Soldiers Once

Article by Matt Gallagher

Two section sergeants, E-6s in Army parlance, oversaw the day-to-day lives of the Gravediggers. Torri led like a bulldog, all firm aggression and by example, while Mason relied on his swagger and rock-star charisma. Both went on to run their own platoons; Torri retired a few years back and now works in tax preparation. Mason’s still in, teaching ROTC cadets at a university in the Northeast all his hard-earned wisdom. Tomorrow’s leaders are in capable hands.

Last spring, I traveled to rural Oklahoma for a dear friend’s wedding — Smitty, one of the young infantry privates in the platoon, who often was the first through the door on a raid. In the years since, he’s done grown up and was ready to get hitched. There was a solid turnout from the old crew — five of us in total, and three of us were groomsmen. It was a wonderful ceremony with many a devout Baptist, so after the reception, the Gravediggers snuck off to a local watering hole. We caught up like only old war buddies can, telling stories that grew increasingly less family friendly as the night wore on. We called the other guys who couldn’t make it, made promises to keep in better touch, and all the rest. It was reinvigorating. For a couple hours, at least, we were together again, soldiers again, able to pretend to be young and free and fierce like we’d once been, too.

Of course it hasn’t been smooth and easy for everyone. One of my former soldiers suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan on a subsequent deployment. Life’s tough for him, especially when his VA disability check arrives late. Another lost a child and has wrestled mightily with post-traumatic stress. Yet another went through a messy divorce he’s only beginning to emerge from. And out of the 30 in the platoon, there are two no one seems to know what happened to — no phone number, no Facebook, no nothing. That tends to happen in groups of this size, but still, I’ll find myself on aimless afternoons wondering if somewhere along the way, I could’ve reached out when that was still an option.

We miss each other. We miss needing each other. Twisted as it is, we miss that life, when every day, every patrol, every fucking moment mattered. There was a purpose of being in every step of the boot, and while that’s no way to live forever, it juices the veins with both clarity and adrenaline when you’re in the midst of it.

As we walked out of that bar and into a dark Oklahoma night last spring, we felt — all too fleetingly — like we did that night back in 2009 when we’d landed in Hawaii. The war was in the past, neat and contained in the memory box we’d tucked away. The present and future were one, intertwined with possibility and the togetherness of the group. The group, the platoon. The we.

It never lasts. It can’t. Maybe that’s why it’s so special to return to it when we’re able.

Matt Gallagher is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of three books, including the novel Empire City. For more of Matt’s work, you can check out an entire section of Embrace the Suck. That name has always had a special ring to in for many of us here. One would be hard pressed to describe 2020 in any better terms, actually — save for the fact that we contintue to have problems leaving that behind. Key word must be Embrace.