The number of U.S. deaths in Iraq has reached the 2,500 mark, The Department of Defense has reported, a fact that many of the main stream media news organizations have characterized, as USA Today says, as “a grim milestone” that “underscored the continuing violence in Iraq.”
But why is the number 2,500 so important? Why is this a “milestone” and who is deciding at which points milestones occur? Why is number 2,500 any more significant than number 1, or number 925, or number 1,442, or any other number for that matter? White House spokesman Tony Snow rightly responded by saying “It’s just a number.”
The point here is that the number doesn’t matter. It is the life that the number represents that matters. To those of us who serve in the United States military, the lives of our comrades are what matter most. Yes, we fight for our country and we are patriotic. Yes, we fight for freedom and for those who can’t fight for themselves. Yes, we fight for what is right and so that hopefully our children won’t have to. But ultimately we fight for each other.
Military service, particularly service in combat, fosters a bond among soldiers that those who have not worn the uniform cannot fully appreciate. We live, breathe, laugh, play, and cry together because we understand each other. We share hardships and dangers and we watch each other bleed and die. We count on each other day and night, both at home and abroad, and make every effort to ensure that our buddies are taken care of. We put everyone else before ourselves because we know that someone is watching our backs.
In the coming weeks, a very dear friend of mine will return from Afghanistan, his third deployment in support of the Global War on Terror. I first had the pleasure of serving with him in Iraq, during the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom. We became good friends rather quickly at the same time our families grew closer back home. We shared happiness and sorrow that first year, and began a friendship that will last the rest of our lives. We formed a bond in the desert, a bond that can never be broken. Nothing I experienced in Iraq was as difficult as watching him scrub blood out of his body armor one evening after he had returned from a convoy that had been attacked. The blood belonged to our battalion Executive Officer, a man we had worked closely with and whom we had grown to care for very deeply. I wanted so badly to say something, anything, to help him get through that terrible moment. But deep down I knew that just being there for him was what mattered. The bond that we shared, fostered in a struggle to survive and get home to our families, told me what to do for my hurting comrade.
I thank God that he will, in all likelihood, return from this latest deployment unscathed and that he will not become part of another “milestone” for those who just don’t understand what it’s all about. It’s about the men and women who choose service to their nation, no matter what the cost. It’s about honoring their commitment, their courage and their sacrifice. It’s about celebrating their lives and mourning their deaths. Forget about what number we are on and focus on what matters: the men and women who give their lives in the defense of this great nation.