Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
As the “Big Wars” fade into history, Memorial Day has progressively become less about memorializing and more about weenie roasts. One reason is the relatively low casualty rate from Iraq and Afghanistan. As a vet, I’m thankful for that — but no less determined to remember the fallen. And as a combat journalist, I’ve met some remarkable people whom I couldn’t forget if I tried — which I’d never want to do.
When I first arrived in May 2006, the city of Ar Ramadi was the headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq. It was the beginning of the Battle of Ramadi and not for nothing did terrorist graffiti call it “The Graveyard of the Americans.”
Half of American casualties at this time were coming from this little place. For a reason: This was where the war would be decided, not where the press corps was ensconced in Baghdad.
I met with and saw combat with some of the greatest heroes of the war, including 1-506th 101st Airborne and what would become the most decorated SEAL team since Vietnam.
One of its members, Michael Monsoor, would receive the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save several buddies.
But not all the Ramadi heroes were necessarily combatants. One was my “handler,” the press officer, Maj. Megan McClung. She was the highest-ranking female Marine in the country.
At 34, she was a wiry triathlete and marathon runner whose 125 pounds belied a tough interior. “Ramadi is the most dangerous city in Iraq, and you’re going to get your men out there to cover it!” I heard her bark at one of her combat reporters.
Some of those men apparently didn’t care for her attitude. It was dangerous out there!
But I found her almost motherly in her concern for what few reporters who came — and the even fewer who ventured outside suburbia-safe Camp Ramadi. When I arrived at night, I got lost finding my way to the very last cot. She was sooo happy to find me walking to her office in the morning, thinking maybe I had ended up in the wrong war.
Another, who worked with her, was Capt. Travis Patriquin, 32, a Green Beret and Arabic linguist who was awarded a Bronze Star for valor in one of the fiercest battles of the Afghanistan war, Operation Anaconda.
Travis didn’t go in for the macho posturing that some special-ops people do; indeed, he was a bit of a teddy bear in digital camouflage. His was a quiet strength.
And he was brilliant, the T.E. Lawrence of Iraq. His plan to deal with the locals was classic “hearts and minds,” presented in a whimsical PowerPoint presentation with stick figures. It explained how to open talks with sheiks, get them to stop straddling the fence and ally their tribes with the Coalition forces.
It concludes, “Everyone wins. Except terrorists. (Which is OK, because terrorists suck.)”
Sadly, I never photographed either Megan or Travis, but I got Travis’ desk, with its poster of a quote (widely misattributed to George Orwell): “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence upon those who would do us harm.”
And ready to die for us.
And so it was on Dec. 6, 2006, that I received an email that Travis had been killed in a Humvee by an IED in Ramadi.
I emailed Megan to console her. I knew it was O’Dark Thirty in Iraq, but that had never mattered. No matter the hour, she usually zapped me right back. This time, though, no reply.
Hmm … I called. Still no response.
And then it hit me. She had been with Travis, along with an enlisted man who died, 22-year-old Army Specialist 4 Vincent Pomante.
Hell of a way to get the news.
The next time I “saw” Megan, it was in Arlington, Va. I covered the funeral for a couple of publications, took pictures of the casket and grave (the headstone was still pending), then stepped back and saluted. I would later meet her wonderful parents, as well as Travis’ terrific dad.
I never saw Travis’ grave but went back to Megan’s. You can find it in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery. And, of course, it’s gained its tombstone. With words chosen by her, it reads: “BE BOLD. BE BRIEF. BE GONE.”
Fine. Except never from our hearts and memories.