In the military, a taboo topic is rare. Given enough time, a conversation will touch on nearly every subject under the sun. Where were you when 9/11 happened? What are you gonna do after the army? How old were you when you lost your virginity? Someone always extends the customary offer to “spoon” and someone else always chimes in with the latest crude joke. And when the setting is just right, soldiers contemplate death, the after-life, and whom they’d like to sleep with before that happens.
It was a winter evening in New Mexico when Kenny and I finally arrived at that point of religious discussion. Huddled inside our vehicle, choking back some horrible variation of an MRE, we discussed what we thought it took to get to heaven and what merited a straight ticket to hell. We got through it rather quickly and moved on without agreeing on any mutual conclusions. It was just another conversation in a long series of attempts at staving off the boredom.
Fast forward to Iraq, one year later. A group of close buddies were preparing to relocate to another sector of the war. I bumped into Kenny as he was loading up. We shook hands, and I wished him luck. He made me promise to grab a beer with him when we made it back stateside.
I was attending a briefing when news of the attack was announced, and my heart stopped when casualties were reported. It took me a few days to get an accurate report. But when the facts were straight and the names known, my friend Kenny was already stateside, draped in an American flag.
Our journey together is almost a cliché. We were promoted side-by-side. We once discussed where we thought we’d go when we died. And we agreed to meet up for a drink after the war. Of the stories I recall about him, it’s these last two memories that haunt me every April 11th. It’s been five years now, and I still pray that my friend Kenny got it right and that I’ll see him on the other side. Until then, he owes me a drink.