“Only the Good Die Young” — Billy Joel, “The Stranger” album, 1977
Billy Joel was wrong — it isn’t only the good who die young. Death takes all — young and old, good and bad. But far too many of the good do indeed die too young, leaving behind fathers, mothers, spouses, children, brothers, sisters to grieve for lives and dreams lost, family members wounded with scars that never completely heal in this life.
Sometime in early 2003, I was in a Bible study with men from my church in Parkland, Washington. One of the individuals present, who I will call John, was preparing to deploy to Iraq. During the study we prayed for his safety. That prayer was not answered. John was killed in Iraq, in an IED attack on his convoy. He left behind grieving family and friends.
I met Ferdinand in Iraq in late 2003, teammates on the same HUMINT (human intelligence) team. Shortly thereafter, Ferdinand left our team to join another. On Oct. 14, 2004, I was based with a team stationed on FOB Danger near Tikrit. We heard a report that Ferdinand had been killed in Baghdad. I walked into a field, praying, “please God, don’t let it be Ferd. Please.” That prayer was not answered. Ferd had died in the Green Zone during an attack by a suicide bomber. He left behind grieving family and friends.
I spent the weekend of Aug. 19, 2017, with my youngest son Bryan, his wife Michelle, and their two children. Bryan, a Special Forces medic, was preparing to deploy with his Special Forces team, ODA 3212, to Niger. As I was leaving, Bryan and I stood at the bottom of his stairs. Bryan said “I love you Dad.” I said “I love you Bryan.” I placed my hands on Bryan’s shoulders and prayed, “God, please keep my son safe.” That prayer was not answered. Bryan was killed in an ambush on Oct. 4, 2017, in Niger. Also killed were Jeremiah Johnson, LaDavid Johnson and Dustin Wright. All left behind grieving families and friends.
On Dec. 6, 2019, the city of Puyallup, Washington, held a ceremony and dedicated a monument in honor of Ronald Shurer, a former Special Forces medic and Medal of Honor recipient who had graduated from a Puyallup high school. My wife and I attended the ceremony, and spent a short amount of time with Ron and his wife and children, sharing a meal and conversation. My wife cried when Ron presented us with one of his personalized challenge coins, a hugely gracious act that brought back memories and a flood of emotions. We also found out that Ron was suffering from cancer. I prayed for his health, asking that God would heal him. That prayer was not answered. On May 14, Ron succumbed to cancer. He left behind grieving family and friends.
On this Memorial Day I remember and honor all those whose sacrifice has personally touched my life — John, Ferd, Bryan, Jeremiah, LaDavid, Dustin, Ron. And I remember all others who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and their families.
I also remember the teammates of those lost, who were with the lost as they gave their last full measure of devotion, and who now may carry scars from what and who they lost. I am grateful for them, and ask them not to carry grief or guilt, but to live lives that honor the memories of lost friends and teammates.
And I admonish those that now lead our military, who are responsible for the well-being of our sons and daughters: honor the memory of those we have lost by supporting and protecting those who remain with every resource available. Never place primary blame for negative events on your subordinates, but realize that if a subordinate unit fails, it is your failure, also. Do not exonerate yourself for missions that go awry. Don’t look for fault only in your subordinates, look for faults in yourselves, also. And do not look simply to assign blame, for mistakes will inevitably be made, but to learn what can be improved. Do this, and everything else in your power, so that your, and our, soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen can be part of the living on Memorial Day, and not join those whom we remember and honor for their last full measure of devotion.
Henry Black is a retired Marine Corps major. His son, Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, was one of the four fallen U.S. soldiers during the Oct. 4, 2017, ambush outside Tongo Tongo, Niger, by militants aligned with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Black lives in Washington state with his wife, surviving son, daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.