Diyala Province, Iraq — Modern technology is an amazing thing. Shortly after my arrival at Forward Operating Base Caldwell in eastern Diyala Province, my fellow staff officers and I were able to purchase a satellite dish from a departing unit, manhandle it up to the roof of our building, point it in the general direction of a commercial satellite, and — voila! — we’re surfing the net. In our precious spare time, we chat with our families, download the occasional song from iTunes, and even play an online game or two. As for me, well, I read the news.
Perhaps my perspective is overly colored by my current circumstances, but I can’t recall a time when there was more outrage over — and reverence for — mere words. Mini-scandals seem to erupt daily over this or that “offensive” comment. Words seem to mean everything — even when defining patriotism. Whether it’s declaring dissent the “highest form” of patriotism, defining true patriotism as “speaking out” on issues, or even debating the meaning and definition of patriotism based largely on political positions and public pronouncements, it seems that words and symbols have captured the field.
That’s not to say that words and symbols don’t matter. Of course they do. I have dedicated my civilian career to defending religious liberty and freedom of speech, our first freedoms. But words matter largely because they tend to persuade people to take (or not take) certain actions. Words are important, but it is in the actions we take that we see the true character and heart of an individual.
I have now been mobilized with the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (LTC Paul T. Calvert, commanding) for more than eight months (251.5 days for those keeping score at home, and my wife and kids quite literally are), and I do not recall a single discussion or debate about patriotism. And it’s not like we don’t talk . . . a lot. We’ve had late night debates and even screaming arguments over politics, religion, the war, economics, and the best Will Ferrell comedy (it’s “Talladega Nights,” by the way, and if you disagree with me, please realize that I’m armed).
But we never really talk about patriotism. There’s no need for words, really. Over here, it’s the deeds that matter.
In late April, 2d Squadron’s Fox Troop was locked in a firefight with multiple al-Qaeda extremists. In the midst of the fighting, two terrorists appeared to surrender and walked out of hiding into a courtyard with their hands in the air. Our Troopers left the relative safety of their armored vehicles to detain the suspects . . . and were ambushed. As soon as they emerged from the cover of their vehicle, they were attacked with small arms and grenades. Two Troopers were wounded immediately and one of the wounded Troopers was trapped — alone — within the courtyard.
Staff Sergeant Joseph Raj did not hesitate. He immediately engaged the enemy and then maneuvered his vehicle into the close confines of the courtyard, blocking incoming fire while Fox Troopers rescued their brother. He kept engaging the enemy until they were all destroyed or detained — a fight that lasted off and on for more than 36 hours.
On March 10, 2008 — a terrible day — a large IED detonated under a Fox Troop Humvee, killing Captain Torre Mallard, Sergeant Phillip Anderson, Specialist Donald Burkett, and Mr. Albert Haroutounian. Before the dust had cleared from the explosion, two other Fox Troopers, Specialist Anthony Wix-Aguilera and Specialist Matthew Glasener were on top of the burning vehicle, fighting to rescue friends who were already gone. Even as ammunition cooked off around them, they remained, determined not to leave fallen comrades.
Every day, the men of 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry regiment put on their battle rattle (now in 125 degree heat), and move from the FOB or from their small combat outposts in the field without knowing exactly what they’ll face. Will it be another “routine” patrol? Or will a bomb go off? Will they find themselves having to place their own vehicle between the enemy and a fallen friend? Will they be fighting flames in a desperate rescue attempt?
I’ve heard it said a million times that soldiers “really” fight for their friends around them. And in an immediate sense, that is no doubt true. I don’t believe Sergeant Raj was shouting, “For America!” as he placed himself and his vehicle in harm’s way. Yet to even be there — to be in that vehicle in Diyala Province on a terrifying April night — Sergeant Raj (and every other Fox Trooper) had to make a series of choices, to take a series of actions.
He had to choose to join the military and wear the uniform of an American Soldier, a tangible action that declares that a person is willing (though obviously not wanting) to lay down his life for his country. Later, he had to choose to re-enlist, knowing that he would go to war. All along the way, he chose to do the right things the right way to earn a promotion to Staff Sergeant in the combat arms. All of these actions placed him exactly where he needed to be on April 21st, 2008, to save the life of a friend.
In the still-dark early morning hours of March 11, 2008, hundreds of us stood at attention on a dark helicopter landing pad to say goodbye to the men who died just hours before. They were husbands, fathers, and sons. They left behind four fatherless children, three widows, and hundreds of broken-hearted friends and family members. Yet they did not die in vain. Their legacy of courage, integrity, and honor lives on and sustains us even now. In a real way — as those who fight today remember those who fell — they defend us still.
Let’s call that the patriotism of deeds.
— David French is a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and a captain in the United States Army Reserve. This is his first deployment to Iraq.