In 2008 my friend was in Afghanistan with the US Army. This was before the troop surge there, when Afghanistan was the backwater conflict mainly prosecuted by Special Forces and the units tasked with supporting them. My friend was attached to one such team.
My brother, having been in a similar position in Bosnia, had one bit of advice for my friend before he left, "No matter what you've done, you haven't done what these guys do. Be humble, be respectful, and don't push it. They may come to accept you, but it'll be on their terms."
I was in my car, driving home when the phone rang.
It was my friend, calling me from the sandbox. He was upset. A friend of his had been killed; An SF operator liked by all the troops, one who had made that connection with my friend, mostly on the range set up to keep their skills sharp.
My friend told me what he could, which wasn't much. It was only later, when the information became public that he could talk a bit more about it and piece it together for me:
A HUMINT collector, my friend had been listening in on the tactical net as Staff Sergeant Robert Miller reported his twenty-two man recon team ambushed and taken under fire by well over a hundred insurgents. He listened as Robbie ordered his men, caught in an exposed valley floor, back. While they fell back, Robbie advanced, drawing fire so his command could withdraw to cover.
Robbie called for fire missions, engaging the enemy himself with rifle and grenade.
At the base, my friend heard the increasingly frantic calls of the soldier tasked with coordinating assets in support of Robbie's team, his own hands twitching with desire to do something. My friend was trained as a forward observer and wanted, with all his heart, to take the mic from the coordinator and rain death upon those trying to take the life of his friend. He couldn't, knew everything was being done to bring all the men back safely.
Robbie was shot. Still he called missions and fired, giving his mixed force of Afghan and US soldiers the time and distance needed to maneuver into a stronger tactical position. Seven hours the firefight raged.
Robbie fell silent.
Eventually the valley in Northern Afghanistan where he fell was cleared of the foe.
Robbie was brought home, posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor.
My friend, who just wished he could have done something more, needed to talk about the things going on inside. I listened. I spoke very little. I think I did the right thing. When asked a question, I answered to the best of my ability. My friend settled, I heard the resolve growing in him.
Eventually my friend came home too. We don't talk about that conversation. We don't have to.
Thank you, veterans. Your blood and sweat on the battlefield are not the only things you offer for the freedoms your countrymen enjoy. Your sacrifice of tears is of no less value for being offered later, away from the altar of war.