting at the seams with hard numbers this week: five years of war in Iraq and nearly 4,000 soldiers killed since March 2003. But for the few Americans that have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a number that is more somber and reflective than any body count: one.
Some of us were lucky to not have friends die, others had many comrades killed in action. My battalion suffered twenty-one KIA in our fifteen month deployment, but many in my platoon and company were affected by the loss of Brian Chevalier the most. We got him a few months before our deployment and like all new guys, he was treated like shit for a good while before he was accepted into the 'crowd.' We poked fun at him for his badly drawn tattoos and his thick Georgian accent. Unlike most of us, it rolled off his back and he took it in stride.
It pains me today that in the year that I knew him, I didn't get to know Chevy as well as I could have. He was sarcastic and quiet, qualities we both share. We would've gotten together great if we had the time.
This past Friday my old platoon got together to honor the man that was Brian Chevalier. I wrote about the events that night earlier this week. Accompanying us was a reporter from CBS News who was interested in a story of soldiers transitioning back to civilian life, post combat, and all the roadblocks we endure along the way. Her writeup of the night captured the essence of what we felt: a tangible loss that transformed our lives. While in country, we debated the merits of war, our reasons for staying and the effects of leaving. But that didn't affect our dedication to the mission. It wasn't a free democracy in the Middle East or the quelling of sectarian violence. It was to bring everyone home alive.
There were twenty-one failures in that mission, and Chevy was the third but the hardest to take. The two deaths before him - one in Mosul and one in Baghdad - happened in another company. We sat and mourned them at their memorials, but few of us knew the deceased. Chevy's death not only ended the life of a father but shattered the notion that we'd all make it out of Iraq alive. It was a wake-up call for us, not only in the realm of safety and awareness, but our mortal presence and the friendships that were forged in the states and strengthened in war. It was becoming clear that anyone could be next, any moment could be your last. We tread carefully, not forgetting the sight of Chevy put into a body bag as rounds zipped and cracked overhead.
It's been a year since that moment, and Chevy's death, along with 3,990 of our countrymen and women, are counted like vertical slashes in a tragic tally in the media to mark five years of war. The only Americans who see more than milestones and figures are the 3,991 families that shoulder the burden of loss, where the number one represents their sacrifice more than anything else.