By First Sergeant (Retired) Martin Swirko, United States Army
As this Memorial Day weekend has approached, I find myself thinking about, sometimes brooding, over the loss of those I knew, and especially those whom I had the honor to serve with that made the ultimate sacrifice. I also think about their families, some of whom have honored me by staying in touch with me over the years. I always feel as though I should sit down and write about Memorial Day, write something meaningful, but in the end, there isn’t anything I can write or add that I or anyone else hasn’t said or written. As I scroll through Facebook, I see endless posts admonishing us all that Memorial Day isn’t about celebrating a weekend off, and it isn’t about Veterans, it’s about those who gave their lives fighting for this country. True enough. So, this year, I thought I’d pay tribute to three great men by re-posting something I wrote and shared a few years back. Maybe someone will come across it that hasn’t seen it previously. Well, here goes…
ANOTHER MEMORIAL DAY
Well, here it is, another Memorial Day weekend. I envisioned myself writing and posting some meaningful tribute to those we honor at this time each year, but I can see now that it’s not to be. Don’t get me wrong, I made an attempt, several attempts. But, in each case I failed to get beyond certain platitudes that somehow ring hollow to me. Maybe, I’ll just settle for writing a brief explanation about what Memorial Day means to me, which really comes down to how it affects me. Then perhaps I can coherently weave some thoughts together and actually construct some meaningful sentences and then combine them into a few paragraphs that might, just might, capture the spirit and meaning of Memorial Day. At least as I have come to view it.
I will start with my alibi first. Memorial Day is about those who gave their lives in the service of our country. And, in my mind, it’s also about the families and loved ones who were left behind.
Memorial Day is not supposed to be about the rest of us. To me, however, it sometimes feels as though I carry a heavy weight. A heavy burden borne by those of us who served amongst those heroes who never made it home.
Ever since I returned from Iraq, no matter how many years have passed, each and every Memorial Day the same thing happens to me. As the weekend comes upon us, I get very introspective. I think, probably too much, and, at least on one of those days I drink a bit. Truth is I usually drink too much as Memorial Day approaches.
I usually make it through Memorial Day, more or less intact, and go back to living my life. Something, those we honor never had the opportunity to do. Therefore, I’d like to share some of my memories, and honor a few soldiers that I had the privilege to serve with. Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
My memories leading up to that dark day began three days earlier in the fall of 2005. We were in Iraq. Prior to that, in July, my brother and I arrived in Iraq and were assigned as embedded advisors to an Iraqi Battalion. We had four small teams. One was the HQ Team, who advised the Iraqi Brigade we were part of, and then there were three other teams. One was assigned to each Iraqi Battalion we advised. My brother Frank, at the time an E-7 was assigned to the 2nd BN, and I was assigned to the 3rd.
Our Commander was LTC Leon James, a Regular Army Officer, and he commanded all four teams. I liked LTC James immediately when I met him, and I remember telling him that I was looking forward to working for him over the next year or so. I do remember that he gave me kind of a weird look when I said that, didn’t respond but shook my hand when I offered it. LTC James was originally from Springfield Ma, and last I knew his mother was still living there.
Master Sergeant Tulsa Tuliau was the Senior Non Commissioned Officer in charge of the four teams. Tulsa was a huge guy, with a physically intimidating presence. Tulsa was from American Samoa and was what we in the Army would call a “Hard Charger”. Shortly after my brother and I arrived, he held an NCO meeting where the topic was TTP (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) regarding whether standing UP in the gun turret of our HUMVEEs was preferable to sitting on the strap and therefore being DOWN, or a lesser target. The discussion involved dealing with snipers vs dealing with roadside and suicide vehicle borne bombs. The discussion ended when Tulsa stood up, took a shooting stance while leaning forward and declared gunners should be UP always, show an aggressive stance and appear intimidating to those who contemplated attacking us. We agreed. To me, it was a sad irony that, Tulsa was soon after killed in the UP position, and several other soldiers in the unit we were attached to were also killed in the UP position. But Master Sergeant Tuliau died as he lived, a Hard Charger all the way. As time went on, I realized that there were times when it was prudent for the gunner to be up, and others when it wasn’t.
Sergeant First Class Casey Howe, had just joined our unit a short time before he was killed. He was from Michigan. The day I met Howe, I liked him immediately. I thought he’d be a great asset to our team and mission. Casey was on his third tour in Iraq when he was killed. Casey had lied to his wife, telling her that he had a safe job in “The Rear” because he didn’t want her to worry. The reality was that he was in one of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq at the time. We rolled outside the wire daily, deep in hostile territory with rarely a break. In fact, his wife later told me that on the morning after Casey was killed, when the Chaplain and others knocked on her door, she believed they had mistakenly come to her residence because she knew her husband couldn’t have been killed because he had a “safe” job. But there were no “Safe” jobs where we were. Only jobs that were less dangerous than others. All three were married, and all three had multiple daughters waiting at home, at FT. Drum.
On the Saturday before that tragic day, I was in the motor pool, pulling maintenance for our HUMVEE and crew served weapons. Tuliau had just returned from spending time with his family on leave. He stopped by to talk to me about a few issues, and then we all went about our business. Later on, a few of us met LTC James out side of the building we were living in. He smoked, (funny for a marathon runner!). Some amongst us enjoyed a cigar and all us were sipping either cold Gatorade or Near Beer. It was hot as hell, but the NCOs enjoyed kibitzing with LTC James, and it was apparent to me that LTC James enjoyed being around his NCOs.
The next day was Sunday. I don’t remember what we did that day, however, I was going to be able to sleep in a bit late the next morning. My brother and I obtained a portable radio, and a few of cans of Alcohol Free Beer from the mess hall. That evening Frank and I sat on a stone picnic table near “the house” and stayed up a little longer than normal. We enjoyed our frosty near beer, listened to the sporadic gunfire on the other side of the concrete barriers, and occasional explosion off in the distance. We talked about whatever, but we could find nothing but Arabic music on the radio. Eventually we went back to our room and called it a night. I never went near that stone picnic table after that night.
Sometime early the next morning, LTC James, Tuliau and Howe went out with their team on a mission. Frank was also going out with his team on a mission. Frank grabbed the .50 Cal machine gun that belonged on his gun truck. He hefted it up onto his shoulder and walked over to his truck in order to set it up. As he walked across the gravel, he twisted his ankle, and fell to his knees under the weight of the machine gun. Sergeant Tuliau, saw this and ran over to help. Tuliau grabbed the gun, telling Frank “Hey big Sarge, let me get that for you”. Tuliau took the machine gun from my brother, and brought it to Frank’s truck. That was the last time Frank ever talked to Tuliau or saw him alive.
Colonel James’ team went out first. Tuliau was the gunner inside the turret of James’ HUMVEE, Howe was the driver, and James was obviously both the Truck commander and Patrol Commander.
A short distance outside the wire, the Colonel’s truck was ambushed, hit by an EFP (Electrically Fired Projectile). It was devastatingly accurate. It was set off by an infrared detector on the side of the road. Once his vehicle (in this case the targeted vehicle) was detected by the infrared device it triggered the EFP. His vehicle was hit by five separate projectiles. It was the first US Vehicle in country that was hit by a five projectile EFP.
As far as I can tell, Tuliau and Howe were killed instantly. LTC James was hit by shrapnel in the neck and throat area. The medic on scene was able to keep the Colonel alive. He was brought back to the Aid Station at our FOB by ground EVAC, and he was alive but unconscious when I saw him a short time later. After this patrol was hit, my brother’s team rolled out to the site, and he and a few of his team tried to take care of Tuliau and Howe, both of whom were still at the scene, but had died of their injuries.
I was in my rack. At one point a Major, who was part of the Colonel’s patrol burst through the doors. He was yelling my name, over and over again, and when I finally awoke from a deep sleep, I saw the Major and I noted his uniform was splattered with blood. I’ll never forget what he said next:
“SERGEANT SWIRKO, THEY HIT US! THEY HIT US! TULIAU IS DEAD. HOWE IS DEAD! COL JAMES IS BAD…”
I’ll never forget how those words hit me, and never be able to describe that feeling. It was worse than any gut punch.
I pulled on my Desert uniform, boots, grabbed my pistol and went to work. Suddenly I was the Senior Enlisted Man on the ground. I found myself the temporary NCOIC of the team, taking Tuliau’s place. The major thrusted a broken and blood stained M-4 rifle at me, along with a bloody set of ID (dog tags) Tags. I think he had the need to get rid of them, and fast. I took custody of them, and eventually cleaned them up.
Many things happened that terrible day and the week that followed. However, as bad as it was, I had a job to do, and I didn’t have the luxury of grieving. I remember the interim commander, telling me that he needed me to advise him, and if he did anything I thought was stupid, not to be afraid to kick him in his ass with my size 12 boots.
Later that morning, I was present when Colonel James was loaded into a Blackhawk, heading to the CASH. I looked on while several of his soldiers who were present, openly and unashamedly wept for him as he was carried away. My brother, was also very helpful to me during those days. Without him, I don’t know how I would have accomplished the tasks that suddenly fell upon me to complete.
I also remember, later, being present and helping load Sergeants Tuliau and Howe into a Blackhawk helicopter. I remember the pilot of the helicopter getting out of the bird, facing us, coming to attention and then saluting us. He executed an about face and the two Blackhawks, with their door gunners at the ready gracefully lifted up, up high into the sky. I watched as Tulsa Tuliau and Casey Howe started their long journey home. It was my turn to cry, and I wept as hard as I can ever remember weeping. I stood and watched as the two Blackhawks disappeared off into the distant clear blue sky. Sadly, Leon James succumbed to his wounds a short time later after arriving at Walter Reed Hospital.
Our mission continued. In time, our team personnel were moved around, replacements arrived, and after helping to deal with our dead, and all that went with that, we got a new commander, and I was sent back to the 3rd Battalion Team. However, I went back to that team as it’s NCOIC. I found myself in a leadership position. I had troops to care for, and combat missions to carry out. Suddenly there were soldiers, some of them new arrivals looking to ME for guidance and assurance. ME, a citizen soldier, far away from my roots in Massachusetts and my home in NH. I now understood there was no slack for me. I did not have the luxury of feeling sorry for myself. The unit and our mission, in part, largely depended on me in my new role.
The months dragged on, day after day, week after week, mission after mission. Some missions lasted a few hours. Others took several days. Every mission was a combat mission and therefore dangerous. I did my best. I know in my heart that my troops deserved better. However, we accomplished all our assigned missions from that day on. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the day to go home finally arrived, and in the spring of 2006, we all got our orders to go home. My brother and I flew to Ft. Carson Colorado where, in three days, Uncle Sam, sent us packing. Back to the Guard, USAR or wherever our citizens soldiers originally came from. Uncle Sam had no further use for us, at least not at the time. Many of the other soldiers we served with in Iraq retuned to their duty station at Ft. Drum NY.
My brother and I, after leaving Ft. Carson flew to Chicago, and then to Manchester. We were both traveling in our desert camouflage uniforms (DCU) which was authorized wear for travel at the time. The flight crew was great to me, they brought me back to the galley with them, and when they found I was returning home from Iraq, they all took turns chatting with me. I went back to my seat, put on my earphones, turned on my MP3 player. I thought about James, Tuliau and Howe, that they were not coming home with us. I thought about their families. How much it must hurt knowing the rest of us were going home, but without James, Tuliau and Howe. And then I cried. The tears flowed uncontrollably as though a faucet had been opened. I couldn’t help myself. I hid my face. I don’t think my brother knew. But, I cried for a very long time.
Well, Frank and I made it home. Our closest family members were waiting to embrace us at the airport. No fanfare, didn’t want any. Very quiet and low key. I just wanted to be home with my family and friends. It felt so good, not wearing a helmet and body armor. Not carrying a rifle with extra ammunition felt almost luxurious. Not having to scan my surroundings like I’d had to do for so long, looking for snipers and listening for incoming rounds the way I learned in order to survive. Mostly though, it just felt good to be alive. It was then that my not so easy adjustment that all combat vets have to make, began. Just like I had no idea what I would face when I headed to Iraq the first time, I had no idea what lay in store for me and my family in the year to come.
Sometime later that year, Frank and I traveled to Ft. Drum where we had the honor to meet the families, wives and children of LTC James, MSG Tuliau and SFC Howe. Each wife reacted differently to us. I won’t share those moments publicly, except to say how it made me feel: I felt like a piece of shit, embarrassed that I was in one piece to meet those families, while their loved one was gone. Please don’t misunderstand me. None of them said or did anything to make me feel that way. It’s just how I felt. At times, survivor’s guilt is a real thing.
In the years that have passed since, much of those feelings have not been blunted by time. I have visited Colonel James and Sergeant Tuliau’s gravesites at Arlington several times. I can confess to you that I know that my soldiers deserved a better leader than me. I know that the soldiers we lost were better soldiers and leaders then I could ever have hoped to be. I also know they were better men. Yet, here I sit.
Like each Memorial Day weekend since that time I struggle with the losses we have suffered as a nation throughout our history. Yet, despite the fact I know Memorial Day is not for those of us who survived, it is through my grief, my sense of loss, my pain, and, at time my tears, this is the only way I can pay my personal respect and deep thanks to James, Tuliau, Howe and all the others that have unselfishly given their lives. I owe it to them to remember and share their memories as often as I can. My future has been inexorably intertwined with the loss or absence of their own.
And, since they all died so abruptly and before their time, I feel I owe it to them to live my life, which, up until now has still been gifted to me, the best way I can. I promise guys, I won’t let them forget and I will not waste what time I have left.