In my office, between camera gear, a lightly ridden training bike and travel mementos sits a small bookshelf that carries an innocuous wooden box. The contents contain some of my most prized possessions: a Zippo lighter used by my father to spark rationed Camel cigarettes to life in Vietnam; painstakingly handwritten notes from my grandmother delivered while I was in college; and various scribbled notes and cards from my now wife.
These items have no intrinsic value other than that of pricelessness. These items serve as the tangible and rough outline of my life that doesn’t need hard drive space or need to live in a cloud.
Taking up the most space are letters from my brother, who, 10-years ago last month, was sitting in a godforsaken Kuwaiti desert then weeks later, Baghdad. A U.S. Marine Corps Major at the time, he recently wrote in support of this post and quickly summed up his perspective of the situation:
Hope that folks can understand the context of those letters, at least the ones you have from my perspective.
We knew the Iraqis outnumbered us, fighting on their own turf. We anticipated they would most likely use chemical weapons and the casualty rate would be staggering.
I guess in my mind it felt like a dead man walking, but I had made peace with all that, and for a reason that I cannot explain was OK with the potential outcomes. In the days and fights that came, there was an unexplainable calm amongst the chaos.”
The chaos is easy to explain. We all watched it on CNN as waves of RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and machine gun fire came violently, washing over the extraordinarly outnumbered 1st Battalion 5th Marines (1/5) battling their way into Baghdad and Saddam’s Al Azimiyah Palace.
That “unexplainable calm” is often overlooked by history, overshadowed by the dulling politics of war. That “unexplainable calm” is one of the most imperative aspects of warfare and underlying protocol for survival, but I know my brother too well to explain his words away with the broad and clinical stroke of strategy.
He understood his death was certain. This level of self-awareness is only reached by having faith in something larger and more powerful than self or chaos could ever be and for that my family is forever grateful.
The first letter I received was scribbled on the back of a discarded cardboard MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) box, and written in late February 2003, more than a month until the Marines of 1/5 crossed the Iraqi boarder and into the breach.
Simply noting how surreal it is to receive something like this in the mail is a waste of words. My first thought was not how thankful I was to receive a letter from my brother about to go to war, rather it was a thinly veiled, “Holy shit! On the back of an MRE?”. It was like set dressing in shitty war movies that I used to watch, before experiencing the sheer terror felt every time my mother or father would randomly call during my brother’s service in Iraq.
Movies will never get that feeling right.
These letters have never been published nor read outside the circle of my closest confidants. This post is dedicated to my brother, Colonel Stephen P. Armes, USMC, and to all the Marines who now forever stand on his left and his right.
My brother returned home safely, carrying only memories of war. For many soldiers, sailors and Marines, who still carry those memories, home is never reached but without the support of foundations like Team Red, White & Blue taking the big steps to help connect America’s veterans back to their community.
Though many will never ask, America’s veterans do need and will continue to need our help so please help when and where you can. Many have wounds that are not always visible or will take years to heal and your simple but honest ‘thank you’ can reach deeper than you could ever imagine.
If you would like to recognize a veteran or an organization doing good works please add your note in the comment section.