Letter From Iraq

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A while back I wrote about "seeing the elephant", an old phrase that has been used for many years to describe people who have seen war close up. In it, I wrote:

No, unless you have seen the elephant, the best you can do is try your best to empathize, try your best to understand what you can, but you can never have that common vocabulary that soldiers who have seen the elephant share. There is a camaraderie that we who have not been there can never share. All we can do is help support the people who are returning. All we can do is let them know we care about them and respect what they have done for us. All we can do is honor the people who serve and protect all we hold dear.

All we can do is realize they have seen the elephant for all of us, and we must stand by them. By their sacrifice and service, they have kept us from having to see the elephant ourselves.

My son read those words and sent me this email. I think it helps explain. See if you do, too.

The Elephant

What is "The Elephant"? When I talk with my father about my experiences overseas (him being one of the few people with whom I can be completely honest), he often remarks that I have "seen the Elephant." I understand the term, its basic definition, but I sometimes wonder what constitutes an "Elephant." 
I've fired my weapon in anger, though only in a suppressive manner, by which I mean I've never leveled my sights on another man and ended his life with a hail of 5.56mm NATO standard rounds. My friends, and all of my unit, redeployed to the United States in 2005 without a single purple heart. An unskilled sniper tried to shorten my existence while I was serving as a gunner on a convoy during the summer of 2004, but his bullet missed by such a wide margin it impacted the truck behind me. I slept in forward operating bases and got mortared so many times I couldn't count them all even with my shoes off, but only a few even got close enough to disturb the air around me. My point is, I have a hard time saying out loud that I have seen the Elephant. 
I've never tried to curl up in my helmet during a concentrated artillery barrage. I've never rushed a machine gun nest. I've never seen hordes of my enemies advancing relentlessly across an open plain. I've never held the limp body of a friend in my arms and wondered how I still lived while he lay dead. To me, the men (and more recently, women) who have endured these hardships of war are the ones who have truly seen the Elephant.
I have expelled rounds in the direction of my enemies. I have been fired upon. I have cowered in fear before, and embarrassingly, slept through mortar attacks. I have been on three separate convoys that were attacked with improvised explosive devices (the infamous IED of the Iraq War), one of which exploded directly in front of my truck. I have stood over the broken bodies of Islamic contractors, victims of attacks and accidents, waiting for MEDEVAC helicopters and knowing there was literally nothing I could do to stop those men from dying. I have a combat action badge, and I wear the "Screaming Eagle," the famed patch of the 101st Airborne Division, on my right shoulder, denoting that I've been deployed to a combat zone under the aforementioned command.

Do not misunderstand. I am proud of my accomplishments. I am thankful that all of the convoys I've protected have returned to base without any military casualties. I'm proud of the 3.8 million miles my company ran from February 2004 to March 2005, and the six divisions' worth of equipment we moved.

I just wonder if it's presumptuous of me to say that I've seen the Elephant when so many of my brethren in green throughout history have been through so much worse. To those men and women, both those who survived and those who fell, my hat is off, and my heart is grateful for your sacrifices.


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21 Responses to Letter From Iraq

  1. Jacques says:

    Your son is indeed a fine man. Americans everywhere need to read it. In my own small way, I would like to encourage readership.
    I wish your son well.

  2. Sarge, it is safe to say you most certainly HAVE seen the elephant. Up close and personal. The day a sniper even levels his sight on me or a thug plants an IED near my driving route will be the day, too that I’ve seen the elephant.

    You are comparing yourself to those who’ve ridden the elephant, fed the elephant, touched the elephant. But in doing so, you forget to compare yourself to the millions you protect who haven’t so much as set foot in a zoo or wild plain to get a glimpse of the elephant from afar.

    I think it’s a measure of your heroic status as a brave soldier that you measure your heroism in terms of other heroes. If you took a second to remember those who you protect, you’d see that yours is a pedestal standing like a skyscraper in a sea of one-story homes.

    You may not have stood nose to nose with the elephant, but by God, that doesn’t dimish in the slightest the fact that you’ve seen him and a grateful nation thanks you for doing so.

    God bless you and your family.

    And thank you Gaius for sharing this with us.

  3. Gaius says:

    That was really nice of you, Jason. Thank you very, very much.

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  5. Steve Lowery says:

    Sarge, I like you, feel humbled but I feel humbled towards you, and the other brave, selfless, men and women of this great country we call The United States. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for your service and the service of others for me. Yes, for me, that’s how I feel about it. I am forever in the debt of America’s Best. Thanks again and all the best in whatever your endevors may be!

  6. BubbaB says:

    Steve, you took my line.

    As an American, as a husband, as a father of two young boys, I say to all the Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors:

    I am forever in your debt.

    God Bless You, Sarge.

  7. Peter says:

    You indeed “saw the elephant” by being at the receiving end of hostile fire–a sniper may not be all that bad a shot in the future. I am not sure what the origin of the phrase is–it might refer to the Romans’ confrontation with Hannibal and his elephants. It was a popular term during the War Between the States, and those guys on both sides, regularly endured 10-30% casualty rates because the generals on both sides were using tatctics designed for muskets and smooth bores against rifled weapons.

    It is due to the heroism of people like you and those in our past who give us the rights we have today–and that we still must defend from domestic “enemies.” We must never forget. I do not know how to thank you, your comrades, and those in the past for their willingness to put it all on the line.

    God bless you. (I think I can say that on this site.)

  8. Gaius says:

    I had a link to what seems to be the consensus opinion of where the phrase came from in my original post if you’re interested, Peter.

    Thank you for your kind words. Sarge will be reading these comments, I’m sure.

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  10. Tony B says:

    TXRainmaker has this exactly right. The fact that you describe getting mortared in such a flippant manner sort of underscores what he’s saying. All I can say is thank you. Thank you so very much for what you have done to keep the rest of us safe.

  11. Trevor says:

    There are big elephants and small elephants. I’m gifted with having seen only the midget elephant, and I too have slept through a mortar attack.

    The only mortar that counts is the one that puts you to sleep permanently. The rest are just reminders that we all have an invisible expiration date stamped on us.

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  13. Andi says:

    What a great letter, and a great son you have. Thanks to him for his service.

  14. Gaius says:

    Thanks, Andi.

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  16. Mary says:

    TexasRainmaker is right on and states eloquently the appreciation that I cannot put into words. Thank you Sarge and God bless you, the men and women over you and the men and women under your command. I believe your words have encapsulated the spirit, dedication and selflessness of the 101st Airborne and all the members of the military proudly defending and protecting the USA. Thank you for making our lives at home safer. Thank you for protecting our freedom and liberty.

    Thank you: from me to YOU: THANK YOU and GOD BLESS YOU.

  17. Scott says:

    Make no mistake about it, you have “seen the elephant”. Any member of the military today–particularly one in the 101st and who has spent time in any war zone in the GWOT has met this qualification. You have volunteered to guard this nation from far away outposts in a time when a frightening number of our citizens see nothing to guard it from. You have definitely seen the elepant, Sarge. And thanks to people like you, many more Americans never will “see the elephant” in our own country, as so many did on 9/11.

    May God continue to keep you and your comrades in arms safe.

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  21. Thank you for sharing this with us Gaius and thank you Sarge for your service and your sacrifice.

    Godspeed to you.

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