Bolding made it as far as Germany, but once there he succumbed to acute respiratory distress syndrome (I’ll never forget that sterile phrase) brought on by massive blood loss. We heard that his doctors had been amazed that he had even made it that far, given the nature and severity of his injuries. He must have been very strong, they said. He was.
Bolding’s death came as a severe shock—prior to it we had all assumed that his recovery was assured. I had been checking with our doctors and corpsmen every day to find out anything that they knew (they had a direct line over the radio to the other doctors throughout the theater), and together the Marines and I tracked Bolding’s progress from Baghdad to Kuwait to Ramstein, Germany. When we heard that he had arrived there, all of our conversation suddenly shifted away from questions surrounding the probability of Bolding’s survival and toward debates on the extent of his healing. In my hope, I told my men that today’s prosthetics were excellent and that there was even a very slim chance that Bolding’s own legs would be re-attached.
On June 3, though, I assembled Joker One at the house, and, trying desperately to maintain my composure, told them that Bolding was dead. It was horrible, and I didn’t want to do it. After leading my men to believe that Bolding would be just fine, I now had to reverse course completely and shatter the expectations I had helped to set. As much as I didn’t want to face the men with the tragic news, I didn’t have a choice. It was my responsibility to keep them informed. So I did, and I don’t remember much else about it, just a hazy picture of the men kneeling and me trying not to cry as I told them what had happened. And, to be honest, I don’t really want to remember much about that moment. I do know that once I finished, I fled the courtyard to be alone in my room.
There I found that my hope, built so painstakingly over the past eight months, had been ruthlessly extinguished in one terrible moment in a nameless, dirty Iraqi street in a city that most people will never hear of. Having that hope crushed out was (and still is) a difficult, difficult thing, and, on the day I told my men that Bolding was dead, I fell into a deep depression. For a week, I didn’t want to eat, and I didn’t want to leave my bed, even though I found no respite in sleep. Instead of sleeping, I spent my time endlessly replaying the scene of Bolding’s injury in my head, wondering where I had gone wrong, selfishly second-guessing myself with constant rounds of “What if I had …”
So I was tired all of the time, physically and psychologically. Tired of making myself do pull-ups and push-ups when there was no guarantee that I would even come home with both arms attached. Tired of carefully planning each mission as well as we could in order to protect our Marines, only to have the inevitable last-minute changes of combat throw off all our careful preparation. Tired of having to make life-and-death decisions every day, tired of having unexpected things go wrong no matter how hard we tried, tired of my Marines paying the price for my shortcomings, tired of my responsibility as a leader. And I was tired of trying to help the ungrateful Iraqis who seemed completely unappreciative of our efforts and our sacrifices on their behalf—we later found out that local residents blamed not the RPG-firing terrorists for the death of their children, but us for precipitating the attack.
But the mission continued with no regard for one small lieutenant and his loss of hope. And why should it regard him? All over Iraq, that same loss of hope was repeated for other lieutenants every single day, and all over Iraq, the Iraqis themselves were dying in scores in terrorist or sectarian violence.
The mission couldn’t afford to pause and feel sorry for individual pain and grief, even if it wanted to; it was too important, and far bigger than any individual. No matter what, the mission needed to continue unabated.
Fortunately, my Marines understood this basic truth much better than I did. The enemy and the missions left us no time for a respite after Bolding’s death, so my men strapped on their gear daily and headed back out into the city, still trying to make life a little bit better for the people we were there to protect. They weren’t bitter, they weren’t angry, and, unlike me, they weren’t trapped in a selfish spiral of recrimination and angst. On some level, my men still retained a beautiful, simple, powerful faith: There was a mission to help a brutalized people, that mission was worth doing, and if someone had to do it, then it might as well be them. And if anyone tried to stop my Marines in pursuit of that mission, then God help them, because my men would do their utmost to kill our enemies stone dead.
My Marines were magnificent, and they saved me that time. Fortunately, I wasn’t so far gone in my self-destructive spiral that I couldn’t go out on Joker One’s missions. I hadn’t laid down my responsibility altogether—I wasn’t worth very much as a decision maker for a week, but at least I was physically present with my men, sharing the hardship and the danger. As I shared, I watched them, and I noticed, perhaps more intently than ever before (probably because I needed my men more than ever before), all the small, wonderful things that made my Marines the best. I noticed their perseverance and their ability to pick themselves up and move on with some joy in their hearts. I noticed their tenderness toward one another, their selfless service even as the barbed teasings and the practical jokes continued unabated.
I noticed Noriel, Leza, and Bowen all pick up the leadership ball that I had dropped, talking to one another, planning their missions in absence of guidance from me, walking the lines, talking to the men, touching each on his shoulders. I listened to Mahardy and Waters fight like cat and dog one minute, only to have one offer the other the last of his water on a long, hot patrol the next. I listened to Niles relentlessly goad Ott, and Ott stolidly respond. I watched Guzon volunteer to carry the SAW, adding another twenty pounds to his combat load even as the temperature soared well above 120 degrees. I watched Docs Smith and Camacho bending over my Marines’ horrific feet, lancing boils and dispensing medical advice like nervous mothers. I noticed Bowen patiently teaching his men during nearly every spare minute of downtime, making himself less so that his squad might become greater.
All these things and more that I can’t put into words I noticed, but noticing prepared me to finally receive some sort of absolution in the form of the skinny, filthy, wonderful Private First Class Gabriel Henderson. For whatever reason, Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue:
“Hey, sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Henderson broke into a big smile. “Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.”
I had to turn away to keep from crying.
I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith. Despite the anguish, and the self-doubt, and all the questions, I wasn’t ready to give up on God just yet. I didn’t understand the tragedy of Bolding’s death, and I still don’t and I won’t pretend to, but seeing the simple faith of my Marines made me realize that, as a leader, I had a very basic choice to make: 1) I could throw in the towel on God—in other words, rationalize away my inability to understand and comprehend the infinite by stating that He didn’t exist; or 2) I could accept the fact that this life is painful, and tragic, and messy, and that God’s designs often don’t coincide with my plans and that many times I won’t, and will never, understand why they don’t, but that none of this means that God doesn’t exist or that He isn’t ultimately good. The first choice, as I saw it, offered me no hope. Without God, then Bolding’s life and death were meaningless—he served no ultimate purpose, he worked for no greater good, and now that he was gone he had no hope for the future. With God, though, Bolding’s life and death were in service of the infinite, of a personal deity who cared and who intended the best for His people, even if they didn’t see it or didn’t want it. The second choice offered me hope, and I reached for it and strapped myself back into the responsibility of leadership.
But even as one hope kindled, another died. Prior to Bolding’s death, I had assumed that I would survive Iraq. In the aftermath, I wished fervently that I had died in Bolding’s stead, but since I hadn’t, for a time I clung to the belief that God somehow owed it to me to bring me home alive. With acceptance of the second choice and of God’s unqualified sovereignty, though, I finally realized that, no matter how hard I prayed, God didn’t owe me anything, not even life. With that realization came an acceptance of death and even more than that. Finally, I had gotten to where I needed to be as an infantry lieutenant. Finally, I considered myself already dead, with each day a precious gift that I didn’t deserve.
The mind-set shift didn’t make life easier going forward, and it didn’t remove the responsibility of combat leadership in any way, but it did help me to make decisions with less consideration of my personal welfare. And for a time, it helped me to take joy in the day we had been given with no expectation for more, with no expectation that God would grant me another tomorrow.