Memorial Day

Eric Paliwoda was a big dude. Probably six-foot-six. Those big, meaty hands that would swallow your own in a tight handshake. His jaw stuck out, exaggerated by a lip full of dip. He was raised in Connecticut, but seemingly emerged from a Nebraska cornfield, ready for war. 

He was on the brigade staff in the operations department when I got to know him in 2002, and I was in the same boat. Operations is the holding pen where they put young officers waiting to join a line unit. Your goal upon being assigned to operations is to find a way out. The the front line is where you want to be. In a platoon you're in charge, out on your own, raising hell on the countryside. In the staff you're at the bottom of the barrel. You write reports. You get coffee. All on some major's schedule. In the rear with the gear. It sucks. 

We both timed it wrong. When the orders came down for war, all positions froze to focus on preparation. About five years ahead of me in his career, Eric was eagerly awaiting a company command. 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 had fancy computer engineering degree and was wasting my time as a lowly Armor officer. I told him it's what I wanted to do. To be a part of the US Cavalry, while he dug berms for tankers. When he was promoted to captain I had to call him "sir" and it hurt because could no longer punch back. 

Our prayers were answered soon after hitting theater. He took command of his own Engineer Company while we were still in Kuwait in early 2003. I heard the news and I remember feeling good for him. It was where he belonged. I was assigned to my tank platoon a few weeks later and our paths diverged. He went north, and I went south, both of us in the thick of things. New leaders in combat.

He was universally known as a good officer. Our tour progressed. Early combat shifted from hunt-and-destroy the remnants of the Iraqi Army to occupy-and-keep-the-peace and then to find-and-destroy the insurgent presence. I had a mix of patrols, checkpoints, quick reaction force, and raids. Eric did patrols, explosive ordinance disposal, and city counsel meetings. He was certainly the better officer. More accomplished. Experienced. 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. Cut him down in his prime. Leveled the mountain. 

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 back safely. Not all of my friends can say the same. 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. Today I'm proudly a part of our Chamber of Commerce, our Library, and our Town. A leader, like my friend was. 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. The Army chose him to teach the next generation of leaders. 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. I feel a strange and complicated guilt of surviving an ordeal when a better man did not. I lived through probably two dozen mortar attacks. For a while I didn't need to set an alarm because hot shrapnel rained from the sky every morning between 4 AM and 5 AM. While Eric enjoyed the theoretical safety of 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. 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. Why did he die? 

He's who I think about 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. You have to work at it. It hits me at two very specific moments: when a stranger walks up to me and thanks me for my service, and every time I'm at a baseball game singing along with a few thousand watching our flag waving in the sunshine, forever free. Because of Eric and so many others. 

Gary Coleman, Dale Panchot, Jose Mora, and Brian Faunce, Phillip Esposito, and Lou Allen, to name a few. Thousands more proud warriors and their families paid a terrible price in the service of our country. 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're given when theirs was taken away. 

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