Joyful hopes, painful reminders


Last week my friend Manal, a fellow aspiring author who is originally from Lebanon, started a blog. On her first blog post she told the story of taking her family to Lebanon for vacation in 2006, only to be blindsided by the outbreak of the Israel-Hezbollah war. She and her family had to be evacuated by US Marines. She posted the photo above on her blog, and asked if anyone might know the young Marine in it. He had greeted her family at the US Embassy gate, told them they were safe, high-fived one son, carried another and held her daughter’s hand as they walked into the embassy compound. She wanted to find him, just to thank him again.

In the photo the Marine’s name, Wilks, and rank, Lance Corporal, are visible. I decided to help her find the Marine. I posted the photo on a military forum, and asked if anyone knew him. I figured someone would know someone from his unit, I’d get a name to search for on Facebook, and a happy mini-reunion would follow.

Instead, I got this response:

“He might be KIA, brother.

There was a CPL Kyle Wilks from CLB 24 that died in 2008. This same Wilks was assigned to CLB 24, which supports the 24th MEU, since 2005. 24th MEU went into Beirut in 2006.”

A few others sent similar messages, along with links. And it was confirmed. Corporal Kyle Weston Wilks was killed by an IED in Afghanistan in 2008, two years after he welcomed my friend and her family to safety in Lebanon.

Manal lived through the horrible Lebanese Civil War. She is no stranger to death. But she was crushed by the news of Wilks’ loss in Afghanistan.

Her blog was intended to be funny, filled with stories about the hectic life of a wife, mother and business owner who travels around the world visiting her far-flung Lebanese family. Instead, her second post was about the loss of the young Marine who she so fondly remembered, the man whose image represented America’s safety and security. That blog post, “RIP instead of a big hug”, drew comments from several people who knew Wilks, including family members and even a corpsman who was in Wilks’ convoy the night he died. Manal has been overwhelmed by the response.

Obviously, I didn’t know Kyle Wilks. But I knew many men like him. One was an infantry lieutenant named Jared Southworth.

Jared and I attended a marksmanship training course in Arkansas in 2008. We instantly hit it off; we were both cops, both combat arms soldiers, both married. Despite being a young guy, he had four kids. I had three and one on the way. Jared was funny as hell, and despite never having met each other before, by the end of the two week course we were pretty good friends.

Jared and I were both about to go to Afghanistan, Jared with an Illinois unit, me with my Texas unit. Jared tried to get me to switch and go with him. I decided to stick with a Texas battalion, and he wound up going to Afghanistan a couple of months before me.

A few days after I arrived at my firebase in northeastern Afghanistan, I ran into a soldier wearing Jared’s unit patch. I knew their unit was spread all over Afghanistan, and hoped Jared was stationed close by. I asked him if he knew Jared.

A pained expression came over his face. “Yeah, I knew him. He was killed two days ago.”

Several seconds of silence followed. The soldier looked at me sympathetically. I performed mental gymnastics, trying to find some way to make the news not true. I asked several questions to confirm: “You’re talking about the cop? The Ranger school graduate? The guy with four kids?”

The answers were all “yes”. Jared was dead. Killed by an IED, at the age of 26.

As proud as I am of my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, I hate what these wars cost. I hate the fact that my friend Manal will never have the chance to thank her Marine. I hate that four children in Illinois will only have a hazy memory of their father. I hate that so many families have Gold Stars on their walls.

Kyle Wilks. Nicola Belda. Jared Southworth. Yann Hertach. Tommy Folks. Matthew Freeman. And thousands of others.

I wish they were still with us. I wish we could just “win” in Afghanistan and leave. And I wish this war was over.

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20 Responses to “Joyful hopes, painful reminders”

  1. 1 ndp0911

    Absolutely heartbreaking. I, too, wish the war was over.

  2. I wish our government hadn’t established a dictatorship and overcentralized piece of shit “government” in Afghanistan. We cannot “win” because our civilian overlords screwed up, big time, politically.

    • Drew,

      I’m actually torn about that. Sometimes I wish we had just decided to back the “best” dictator instead of trying to build a democracy over there. Building democracy in Afghanistan is like trying to build a house out of fog.

      • 5 Jeff Wood

        Chris, you have it.

        I am a Brit. When I learned that you, and we, were going into the ‘Stan, I thought Well, that is the Taliban knocked over. What comes next?

        I went to a military school, with a rich library where I did a lot of reading. Some of the reading was about the North West Frontier, then of India and now of Pakistan.

        That area was always troublesome, and in the first half of the 19th Century, Empire forces occupied Afghanistan to try and gain peace for India. After a while the tribes rose, surrounded Kabul, and made our position there untenable. The Commander, Lord Elphinstone I think, decided to march home to India, and if any of the force got home (they were impeded by families and baggage) it would be no more than a handful. You can guess what happened to the wives and children.

        A hard lesson learned, the Imperial Administration changed course. First they sent a fresh expedition, a punitive one this time, and made their point. Then they paid the strongest tribe at the frontier to keep order among the rest.

        When, inevitably, the favoured tribe broke the bargain, they had the honour of a punitive expedition all to themselves. After that, they were in no position to keep order, and the contract was given to the previously next strongest tribe, who of course began by finishing off their predecessors.

        And so on. The Frontier was never quite quiet, and I recall that Winston Churchill first saw action in the area as a young sub-lieutenant. It will never be peaceful in the foreseeable future, and as for the interior…

        I was therefore horrified to read that we had resolved, in effect, to occupy the place. I am not surprised that little has come of enormous cost in blood and treasure. It should not have been beyond the wit of our planners to devise some variation of the old British solution. Perhaps they did, but politicians are such fools, and soldiers die of their mistakes.

        • I have been reading lots of history of the British empire over the last few months. Fascinating stuff, supremely brave and dedicated soldiers doing the best they could in a bad situation. it’s a shame that our leaders are apparently to wrapped up in their own hubris to read history themselves. There is a lot to be learned there. Very well said, thanks for posting that.

        • Jeff,

          I apologize for the delayed response. That was a fantastic commentary. I strongly agree, we hoped against hope that this time we had the right formula to create peace and democracy among people that don’t want either. One of the most frustrating things about modern American society is that so many Americans think we’ve somehow evolved past human nature, that the lessons of the past 20,000 years of history don’t apply to us. It’s a stupid mindset that can only exist among people who are so insulated from reality as to be disconnected from it.

  3. From your lips to god’s ears, brother.

  4. Fuck … just fuck … tears my guts out to read this. RIP all the dead young heroes.

    • Mikey,

      The memories are hard sometimes. I can only tell myself that they didn’t die for nothing; they died because they felt that the cause was worth their lives. Whatever happens later doesn’t change what their service and lives were worth.

  5. 12 RandyGC

    Dang, dusty in here, need to change the air filters.

    Both stories illustrate that our “best and brightest” are still out on the tip of the spear, no matter what the Ivy Leaguers and DC insiders may think of themselves

    • Randy,

      I met amazingly gifted and intelligent people in the military. Some of the guys who loved combat the most were also the smartest. You’re right, too many people think we soldiers are poor victims who only fight because we’re too stupid to go to college.

      Screw those people. They’re wrong.

  6. Made my allergies kick up a bit, too.

    Most all of us have lost someone, at least an acquaintance, if not a friend or brother.

    I’d like to think that they weren’t in vain. And part of me believes that it wasn’t, although I don’t give two shits about democracy in Afghanistan anymore. But they, and we, fought for each other. Some died.

  7. 16 Angela

    This story is a tearjerker……….so much pain.

  8. The entire story makes my throat swell. Thanks for the follow up, Chris.


  9. 19 SPEMack

    Jesus, when you see and meet guys that are just so awesomely squared away, you just sorta believe that they will live forever, or short of that, die at 80 after having a heart attack at a titty bar.

    That was hard to read, Chris.

    • It was hard to write. I got kind of torn up when I found out about the Marine, even though I had no connection to him at all. I guess when we see one soldier who was lost, we see all of those who were lost.

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