by Brian Lamar, Assignment Editor
Flag day was last Monday. Do me a favor and revere it for a moment…after finishing this commentary of course.
It was the early 2000s. Sweat dripped down my forehead and I sat and wondered what I had gotten myself into. My hands shook like an off-kilter washing machine on a spin cycle. I began to worry and almost vomit at the thought of my upcoming mission. It wasn’t the thought of combat. I had seen and taken place in a firefight before. Yes, the notion was scary, but a firefight is really only scary after the initial exchange was over and if I am being 100 percent honest, it was kinda exhilarating. It was exciting for sure, but I only found it fun because we weren’t taking losses, the Taliban jerks that had decided to fire on us first were.
No, this was different. I was an Army public affairs non-commissioned officer that was assigned as an individual augmentee Soldier to the headquarters unit at the base I was stationed in. I had been asked to go out with a SOCOM unit and take pictures of the events to transpire. Talking with a couple of green berets with the Himalayas in the background didn’t alleviate my fears. I wasn’t afraid of the Taliban. I was afraid of being the slow one. I was afraid of being a hindrance to their mission and endangering folks. I was in good shape at that time, a good marksman, very motivated, resourceful and had proven myself in other instances out in what we call “the sandbox”, but these guys were way out of my league. I mean, they make movies and write blockbuster books about these guys.
The morning of the mission. I checked and double checked my extra batteries, extra memory cards and my multiple lenses and camera bodies. I checked my bedding items and my rations (MREs), that was about it. The mission was only supposed to last a day or two, so no need for comfort items like extra clothes or soap.
We got on a helicopter on the pad. The sun was high in the sky by the time we landed in what could’ve easily been Mars from the way it looked. I loaded up into what I can only describe as the coolest military vehicle I have ever laid eyes on. I think I had some similar toy as a kid that resembled a dune buggy with a big gun on top.
These guys were all business. Each of them had a wit to them. Their banter was faster and cruder than the Brits and Aussies I had been stationed with in Iraq a few years back. That is saying something.
We got to a compound and linked up with some Afghan National Army guys who didn’t seem anything like the normal disheveled ANA troops I had met before. Nope, these were commando types.
The SOCOM guys I was with moved to the compound. I could see our overwatch sniper up on a ridge near us. The only reason I could see him was because one of the green berets I was with pointed him out to me. He looked like a shadow in the desert at midday…so cool.
Our guys and their Afghan commando buddies moved through the compound quickly, bringing a guy out to me. I took his picture mugshot style; all angles. I took a picture of a scar. I even took a picture of a mole on him. Then they whisked him off. This happened quite a few times over the course of the next three days. I was down to my last MRE. I hadn’t even seen anyone else eat any. One of the fellas I was with commented on how much I ate. Just as I began to explain that I wasn’t accustomed to an hour of sleep each night with little to no food like they were, all hell broke loose. Someone had found us and gotten the courage to test the patience of some of the fiercest fighting men I had ever had the privilege to meet. The fight didn’t last long, but I noticed a bullet hole in a piece of sheet metal not too far from where my battle-buddy’s head had been. He laughed when I showed it to him. It reminded me of Robin Hood (the animated Disney cartoon movie) when he laughed about an arrow hole that one of the Sheriff’s henchmen had made in his hat. The Green Beret looked at me and said “Hehe, that one almost had my name on it.”
It was then that I fully realized that these guys were nuts and I missed home so bad. Knowing I couldn’t go home even when this never-ending mission was done, I at least just wanted to see an American base again. Into the fourth day, we had PUC’d (Personnel under Custody) several more folks and I had them smile for the camera. Several of us were picked up by chopper and taken back to a major Army Airfield in the Northern part of the country. It was a windy and dusty day. You couldn’t see very far, but I do remember how the stars and stripes stood out to me. How relieved I was to see it and know that I would be surrounded by my own countrymen again. The idea of a hot shower and real… “realish” food sounded good too.
That flag stood there waving and welcoming me. I am not ashamed to say that tears dripped down my cheeks. It was so hot and dry that they basically evaporated and I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing me cry. At least that is what I thought. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror after saying my goodbyes to go get a debriefing and to my horror, my tears had cleaned a trail down my face and made muddy smears that made it obvious to everyone that I had been secretly crying. No one said a word about it though. I guess they thought I earned a bit of emotion after my taste of their life.
I went back to my job in the public affairs office in the air-conditioned headquarters building for a few more weeks before I went back to the states. I eventually arrived in the states at Bangor, Maine’s airport where the terminal was lined with retirees. Every single one of them either shook my hand, patted me on the back or gave me a hug. At the end of the line, a lady named Betty handed me a lobster roll and a coke and told me how proud they all were. Behind her was a giant paper American Flag that covered the terminal wall. The kids of one of the local elementary schools had made it. There were hand prints and signatures from all the kids with messages scribbled like “You are my hero on the flag”. Again, I sat and ate that wonderful lobster roll and cried into my Coca Cola. I was so happy to see that flag. I was so happy to be home and ready to enjoy the freedoms that so many fought for.
Our country isn’t perfect. Not by far, but it is home and it has afforded me and my children such a wonderful life. Every so often, I look up at the flag outside my building and remember what it means to me and I remember that time in my life where I was away from friends and family and everything I had grown to love. It was a sacrifice, but fortunately not the ultimate sacrifice. I came back in one piece. If I had to go back and do it all again, I would. There are so many places in the world that could use a symbol of freedom like our flag.
Why not take a moment, not only on this day, to consider what it means to you. Please find a child and google what Flag Day is. Google facts about our flag and have a moment of meaningful dialogue about our flag with them.