Memorial Day

Eric Paliwoda was a big dude - probably about six-foot-six. A mountain of a man. He had these big, meaty hands that would swallow your own in a tight handshake. A strong jaw that jutted out from his face - particularly when he had a mouthful of dip. He was raised in Arizona and Connecticut, but looked like he emerged from a Nebraska cornfield.

He was on the brigade staff in the operations/planning department when I got to know him in 2002, and I was doing the same for our subordinate battalion. The thing about operations is that it's the bullpen where they put young officers to do their time while waiting to join a line unit. On the front line is where you want to be - in charge, out on your own, raising hell on the countryside. In the staff you're at the bottom of the barrel, writing reports, getting coffee, answering to some major's schedule. In the rear with the gear.

We both had timed it wrong. When the orders came down that we were going to war, all positions were frozen to focus on preparation, including ours. About five years ahead of me, Eric was waiting for a company command to open up. I was waiting for a tank platoon. He was in the Engineer Branch and gave me a ton of shit once he found out that here I was a smart guy with a fancy computer engineering degree, wasting my time as a lowly Armor officer. I told him it's what I wanted to do, be a part of the US Cavalry, needling him back for his chosen path of digging berms for tankers. When he was promoted to captain a month later, and I had to call him "sir," which hurt because he gave me even more shit, and I lost my ability to retort. Yet at least he managed it in a good-natured, chew-spitting, big brother manner. Except for the time he filled my can of Coke with spit and didn't tell me.

We both got our wish and were put in charge soon after hitting theater. I think that he hit the line while we were still in Kuwait - taking command of his own Engineer Company in early 2003. I remember feeling good for him - I knew that's where he wanted to be. I was assigned to my tank company a few weeks later when the former platoon leader was promoted to the scout platoon, both of us found ourselves right in the thick of things - new leaders in combat.

He was universally known as a good officer. Our tour progressed, and early combat shifted from hunt-and-destroy the remnants of the Iraqi Army, to occupy-and-keep-the-peace, to find-and-destroy the insurgent presence. For me, it was a mix of patrols, checkpoints, quick reaction force, and raids. For him, I think it was a little more nuanced - patrols, explosive ordinance disposal, and city counsel meetings. He was certainly the better officer - he could use his massive, gruff frame to give orders and speak truth, no matter how strange or frustrating things got. Like me, I'm sure that he did some good things, and also some horrible things. I know that his men loved him. They would describe him later "as a gentle giant who took good care of them."

On January 2nd, 2004, nine mortar shells fell into FOB Eagle where Eric's company was garrisoned. Shrapnel from one of the rounds took his life. He was buried at West Point ten days later. He was 28.

Four months later, I came home. More importantly, I was able to bring all of my guys home safe, something I will forever be grateful for. I married my wife, was promoted to Captain and had two company command tours, left the Army, ran a successful business, bought a house and our office building, and am proud to be a part of our Chamber of Commerce, our Library, and our Town. Although Eric will always be older than me in my memory, I'm 35 today.

I often wonder what Eric would have done after the war. It's deeply unfair and awful that we didn't find out. We know that he was special - he found out about halfway into our tour that he was already accepted to be a professor at West Point. We won't know what he would have accomplished after his time in service, but those who knew him best "thought someday he would be a US Senator."

During dark times, it haunts me that I'm here and he isn't, part of the strange, complicated guilt of surviving an ordeal when a better man did not. I lived through probably two dozen mortar attacks, and for a while I didn't need to set an alarm because they came hot and heavy every morning between 4 AM and 5 AM. While Eric was at a large base, I spent most of my time in Iraq at higher risk in a small Forward Operating Base in the middle of nowhere. It seems ridiculous now, but we joked about how we'd never find or kill the Mad Mortarman (we did). There's really no reason outside of blind, dumb luck that I spent my nights sleeping on a tank and was safe from shrapnel, while Eric slept in a tent, and was not.

So that's what I'm thinking about, a lot of the time, when I see flags waving. How incredibly lucky I am to be here. That we live in a place where we don't have to worry about mortar rounds dropping in from the sky or bags blowing up on the side of the road, where we can raise our kids in relative safety, where we can chase our dreams and all have at least the chance to prosper. We take these things and more as a given, and most of the time it is impossible not to. I try to remind myself constantly not to take this place and this time for granted - every cup of coffee, every completed project, every time I share a laugh with a friend or a client. Every time someone walks up to me and thanks me for my service. Every time I get to go to a baseball game and sit in the crowd and watch our flag waving in the sunshine, forever free.

Also, I think a lot about Eric on Memorial Day. Gary Coleman, Dale Panchot, Jose Mora, and Brian Faunce, Phillip Esposito, and Lou Allen, as well. These and the thousands more proud veterans and their families paid a terrible price in the service of our country. I think about how we owe it to them to live good lives, to love and take care of each other, and to make our corner of the USA just a little bit better. To do something with this time that we've been given.

To make their sacrifice worth it. For them, and for us.