Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stone Cold And The Silver Leaves

Ever notice that sometimes when you see people with whom you have a bond after a fair amount of time has gone by that it seems like none has passed at all? I got to experience that this weekend on a small pilgrimage that I took to celebrate one of the Army’s newest Lieutenant Colonels, LTC Stone Cold.

There was a gathering of his friends; stateside co-workers, family, and Afghanistan buddies commingled at a soirĂ©e held at a local establishment for a few hours. Seeing LTC Cold and SFC O again was a real treat! That wasn’t the end of the treats, though; I got to meet some folks that seemed only myth in Afghanistan; Mrs. O and Mrs. Cold, the stalwarts of homeland defense at Ft Livingroom. I also got to meet Mr. and Mrs. Stone Cold Sr; the people responsible for raising the man.

Meeting O at Ft Riley, I had no idea what we would wind up experiencing together in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, we were not really supposed to be working closely together at all. Funny how things work out. I met LTC Cold briefly at Bagram when he was a lowly Major just as O, Maniac, and I were heading downrange to establish ourselves as the Bastard Children of Nijrab.

He seemed a rather unassuming man, sort of a mild-mannered lurker on a team of three with two very outgoing personalities. SFC Jacques Pulvier has never met a stranger, and as for the Colonel, the team senior mentor, he’s got a lot to say, too. Then-Major Cold, yet to gain the very moniker, seemed a veritable wallflower by comparison.

He’s really a fairly understated man until you shoot at him, at which point he will gather up any sentient being wearing a friendly uniform and form an ad-hoc strike force. Sporting a maniacal grin, he will attack to the point that he has outrun all friendly support and then later joke about how scared he was.

SFC Pulvier once threatened him with bodily injury for gallivanting out of sight with a small contingent of Afghans seeking the perpetrators of heinous crimes against humanity; to wit, they were shooting at our guys.

There’s a reason why we call them bad guys. Actually, there’s more than one. As SFC O put it so eruditely, “Most times it’s easier to call them ‘bad guys’ than to explain what HiG means.”

In any case, Stone Cold was to demonstrate why it can be a surprise to peel back the flowered wallpaper.

O is a different story. O describes himself as an asshole. While he has been known to respond to a harebrained idea with a curt, “That’s just not to going to f*cking work, Sir,” I wouldn’t describe him as an asshole. He carries an air of workmanlike Infantry capability, and he is very straightforward. He stands up for what he believes, doesn’t sugarcoat his response to ineptness or tactical stupidity, and demands tactical proficiency of his subordinates as well as his superiors.

To me, that doesn’t add up to asshole. I could be wrong, but if I am it has turned out happily for me to this point. I like O; a lot. I hope to maintain a friendship with him for the rest of my natural life. Being older than O, that’s my way of saying that I hope that he attends my funeral.

Looking back, and really not looking back that far, it’s strange just how significant these guys have become in my life, when I really had absolutely no idea when I met them. I think that’s just really wild.

Seeing the wily Afghan Stone Cold in his natural environment was truly a contrast. Seeing him surrounded by his family, friends, and co-workers, doting on his son, discussing the myriad medical issues that his formerly diabetic and freshly reupholstered ancient cat has miraculously survived, the newly minted Colonel dressed in shorts and sandals simply revealed the same unassuming “average guy” that I had originally met at Bagram; not a hint of the “Tiger of Tag Ab.”

I just made that name up.

There’s no disguising his father’s pride in him, and he’s got his equally proud mother’s eyes. His family warmly embraces him and they are justifiably pleased with the decorations he earned and his new silver oak leaves. You can feel the genuine warmth of his friends and co-workers. You can tell that he is respected by all in his life, but not because of what he did last year; they respected him before he went.

Two Bronze Stars, one for valor, don’t change what they always thought of Stone.

Rick Dyn and Jacques Pulvier, sadly, didn’t make it. We chatted with Jacques for over an hour on speakerphone, laughing most of the time. Mr. Dyn was simply an inexplicable no-show. He was missed, too. We all wondered if he kept his facial hair when he returned.

At the end of the evening, the Afghan veterans were the last to leave. We reluctantly ended the hilarity with Jacques; his wife’s attempts to open a coconut in the background during the conversation added an extra comical touch. We suggested C-4 at one point, and we queried Jacques as to where he had found a coconut, which is tropical a fruit, in Michigan, which is in a temperate zone. The image of migrating swallows carrying a hairy fruit on a string suspended between them just never loses its luster.

Many of our adventures had seemed Pythonesque. It would have fit right in for any of us to canter into any cluster-of-khalats village followed by one of the ANP making horse hoof noises with coconut halves, pretend to dismount, and demand to see the local shrubber.

I think that most of the Afghan villagers would not have looked at us any differently.

LTC Cold’s son, Nugget, was losing a valiant struggle with the sleep monster. At one point Stone sprinted across the room to put a pillow under his head after he had nearly made contact with the wooden arm of the living room chair he was curled into. The ancient cat, its fur obviously recently transplanted from a donor stuffed carnival cat, began to reclaim the house. It was time to go.

As we stood saying our goodbyes and edging towards the door, LTC Stone Cold, suburban husband and father, stood casually in his living room. Looking over his right shoulder, I saw the plaque presented to team members in Kapisa Province hanging on the wall.

The wives and mothers are unsung heroes. We were recognized with Bronze Stars for our efforts amid the dust, dirt, rocks, sweat, and snow. The home front still bore the same issues, but the other parents were gone. The children, now worried about their fathers, with scant images available as to what daddy’s daily life was like, offered more than the usual challenges. The problems that they dealt with were many, compounded by the added worry of husbands and fathers in nebulous harm’s way. There are no medals to pin on the uniforms they do not possess.

They bore the burden of not only maintaining the home front, but of being the strong one in the face of the concerns of little ones and maintaining communication overseas about how the kids were doing without unduly adding to the soldier’s stress. It’s a fine line to walk.

Bearing a burden that just “comes with the deal” of being with a soldier brings no other rewards. We are recognized and thanked for our service while they stand holding our children’s hands and bearing the scars of children’s tears burned into their souls.

We had to deal with being in Afghanistan and all that came with our side of the deployment. What we dealt with was unusual, to say the least. What they dealt with was more of the usual with tons of stress added in… and never a break. We were challenged with making a difference in the situation in Afghanistan, and in our own operations; but we could have an impact on what we did. We could shoot back.

They could not. They were being subjected to stresses the source of which they had no control over whatsoever. Blind to our conditions, largely uninformed about our missions, the danger level that we truly faced, and often our precise location, they carried on and did it well.

My parents being long since gone, I rarely considered what it must be like for the parents of these soldiers. I have considered it as a soldier, wishing that my efforts could somehow contribute to ending this before my children have an opportunity to participate. The thought of having a child on a combat tour mortifies me.

I saw the pride, but the relief of the parents must be tremendous.

We will always be proud of what we did in Afghanistan, and we will always have plaques and medals, pictures and memories of adventure that seem more adventurous and less painful now. Time unleashes the humor of many of the events of the tour. The friendship and camaraderie appears to be enduring.

The wives, mothers, and parents have no such trinkets, except the pictures and memories of the times with the kids that they did not miss. There is no other recognition from any outside agency.

Just as we stand in our places in the long green line of the Army, they hold a place in the long chain of those who have kept the home fires burning throughout our history.


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/01/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  2. I guess the folks back home would be the invisible links in the chain of strength and endurance.

    Glad you had a good time!

  3. I am also glad that you had a grand time. Do not worry. We have realized the plight of those left behind, and there are many organizations to help them out. We are not going to allow anyone suffer needlessly. Unfortunately, we cannot fix the loss of a loved one. I so grateful you made it home!


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