Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Memorial

June 8
I do not know Charles Parrish. He may have ridden with me on one of the convoys I took out to a Forward Operating Base. His unit is in charge of route clearance on several of the main thoroughfares that service Diyala, Iraq, a mission that basically entails riding down the streets looking for bombs so that they don't go off on one of the other vehicles that travel the same routes. I am reminded of my dad who will walk barefoot through the kitchen after someone drops a glass on the floor sweeping up the mess all the while saying, "I'd rather I find it with my foot than someone else later with theirs." It is a thankless mission and mostly boring these days. Oftentimes the soldiers battle against the desire to sleep more than against any sort of external enemy.

I assume that their mission on June 4 was no different. Being the combat medic for a platoon is an enormous responsibility. My team has been trained in combat lifesaving, but the skills we have "mastered" pale in comparison to the months of intense training combat medics go through, not to mention the constant practice and studying necessary to keep prepared. An additional responsibility for the medic is to ensure first aid can still be provided for others in the event that they are injured. I am told that Specialist Parrish did an outstanding job passing on his skills to his team, taking a small amount of time whenever he could to gather the group and lead them in life-saving exercises and scenarios. Still, the medic is too valuable an asset to leave in a vulnerable position in the convoy and they are generally stowed away in the back of an MRAP with a head set strapped to their head so they will be ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.

It is difficult for me to picture what went on in those few moments of insanity, and maybe its best I don't speculate or try to picture it. I assume there was little or no warning, that there was no way for them to be ready for what took place. One minute there was the drone of the vehicle's motor, probably drowned out by talk of girls, booze, and fast food between the gunner and the driver coming in over the headset, and then suddenly, there was an explosion, a flash, a bang, shouts for help, gunfire, and finally silence. Later on it was determined that a local resident randomly tossed a grenade at the passing vehicles... he had no specific target in mind... he was just hoping to make contact. This time he got lucky.

It is to his credit as a teacher, that Specialist Parrish made it back to the clinic here at Balad still holding on, having received first aid from his teammates during the critical moments immediately following the attack on his vehicle. I am told that when word circulated that he was in need of blood more than one hundred members of his unit lined up at the clinic, a testimony not only to the value the military places on the individual (perhaps in spite of what the general public might assume about the Army treating people like numbers) but also to its ability to rally to a cause and take action at a moment's notice (once again, perhaps in spite of a sometimes not so glowing reputation for the opposite).

The concert room at the recreation center initially seemed like a strange place to hold a memorial service, but when I got there it was clear that no where else would have had enough space for the event. On stage, the American flag, and the unit flag crossed just above a large framed picture of the fallen soldier highlighted by spotlights. The 500 chairs on the floor facing the stage were filled and over 100 more soldiers, airmen, and contractors stood shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter of the room. Speeches were made by peers and commanders, testimonies to a life cut short, but a life well-lived. He was a prankster, and an educator, motivator, mentor, leader, follower, and friend. He was a big guy, benched over 300 pounds and was to celebrate his 25th birthday in August. I am sad that his four siblings and parents couldn't be there to see what I saw, an audience of men and women captivated by his stories and devastated by the loss of a brother of their own. I am sad that his son, now four, will probably never know much about his father, except that which his mother passes on, having last seen him over a year ago when he left the states for this deployment. One soldier mentioned the father and son's shared excitement at the prospect of playing tee ball together upon his return to the states. Another told a story about a soldier who, several months into their deployment, had not received any mail from home. Specialist Parrish gathered stuff with the other members of the platoon and "mailed" it to him. Apparently that soldier still has the Garfield "I hate Mondays" poster from the package hanging on the wall in his room. Another soldier still gets quarterly updates on the happenings of the sponsored donkey Specialist Parrish signed him up for.

We were asked to take a moment of silence towards the end of the service. About fifteen seconds in, the silence was cut short: Specialist Williams? Here sir! Private Jacobs? Here sir! Specialist Parrish? … Specialist Parrish? … … Specialist Parrish? … … … The sound of a bugle playing taps broke the silence left by the fallen soldier, followed by bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. (I later saw the piper in the back of the room. He looked like a 55-60 year old Irish-man, civilian contractor. Whether he had brought the pipes to Iraq for this specific occasion, or with the thought of playing at similar occasions, I do not know). After the last note was played, for close to ten minutes no one moved. When slowly, those towards the back started to trickle out, his company remained in place, many still at attention in the center of the room, facing the photo of their friend. In ones and twos some finally began to file forward to pay their respects and issue a final salute. When my group decided to leave I stopped by the back table where several pictures were lined up showcasing moments from his deployment to help me better remember his face. The organ started back up as I headed for the exit. The tune carried with us as we walked back out into the midday heat and continued to play in my mind long after we returned to the office:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

In the military, the memorial service is an extension of the axiom: never leave a comrade behind, a way for those closest to the deceased and those like me who never had the privilege of meeting him, to hear his story, and in that way carry his memory home when we leave. I walked into the service not knowing who it was for. I left, reluctantly, not wanting to ever forget.

Spc. Charles D. Parrish, 23, of Jasper, Alabama, died June 4 in Balad, Iraq, of wounds suffered earlier that day in Jalula, Iraq, when his vehicle was struck by an anti-tank grenade. He was assigned to the 5th Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

His unit will be returning home in mid-July.


  1. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sp Parrish and his family....his life sounded like he impacted many people and his character was genuine and full of love...

    be safe, ok? love you.

  2. Beautiful, Tim. A powerful tribute to a life well-lived.

    Love you, Son.

  3. Wonderful post, Tim. Thank you.

  4. thanks for writing all that.

  5. "It is well with my soul" is my favorite hymn. I think of it often, in my own desert life in the same time zone, but in a completely different reality zone than where you are right now. I love you and am proud of you.