It’s 0530 and I am rattled awake by my cell phone screaming at me. I knew I would hate this thing the moment my Commander gave me an unlawful order to purchase one. This meant people could now get ahold of me very quickly once again and I might get sudden news like a tasking or something. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t in Georgia anymore and back then squad leaders carried beepers. Yeah, how is that for a blast from the past? Eat your heart out, Millennials. Ever since I got back stateside, I was constantly learning of the changes our nation had undertaken since I left for Iraq. Suddenly, you didn’t have to think you were very important to own a cell phone or a super nice car or a publicly stated opinion. As a Generation X’r, this new world was very strange to me.
It was early in the morning and I was in no mood to show up to my squadron for a no-notice recall. The guys I served with were often wild and unruly which sometimes prompted necessary group-motivation in the form of group admonishment. As a newly promoted Non-commissioned officer I had begun to learn the importance of maintaining professional distance between myself and many of the younger troops because if I relaxed too much around them, they would consider me a “friend” and believe an omission from our standards would be implied. While I did always enjoy a good working relationship with my people and we would visit bars as a flight, I always tried to set an example of not acting fucking stupid in public while intoxicated. Well at least not that fucking stupid. We were supposed to be professionals.
“Sergeant Juliano you are ordered to report for duty.”
For fuck’s sake. I’d hooked up with my girlfriend Erin yesterday and spent the rest of the night drinking and shooting pool. I had barely gotten any rest because I was too busy trying to enjoy myself and juggle a full course load of classes with what little free time I had. “Hey man, I’m not on-call right now and I’ve already lost one of my days off to weapons qualification and training.” I could tell the tone of the conversation did not reveal itself to be what I was expecting as the young man began to speak slowly and matter of factly. “Sergeant Juliano, D is gone man.” I suddenly recognized the voice on the other end of the phone to be a young kid I knew. “What do you mean D is gone?” I struggled to swallow and take a breath. “Sergeant Juliano, you are ordered to report to the Commander’s Office within the hour.” Suddenly I wasn’t as groggy headed and mopey anymore. Evidently something was awry, and I was hearing the words that indicated it. Suddenly I realized I was being told what to do not because someone wanted me to. I was being told because I was the person that had to do it. No one wants to be the person who has to do something. Suddenly I no longer gave a shit about what time it was.
“This morning D and his vehicle were found and identified. You are the next level in his immediate chain of command and are ordered to report to the Commander’s Office.” It suddenly dawned on me what information was being delivered. I knew I had a responsibility to fulfill. Christ, I had lost another one and here I was just getting started learning what it truly was to be a leader and to lead others. I had another line of duty determination (LOD) to sit through. I would soon be jotting information down in my notebook and assisting the first sergeant in processing my troop’s paperwork, ensuring notifications are made and checklist items are marked off.
Within 45 minutes I was hurriedly dressed and standing outside of the Commander’s office. I knew I would be expected to give my input because my Commander would soon have to do the same thing to his boss, the group commander and then to his boss, the wing commander. When we lose troops the first question on everyone’s mind is: WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED??? The cold hard truth was that life happened and everyone in that room knew WE failed this young man in one way or another. Why would I say that when I wasn’t there with him? Why would I say that when I didn’t pour alcohol in his mouth or tell him to go for a drive to “think things over?” It’s simple. D was dead. And we were not. We were in his chain of command, there-go he is our responsibility. We do not pick and choose what we take responsibility for, only what manner of personal accountability we are willing to embrace.
As I continued to wait nervously outside the commander’s office I thought back to the procedures from the last line of duty determination and funeral I participated in. Over the next few hours several of his friends were recalled and interviewed to provide details about what exactly had taken place the night prior. Everyone agreed he had been drinking heavily and no one understood why he would have left that night. There was no reason to. His behaviors were not immediately alarming to anyone. It was later revealed he was experiencing a bout of depression due to social adjustment upon his return from his assignment overseas. Around noon I was released to get some rest. I would return the next morning to assist in inspecting his quarters on base and cataloging is belongings. During non-commissioned officer academy I learned when a loss of a member occurs, it is the sole duty of his or her people to ensure they are processed swiftly and with the maximum amount of dignity afforded the member. We will cancel minor operations to pay respects to our dead. I was now counting on my second hand how many I worked with who lost their life stateside after returning home from a deployment.
I worked and trained with D that entire week until he gave me a smile in the armory right before we all got in our vehicles and scooted. A few days later I was issued orders to escort him home to his family for good. This was becoming more routine as the years passed and I began to share notes with my fellow NCOs. Apparently people in other career fields do not suffer the same levels of losing troops as we do in mine, but there are cultural issues at play and we lose exponential numbers across the board.
As I headed toward his hometown I thought about how I would conduct myself the next couple of days. These were always an absolute wild card as to how his friends and family will react. Most of the time the family will look to us, the ones in uniform to assist them in one of the most traumatic days they have ever experienced. We were the last people to see their Airman or Soldier (I spent much of my career working with the Army) alive and are the last remaining connection to their loved one. Sometimes the requests will be odd. DEAL WITH IT. They would rarely lash out or get violent toward us but it did happen. We must understand people do things based on how they are feeling and at a funeral, emotions spread like wildfire. Often, they will just want to hear an awesome story about the young man or woman so I knew I had better start getting some information together. Days like this are all about the family and giving them what they need. It’s what I hoped others would do for me if I died.
Along with a couple other members familiar to our troop I met with the commander and the first sergeant. That morning we donned our blues, visited his hometown and performed our duties as brothers and sisters in arms until the end like each of us promised we would. Before I left my hotel room I stared in the mirror at the beret on my head and traced my finger along the words written in Latin across the flash. We swore an oath to something greater and more importantly, to each other.
We didn’t know it at the time but it was around then we saw the surge in members of our armed forces who were ending their lives in a multitude of ways under rapidly evolving circumstances. It was during that time I began to understand what specific group behavior was lending itself to this self-destruction. Even worse, in a few short years I would find myself in a similar situation and battling Demons of my own as I contemplated taking my life in Springfield, Illinois.
During D’s funeral I looked at his parents after they were handed a folded American flag. I felt a sense of loss as to what I was supposed to say to these two. Their son was my responsibility. Their son was my commander’s responsibility. He was our senior enlisted adviser’s responsibility. I walked over to his casket and laid a pack of cigarettes next to it, taking care not to disturb the other objects being placed. When I first met D, he and I would hang out at the smoke pit next to the squadron and talk about his plans for going to school. He joined the military for the same reason I did. His mother suddenly approached me and asked if D smoked. I looked at her and nodded. She smiled softly and pulled one from the pack, proceeding to talk to me and smoke it all the way through with tear stained eyes.
I learned later that day she hated cigarettes.
We failed him. I told D’s parents I was sorry and I promised to try and do a better job. That’s all I could do. I don’t know if I ever fulfilled that promise or not but I have tried like Hell. Since we lost D I knew I had to do a better job keeping an eye on these younger guys we fill with piss and vinegar, hand them a firearm and then send to a place that hates them and compromises their view on themselves and life. I thought my biggest responsibility to those I worked with was to be at the right place at the right time for them at work. While I am sure that is appreciated, I believe the true role of the leader and mentor is understood better when analyzing how we conduct ourselves away from work. Are we developing ourselves? Are we giving ourselves a chance to take a breather? Do we even know what those mean or how to implement them? How do we properly unwind when no one except our moron friends show us how? We lack Mentorship.
This one hurt. He was a really good kid and was loved by EVERYONE. I helped train this kid. I deployed to the middle east with him and helped see him through his time. I allowed my responsibility to slide once we came home and went our separate corners to unwind. I later learned he was dealing with some issues back home. None of us recognized what was going on with him and I am convinced that is why he did what he did. Because WE did not recognize his behavior and give him a place to ask questions and seek guidance. We create an environment where a soldier is expected to know all the answers without ever being taught or provided an example of where to look for, and most importantly how to implement them. We gave D the authority to take the life of another human being but not the direction to preserve his own.
When we come home from war we beat our chests, drink more booze than the next guy and get ready for the next trip overseas. Upon my return to Scott Air Force base the next day I was determined to figure out why I was losing people. Why are we self-destructing? I resolved to get through school as soon as I could and get the Hell away from this disastrous lifestyle.
Little did I know I would learn even more about our destructive behavior and WHY we destroy ourselves before I ever truly understood. In time, I too would seek my own self-destruction. It was inevitable with the path I was on.
Line of Duty Determination (LOD):