Doc was singing when I first met him, if I remember correctly. He was always singing. I'd just arrived in my new unit's office and was removing the porn I'd found on the government computer. I'd been in the Marines for about 3.5 years, and Doc had been in the Navy for about the same. He came crashing in singing some unknown R&B piece, tossed down his backpack, and looked around at the new faces.
“Who the hell are you guys?”
We were the new instructors sent to the unit, we explained, and introduced ourselves. He shook our hands briefly and cordially, welcomed us, and returned to rummaging in his pack. A moment later, he had wandered off. I learned later that he was always like this; he never sat still.
Part of it was a continual desire to improve himself. When he wasn't buried in a medical text for his job, he was studying for college classes, which he took online and at a local college. In fact, he'd nearly finished his Bachelor's degree before he came off of active duty. While some might describe him as a flake, it's more accurate to say that he was involved in a myriad of occupational, academic, and social activities and he had to organize his time carefully. His cellphone voicemail greeting even indicated this:
“This is Doc. Leave a clear, concise, grammatically correct message at the tone.” If you didn't, he wouldn't call you back. He might not have called you back anyway. He was busy.
Despite being constantly stretched thin, Doc never allowed it to diminish his attitude. Without exception, he was cheerful, 100% present, and ready at a moment's notice to throw in a humorous remark that would send us all into gales of laughter. At times, he seemed too funny to know his job, but it was a misassuption.
When he taught his medical classes, it was evident that he not only knew his profession, but knew more than most anybody of his rank or position, and excelled at explaining it to others. After seeing him instruct, we never doubted his medical knowledge again. But even his teaching was hilarious to watch. Flamboyant, to say the least.
While extremely intelligent and articulate, Doc tended to stutter; both in private conversation and in front of an audience. You could tell that he knew exactly what he was trying to say, but that his mouth had a hard time articulating the words. He'd stumble over a phrase, stutter a couple times, get visibly irritated, then spit it out with force. He grew even more annoyed when we all buried our faces in our hands and tried not to laugh (unsuccessfully). He never let it slow him down, and he would invariably get us back somehow. My “punishment” one day was driving several miles around Camp Lejeune, North Carolina with a rainbow-colored “Gay Pride” vanity license plate taped to my back bumper. When I found it, I pulled it off in horror.
In 2007, Doc was on a small team of dozen Marines and Sailors sent to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers, police, and army recruits. It was his second tour doing this, so many of us looked up to him for guidance, advice on working with a radically-different culture, and the subtle nuances of instruction. He stuttered in those classrooms, too. Regardless, the Iraqi students always listened with rapt attention. They even liked it when he sang, which seemed to be a baseline activity whenever he wasn't speaking.
On the firing ranges, surrounded by hundreds of recruits who spoke not a word of English, Doc commanded their attention, their respect, and their friendship, working with them individually to perfect their marksmanship, congratulating them when they shot superbly, and providing encouragement when they needed to improve. He had a knack for getting along with people. Whereas most of us focus on differences and disagreements, Doc searched for reasons to like them. Aside from the stuttering, he'd have made a fine spokesman for any organization.
With our team being as small as it was in Iraq, it was easy for work responsibilities and even chores to totally overwhelm us. Doc, however, always pitched in where he could. While technically just our senior medical guy, he routinely instructed in infantry tactics (which he knew thoroughly), foreign weapons, marksmanship, and a host of other classes that were presumably far outside his area of expertise. If some of us had projects that kept us working late, he never turned down our requests for assistance. For a time, he even awoke early to go running with me – in the cold, in the dark, with the shrieks of hyenas occasionally disrupting the quiet. He'd still go work out later, too. Frankly, the only time he stopped moving was to eat, which for us was always an event.
Marines usually grab some sort of slop, pretend it's food, swallow it, and go back to work (or sleep). Our team, however, “broke bread.” It was the only period of the day when we were all in one location and not consumed with responsibilities. Doc was always the life of the party. Knowing that I disliked people who chewed with their mouths open, he'd sit right across from me and do just that. Then somebody would slap him in the head with a hotdog and he'd start yelling. Then our laughter would drown out the yelling. More than once we were nearly kicked out of chow halls. Only our commanding officer's senior rank prevented it happening.
Our commander said this about Doc's personality: “He was always ready to speak confidently on matters which, in his own mind, he had resolved in full.”
Far more than a coworker, Doc was a son to those older than him, and a brother to his peers. Each of us, on multiple occasions, confided in him, sought his advice, or even vented. Despite being on the move constantly, he would stop, give you his undivided attention, and help you. If people were his calling, loving them was his gift. He was the glue that bound us all together.
During that tour in 2007, insurgents detonated a carbomb directly outside of our base, with disastrous results. The wounded and dead were immediately evacuated onto base where Doc was among the first responders to begin medical treatment. Surrounded by dozens of wounded, screaming Iraqis, including children, women and the elderly, he moved swiftly to help those he could, assigned others to assist him, and created order in an absolutely devastating situation. More than 40 were killed that day and perhaps 60 others injured. I am firmly convinced that many of the injured survived entirely because of Doc's skilled, methodical care. Barking orders, speaking through interpreters, and moving patients, he never stuttered. There was work to be done.
Doc finished his service to his brothers and his country in 2008, but maintained contact with nearly all of us. We weren't professional responsibilities in his mind, but friends – our relationships cemented in a single oath, tragedy, and key involvement in an historic war.
Whenever I was in his area, he'd offer me a free place to sleep, feed me, and introduce me to his neighbors and friends. Whatever he had, he offered freely. I know many others kept in contact with him, too. Occasionally he'd drive long hours to visit some of us. Yet even then, he was constantly busy.
Soon after leaving the Navy, Doc finished his degree and began not only working full time, but also studying for a graduate degree. When that was done, he began studying to become a Physician's Assistant (PA). He not only enjoyed medicine, but he had a genuine desire to help people. His whole attitude was one of giving.
I visited Doc a few months back, staying at his place for free, as usual. Another friend, between jobs and apartments, was also visiting long-term. Doc, always benevolent, had seen the need and simply taken him in. Since he was getting ready to start in PA school, Doc had moved to a smaller apartment, taken steps to save his money, and prepare for the financial strain of his additional schooling. But he'd figured it all out. He remained enthusiastic about his studies, confident he could manage the money, and looked forward to starting in the fall.
Three weeks ago, under circumstances that none of us will ever fully grasp, Doc took his own life. A man who had invested his life in giving to others, who would drop anything to come to the aid of hundreds of friends and brothers, refused to let us help him – something we would have done without hesitation. His death leaves a void in all of our lives.
His memorial service – one of at at least three – was this past weekend. Marines, Soldiers and Sailors, some active, some former and some retired, men accustomed to burying friends, wept as we honored yet another who fell too young. He was supposed to grow old and do great things. We often forget that while national service brings the highest of honor, its close companion is immeasurable grief.
The roughly 5,500 combat dead of Iraq and Afghanistan frequently and rightfully command national attention, extensive news coverage and hometown memorials, but we ignore the more than 20,000 who have fallen to inner wars with demons the likes of which the living cannot comprehend.
I have a mental image of the ranks with whom I've served since 2003. There are now more holes than I can count. Some 46 dead and more than 200 wounded one tour alone, six dead and a dozen wounded another, a dozen more since I left the Marines, and still another dozen dead from self-inflicted wounds in the past three years alone. They have been replaced with little marble crosses in cemeteries around the country, or urns, or inconspicuous granite markers and weathered miniature flags. Their memorials are wholly insufficient.
Nearly 600,000 men and women have given their lives for this country, and an untold number more have taken their own lives soon after serving (at a rate of 17-20 a day). To lower a flag to half mast on Memorial Day morning (til noon) seems almost a mockery of all that they have offered and all that has been taken from them. But I don't know what else to do, besides grieve for an untold number of companions. Will you have a barbeque this weekend and celebrate the beginning of summer, or will you remember the journey of sacrifice, honor and grief that brought us where we are?
Godspeed, Doc, and may we see you in the morning.
Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved