The Grief We Carry
by Brad Thomas
This segment or installment is a departure from the story that I’m here to tell. It’s a story about something I’ve been carrying with me and that I’ve needed to say for the better part of twenty-six years. This is about a very recent personal discovery and my intent in this article is to connect with anyone who may be struggling and to put myself out there. I am going to expose a part of my soul and weakness, in an attempt to let others who might be struggling with something know that you are not alone. In that regard, I felt it important enough, that if I can connect with just one person and help them, it’s all worth it. To explain, I need to give you the full context of the issue that’s bothered me for more than half of my life.
I spent the morning of October 3rd, 1993 at the beach in Mogadishu with Dominick Pilla, Casey Joyce (both KIA a few hours later), and a teammate from my squad, Danny Mitchell. We brought two privates with us, Kevin Matthews and Jason Dancy to listen on the radio in case Task Force Ranger spun up for a mission. Kevin and Jason sat in the HUMMW-V playing cards while me and the others walked around on the reefs, swam in the ocean, and bullshitted. The waves were tasty, the water, beautiful blue and warm, and minus the sharks along with the strong smell of human shit and the agitated city a few kilometers away, it was paradise. We spent that morning talking about a lot of things, mainly the future and things yet to come in life. Casey used my phone call home the night before and had spoken to his wife. They’d recently had a rough spell and he was gleeful about their conversation and he was very excited to return home. After a few hours, Kevin alerted us that we were needed back at the hangar for a possible operation. The rest of that day became history, literally. That morning we had no idea we’d be fighting for our lives later that afternoon, throughout the night, and until through the next morning. And I never dreamed that I’d never see half of our group that morning, ever again.
Life in the Ranger Regiment in the early 1990s wasn’t easy. My arrival at B co 3/75 in Ft. Benning, Georgia in April of 1991 wasn’t a warm and welcoming one. Sure, we had on our proudly earned black berets and felt a small sense of accomplishment after graduating the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP), but what lie behind the brown fence was hugely unknown and we could only speculate what awaited us. Visually, there was one main difference between us brand new “Rippies” and those privates who’d been there for a while and had earned the respect of the leadership. Our boots. Typically, once assigned to a company, platoon, and squad, it took about 3 weeks for a Ranger private to go to CIF (central issuing facility) to draw and sign for items that the Rangers received above and beyond what was issued in basic training. The coveted green jungle boot was the visual indicator that a private had been assigned longer and had at least made it far enough along to be given the Ranger issue. Our all black, leather basic training issued boots (known then as LEG boots) were a dead giveaway that we were the newest of the bunch. Additionally, many of the senior PFC’s (private first class) had earned a combat Ranger scroll and mustard stain (combat jump identifier) on their airborne wings for the very recent invasion of Panama (December 20th, 1989). My platoon had been on the jump and so even PFC’s were on the lookout for hazing the newbies.
As our group that had been assigned to B company marched down the sidewalk in front of the B company barracks, we heard shouting from the windows. “Nice boots, cherries!” was followed by a barrage of water balloons aimed at us. Not breaking stride, we halted the formation and followed military protocol until we were inside of the barracks. Luckily for us, B company was deployed to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky and we were put under the tutelage of a young sergeant, SGT Knight. The company assigned an NCO to look after things in their absence and was typically a guy who was hurt or had some extenuating circumstances and couldn’t deploy with the company. SGT Knight was a nice enough guy, treated us like humans, and aside from the few loose cannon combat qualified PFC’s on rear detachment, life for the next week or so was pretty chill. Soon, the company would return, and the real fun and games began.
My introduction to death would happen a few weeks later when I was told to get my Class A dress uniform together for a funeral and memorial service. SGT Knight had attempted unsuccessfully to kill his wife but had been successful in taking his own life. And just like that, it began. And it’s never ended.
I like dropping “facts” into my writing and this one begins with a few that I’d like to make publicly. First, I chose my profession. I am not a victim and being a veteran doesn’t give me some sort of special victim status. I’m proud of the fact that most people that I meet today, would never guess that I had been in the military for 20 years and that I served at the highest levels within the special operations community. Second, I know far more that have died in training than have died in combat. Helicopters are a dangerous thing as are airborne and waterborne operations and accidents happen quite frequently. Training accidents are real and anyone who has served in any capacity has dealt with hardship, being away from loved ones, death, survivor’s guilt, and a whole lot more. If the military award system and military leadership was more squared away, we wouldn’t need a myriad of events in which some wounded guy is wheeled out and everyone stands up and cheers. I feel that it’s a huge overcompensation leftover from myths of Vietnam and people shouting baby-killer and spitting on vets as they returned home.
Before departing Mogadishu, the Rangers were pulled aside by Doc Green, a psychological genius who was a legend in the community and he gave us very few, but very direct words of wisdom. I’m paraphrasing here: “Men, you’ve survived something that will give you a lifetime of excuses for becoming the wrong type of person and for going down the wrong path in life. The choice is yours, but doing the wrong thing is letting the bad guys win. Don’t let the bad guys win”, which is a motto I’ve chosen to live by. Now, before anyone gets angry, that’s what works for me. I’m not frowning upon anyone that’s been asked to stand and be recognized or looking down at anyone that’s been wheeled out at an event to be recognized for their service. I write this to share my experience and share the great doctor’s words of wisdom hoping that might connect with someone. I think that public recognition helps the public feel better and feel patriotic but does very little to quell the demons that people of service often carry. Those words, “don’t let them win” have sure helped me.
I’ve been close to so many deaths that I would struggle to keep an accurate count, but there is one that I’ve never been able to “get over” or put behind me (if there is such a thing). My Ranger buddy, Dominick Pilla who was killed on the afternoon of October 3rd, 1993 in Mogadishu Somalia. Until recently, I wasn’t on social media as I was doing things in secret for our great country. When Facebook and Instagram first started becoming a thing, I couldn’t join and connect with anyone from my past or see what all the hype was about. As a result, and as a result of deploying and being gone training and too many other events to name, I missed many reunions whether it be High School or significant military functions. A few months ago, I connected with Dominick’s sister, Jennifer, and a recent conversation with her is the crux of my writing this segment.
A little background. When Dom, Casey, and I were assigned to B company in April of 1991, we grew closer. We’d laugh out of sight and earshot of the leadership about hazing and some of the other private’s who weren’t accepted the same way the three of us had been. We grew closer, mainly because of that environment and the many challenges we’d face together and as a result, I heard all about Dom’s childhood, his family, his dad’s Harley Davidson motorcycle (that would one day become his) and on and on. Dom was a laugh a minute and I learned some legit Italian slang among many other things from him. We pulled a ton of practical jokes, most of them being too R or X rated to share here, but our two and a half years together was a blast to say the least. One practical joke that I can share is that we had a squad leader in our platoon who liked to take our snacks and eat them. He’d come into the room, drop us for push-ups, then rummage through the fridge and drink our Gatorade and eat our food while we were doing push-ups. One day, we replaced some beef jerky with some “dog jerky” treats and left it out to be taken and consumed, which it was. If you’re reading this, the joke is on you, dick!
As I look back on those years, the one thing we all had in common was hope. We were so young, that most of our lives were ahead of us and the things we wanted to become or do in life, we spoke about when things sucked the most. Laying on a live-fire ambush line at 2 am after trudging two days through Ft. Benning swamps, covered in grime, eating first-generation shitty MRE’s and hardly sleeping, you learn a guy’s secrets and a lot about each other. We were all very vulnerable and living in a very “today” reality. Tomorrow, who knows what might happen and as such, guys kept their dreams and desires very close which made us a very tight-knit group once we’d chosen to share our upbringing and personal stories. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve struggled with Dom’s death as much as I have. I never expected to see the things he talked about with such passion and meet the people so near and dear to him, firsthand. Sure, maybe I’d meet his family later in life when he gets married or later in our careers, but not so soon and not because he was killed.
The day after we returned from Mogadishu, I called his family and they relayed to me their concern (based on what they were told by Army officials). Their concern was that Dom may have been one of the people that had been drug through the streets as seen on CNN, live. Can you imagine living with that thought for nearly three fucking weeks? Excruciating. They had been told he was a machine gunner in a helicopter that had been shot down and that it should be a closed casket funeral, and their minds started to weave together possible scenarios to fill the gaps of information. I assured them that Dom never left our sight and that I would come and visit because I had been with Dom when he was killed and that I would give them all the information that they’d been so desperately trying to learn about his death.
The next day, I and several other buddies made the trip up to see the Pilla’s in New Jersey. I remember Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and a few others on repeat the entire drive from Ft. Benning, Georgia all the way to Vineland, New Jersey. We spent the first night at my parents’ house outside of DC and the next morning, we made the final push up to Vineland and to Dom’s parents’ house where I met his amazing family. We spent the afternoon having lunch, talking about Dom, seeing his dad’s Harley, and all the things I never imagined seeing firsthand so soon and under those circumstances. Even the salad dressing was the stuff Dom talked about and here I am, sitting at his table, eating his fucking salad dressing. It was gut-wrenching. Dom’s dad could barely look at the Harley as it was to become Dom’s at some point and was absolutely heart-breaking to see that in person. Later in the day, Dom’s dad drove me all over Vineland to talk to his relatives about how Dom had been killed and to share my (and other buddies with me) experiences with Dom.
There are two things that happen when a teammate is lost. First, you have your own grief and deal with that. Second, there’s the family grief. I’ve always been able to make peace with my own personal grief because generally (and this is very easy to say rather than live) the person killed was doing what they loved, that they understood the dangers and possible sacrifice, and ultimately they died a warrior’s death. Dom was the epitome of that. I can assure you, and those who’ve lived this firsthand know it to be true, watching a family suffer from their loss is by far more difficult than dealing with your own personal loss. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely 100% the right thing to do and our visit had a very positive effect on Dom’s family, and I wouldn’t change anything about that day with the Pilla’s. I will never forget it. It was the start of the healing process for us all, and I know I was able to bring his family some comfort and closure.
But something happened to me after my visit with his family and I can say now, twenty-six and a half years later, that I finally know what it was. It was too hard for me and too painful to see all the things Dom talked about with such enthusiasm. And seeing a grieving family, the people I’d heard so much about, was more than I could emotionally deal with in addition to my own personal grieving. And so, I ran from it rather than face it. It was only through recently connecting with Dom’s sister, Jennifer, that I realized why the loss of Dom was so difficult for me still, today. Like a bolt of lightning, it became very clear to me that I needed to tell his family this: I FEEL LIKE I FAILED YOU. Sure, I carried the torch and continued to serve and deploy and kill people that needed to be killed and do great things for America. That, and I always remained true to Dom’s spirit by being the best I could possibly be. But I ran out on his family, make no mistake about it. When they were in need, I set sail on a new life journey full of new challenges and feel like I abandoned them. For twenty-six and a half years, I’ve carried that with me in everything that I do or have done. During my happiest life moments, that was still there, gnawing at me, just under the surface. At one point in time six or seven years ago, I had a relative that lives in Vineland track down Mr. Pilla’s phone number and after I was passed his number, I couldn’t call it. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t even know if they would remember me. I felt ashamed.
I am planning to visit with the Pilla’s very soon so that I can say all of this to them in person. I look forward to that and I know in my heart, they already forgive me and probably don’t even know that I’ve struggled with this for more than half of my life. That isn’t the point. The point is, the only thing that’s going to fix the veteran and first responder community, is veterans and first responders. It all starts with us. Nobody is going to swoop in and fix you or your problems because ultimately, the military/police/emergency fire and rescue are designed to fight wars, fight crime, and respond to emergency situations. They aren’t designed or capable of healing soldiers and first responders.
As such, I stood up my band Silence & Light to be an example that by doing something that gives back to the community, I’ve found (and all my bandmates have found) a tremendous sense of purpose. It’s our rallying call for everyone in the community to figure out what you can do to help others that need help and to find something that you are passionate about and do it. I’m finding ways to heal my emotional damage through the music that I write and hope that it connects with anyone and everyone who’s experienced loss. And because our message is altruistic and connected with thousands of people from all walks of life, the response has been literally overwhelming. We’ve connected to a Grammy Award-winning producer who produced our first album, thousands and thousands of veterans and first responders from across the globe, old friends and teammates, family members who’ve lost loved ones, and too many others to list here and we all are all incredibly humbled by that. 100% of our music royalties are being contributed to two different veteran and first responder charitable organizations. Organizations that do amazing things for our brothers and sisters that served in any capacity. And although it’s not a lot of money, we are doing something to help contribute and say that if we can do this, anyone can. This isn’t a commercial for our music, it’s our call to action to find what works for you and do it! It will help you; I promise you that.
There have been many unintended consequences of my being more public and on social media and because I’ve been willing to put myself out there, my connection with Jennifer was possible. She helped me lift a twenty-six-year long emotional weight off my shoulders and I’m very thankful and grateful to her for that. Thank you, Jennifer. I’ve exposed a personal vulnerability, a weakness, and a failure on my part so that if my message here today connects with just one person who may be struggling, it was worth it. I have been there too. I have lived the dark days and although I’ve never personally contemplated suicide, I know what many of you are dealing with and you can do something about it. You are loved, even with your faults and mistakes, no matter how bad you think those might be, own them and make amends. Because every single one of you is worth it.