Soldiers Once

Article by Matt Gallagher

Eleven years after Matt Gallagher’s scout platoon returned home from Iraq, a lot of things have changed — except for when they get together. Our national security columnist checks in with the men with whom he went to war.

We Were Soldiers Once, and Young

We’d just lived through 15 months that would stay with us the rest of our lives, but for the moment, we just wanted to party.

I don’t remember much about the redeployment journey from our outposts north of Baghdad back to America — there were Humvee rides, helicopter flights and various tents that served as temporary lodging. We boarded a commercial flight in Kuwait, but that still meant three or four long legs.

I do recall landing back on the tropical green isle of Oahu, though, where we were stationed as part of the 25th Infantry Division. I do recall what the sight of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach and the crystalline, teal cove of Pearl Harbor did to my soul. After all those months in a desert of all sorts of brown and yellow, getting shot at and trying to figure out who was the enemy — and wondering if every piece of loose trash on the street maybe hid a bloody, sudden end — Hawaii gripped my senses in a way no physical place ever has.

We’d lived. We’d made it. And back then in those early months of 2009, we were allowed to think we’d turned around the war, too.

Thirty cavalry troopers and infantrymen — and one proud medic! — made up the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Troop, 2-14 Cavalry. It was the honor and duty of my life to be their platoon leader. One of us was hurt seriously, but he’s living a full life now. In a vague, hazy way, as young men on the cusp of our new lives and new selves, I’m sure we understood back then we’d always be connected by what we’d just gone through and done together. In the moment, though, like I said, we just wanted to kiss our wives and girlfriends, hug our kids if we had any, and then hit the town.

The story goes that arrests in Honolulu went up 300% that weekend.

Eleven years later, life’s taken us disparate places, but for good and ill, we’re still united by the war. That war. Our war. Some of us are still in the Army. Some of us recently retired and are adjusting to post-service life. Some of us (raises hand) got out years ago and are comfortable in our veteran skin, but sometimes have a hard time identifying with the lean, trim machines we once were.

The heart and soul of the platoon — aka “the Gravediggers,” an ironic nickname taken from the World War II comedy Kelly’s Heroes — was the platoon sergeant, Chris. A tall, thick former offensive lineman from Iowa, we called him Big Country, and he commanded respect from his soldiers and superiors alike. Quite likely the most capable man and human being I’ve ever known, Chris deployed three times over the course of 20 years and retired from the Army two years ago. He’s transitioned to a second career in logistics in the private sector, and we both had way too much fun (and a few beers) after his retirement, going through his trunk of maps, equipment and photos from our time together overseas.