No concert, no musician, no performance will ever compare to the camaraderie and national pride that filled the inside of that aircraft. As we sang our hearts out, I looked at all the black and white infrared patches on our shoulders and thought to myself “there is no place on earth I would rather be than on this aircraft with this group of men, with this flag on my shoulder.”
Patriotism can’t be taught. Patriotism can’t be forced down your throat as something you “should” be as an American. I firmly believe that it is learned. That night I learned what patriotism truly felt like. That night I was a “born again American”. I didn’t care if we missed the Independence Day festivities, the last few minutes of that flight was a better celebration of America than any cookout or day at the beach. It was like the first time you realized you loved the girl you were dating. I fell in love with America, and remain deeply in love with it to this day. There is no amount of politics, economic woe or reality TV shows that will ever make me fall out of love.
SSG Anthony Davis was killed in action in Iraq while I was on my fourth deployment. It was in the following training cycle that we held the battalion memorial service, the first for many of us as 1/75 had not had a Ranger killed in action since March 4th, 2002. The Battalion Command Sergeant Major bellowed out SSG Davis’s name during the final roll call, and as I stood among that formation of Rangers, it was all we could do to keep our composure. Hearing another man call out the name of the fallen, as if they were still standing in our ranks… is one of the most soul-stirring things you can experience. We are brought up as young boys being told “men don’t cry”, and the tempered steel that is a Ranger is as stone-faced as they come- even in the most dire of situations. But standing in that formation you could hear the sniffles… the emotion in the air was as palpable as the Georgia humidity. We recited the Ranger Creed soon after, and prior to that, I had never heard the Creed recited like it was that day. Same words… different feelings.
That day I came face to face with a set of emotions I had not yet experienced. I looked at the family sitting in the front row of the crowd, mourning their fallen Ranger. I couldn’t help but picture my own parents, or my fiancé sitting there. Realizing your own mortality at such a young age is a very powerful experience. Combat doesn’t necessarily make you think about it, as you are very much in the moment as it is happening. It’s not until later when you feel the tidal wave of a thousand men’s hearts breaking in one formation… mortality becomes very real. We do, in fact, die. We don’t live forever. When we go, people will mourn. Our loved ones will feel immense hurt because of us. In a Rangers line of work, that may happen sooner rather than later. ‘Sacrifice’ is not just a word to be used flippantly. Facing those feelings, accepting those feelings, and deciding how you want to live your life in light of that information is very powerful indeed. It ages you beyond your years. I have attended many memorial services since then, but that first one will stay with me forever; it will impact who I am as a man, a husband, and a human for the remainder of my days.
My wife and I were married in 2009 down in Savannah, Georgia. It was a beautiful wedding, and an experience I won’t soon forget. I had volunteered for Recruiting duty to allow my new wife and I to start our life together, to allow her to get back home closer to her family in Boston, and allow me to finish my degree before exiting the service. It’s a strange move for a Ranger, but at the time it was something that made a lot of sense for my wife and I. I was expecting my pending orders to come shortly after the wedding, having us move up to Boston while the rest of the company was deployed. Well, I received the orders, but they didn’t have me leaving until after our deployment was scheduled to end. I had already told my wife that I was done deploying, and she had nothing to worry about. It took me all of about two seconds to decide to ask my platoon sergeant if I could be added to the manifest still. He had me go in to talk to the First Sergeant, and I told him that if he would let me go I would do anything they needed help with, whether that was going back out with 2C on missions or just being the TOC NCO. There was no way I could sit back on Rear-D while everyone else was contributing to the mission. I would not be stuck on the proverbial car with a red chem light in my hand again.
The First Sergeant agreed to put me on the manifest, and my next order of business was to start my marriage off with a big, fat lie. I went home and told my brand new wife of only two weeks that I had my orders, but wasn’t leaving until after the deployment. I told her I was being forced to go. I told her I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Why did I do this? Because I didn’t think there was any way she would go along with the truth: me volunteering.
Now, you may think that the moral of this story is to not lie to your spouse, to be truthful in all that you do. I think that that is generally correct in 90% of most situations you encounter in life. I learned a different lesson though. I learned that sometimes it is better to save your loved one’s feelings than it is to tell them the truth. The night before we took off for that trip, the FRG called her (while we were out spending one last night together) with the news that PFC Hario and SSG Dahlke had been killed in action (before I even knew…). It was at that moment that my decision to lie was validated. The human condition is very fragile, and blunt force trauma via the cold truth is not always the best course of action. Just as you must know when to “hold ‘em” or “fold ‘em”, you must also know when to bluff in the hopes that it turns out for the better. Was I a liar that had no appreciation for the feelings of my new spouse? Yes and no. It was a dilemma and I landed firmly in the grey. That was the other formative realization that came from this experience; being in the moral grey is a fact of life and you must be comfortable with that fact. If you can’t, then those around you will be hurt and you may or may not affect your own sanity negatively by thinking everything is black and white.
I was not the best Ranger that ever was, far from it. As I said above, I survived battalion as opposed to thriving. I did my best and gave what I could over the course of five deployments. I tried to live up to the men around me the best I could, and will honor them by continuing to try and live up to the standards they set. I have their influence and their example to guide me for the rest of my life, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Any success I have had or will have will be because of them. If you are reading this and I served with you (you know who you are), please know you had a profound effect on me and taught me lessons I will not soon forget. Rangers Lead The Way.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is a veteran of the 1st Ranger Battalion and Syracuse Recruiting Battalion, a former small business owner, the author of Violence of Action: The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror (Blackside Publishing) as well as Ranger Knowledge: The Complete Study Guide (St. Martins Press). He is also the executive producer of the award-winning documentary Nomadic Veterans and the award-winning short-narrative Prisoner of War. He is currently working on his third book as well as pursuing a career in film and television.