Brotherhood

“Humans beings need three basic things in order to be content: They need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered ‘intrinsic’ to human happiness and far outweigh ‘extrinsic’ values such as beauty, money and status.” Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon Echo Company (or 4th Platoon, Fox Company depending on how you look at it) in al-Khalidiya Iraq during our 2008 deployment. Yes those are cowboy hats. Any question why our self-proclaimed moniker was “Squad Sex Machine”?

The bond that develops between men and their brothers in arms is something that few in our modern society can understand, unless of course you are among those who have lived that life. Law enforcement officers come close, but they generally are not living together for months at a time, sharing in the separation from home and family. I am by no means degrading or knocking the law enforcement lifestyle, rather, I’m just stating that the bond is different.

I have heard sports teams use the term “band of brothers” to describe their bond that develops during their experiences. To me, this is just another example of people overusing a term, much like hero, without really understanding what that term means.

Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to serve in the military. While most kids idolized sports stars or actors, my heroes could be found at the local VFW or American Legion. They were the stone faced old men with the veteran’s hats, the guys that handed out poppies around Memorial Day, or marched in parades. I wanted to be one of them, more than anything in the world. I joined the military as many young men do, idealistic as to what my life would be in the service of my country.

My reserve unit was activated in September of 2007 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, which by this time had been going on for almost five years. Many of the senior leadership in my platoon had deployed with the battalion during their 2004-2005 deployment and they had gained combat experience. I looked up to many of these guys, given what they had been through together and noticed the bond they had amongst themselves. It was something that seemed almost tangible; you could feel it when they interacted with each other. There was us new guys and then there was the vets. They had spent a year together, watching each other’s backs in seemingly constant combat in one of the worst parts of Iraq. As a junior Marine, I looked up to these guys and absorbed all that they had to teach us. I wanted what they had.

During our 2008 deployment, we lived in close quarters and daily conducted patrols in our Area of Operations (AO). Our deployment was marked not by combat, but by endless miles on patrol, talking to locals, collecting intelligence, keeping weapons and vehicles ready for combat if it was to ever come (it didn’t).

Countless miles spent patroling various types of terrain, from joint urban patrols with Iraqi police like this picture, to nighttime rural patrols in the farm fields and along roadways watching for bad guys burying IEDS.

My view on patrols; as a patrol leader it was my job to direct the route of the patrol and make sure everyone was accounted for and safe. Days like this we ate dust during a sandstorm.

We patrolled everywhere in our AO, mostly on foot but sometimes from a vehicle. We lived in a compound in town, adjacent to the Iraqi Police Station. We were twelve dudes living first in a tent that doubled as a classroom during the day for the Iraqi Police. We would leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base) on a Monday and foot patrol to the police station. Our week was spent sleeping in the tent/classroom, running two to three patrols a day, living as a rifle squad should. We would come back to the FOB on a Sunday, spend the day relaxing and refitting, then it was back to work Monday.

Patrol base life. Good buddy Humpich living life in an Iraq police station, sharing his lunch with some friends.

We had to be self sufficient to a certain degree; we were separated from our platoon, given a mission, and had to execute it. We had a great squad leader who treated us as MEN. We each had a specific job within that mission, and were expected to do that job and help with the other tasks if needed. The expectation was to hold up your end or face the consequences.

My favorite point man on patrol, Stumpy.

Having served during the 2004 deployment, Izzy was one of the seniors I looked up to.

It was in this environment, the constant working together, suffering together, living together, that created that bond. Another squad was moved out to the compound with us and we made it our home. All 24 of us shared that experience for the duration of the deployment, and the brotherhood expanded. However, to say they were family doesn’t do it justice either. It’s a bond that is it’s own entity. Guys that to this day I would fight for. Even given the distance of time and location, they are still my brothers.

Our company suffered two good men killed when their vehicle drove over an antitank mine. It was a loss as surprising as it was heart wrenching. Corporal Richard Nelson and Lance Corporal Dean Opicka will always have a special place in the hearts of everyone who served in Fox 2/24.

Corporal Richard Nelson.

Lance Corporal Dean Opicka.

That’s the brotherhood. The loss felt that day is something everyone who served there during that time shares. Two of the greatest, kindest and best Marines one could know, that were popular with everyone they came in contact with, were lost. No one wants to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t think there is a bad thing that could be said about them. My sons will know their names and their sacrifice.

Our platoon was called the “Battalion Bastards”, because while we were Echo Company 3rd platoon, we were stationed out of Chicago instead of Iowa with the rest of Echo Company. We had our own RUC (Reporting Unit Code) number, which was one of a kind for an infantry platoon. During my 2008 deployment we were attached to Fox Company as their 4th Platoon, but at heart we were truly still the Battalion Bastards. That term was coined by those that established the platoon in 1997. It is a sense of honor to be called a Bastard, ironic for those who don’t understand why.

Following our 2008 deployment we would have annual Christmas parties, where we could gather and enjoy each other’s company. It seemed like it was a way for us to hold onto that bond despite no longer being deployed.

One of our Christmas Parties of the past. Genuine smiles of guys who share a bond few will understand.

There are get-togethers here and there that take place, some of which I miss out on due to work. When I do get a chance to go, it is like old times. Some of the spouses were girlfriends or new brides during our deployment, so they share a common history in that regard. We all share stories, catch up on life, and generally enjoy each other’s company.

The platoon was disbanded following the reorganizing of the military in 2016. One of my greatest regrets as a veteran is that I didn’t go to the ceremony, to be a part of it and shake hands and hang out with Bastards from all points of the platoon’s history. Shirts were made with the slogan “You can’t disband a brotherhood.”

As we returned to our normal civilian lives, our careers took us all in different directions. Many of the guys I deployed with became members of law enforcement and it is in this regard that our shared experiences have changed. They have continued to live a life of service, and have varied experiences from it that define them today. My time of service ended, and with it the one thing that had defined our bond dissolved.

They and other guys I served with live near or in Chicago, whereas I reside a few hours from there. While it is close in relative terms, it takes a good amount of effort for everyone involved to meet up. That, coupled with life having taken us in different directions, work and family obligations pulling us one way or another, guys I had lived a year plus with, who I had grown close to and learned from, are now not a major part of my life as they once were.

And that bothers me.

I have struggled in my post military career to have something similar to what I had with those Bastards. It is something that comes and goes, but as I’ve gotten older and further and further removed, the longing for that sense of belonging has grown. I’ve tried to find it elsewhere but the truth is, it doesn’t exist anywhere else and it is something you can’t create, it just happens.

As time has passed, the meet ups have become less frequent. If it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t know the lives they live now. This bothers me but, such is life. It’s what happens, it’s what time and distance truly do to bonds that are unbreakable. Time has showed me that I will never be as cool as I was when I was in their company.

But no matter, they are Brothers; and if I was to see any of them today, it would be like we never parted. When I left the platoon in 2010, I had to give a speech, and I ended it with a hard truth. I said that while I have friends I have made at home, friends I have made at work, none of them compare to the brothers I made in the platoon. That is as true now as it was nine years ago at my parting. Semper Fidelis Bastards.

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