After two weeks of waiting for a plane to become available, Joker One finally flew to Kuwait and from there back to the States. On September 125, 2004, we formed up with the rest of the company at the armory in Camp Pendleton, California. It was late there, around ten o’clock, but that hadn’t stopped our loved ones from gathering to greet us. We could hear their cheers, just a few hundred yards away, up on top of a hill where they couldn’t quite see us down at the armory. Once the company had assembled in a rough column of four squares, we set off up the hill, the CO marching at our head, Joker One and I following just behind him.
When the CO and the flag bearer preceding him crested the hill, the crowd erupted. The company marched toward them, eyes straight forward, hands swinging stiffly by our sides, heads held high. I don’t know what the rest of the men were thinking then, but I, for one, felt proud. Ramadi hadn’t become a bastion of security and stability on our watch, but it hadn’t completely fallen to the insurgents, either. To prevent that, we had fought every day, street by street and house by house, bringing only what we could carry on our backs. We had fought hard, and we had persevered, and maybe the city was a little bit better for having had us there.
However, we had taken a tremendous beating in the process. The battalion had suffered thirty-four killed and over ten times that number wounded in seven and a half months. Across 2/4, those numbers worked out to be a little less than one out of every three men. In Golf Company, the ratio was even higher: Roughly one out of every two of us had been wounded. However, our sister company, Echo, had suffered the worst: They had suffered twenty-two killed, about one out of every eight men. They had quite literally been decimated. Later, we were told that when we returned to the States, we had taken more casualties than any battalion—Marine or Army—since Vietnam.
These thoughts flitted briefly through my mind as the company stopped its march directly in front of the gathered crowd. As one man, the battalion turned left and faced our shouting loved ones, and, staring at them as I saluted our CO and our flag, I was reminded of the tremendous price we had paid to march back with our heads held high. There in front of me, waving his right arm only, was Carson. His left was bound up in a sling. Leza and Niles stood next to him, both on crutches, and Boren was there with his wife and his cane. When the CO dismissed us, and the Marines of Joker One flooded out of the ranks to run into the arms of their crying wives, to hug their mothers and fathers, to have their little ones jump into their arms, I couldn’t help but think that our joy was incomplete. One of our families was missing. One of us hadn’t made it back, and his wife and parents had no reason to come to California to greet us. Even as I kissed Christy, and even as I watched my men tearfully reunite with those who loved them, I thought about the one family to whom I hadn’t been able to keep my promise.
Four days later, the entire battalion went on a month of leave. It was wonderful to be back in America—and what better place to be than Southern California—but everywhere I went, I felt a little naked. I was used to being armed to the teeth, used to having an entire squad around me everywhere I traveled. Without the knowledge that twelve men were watching over one another and me, I felt nervous around crowds, and I avoided them. Loud noises scared me, and I jumped every time a door slammed or a car backfired. I still had trouble sleeping.
Still, each day was a little bit better than its predecessor, and, slowly, I eased my way back into America. By the time sleeping in my own bed felt more or less normal, everyone had returned from their leave and their respective homes. It was wonderful to be around the men again. One month later, though, I found out that I was being replaced as Joker One’s platoon commander. It wasn’t a surprise—with only five months of active duty left for me, I had to turn my men over to a new leader sometime. However, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, giving the men who had been the center of my world over to someone else who didn’t know them as I did. I let them go all the same. Keeping the Marines any longer would have been selfish—they needed time and training with their new leader, and the longer I kept them, the less well they would all work together.
Shortly before I left, Joker One threw a platoon beach party, and at it the men gave me a surprise. Just as we were preparing to leave, Noriel gathered the men and walked them and me over to a pickup truck that had been backed up to the beach. I hadn’t noticed it before. As we assembled around the tailgate, Noriel announced to me that the platoon had gotten together to give their departing leader a little something. Then he dropped the tailgate and revealed my present.
Stood on its side so I could look clearly into its glass front was a custom-made hardwood case lined with red velvet. Inside it were mounted an officer’s sword and sheath. To my surprise, the sword fit me exactly. I looked up at Noriel on discovering this, and he was grinning from ear to ear.
“Now you know why I asked your inseams, sir.” He paused and looked at me expectantly. Still dumbfounded, I looked back. Noriel spoke up again. “Damn, sir, you’re dry-eyed still. I was hoping you’d cry when you saw this.” Then he walked over and handed me something small and jangling. I looked down. It was a whole host of dog tags, all strung together one after the other along the standard beaded metal chain. They were bent and dented. Some were still covered in sand.
Noriel spoke again, serious now. “Sir, those are all of us, sir. So you can remember us when you’re gone.” He paused, then. “Sir, we even got Bolding’s dog tag for you.”
Hearing that, I nearly did cry.
I left the platoon the next week, and I thought that it would be the last time I would see them together, but I was wrong. Three weeks later, we held a memorial service for the battalion’s dead, and the CO called me to make sure that I would come. Up until the day of the service, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be there—Bolding’s family was coming, the CO had told me, and I didn’t know how I could face them. But when the afternoon finally arrived, I pushed my fear aside and walked down to the event. Standing at the back, in the very last row of a crowd of Marines, I had a difficult time maintaining my composure as the chaplain honored our dead for the last time. At the front of the crowd, I could see Joker One, assembled together with their new leader at their head. Some time passed, more words were spoken by the company commanders, and eventually the service ended. My Marines broke up and formed a long line—they were paying their respects to Bolding’s mother and sisters.
Supremely nervous, I walked over to the line and waited my turn. I don’t know how long the waiting lasted—it seemed forever but too short—and the entire time I practiced the words that I wanted to say to Bolding’s mother about her son. Her son was a hero, I wanted to tell her, and he died defending others, children who couldn’t defend themselves. He was one of the best of all of us, and he never quit on his team. He lifted us all with his smile and his cheerful nature. We missed him.
Then, suddenly, I was there, in front of her, and I couldn’t say anything at all. For a time, I looked at her, and she at me, and then I broke down sobbing. It was the first time I had cried about Bolding since we lost him, since the Gunny had held me in that miserable bathroom in Iraq. I couldn’t speak coherently, and the only thing I said, over and over again through my sobs, was this:
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Then, though I couldn’t see, so I can’t describe exactly what happened, Bolding’s mom was hugging me. Just like the Gunny had, she pulled me down into her chest, and I wrapped my arms around her and cried and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.
I don’t remember if she said anything to me, but when the moment passed, I felt some measure of absolution. Life continued, and so would I. Some things I will never understand, but I accept that now, and I no longer demand full comprehension as the price of the pursuit of excellence. So I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other as best as I possibly can until my mission on earth ends and God takes me home.