The flags gently flapped in the hot breeze. The nation’s colors of blue, red, and white, next to the symbol of our battalion, contrasted against the monotonous tan of the desert landscape. In front of the honor guard were a pair of polished boots, a Kevlar helmet, dog tags, and an inverted M-16 with bayonet, a somber display marking the life of Specialist Robert A. Noonan of Cincinnati, Ohio. At his service, the ranks of soldiers in their chocolate chip desert fatigues stood silently in formation as our battalion commander, the “old man,” strode forward to honor his fallen soldier.
“Specialist Newman,” he began, “was a fine soldier.” Newman? I thought to myself. No, I must have misheard. But a palpable tension building among the ranks made me realize I hadn’t. The battalion commander had misspoken the last name of our brother who had died the previous day. He had transgressed a sacred moment, yet the old man didn’t seem to recognize he had just broken an inviolable trust.
Soldiers are trained to kill but are also prepared to die. A bond among us is that if any should fall, we will be remembered by our comrades. In a ceremony aptly named “The Last Roll Call,” the soldier’s name is called out by the living, even as it’s removed from the unit rolls. The commander defiled that sacred moment by an unrecognized slip of the tongue, planting seeds of doubt in my mind that soldiers could be dishonored, disrespected, and devalued by their leader.
If the proper pronunciation of the name of a soldier killed in a training accident didn’t matter to the command, what would happen if we incurred the 50% casualties expected when we attacked Iraq? Were we nameless cannon fodder instead of warriors in an elite division serving in the Persian Gulf War? It was a disturbing proposition to every soldier standing in formation.
I had been an enlisted soldier and was now an officer, in charge of the medical platoon in an infantry battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. Being assigned to the 82nd was a dream come true because my father served in it during WW2. I assumed that everyone would strive to be the best and that leaders would strive even harder.
Leading from the front had been preached from the first leadership development class I attended at Fort Benning as a young Army specialist, through the ROTC classes at college, and at courses at Fort Sam and Fort Bragg. Be tactically and technically proficient. Know yourself. Know your soldiers. Never stop making yourself better. I took these ideals to heart and, perhaps foolishly, expected other leaders in the military to do likewise.
I hardly knew Noonan, but his blood had made small, reddish-brown stains on the knees and wrists of my desert uniform. Part of him was physically with me, making the slight against Noonan feel personal because we had tried so hard to save him. But I wasn’t the only one who was angry. This one seemingly small thing, the old man mispronouncing Noonan’s name, caused resentment and disillusion among many in the battalion.
Noonan was fatally injured when the HMMWV he was riding in rolled over. He had been standing in the gunner’s cupola when the edge of the sand dune gave way. His helmet had mostly protected his head, but his chest was flailed and he had severe internal injuries. Desert fatigues are no match for Detroit steel.
When the radio call for medical assistance came, the battalion’s physician assistant, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Brasfield, along with four medics and myself rushed to the rollover site. Chief shouted to go faster as I gave the driver directions. I was so afraid that I would not get us to the right place in a seemingly featureless desert and that a soldier might die because of me. Whether through skill or luck, we made it to Noonan’s location. We worked under the hot, bright Saudi sun to stabilize him for transport on an inbound medevac helicopter. The Blackhawk arrived, we loaded Noonan, Chief hopped on, and away they flew in a sand-blown whirl.
Specialist Robert Noonan died in the operating room of a U.S. Navy hospital on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. The Navy medical team tried like hell to save his life, but his injuries were too severe. Chief took the news very hard and said he replayed the entire incident in his head for years after. He was convinced that if he had done something just a little different, Noonan would have lived, even though the trauma surgeon said he would have died if the accident had happened right outside the OR.
I don’t recall if Chief and I ever talked about the old man mispronouncing Noonan’s name, but we talked about the medics’ response to the crash site. Although he berated himself, he was proud of the medics and of me. He told me on that day he accepted me as a man worthy to serve alongside. I demonstrated that I could function in a crisis. From that point on I had a brother, a friend, a confidante.
Acceptance by your fellow soldiers is important. Respect by your commanders equally so. If the troops believe that a commander does not care, then the underlying assumption is that the commander will be reckless with their lives. Troops will serve any commander, whether a hard-ass authoritarian or a quieter soul. But troops will go through hell with a half-canteen of water and a bayonet for a commander in whom they believe. The foundation of this belief is that the old man values everyone from the most junior private to the most senior veteran. Their lives and service mean something. But how can that trust be built when the old man doesn’t care enough to correctly pronounce the name of a soldier who just gave the last full measure?
For years I would think of this event and others that occurred under the old man’s command at Bragg, in Saudi, and in Iraq. I would NOT be that kind of leader. I could, and would, do better. I would not be petty; I would value the worth of every person. I held onto the hot anger I felt at Noonan’s final farewell. I held it close like a beloved keepsake and loathed the old man.
* * * *
The phone call came late one afternoon in August, almost 25 years to the day after Noonan died. The call was from Karen, Chief’s beloved wife. She sounded completely crushed. “Jeff’s dead.” I was stunned. How could this be? We were comrades with more years of friendship ahead.
Word spread of Jeff’s death among our band of brothers. I spent hours on the phone with those touched by his life. Two events were on everyone’s mind. Foremost was when Chief went into a field of unexploded munitions in Iraq to treat a severely wounded paratrooper who drove a HMMWV over a bomblet. The other was Chief’s anger and frustration about not being able to save Noonan. Naturally, we also remembered how the old man had mispronounced Noonan’s name. Some were still disgusted by the mispronunciation; others recalled it as just another error by an inept commander. Yet I could no longer agree with these sentiments. The ember of anger created by a seemingly uncaring commander so many years past would not rekindle into flame. In fact, the ember had turned to cold ashes.
After Chief’s death I found the courage to think hard about where my anger had gone. Jeff had foolishly held onto his anger at himself, at the Army, at life itself for Noonan’s death. But mine had disappeared, replaced by the knowledge that the old man and I had a lot in common. I realized I had been naive in my idealism about military service. The truth was I’d been unfairly angry at a commander who was simply another man doing the best he could in a crappy situation. I learned that failure is common and success rare. I understood that people try to do the best they can, live with the outcome of their choices, and hope to do better tomorrow.
Another veteran told me about his commander who misspoke soldiers’ names during a memorial event, but the soldiers accepted the old man’s mistake because he had proven his loyalty to those warriors time and again. That commander’s stuttering mispronunciation of soldiers’ surnames during the last roll call was not because he didn’t care, it was because he did.
Maybe that’s what happened all those years ago when Noonan died. Perhaps the old man thought a lot about his slip of the tongue. Just like Chief thought about futilely trying to save a mortally wounded soldier. Just like I thought about my own mistakes. Our actions and choices haunt us, but ghosts can be laid to rest.
I regret wasting years spent as an enraged, naive fool. I wish that I’d realized much sooner that my anger was a burden I should lay down. But sometimes hate doesn’t feel heavy. It feels as light as a feather, yet it saps your strength like an overloaded rucksack.
When I look at a picture of the commander now, I see myself. The scars from two years under his command have faded, replaced by those of my own making. Scars from my own failings as a leader, a soldier, a husband, a father, a son, a friend. The old man’s image in my photos from the Gulf War has been replaced with a mirror showing my own tired face. It is an epiphany.
Everything I disliked about the old man was something that I’d probably done myself, and I’d done these things trying to do the best I could at the time. I’m sure there were times when I disappointed those under my leadership when there was an expectation for me to be my best. The commander was perhaps not always a good leader, but I think he was always a leader trying to be good. We were both flesh and bone, fallible human beings. That treasured keepsake of hot anger was a fool’s burden I needlessly carried all those years. I’m relieved that I tossed it away.