By Azar Boehm, October 2011
Earlier this month, I took a break from studying and headed up to West Point, New York to visit an old friend: 1LT Thomas Martin. I arrived around mid-morning to a beautiful fall day in upstate New York. The trees of the Hudson River Valley had just begun changing into their stunning fall colors and the exquisitely blue skies and bright sunshine embraced all who ventured outside that gorgeous morning. I could not help but think of the similarity to another beautiful autumn day almost four years ago in another country halfway around the world. After a brief stop at the visitor’s center to ask for directions, I begin walking to the spot that had drawn me from the confines of the city to this picturesque place.
As I walk along the river, I reflect on how much Tom loved this school. He was a former enlisted man who had earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy graduating in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he was stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska and became the Sniper Platoon leader in Charlie Troop 1-40th Cavalry, and that is how I met him. When we deployed to Iraq, various squads would be attached to his platoon for certain periods of time, so the whole Troop had an opportunity to work closely with him. From those experiences, I saw a leader who exuded the values of West Point in everything that he set out to accomplish. Duty, Honor, and Country were not just a motto to him but a way of life, and that is why this journey is so difficult.
Along the way, I pass young cadets going to class. They are here at the Academy to learn about war and to become masters in combat leadership. I am sure most of them harbor deep desires to graduate before the wars are over and prove themselves in battle. I too felt that way at some point as generations of soldiers before us, but experience and reality quickly quell such notions. That is why a came: to face the reality that sacrifice is all too real and to celebrate and remember the life of a great warrior.
October 14, 2007: I will remember that day for the rest of my life. I was getting some sleep before our morning mission and at around 4:00AM, I woke up to a clamor in the hallway. At that point, someone came into our room and told us to go into the day room. A deep, gut-wrenching feeling of anguish and bile welled up in my stomach as we waited anxiously to hear what happened. You do not get woken up unexpectedly and assembled at 4:00 in the morning unless you have to go on a quick-reaction force mission or something terrible happened. Finally, the Chaplain came in and told us that 1Lt Martin had been killed. Sniper platoon was conducting a helicopter assault that night, and he had been hit by small-arms fire. As can be expected, he was leading from the front and heading toward the enemy when he was shot. The medics worked feverishly to save his life, but despite their best efforts, it was not to be. The Chaplain said a few words, we all prayed for his family, and then we filed out of the room to get ready for our mission. The fight would continue; mourning and reflection would have to come later.
After a long walk, I finally arrive at the cemetery and with the help of the groundskeeper I find what I am looking for: Section XXXVI Site B-064G (the area for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans). Martin, Thomas M 1LT US ARMY IRAQ OCT 10 1980-OCT14 2007 CLASS OF 2005 USMA. As I approach his tombstone, my eyes begin to water, and I stand there in silence for a long time. I had never realized that he died four days after his twenty-seventh birthday. Good memories begin to flood into my mind: Tom’s love of cigars, his Charlie Troop flag he had made and hung over our building, and his wonderful family who visited us after we came back from Iraq. I remember his fiancé, who I never met, but who had also served as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq during the same time. I began to walk along the gravestones and the same theme followed each one: their name, period of time on this earth, country of death (Iraq , Afghanistan), and their graduation date. They had died way too young in a war that had gone on for 10 years. Although unknown to the general public, they are deeply loved by family, friends, and fellow comrades.
While Memorial Day comes along once a year, for those that have served and their families, Memorial Day is every day and especially on the anniversary of a loved one’s and friend’s death. On that day, Facebook and Twitter messages are posted, prayers are said, and beers are had in tribute of a life well lived in the service of one’s country. The memories are kept alive through organizations such as the 1LT Tom Martin Foundation that offers college scholarships to high school students, and whenever a group of former battle buddies get together, stories are inevitably shared: a celebration of life and a determination to never forget emerges from the anguish of loss.
I will never forget Tom Martin or all my other friends that lost their lives in these wars. Their anniversaries will come, and we will remember. We will remember those that we knew like brothers and those that we knew in passing. We will honor those that we never had the pleasure of meeting, and we will pay tribute to our fellow warriors that gave the ultimate sacrifice in previous generations. Tom Martin and all that he represents will never fade because those that he served with will not allow it to happen.
On that beautiful October day, I was reminded why I had put on the uniform, and why we must strive to reach our full potential. We cannot choose the day or time when we are taken from this earth, but we can choose how to live our lives. Thanks Tom, for setting that example for us.
Azar Boehm is a former U.S. Army infantryman who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His brigade — Fourth Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, lost 53 soldiers in Iraq and 13 soldiers in Afghanistan in two combat deployments. In 2010, Azar wrote a moving account for NY Times blog At War — a post titled Why Did I Survive?. He is currently at Columbia University, studying Political Science focusing on American Government.