Monday, May 31, 2010

Metal Memorials

“Hey man, just so you know, I’m going to set this thing off.”

I don’t have a metal plate in my head or shrapnel in my legs, but I carry with me something that might as well be lodged deep under my skin. After Vietnam, soldiers and civilians alike would wear bracelets etched with the names of prisoners of war so their memory would live on even if they never came home. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued the practice, but with a twist. The same bracelets are adorned with the names of friends killed in action. The date and the place are also included as a testament to where they took their last steps. One of the first things my platoon did after coming home was order memorial bracelets from the few websites that specialize in military memorabilia. You don’t even have to type in the name or the date; their system uses the DOD casualty list. All you have to do is filter by name and a software aided laser will burn the selection onto an aluminum or steel bracelet. What emerges out of this casual and disinterested practice is jewelry teeming with the amount of love and commitment found in ten wedding rings.

Every trip to the airport has the same outcome: additional security checks and a pat down from a TSA agent. I tell them it’s the bracelet that the metal detector shrieks at. “Can you take it off?” is always the question. “I don’t want to take it off” is always the answer. To some screeners my answer is a poke in the eye of their authority, a wrench in the system of their daily routine. Others recognize the bracelet and give me a gentle nod and a quick pat down. I suspect they have encountered other veterans like me and realize the futility of asking to have it removed. In a glass booth at the security gate is where I most often get the question, “Who’s on the bracelet?” Those who realize the significance of it usually want to know the name. I stare down and rub my fingers over the lettering. “Brian Chevalier, but we called him Chevy.”

At times the memorial bracelets seem almost redundant. The names of the fallen are written on steel and skin, but are they not also carved into the hearts of men? Are the faces of the valiant not emblazoned in the memories of those who called them brothers? No amount of ink or steel can be used to represent what those days signify. My bracelet says “14 March 2007,” but it does not describe the blazing heat that day, or the smell of open sewers trampled underfoot or the sight of a Stryker, overturned and smoke-filled as the school adjacent exploded under tremendous fire. It was as if God chose to end the world within one city block. When Chevy was lovingly placed into a body bag under exploding RPGs and machine gun tracers, worlds ended. Others began.

The concept of Memorial Day nearly approaches superfluous ritual to some veterans. It's absurd to ask a combat veteran to take out a single day to remember those fell in battle, as if the other 364 days were not marked by their memories in one way or another. I try to look at pictures of my friends, both alive and dead, at least once a day to remember their smiles or the way they wore their kits. I talk to them online and send emails and texts and on rare occasions, visit them in person. We drink and laugh and recall the old days and tell the same war stories everyone has heard a thousand times but still manage to produce streams of furious laughter. I get the same feeling with them; Memorial Day does not begin or end on a single day. It ebbs and flows in torrents of memory, sometimes to a crippling degree. Most of us have become talented at hiding our service and safeguard the moments when we become awash in memories like March 14. The bracelet is the only physical reminder of the tide we find ourselves in.

Perhaps it's best to let civilians hold onto Memorial Day and hope they use the time to reflect wisely. A time to remember old friends or distant relatives that they did not necessarily serve with but still honor their sacrifice. Not just soldiers are touched by war. Chevy was a father and a son, and his loss not only rippled through the platoon and company but a small town in Georgia. The day serves as a reminder that there are men and women who have only come back as memories. Maybe the reflection on those who did not return is a key to helping civilians bridge the gap with veterans. Occasionally my bracelet spurs conversations with friends and coworkers who did not know I was in the Army or deployed to Iraq. I still don't feel completely comfortable answering their questions but I'm always happy to talk about the name on my wrist. His name was Brian Chevalier, but we called him Chevy.

33 comments:

Dozer said...

Good post man. So true. Everyday is Memorial Day for us. Words cant describe what happened March 14th, 2007. Adrenaline, fear, anger, so many emotions at one time that you dont know what to do with yourself. All you can do is regroup in your head and move on with the mission, knowing you will return to base with one less soldier than you left base with. Good job Alex, keep it up.

Joe said...

Great post! Drive on!

japamo57 said...

"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived." - General George Patton

It seems better to honor the life of the fallen.

Thank God for Brian Chevalier.

And thank you, Alex

CI-Roller Dude said...

Good Post! I'll have a toast to Chevy, and Roberto and Mike today...and the ones I never met.

Coffeypot said...

Great post, Alex, and a fitting tribute to Chevy. I went back and reread your post of that day and I hurt all over again for you and your loss. I know you would have loved to have kissed his cheek, too. Only those who have served in that type of situation can understand the depth of your emotion. But the world goes on for you and the rest of us. Jobs are taken, schools are attended, relationships are formed and ended, cars are bought and life goes on. Especially for those of us who have no idea of your experiences. But we do care and we do respect people like you who did do the hard stuff. So we set aside one day a year to refocus us to remember that there are those who gave all so that we can do all this stuff in safety.

Being a Georgia boy, I immediately looked up Chevy on Google and read his tributes. He was a really cool dude and I’m glad you got to know him. And I’m sad you had to suffer in his loss. Thank you, Alex.

The Constitutional Insurgent said...

Very moving, thank you. I feel the same way as I wear James Doster's name on my braclet.

But you put it to words so much better than I could.

RangersGirl said...

Beautifully written. Thank you.

Alex said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Chevy's death is the one that affected me the most, but there were many others from my unit and attachments that laid down their lives. Their names and faces can be seen here.

Antiope said...

Thanks for sharing this, man. Today is for Staff Sgt. Christopher Frost, who I wear on my wrist.

Have a safe Memorial Day.

Victor said...

Dead on Alex. Like Dozer said, everyday is Memorial Day.

tracyp said...

Having never meet you I am honored to be a citizen in this country that you were willing to fight for. Tears come to my eyes as I read this post and the love that connects all those that served and the debt of gratitude I owe, we all owe everyone of you. You're right, its not just one day a year, but for someone like me it helps me focus more fully on the sacrifice, albeit my small understanding of it, that is made. I am greatful for the reminder I have, to think of eveyone who has laid down their life, or fought so I can have the freedoms I do. It,a easy for those of us with no miliary in our families to get caught up in our lives and the redundancy of our day to day dealings and not remember. I hope that next time I fly, I see someone like to that will remind me why I can't afford to be selfish in my day to day actions. Thank you to all who have and do serve!

C Mody said...

Thank you brother!

Anonymous said...

I am a transportation security officer. I am also a veteran. I served in the Army for nine years. As far as the bracelet is concerned, the only persons authorized to pass through screening without removing them are those that wear it for religious purposes (e.g. Sikhs). Just so you are aware, you are more than welcome to refuse the removal of clothing or accesories, at which point TSA is authorized to subject you to additional screening. It isn't a "poke in the eye" or "a wrench in the system", it is simply just another part of doing our job ensuring the safe travel of passengers. I'm sure a person of your professional stature can appreciate adhering to policy, no matter how nonsensical it may seem. You can thank Richard Reid and the 9/11 hijackers for the inconvenience at the checkpoints, not TSA.

Alex said...

Anon,

I wasn't protesting the policy, I understand why it's in place. It was an attempt to illustrate two ways civilians approach the concept of the bracelet: with indifference or genuine interest. I have no qualms with the TSA.

Neil said...

In 2002, the TSA temporarily detained Joe Foss for attempting to bring "weapons" on an airplane. "Who was Joe Foss?" some might ask.

Joe Foss was the 20th Governor of South Dakota. He was a General in the Air National Guard and the first Commissioner of the American Football League.

Now you may be wondering what horrific weapon such a man could posses to be stopped by the TSS... The "weapon" was a Congressional Medal of Honor!

Deb said...

My husband and I get a bracelet for everyone that we served with that has given all. The only bracelet we wear, though, is his brother's - James Ochsner - KIA 11/15/2005.

Anonymous said...

I was a Chaplain Assistant in the army & just recently out. I was never able to deploy due to medical but I felt & still feel every loss of the too many memorials I've done. My heart goes out to you & all those touched be something like this. They are all loved & remembered everyday.

Long-time RN said...

Thank you, Alex, for this beautifully expressed piece. Everyday is Memorial Day. As Coffeypot wrote, the world keeps on moving, and those lost remain solidly in our hearts.

Bryan said...

Like you I think often of a friend lost. He lives on through us that why we must say his name. Kurt d Arcarla was his name and I will always have a brother named Kurt who died September 11, 2005. I have never been so proud to know someone like Kurt. RIP Kurt and all who have given the most for me and everyone to celebrate your life.

chupacabra said...

Great post bro. Hooah.

D. H. Brown said...

Thanks Bro. Mine hasn't left my wrist in 40 years and will go to my grave with me.
"War Brothers are not chosen, for
In conflict mated, we were created
Sentenced as each other's keeper
Till death do us part."

ualfa said...

To anonymous TSA guy. Sorry to say this, but as a flight attendant who has to deal with you folks (and I'm talking in generalities from this point on) on a very regular basis, it has nothing to do with Richard Reed or the terrorists (by the way, you got them in reverse order...), don't try and find blame in something else. But if you do, blame them first for the reason the soldier wearing the bracelet!! ANYTHING that doesn't fit into your TSA-Hall monitoring 'box' makes your sphincters tighten up. I have seen Nazi-style behavior to very old people who travel once a decade. Yelling at children to wait behind the line because "one at a time!!!!!" I have NEVER seen a soldier carry themselves anything else but professional in the terminal AND aircraft environment. I, however, can say that can't be said about the TSA workers WHO think they are Professionals because they have their badge on, yet are unprofessional, inpatient and bullies. It's only inconvenient because the TSA frontline employees make it that way. Look at it from the other side of your monitor and badge. And soldiers, if you feel that you are getting attitude because your "answer is a poke in the eye of their authority", simply ask for a supervisor and explain the situation. You can also get their badge number which they are required to give you, but it is on their name bar and contact the TSA about the situation @ 1-866-289-9673. They have no right to make you feel as if you are doing something wrong. You do not lose the rights you are fighting for when you pass through security. I honor you and what you are doing is a remarkable thing I have yet to hear about. But I am spreading the word through the aviation community so we are aware of it. I'm also sending a copy of your blog to the US Department of Homeland Security.
I am honored when you travel with me. And I will ALWAYS treat you and yours with the unwavering respect you deserve. Thank you.

chris said...

Wow! Very nice post dude. Thank you!

Laurel said...

Very nice post, Alex. Question: Why do people wish each other a Happy Memorial Day? What is happy about it?

breed3231 said...

Well written. I have been wearing my bracelet for longer than I wore my first wedding band. To me they do show the same thing, commitment. SGT Courtland Kennard, 9 November 2006.

Matthew D C said...

Good post man. Very well written. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Alex. The thoughts on having just one day devoted to the honoring of the dead were spot-on, about how it ebbs and it flows with time. I feel the exact same way, and furrow my brow as to the thought that one day can be used to sufficiently express the gratitude for our brothers and sisters in the armed forces. On Memorial Day I was at some point watching a random TV talk show, where at the end the host said to thank our service members. I was a bit annoyed - it seemed like something rushed and said just because, as opposed to something said in a genuine manner on any random day.

But to end this, this is the type of article that I wish would be in USA Today. I appreciate your writing.

B said...

Alex,

I take mine off at the airport, then put it back on. The bracelet itself is nothing. It's a representation. I'm not about to involve what it represents in an unnecessary interaction with some fat government employee keeping me safe from nail clippers and shampoo.

To the TSA guy-no, fucktard, YOU can thank Richard Reid for giving you your current job being a tough guy to grannies and infants. The fact that you were in for nine years gets you no props-I've met plenty of guys like you doing their time, hiding behind rank and regs, and generally doing their best to prevent anything useful to the mission from being accomplished. I can see you haven't recovered from the reflective belt cutting off circulation to your dome. Have a good govt career.

Alex said...

B,

That's true, the bracelet itself has little bearing, but I still feel strange taking it off. I used to remove it for the security line but after awhile it was bent and misshapen in the wrong places. It's been a couple years since I last took it off.

Gung-ho gun ho said...

Just curious,

Have you ever seen a soldier wearing a memorial bracelet that recognized civilian casualties or enemy combatants? What would you think about someone who wore one that did?

Alex said...

Honestly I've never thought of doing that with a bracelet. It'd be curious to see a soldier or veteran with that; not because we don't care about civilian or insurgent deaths (in reality, they are deeply affecting), but it'd seem more of a political statement than a solemn remembrance. Most people with true combat experience know of the pains taken with ROE to avoid civilian casualties and steps taken to eliminate true threats. Those people have a more nuanced view than someone outside of combat who claims soldiers kill indiscriminately, or target women and children on purpose.

Chris said...

Thank you very, very, very much for this. Incredibly written - and better yet, you explain how terribly personal your loss is, in a way that really got through.

walter Knight said...

Alex, I love your voice. You articulate, when I would just get upset.