Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Once in Iraq, I heard a story from a couple of Marines who had done a prisoner transfer via helicopter. The people they were escorting to the Baghdad detention center were thirsty, so the Marines in question allowed them to drink, but after each drink, they poured some water from the canteens onto the floor and made the Iraqis repeat, “For the homies.” To this day, if I have any leftover drink that I dump, I say, “For the homies.” When I do, I’m transported back to the tattoo parlor where I got my first (and so far only) tattoo of a funeral marker in front of an Eagle Globe and Anchor- a memorial to those lives lost in the November, 2004 assault on Fallujah. I have other things that I do to remember those that didn’t come home. Anytime I look at the flag I carried in my flak jacket, I battle being overcome with emotion. My eyes burn, and the faces of those I met or knew who never returned flash into mind. The fabric of that flag- a gift from my dad whose origins I can’t quite recall- are hallowed for me. The course stitching and raised stars and sweat stained fabric more than a simple national ensign.
To me, that flag, the tattoo on my shoulder, the act of pouring my last drink onto the ground and saying “For the homies” are spiritual. They invoke the names and images of the departed, and allow me to recall their sacrifice and keep that sacrifice near and dear to my heart.
They are my family just as much as any people can be. The oaths we spoke upon enlistment, and the bonds that were formed transcend death even if little to no interaction was ever shared between us. And at times, I am hit by pangs of regret, remorse, embarrassment, and shame for feeling anything at all because those in my battalion who didn’t come home weren’t MY close friends, but the close friends of friends. I feel I do a disservice remembering them and their sacrifice having never invested the emotional capital into a relationship with them. Even mentioning this here, I feel as though I cheapen their sacrifice though I know that even now- years after the events that led to their untimely demise at the hands of the enemy- I value their sacrifice ever the more. And in truth, there are really only two men whose deaths touched me in a way that causes that burn of anguish to dwell in the wells of my eyes as I think of them.
The hardest part of all this is having not known them like those who miss them most. I conversed with them- got to experience the glow of their personality for a brief moment in time- but I can’t claim to have really KNOWN them. Nicholas Ziolkowski and Anthony Matteoni were two of the best people I met, and their loss hurts. Of the two, Matteoni’s death hit me hardest. I had worked closely with him during my final months in the Marines as we worked to bring the juniors in the company up to Green Belt. We only worked together about two months as we ran 120 Marines through the program Monday through Friday. It was perhaps the most fun I had while I was in. Shortly after we completed the regimen, and certified the last of the juniors, I was getting ready to go on terminal leave.
I bumped into him in the company office shortly after our First Sergeant and Master Sergeant made their pitch (again) for me to extend and go with to Afghanistan. They wanted me to go to Matteoni’s platoon (he was still a corporal at the time) and be the acting Platoon Sergeant until one came and replaced me. Then I’d probably get a section of my own. I told them I was done. I was calling it a career after eight years. Matteoni’s last words to me before he went on libbo for the weekend and I left for my new life amongst the civilian populace was that he was kind of jealous, and that he wished me well. He meant it. It was as sincere as any “Good luck” could be. I shook his hand, and walked out of the company office for the last time.
Months later, while painting miniatures and surfing Facebook, I found out that he had died during that deployment. At first, I was numb. Matteoni was gone. I found out he left a daughter he never met behind. Then the guilt started to kick in. What if I had extended, and gone to Matteoni’s platoon? What if I had been in his seat when the IED went off? He could have met his daughter, lived a good life with his wife. Maybe he could have lived because I would have died. Even now that thought causes that burning in the eyes. I was depressed for a good month or two as the thought that his death was somehow my fault kept echoing through my mind. My desire to leave had killed him. I had abandoned my fellow Marines, and he had paid the price.
But in the end, it was Matteoni that saved me. I remembered the exchange in the company office that last time I saw him. The sincere smile and well wishing goodbye. He wanted me to be happy- to live my life on my terms. Blaming myself for his death is the last thing he would want. He chose to go to war just like I had. He knew and had accepted the realities of that choice just like I had. He wouldn’t want me to feel sorry for myself. That wouldn’t be the way to honor a fallen friend. Matteoni reached back, from beyond the grave, and plucked me from the darkness that I was creating for myself simply by being a good man in the time that I had known him. Even if I felt I had let him down- he never let me down.
So I keep going, pursuing those things I believe in, living my life as I choose is the best way I can honor those who never made it back. That’s what they died for. That’s what we played the ultimate game of chicken for. We didn’t go to war for glory, or oil, or the copious reenlistment bonuses or the college benefits. We went to protect and spread an ideal we believed in, even if we never voiced such a desire. I can’t go back and alter the past to bring them back. All I can do is remember and keep going in their memory.
And so I say, “For the homies,” and I hold my flag, and I remember the pain of my tattoo, and recall their faces, their names, and their legacy. It’s a small penance to be sure, hardly worthy of the price they paid, but it’s something. It’s something I can do to never forget, and to cherish the lives they lived, and the lives they let all of us live in their absence. Patton once said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” I have, in my own way, done just that.