We met in September of 2005 at Fort Knox in Kentucky, and like 40 or so of our peers, we wore gold bars and exuded green - something that, if known at the time, would've mortified us. For seven months, we labored through the Armor Officer Basic Course and Scout Leaders Course together. Even though Mark was in a different training platoon, we became familiar through mutual friends, Matt Gross and Chris Demo, and we cultivated our own relationship from there.
When I received word about Mark's passing (his Humvee hit a deep-buried IED on January 15, 2007, and he died instantly), I could only remember the times we disagreed and argued, for whatever reason. These debates were almost always esoteric and philosophical in nature; I think we gravitated towards one another for these discussions, knowing our other, more pragmatic, friends would've scoffed and told us to focus on the tasks at hand. Still in Hawaii at the time of his death, about a year short of my unit's deployment timeline, I became overwrought with a type of survivor's guilt fairly common in military veterans. Mark was the first from our Basic class to fall (we'd lose a second, David Schultz, on January 31, 2008), and it became the dreaded "this is for real" moment all young soldiers experience in their wars. Demo and I now lived together in Honolulu, and we did the only thing there is to do for 23-year old kids caught in such a situation: we got rip-roaringly drunk that night toasting to Mark's name, and did our best to suppress the fears his loss had incurred upon our souls and psyches. After all, our battles in Iraq still awaited, a fact no longer gilded with romanticism.
Before he deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division, Mark posted a brief statement on his MySpace page, entitled "Why I Joined." The entire piece resonates even today, in a post-Surge America and post-Awakening Iraq, because it puts on display the type of individual that made these movements work in the first place. "Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest," Mark wrote, "who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics." Mark channeled idealism into action in a manner that seemed natural to him, but remains all too rare in our modern world.
Why'd we sometimes disagree? He saw the best in people, I feared the worst. He was inspired by Hitchens, I called Hitchens a chickenhawk. Although he was sympathetic to anti-war statements and arguments regarding Iraq, he instead focused on the opportunity we had to instill democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I, uhh, didn't. Mark also became the first person to tell me to stop concerning myself with how we ended up in Iraq - it didn't matter anymore - and to instead focus on what could be done since we were already there. And he was right. We were second lieutenants destined for the war regardless of our personal opinions, and the decisions made in 2003 were now as irrelevant to our lives as they were to the Iraqi people living in the midst of it all.
With the passage of time, and through my own deployment to Iraq, I've been able to focus on the good times with Mark. Laughing about being covered head-to-toe in mud while fixing a tank track. Ganging up on political fascists and berating them into intellectual submission. Drinking beers at Irish pubs in Louisville, reminiscing about field exercises, talking about them like they were actual war stories. He was a driven mind, less of an oddball than me, and I genuinely liked and admired him - things that aren't always the case with battle buddies.
Eternal thanks to Mr. Hitchens for writing "A Death in the Family." I reread it last night, for the first time since it came out. Powerful, poignant, and genuine. I doubt he'll ever read this, but if he does, I do apologize for calling you names, though I'm sure you've been called worse.
In retrospect, I think that I was even a little jealous of Mark's rugged optimism; young men like him weren't supposed to exist anymore, except maybe in the minds of our Greatest Generation grandparents. But he did, and all of us that were there with him at Knox are better off because of such. Even then, we knew Mark to be the lieutenant we wanted our platoons to think we actually were. He set a high standard and gave us something to aspire to as leaders - something I suspect lingers in all of us, whether we're still in the Army or not. I know such remains the case for me.
See you at Fiddler's Green, Mark.