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“New Cadet Wilson, it’s raining on your R-Day! Do you know what that means?”
“It means your class is going to war! Let me see your war face!”
June 29, 2000, was Reception Day for the West Point Class of 2004, as I and many others reported for “Beast Barracks.” While the dot-com bubble had burst a few months earlier, the notion of going to war at that time seemed a bit ridiculous. As a kid I watched as the Berlin Wall fell and as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the American military led a coalition that took “100 hours to kick the ass of the world’s fourth largest army.”1 Who the heck would we possibly fight?
Not only did it pour on my R-Day, but the rain continued relentlessly for much of the summer. It was such a formative part of my class’s experience, that we designed a storm cloud into our class crest as a symbol of the trials and tribulations we had to overcome to become commissioned officers. Little did I know that rain would come to symbolize for me something much deeper.
Just over a year later on Sept. 11 — a beautiful fall day ironically — the world and our lives changed forever. While my class had not yet committed to military service at this time (that occurs in your junior year), there was not a large exodus. We became more focused as cadets, particularly as operations began in Afghanistan and talk of Iraq began to percolate. We graduated in May 2004, excited and anxious for the challenges that came with joining an Army that was very much at war. But, like most of America, I did not yet fully appreciated what being at war meant.
While announcements of members of the Long Grey Line killed in action were made during midday meals, the wars still had failed to touch me personally. That changed in November 2005, when I returned from a morning work out session at Fort Huachuca in Arizona to an e-mail from a classmate, Duane, that began “I f***ing don’t know how to f***ing say it, and I don’t really even f***ing believe it. Dennis was killed in a roadside bomb yesterday.” I sat there numb, not really sure what to do or think. Dennis Zilinski, my good friend and fellow B-3 Bandit, was the first member of my class killed in combat. The wars became very real that day.
Less than a year later, in October 2006, I arrived at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, as the intelligence officer for First Air Cavalry Brigade, First Cavalry Division. The situation in Iraq was dire — casualties were mounting for American forces, and levels of violence among the populace were at an all-time high. Within my first 90 days in country, four more classmates were killed in action. Our class total stood at eight.
I became numb to the news of another death. While by most measures my experience as a staff officer for an aviation unit in Iraq was safe and with amenities, it did not come without a toll. While the situation on the ground in Iraq vastly improved over the course of my tour due to a number of different factors, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted after 15 months when my unit returned home in December 2007.
I left active duty in the summer of 2009, upon the completion of my service obligation, and headed to graduate school. I soon realized how easily you detach from the events of Iraq and Afghanistan. I better understood the “rest of America’s” story and people’s seeming ambivalence toward the wars. The numbness began to wear off, and I was hit hard in July 2010 when my plebe-year roommate, Jason Holbrook, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Of those who entered West Point that rainy summer of 2000, Jason was the 13th killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most of any class. 2 As we were told we would on our Reception Day, my class very much went to war.
For me, that storm cloud in our crest stands not for the trials and tribulations posed by the weather that first summer, but rather for those resulting from the loss of friends and comrades and the challenge of honoring the sacrifice those lost in combat have made.
The other day, as President Obama announced that all American forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, I could not help but feel mixed emotions. On one hand, I felt excitement hearing of the drawdown and hope that Iraqis can take their country in a positive direction. On the other hand, I felt sadness and wondered if it was all worth it. Was it worth 4,400 killed, 32,000 wounded, according to the Department of Defense, and more than $1 trillion? Is Iraq better off, America better off, or the world a safer place due to our efforts? Why was our military at war, but not the rest of America? Did I make a difference? Could I have done more?
As I begin life outside of the military, I am faced with a constant inner struggle. Having been in Iraq during “the surge” and studied at Stanford where we are challenged to “change the world,” the projects of the private sector often feel uninspiring. I went to West Point because I wanted to be a leader and have a significant impact, and the same holds true today. However, the experience of these wars has taught me that more important than the size of the impact is where you have it. While each passing rainstorm elicits some painful memories of fallen comrades, it also promotes an introspective review of my life choices. I need to do something Jason or Dennis would be proud of, something worthy of their sacrifice.
1. “100 hours to kick the ass of the world’s fourth largest army” quote comes from a speech by General Schwarzkopf to the corps of cadets in May 1991.
2. There are officially 12 members of the class of 2004 killed in Iraq. I include a 13th, Jacob N. Fritz, in the total because he was originally a member of the 2004 class, though he graduated with the class of 2005.
Jim Wilson is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy and a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He currently works as a program manager for Lab126, the Amazon subsidiary responsible for designing the Kindle e-reader. He served as a military intelligence officer for five years, with service in Iraq, Pakistan and South Korea. Follow him on Twitter at @wilsonj12.
As published in NY Times At War blog, 11 November 2011, http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/11/in-rain-an-omen-of-war/