My son Francis survived his tours with the Tenth Mountain Division in Iraq and Afghanistan. He survived Afghanistan’s notorious Korengal Valley. If you’ve read Sebastian Junger’s book War or seen the documentary Restrepo, you’re familiar with the “Valley of Death.” Francis’s company established the bases depicted in those narratives.
The Afghanistan tour followed Iraq, which had been difficult. But he knew this would be worse. He wept the night before he left for Fort Drum, soon to deploy from there to Afghanistan. He didn’t want to die, he told my wife, Heather, and me. Anyone who’s seen his decorations would have trouble believing he could weep from fear, but he did. Looking back, we realize how privileged we were that he’d share such a moment.
In his book Junger recounts a similar moment before accompanying a squad on a risky mission:
“‘It’s okay to be scared,’ Moreno said to [Junger], loud enough for everyone else to hear, ‘you just don’t want to show it . . .’”
Francis had good reason to worry. The Korengal was a bad place to bring this war. Without doubt a futile place, too. NATO forces finally abandoned the Korengal in the spring of 2010. Nothing gained, a lot lost—by American and NATO forces, and by the people who live in that valley.
His initiation into the Korengal came in 2006, when a Chinook helicopter crashed on a mountaintop, killing ten American soldiers. He carried a friend’s lifeless body away from the wreckage. A U.S. military spokesman said the crash was an accident, but Francis told me the chopper was under attack.
Later, his company built a school, which Taliban fighters then bombed, with children inside. He was on the scene for the horrific aftermath of that incident, too. The catalog of these episodes continues for fifteen months, right through his departure from Afghanistan. As the company awaited a plane to take them out of Bagram Air Base, they were called to stand honor guard for the first flag-draped casualties from their replacements in the Korengal.
Though he rarely spoke of it, the war stayed with him after he left the service. He seemed at times to be navigating his way through an alien world here in a Kansas City suburb. So much about life no longer made sense—our consumption, waste, obsessions with entertainment and celebrities. When his Fort Drum roommate, Sgt. Isaac Jackson, was killed in Afghanistan, Francis attended the funeral in Plattsburg, Missouri, just a few hours from home. The thought sometimes haunts me that both men who shared that room are dead. Jackson died in Afghanistan, but I consider Francis a war casualty, too.
He survived physically, more or less. A host of medical issues plagued him—hearing loss, cognitive problems, chronic pain in his hip. But the real damage wasn’t physical. He was one of the so-called “invisible walking wounded.” The man (or woman) in the gray flannel suit dresses differently from the World War II veteran Gregory Peck played in the film by that name more than fifty years ago, but the consequences of war haven’t changed. Francis once told Heather and me that if he couldn’t live with us at home, he’d be dead within six months.
About six months later we did lose him.
While he was in the service, we lived in fear of answering the doorbell to find a soldier in a Class A uniform with an envelope standing on our porch. We thought we’d made it. Three years out of the Army and near completion of his degree in culinary arts, and he was finding his way. Maybe we were all safe now.
But the doorbell did ring, insistently. There was pounding on it, too, to awaken us. It was 3:30 on a cold February morning. Fortunately, Heather slept through the noise. Two police officers stood back from the door at a non-threatening distance, confirmed my identity, and then came inside. One officer fumbled with the message they’d come to deliver. The other, a sergeant, interrupted him and said plainly to me—and I will never forget that moment or these words—“Sir, there’s no easy way to say this. Your son has passed away.”
He’d died thirty minutes earlier at the hospital from injuries sustained when his car struck a utility pole. He was alone, and we later came to realize, in the bizarre logic of the universe we now entered, that this was something for which to be grateful. No one else was hurt or dead, only him. He was listening to “Here Comes the Sun” when he passed out and the car veered off the road.
To share the fact that he’d been drinking is to open a topic I can’t explore in this space. A couple of keystrokes on his phone would have saved him—saved all of us. I’d always said I would go anywhere at any time, no questions asked, to bring him or my other children safely home.
The alcohol issue opens a door into a world that is other than it seems. Our home has been dry for twenty years. Oddly, that was one reason he felt safe here. Yet he couldn’t sleep through the nightmares, and you only get those when you do sleep, which he often could not. Alcohol is medicine for some. At home, Francis drank quietly, and alone, and against house rules. But he never behaved as we imagine alcoholics do, nor as we stereotype veterans with PTSD. He never raised his voice with us or argued. He was simply filled with sorrow and regret and guilt. All I can share for now is that nothing about him fit the images typically associated with PTSD and alcoholism.
The fact that he had a home mattered; that Heather and I were there for every important phase in his military life, from his first-weekend pass in Basic Training to his homecomings from Iraq and Afghanistan. He realized early on that this was not always the case for many soldiers. He began to appreciate his home and family in ways he hadn’t when he was younger—or at least, he hadn’t expressed it so. His home was comfortable and loving. He mattered here. He’d never in his life had to worry about his next meal or where he’d sleep or whether there’d be running water and electricity.
Both in the service and later, he often talked about the unfortunate lives of so many soldiers he encountered who didn’t have a safety net—no one to greet them at homecomings, no one to write when they were deployed, nowhere to go when they were out of the service.
He was being treated at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, where he also volunteered. He distributed clothing to homeless veterans. He’d become an exceptional chef and treated vets to his recipe for chili. When he passed away, we contacted the VA to set up a fund for homeless veterans in his name.
We thought a few hundred dollars might land there in lieu of money spent on flowers. But something unexpected happened. Several weeks after the funeral, the head of the Voluntary Services Unit called to tell me that thousands had poured in—from friends, family, soldiers, even strangers. She became choked up on the phone. So did I, but that happens often to me these days.
As the year passed, the fund continued to grow. It is now the largest memorial fund ever established at the Kansas City VA, benefitting hundreds of needy veterans. We’ve received many dozens of letters from them and from donors.
Without a doubt, this fund and the work it does have helped soften our pain, giving us a tangible sense that Francis’s life and spirit have touched many other lives for the better. As my daughter so aptly put it, at any given moment someone is using an item they’ve received through the Memorial Fund. One veteran wrote to say he’d named his new crockpot “The Francis Slow-Cooker.”
It is our sense that Francis lives on through us. Thus he encourages us to live our lives better so we won’t let him down.
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