**This Memorial Day weekend, I thought it was important to do a tribute to the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. This story was written by my brother, Lehi Benton, who is an Iraq war veteran, and who knows more about sacrifice than I will ever understand. It’s not a funny or happy story, and it may be hard for you to read, but it’s an important story and it needs to be told. Thank you, brother. I love you.**
We had been home about six months. The tour was rough, but we had no time to recover. We were in the midst of a gunnery, the pinnacle of training for any tanker, and eight months away from our next deployment.
I had performed well to this point in my Army career, making Sergeant in just three years. In the tank world (M-1 Abrams), there are four crew members: the driver, the loader, the gunner, and the commander. Obviously the commander is the ranking crew member, but it is his gunner who runs the daily operations and maintenance of the tank, and the success of the crew usually hinges upon his ability.
We had just gotten a new 2LT (Second Lieutenant) platoon leader fresh from Officer Training School, and I was assigned as his gunner. This is an honor among gunners, due to the fact that a new LT has no experience, and thus needs his gunner to pretty much “run the show.”
It was summer in Texas, and we were sweltering in the heat. We had completed our day run on the gunnery range, and after maintenance I was afforded a precious hour or two to doze in the shade after we parked the tank under a tree. I would be up through the night for the “night fire” portion of the range, so the opportunity to nap was precious. I had positioned a rucksack under my head on the front deck, and was lying with my fingers interlaced on my stomach and my helmet pulled down over my eyes as I began to fall into an exhausted sleep. As my eyes were swimming I saw four figures appearing in the distance through the space between the brim of my helmet and my cheeks. They were approaching my tank. When they grew closer the thermal wave effect obscuring them began to dissipate, and I recognized my tank commander. Next to him was the Battalion Executive Officer (XO), a Major in a pristine uniform carrying his helmet under his arm. My LT was also without headgear, which struck me as a bit odd.
Recognizing the XO, I mumbled some choice words and scrambled to my feet, calling the rest of the crew to come around to the front of the tank. As they approached the situation became even more odd. The two figures accompanying the LT and the XO were obviously not military. And even stranger than that: one of them was a female. Females were almost non-existent in our world, and there is a deep suspicion among tankers — a suspicious group anyway — that having a female around a tank is “bad juju.”
I was perplexed, and jumped down to adjust my uniform and headgear for presentation to a field grade Officer. My LT shot me a strange look when they were only a few steps away. I called the crew to attention and saluted the XO with the customary “WARRIORS!” greeting of the 12th Infantry. He saluted back, and told me and the crew to remove our headgear. I glanced at the civilians, completely bewildered as to the reason for them being there.
The man was older, in his 50s I suspected. The woman was young and beautiful, with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She must have been in her early 20s. Both of them had an aura and feelings conveyed by their stares that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
The XO spoke slowly and decisively.
“Sergeant Benton, I want you to meet 1LT Lyons’ father and fiance.”
The words hit me and exploded like a round from one of our tanks.
It’s strange what sticks in your mind when remembering. For me, it’s like watching a slide show of pictures accompanied by fragmented voices and sounds. Sometimes the pictures will move, forever acting out some significant movement over and over again, like a computer gif.
I remember the tinny beep of the radios breaking squelch. I remember the abrupt and muffled transmissions that followed as garbled noises. Most of them. There are some, though, when I think about them, they boom and resound as clear as any words ever spoken.
–beep–“He’s not injured he’s KIA, over!”–beep–
–beep–“Horseman2 Golf you DO NOT say that on the net, over!!”–beep–
For a moment, those words were coming through the earpieces of my combat vehicle helmet again. I was wrapped in the darkness of the “driver’s hole,” staring wide-eyed at the vision blocks with the control handle gas pegged. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding so hard it made me feel weak.
We were on our way to meet up with the other half of our Platoon, which had been involved in a skirmish with small arms. We knew someone was hurt, but we didn’t know who. In my mind, I counted as I heard each of my buddies come over the net, transmitting situation reports during the chaos. There was one missing. It might not have been so obvious, had the one missing not been our Platoon Leader, 1LT Lyons.
When we arrived there was absolute destruction. The infantry platoon that was attached to us had gotten there first, and as the ramps dropped on their Bradley Fighting Vehicles they poured out like rabid animals, forcing the enemy to retreat under their charge and take cover in a large palm grove. We were instructed to take up “blocking positions” in the tanks to trap them in the grove.
Combined Arms means there is a force that is composed of every facet of combat power, from Infantry to Artillery to Armor, to attack helicopters. 1-12 Infantry was a Combined Arms Unit, and in the distance I heard a chalk of AH-64 Apaches approaching. They were called “Green Dragon,” and they were our air assets. Within seconds the palm grove where the enemy was hiding was nothing but an enormous fireball being pierced by walls of 30mm cannon fire. There was nothing alive there anymore.
1LT Lyons was already on his way to the C.A.S.H., a hospital in the Green Zone of Baghdad. My best friend drove his tank. I found him squatting beside the track of his tank as we pulled up. He was pale white and shaking. His ACU uniform was deep red from the knees down, soaked in blood. He recounted what had happened, periodically bringing his trembling hands to his mouth to drag deeply off of an Iraqi cigarette.
1LT Lyons was attempting to force an enemy element out of low ground into a waiting cordon. When his tank broke through a wall and came into the low ground the enemy was closer than previously thought, and began firing wildly in a retreat. One of the AK-47 rounds struck him above the left eye, just under his helmet.
James Lyons was an only child. He was from Brighton, New York. He was a big man, probably around 6’2”, and a former lacrosse player for Syracuse. Despite that, he had a boyish demeanor, always smiling and always ready to try to make those around him smile. He reminded me of a little brother, and he had an innocence about him that seemed untouched, even in the nastiness of war.
I remember long hours sitting with him on the tank through the night while on watch. We forgot about rank for a few hours. We forgot about the Army and the war as best we could. James the young man told me about his plans. About his beautiful fiancé back home, and how he was going to marry her and “probably not have the Army” in his future. He was just a young man, and about as American as anyone could ever have been. Then he would crack a joke, and his wide, boyish grin would stretch across his face.
Mr. Lyons, James’ Dad, reached out to shake my hand and shook me from my memories. I grabbed his hand, and as I looked in his eyes I realized what the aura was I couldn’t put my finger on. It was wanting. He desperately wanted something from me.
As I turned my gaze to James’ fiancé, her stare contained nothing but sorrow. I realized that even though she may have made the decision to be here, she did not want to be here. There was a brief, awkward silence.
Mr. Lyons looked at the battalion XO and was met with a brief nod. Whatever was about to happen had been previously discussed. Mr. Lyons asked me if he could come on to the tank. I told him of course, and cringed at the thought of James’s fiancé following. To my relief, she stayed on the ground. I climbed onto the front deck and helped Mr. Lyons up. He said nothing. He looked into the driver’s hole briefly, then asked to go to the top of the turret. I was apprehensive, because there are two weapon systems mounted there. I glanced down to my LT, and he nodded. I helped Mr. Lyons on to the turret, and he went immediately for the commander’s station. Dropping his legs in the hole, he stood in the commander’s cupola. He placed his hands on the .50 caliber mount, and got a distant look. Tears were welling in his eyes. He asked me:
“Is this where James was?”
Immediately I realized the purpose of all of this. I was the last one left in the platoon who had been there that day. That was why he wanted to come to my tank. Tears were streaming down his cheeks now. I saw a father who had lost his only child. On the ground, I saw a woman who had lost her true love, and she too was crying now. I tried to imagine the pain they felt, and the courage it took for them to come here. It was all I could do to choke out the word yes.
He broke into a full sob, and I stood there watching him. I felt like a statue, unable to move even if I knew what to do. Within a few minutes he composed himself, wiped his face, and asked if I could help him down. In silence, I helped him down.
He met back up with the XO and my LT, who were trying to hide their sorrow. He offered his hand for me to shake, and I grabbed it tightly, staring into his eyes. If my heart wasn’t already shattered by war, it may have broken again that day. He spoke quietly, and asked one more question.
“Did you get them?”
I was more able to answer this time.
“Yes. We wiped them out.”
He released my hand and turned around. I glanced to the fiancé, and saw gratitude in her eyes. They walked back up the hill, disappearing into the heat-distorted distance.
This is what I think of on Memorial Day. I wish it could be a cookout, or a family vacation, or a day at the beach. I think about the tear-filled eyes of a father mourning his boy. I think about the fact that he is one of thousands. I see mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons that have nothing but memories. Here’s to you, James. My Brothers and I will never forget you.