Oct. 4, 2017, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger: my son, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black and his teammates Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright. Five Nigerien troops were also killed. These deaths shattered families and left them grieving.
The current unrest in Niger has provided an opportunity for analysts to revisit the ambush of the Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA, 3212. Original statements from top military leaders placed the blame for the failed mission on the soldiers. A later investigation determined that blame could not be limited to 3212, and subsequent reporting on the ambush suggested that primary blame was not with the soldiers. In the years since, the Army posthumously awarded my son and his teammates valor medals for their actions — and also recognized the Nigerien soldiers who fought in the ambush.
Reliving the story of this ambush year after year is difficult. Once again, grief from the deaths of Bryan and his teammates escapes the imperfect emotional walls I have built to contain it. This rekindled sorrow, six years after my son’s death, has led me to reflect on the terrible cost of war.
I remember my son’s brightest days. When I was serving in Iraq in September 2004, I received an e-mail from Bryan:
“Hi Dad! …I’m dating a great Christian girl. Her name is Michelle and I’m pretty sure I’m going to marry her. I think I will pop the question in January.”
They married in July 2005. It was a joyous day filled with hope for a bright future, and it was a day of miracles as before our eyes, it seemed as if God reversed the course of an approaching storm that threatened the outdoor ceremony.
Bryan gifted me a book on Father’s Day 2010. Inside the book is a note: “Hi Dad! I hope you enjoy this book. Happy Birthday and Fathers Day. I’m lucky to have a great dad like you and my kids are lucky to have you as a grandpa! Love, Bryan.” The book went on a shelf, but the note carved a place in my heart.
Six Father’s Days have come and gone since the loss of Bryan and his teammates. Six years of sons without their fathers, of fathers without their sons — a cost of war that is never paid off, a debt that will continuously be borne by generations.
I remember standing next to Bryan’s wife, Michelle, on Oct. 5, 2017, as she told her two young sons, Ezekiel and Isaac, 11 and 9, that their dad would not be coming home. A few moments later I was alone with my grandson Isaac. With tears streaming down my face, I said “If there was anything I could do to bring your dad home, I would do it. But I can’t…” And Isaac through his own unimaginable grief reaches out a young hand to comfort me, to pat me on the back again and again as I weep.
In January 2018, I was washing dishes in Michelle’s kitchen. “Hey grandpa,” I heard from the dining room. I turned and saw my grandson Ezekiel. “Hey Zeke,” I replied. Zeke looked at me and said, “Grandpa, I’m sorry you lost your son.” Time slowed as I looked at him, surprised and amazed at his words.
“Thanks Zeke. I’m sorry you lost your dad,” I said. Zeke bowed his head slightly, sadness etched in his young features. “Yea” Zeke replied, then he turned around and slowly went upstairs. I watched him go. Pain held me in place for a long moment.
“Your dad was a quiet person,
Always thinking of the other fellow first …
What love he would have showered on you
If he had lived to see you grow up.”
This quote is from a “Letter to a Child.” It is inscribed on a wall in Seattle’s “Garden of Remembrance” memorial, dedicated to the memory of over 8,000 Washington state residents who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Bryan’s name is inscribed on that wall, and the quote reflects both his character and the profound loss his sons now bear.
I keep Bryan’s 2010 Father’s Day note on a bookshelf in my study, visible as I sit at my desk.
Images of both the fallen and bereaved, whose lives and stories have been woven into the fabric of my life, live in my mind’s eye, always on the periphery, but sometimes dominating my field of view. I have been weighing the heavy price paid by the fallen. Were their sacrifices truly in defense of the Constitution they swore to defend, or for some other less noble cause?
The horrific costs of war are not confined to the United States, to its service members, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children, siblings and loved ones. No, the human cost of the post-9/11 era is so enormous that it is largely ignored, removed from our community’s conscience. The Iraq wars: over 300,000 dead. Afghanistan: 176,000 dead. And over 440,000 arguably associated deaths in Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere. Taken together, over 900,000 dead. Thousands upon thousands of shattered lives mirroring my own, my family’s; mirroring the shattered families of Jeremiah, Dustin and LaDavid; mirroring the shattered families of the five Nigerien troops who also fell.
To those in leadership who make decisions to support foreign conflicts, to send U.S. military forces into harm’s way; who could, in the not-too-distant future, commit U.S. forces to hostilities that will invariably result in American deaths, I say this: If a conflict is not worth the death of your own son or daughter, if you are not willing to send your own son or daughter to death’s door to return home in a flag-draped coffin, don’t send ours.
Hank Black retired from the Marine Corps in 1999 and recently retired from the FBI. He resides in Washington state.
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