As the winter chill began to loosen its grip on Chicago, I started walking home from work more often. My urban hikes weren’t motivated by vanity or concern about my personal carbon footprint. Mile-by-mile I was preparing for a much longer walk that I participate in every Memorial Day. This Friday, I’ll be joining hundreds of other Chicagoland veterans along the city’s lakefront for a 22 mile ruck march to honor the memory of our comrades who fell in battle and those who perish from suicide every day.
Having served six years in Army aviation, including two tours in Iraq, I attended the memorial services of entirely too many friends and close colleagues. Some died because they were a little too young and a little too reckless for their own personal well being. Two young men I served with died in tragic car accidents, and others died in preparation for combat. I was friends with one crew chief who was killed on his first flight in Honduras, and another who was killed in a training accident in Tennessee. Many more friends died in combat. On November 15, 2003, a mid-air collision triggered by an insurgent rocket cost the lives of 15 soldiers, many of whom were personal friends and mentors.
Far and away the most painful loss my close-knit unit suffered was in November of 2005. We were almost done with our second deployment in three years and we were remarkably unscathed. Despite daily mortar attacks and missions that literally brought us into insurgents’ back yards, we suffered no casualties, lost no aircraft, and nearly everyone in our battalion was making grand homecoming plans. Everyone except one.
On November 30, 2005, my colleague, my crew mate, my neighbor in the barracks, and my friend, whose name I can barely say aloud anymore, took a seat on the tarmac next to his aircraft after a mission. He drew his pistol and he pulled the trigger. Despite the best efforts of the rest of his crew, he couldn’t be saved. His body was still alive, but the copper jacketed lead in the front of his brain erased everything about him.
We all called him Jack because his full Polish name was too much for our American tongues. We thought we knew him, his stubbornness, his genius knack for methods that walked a brilliant tightrope between laziness and efficiency. He took the concept of “work smarter not harder” to every logical extreme. He was also in crisis and none of us saw it. I’ll never forgive myself for not seeing it. He left a note behind explaining his parents were both critically ill and in dire economic straits. At some point he decided they needed the insurance money more than they needed a son. He was 25 years old.
Today, I will march with friends I served with and with hundreds of brothers and sisters I’ve never met. We’ll remember those who couldn’t be there and remind each other and passersby of those for whom the battle hasn’t ended. Then on Tuesday, May 31, once the soreness has faded and the blisters have subsided, I’ll go back to work for those who are in crisis. That day and every day, I’ll commit myself to the warriors who find themselves without a job, without a home, and without a place to turn. Along with the rest of our Veterans Forward team at National Able Network, I’ll do everything in my power to provide help and hope. We do it for those still here, with the memory of those who aren’t close to our hearts, and with the hope that we put someone nearing their end on the path to a new beginning.
Bobby Wise is a U.S. Army combat veteran and works as a Career Coach for National Able Network’s Veterans Forward program. While participating in the Ruck of Honor march today, Bobby will be answering questions here about job search, veterans services, and the military-civilian divide.