War is hell, and then some

April 18, 2014

The death of Army Spec. Kerry Danyluk from injuries he suffered in combat in Afghanistan was sudden, sad news Thursday.

Danyluk was a 2004 graduate of Yoakum High School. He was 27.

His death gave me pause, left me thankful for his service and in awe of the thousands of soldiers who put their lives on the lines every day to protect our freedoms and ideals.

It also inspired me to write this blog post.

I was attached to the 759th Military Police Battalion during the first Persian Gulf War. It was February 1991, and we were in northern Saudi Arabia near the Iraq border anxiously awaiting the ground war.

The Air Campaign had been going on for weeks; the initial "Shock and Awe" and the continued bombardment had softened Iraq's military infrastructure.

One cool February night, I pulled the 2-4 a.m. guard duty. I was patrolling the camp's perimeter when I heard noises. A thousand thoughts raced through my head in a millisecond; mostly, I didn't want to be "that" guy who had something significant happen on his watch.

Samuel Fernandez stepped out of the shadows. We called him "Spoony" because he always walked around with a spoon in his mouth.

"Hey Martinez, what's up," he said, although through the spoon in his mouth, it sounded much different than that.

When a solider is thousands of miles from home and has too much quiet time on his hands, his thoughts can turn dark. In previous talks, Spoony and I had discussed our fears, anxiousness and about the myriad possibilities a ground war could throw at a soldier. We talked about death, and what that would be like for our families to deal with.

I told him I sent a letter to my brother, Chris, with details of what I wanted in case I didn't make it home alive. A lot of soldiers call those "battlefield wills." I had encouraged Spoony to do the same.

"Spoony, what the heck, man," I said. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" He was having trouble sleeping, which was a bummer, because most days we got about 4-5 good hours a night -- if we were lucky.

"I don't know what to say in my letter," he said. He asked me what I put in my letter.

Not a lot, I told him. I told Chris that he and my other brothers, Timothy and David, and my sister, Rebecca, would have to be really strong for my mother. I asked him to play a certain song at my services. I asked him to treat the American flag they would give the family with the respect it deserves. And, finally, I told him I loved him, thanked him for being my brother, and asked him to tell the rest of the family the same.

That was it, I told Spoony. I tried to keep it simple.

"Wow," Spoony said.

It was therapeutic, I said. I took control over a simple aspect of my life during a time when we didn't have much control at all.

Spoony went back to the tents to sleep, leaving me contemplating my letter and the horrors of war. We knew there already were some casualties -- not a lot -- but some.

War is hell, after all.

I wondered if those soldiers or airmen let their families know of their wishes. And I wondered what impact the deaths of war have on families.

Spoony told me a couple of days later that he wrote his letter. He thanked me for urging him to do it.

I never really figured out why I needed to write that letter, or my urge to get Spoony to write one. It was therapeutic, yes. I think I needed to face my mortality in a way that made sense to me.

The ground war came, and it lasted about 100 hours. Really. It felt like it was over before it started. Our unit saw absolutely no action, though we processed enemy prisoners of war, did a lot of road security and cleared out enemy camps.

And, about 45 days later, we were back stateside, enjoying time off. Later that summer, our unit was honored in a July Fourth parade. It was pretty cool.

Luckily, for Spoony and me, those letters never had to be opened.

Some are not so lucky, though. Families like the Danyluks have to deal with the harsh reality of war and its claim on their loved ones.

One second changes their lives forever.

I pray for those families. I also hope they take a little solace in the fact their loved ones died heroes.

RIP and Godspeed, Kerry.