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Monday, March 15, 2004

The Warrior Caste

(Note: this entry, originally from November 2003, is re-posted as part of Mudville's 'anniversary week'.)

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,

Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;

Dream of battled fields no more,

Days of danger, nights of waking.

-- Sir Walter Scott, The Lady of the Lake

Blackfive recently discussed The Warrior Caste:

I have been thinking about the American Warrior Caste for a long time, now. The Warrior Caste is made up of families that serve in the military for generations.


So why did I serve? Why does a family continually have children that decide to serve in the military?

I think we can definitely dismiss the case for riches and wealth. Some liberals would like to believe that we were "Born to Kill" (think Full Metal Jacket). That's not it either. And while I definitely took advantage of the college benefits, that's not the motivation.

Almost all of us military folks bleed red, white and blue. We tear up when the Star Spangled Banner is played because we imagine Francis Scott Key captured and desperate, hoping to see his beloved flag flying. We tell people at the ball park to take their hats off during the national anthem.

We defend our country no matter who is in the White House. We suffer when the leadership is poor and we thrive when the leader ship is good.

But how does a family serve for generations?

The reason is that there is a feeling of obligation for the benefit of living in a country built on ideas. That we understand that freedom is not for free. That somebody has to defend it. And we are actually willing to do it.

That post, coupled with the fact that my own son will turn 18 next month, has had me pondering the issue for the past week. It's one of those things we're all aware of, but the realization that the next generation of my family will soon be able to make his own decision (hopefully not without some input from me) about service was at the forefront of my mind when I read this story from Stars and Stripes, regarding a son of a Command Sergeant Major (the highest Enlisted rank in a unit) serving in Iraq with his father:

GIESSEN, Germany — When Jonathan Falaniko was training to be a combat engineer at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., several sergeants made a point of stopping by to see the 20-year-old recruit.

They wanted to meet him and welcome him into the fold. Their chats were often casual, but formality figured into the mix as well. It had to be that way, because his father, who was in Iraq, would have it no other way.

Encouragement was one thing. Favoritism was something else.

“I realize that you get a lot of respect being the man you are,” Jonathan wrote in a July 24 letter to his dad, the command sergeant major of the 1st Armored Division Engineer Brigade.

He penned the note at 9:30 p.m., a precious time of the day for young recruits like Jonathan Falaniko.

“I realize what you’ve done [for] your soldiers and how you [have] earned their respect,” Jonathan continued. “In my opinion, I think they respect you because you’re a hard man [who] takes his job seriously, [and] not because of your rank. I’ve met a lot of sergeants here and they’ve told me stories about you. ...

“I wonder what it’s like being [a soldier] under you. I’ve never seen you in action at work, and I think it’ll be weird calling you a ‘sergeant major’ on the job, instead of ‘Dad,’ but that’s [the] Army values that I have to show. I hope I’ll be able to see you in uniform, again, before you retire.”

In fact, the Army private did get to see his father in uniform — and in action, though it was ever so brief.

On the morning of Oct. 27, a month after Pvt. Jonathan Falaniko arrived in Iraq, a rocket-propelled grenade killed him just after he and several other engineers cleared two improvised explosive devices along a Baghdad road. The RPG, which pierced the engineers’ cargo Humvee, wounded five other soldiers.

Command Sgt. Maj. Ioakimo Falaniko was in the division’s tactical operations center at the time of the attack, but didn’t know his son was on that particular mission. About an hour later, he knew that his son had been killed. Though they had met a couple of times since Jonathan’s arrival, neither was intimate with the other’s daily routine. Protocol, location and the pace of activity kept contact to a minimum.

“We talked about it,” the father said of dying in combat, recalling one of the last conversations the two had. “… I knew the danger of our mission. … I told him, ‘Don’t lose focus of why we are here.’”

Despite losing his son, Falaniko, 49, hasn’t lost his focus.

The 27-year veteran escorted his son’s body back to the United States for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The service was attended by at least eight general officers and more than 20 sergeants major. Falaniko read excerpts from some of his son’s letters, written before Jonathan was assigned to Alpha Company, 70th Engineer Battalion at Fort Riley, Kan.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place,” recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Michael L. Gravens, U.S. Army Europe’s senior enlisted soldier.

Falaniko is now back at his brigade headquarters in Giessen, Germany, but he plans to return to Iraq after Thanksgiving. His heart may be “broken,” he said, but his spirit remains intact.

Returning to Iraq, Falaniko said, “is part of the healing process for me. I need to get back in the groove. I need to go back there and do my job.”

Senior leaders up and down the chain of command have told him that isn’t necessary, offering to transfer him and his family to wherever they want to go. Falaniko knows they mean well, but he still wants to rejoin his unit.

There's more, and the more you read the more proud you may be to be an American. Then please take a minute and pray for strength and recovery for the Falaniko family, if you would.

And re-read Blackfive's words on the topic of how such families can persevere:

The Warrior Caste serves for generations because it has deep faith. Faith that your leaders won’t send you to the far corners of the earth to do wrong. Faith that your fellow citizens will care for your well-being, keeping you equipped and fed. Faith that our Founding Fathers were right in that fighting for freedom is worth dying for. Faith in your fellow soldiers.

I'll not even pretend to compare my thoughts and feelings to those experienced by CSM Falaniko. But sometime in the next few weeks my son, who has already spent his entire life in and around military installations, will register for the selective service. He turns a corner in life and begins to enter a world where he is his own man, a man of free will, responsible ultimately for himself. A world far from peaceful, with unfortunate need for a warrior caste.

"Faith that your fellow citizens will care..." indeed. We will see this thing through to it's conclusion together, won't we America?

“We talked about it,” the father said of dying in combat, recalling one of the last conversations the two had. “… I knew the danger of our mission. … I told him, ‘Don’t lose focus of why we are here...’”

Falaniko, the senior enlisted soldier for the roughly 4,500 engineers in and around Baghdad, was there for his son when the private flew into the Iraqi capital on Sept. 28. Bear hugs were exchanged, and at some point the son began to address the father as “sergeant major,” but not before he made the following pledge: “Dad, I will try my best not to disappoint you.”

Now, it’s the father who doesn’t want to disappoint his late son.

And the rest of us should strive to do no less.