by Al Spitler, Ret. US Army Colonel
He was fun, he was engaging, and he was wearing the uniform of the United States of America.
I met Kyle in the course of my travels serving as an Army Chaplain in Iraq in 2009. My Assistant and I had traveled to an outpost in Northern Iraq to visit one of our Transition Teams. The task of Transition Teams at that time was to partner with and train the Iraqi forces to protect their own country. As the communications/electronics guy assigned to the unit, Kyle had the dual role of maintaining our own communications/electronic equipment and teaching the Iraqis how to use and maintain their own equipment. He was young, single, intelligent, and could tell stories that made you shake your head in wonder.
Only moments after meeting him, he had taken the card out of my camera and downloaded my photos to his computer. He told me it was for security purposes, but I also think he was curious as to what else we had been seeing in our travels across Iraq.
As all military personnel do, Kyle had signed what amounted to a blank check to the military. He agreed to go anywhere and do anything deemed necessary to fulfill the mission. He would engage in whatever capacity was required. He would build up or he would tear down, depending on the directions of those in authority over him.
On this day, his Unit received word that a mail shipment had come in by helicopter about a two hour drive away. They needed to drive to pick up the mail and, for security, driving anywhere meant there needed to be in a convoy of at least three armored vehicles with at least three people per vehicle- experienced drivers, commanders and gunners.
With some Soldiers on Watch and others on Leave, coming up with the needed personnel was not always easy. But it had been a long time since they had received mail. Getting mail was like getting gold, so when the word had come that mail was nearby, lesser-experienced soldiers were willing to take on the non-critical mission in their MRAPs.
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (many made in Oshkosh) were wonderful. Their thick skin and reinforced floor made them a perfect vehicle of choice against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). However, they were a bit top heavy and were built for protection rather than speed.
Kyle was the gunner that day. It was not his normal station and he did not take time to adequately adjust the harness to fit his body and hold him inside. The gunner manned a 50-caliber machine gun and stood or sat in a sling between the driver and the passenger. His head and shoulders were above the roof line as he scanned the area for hostile activity. It was a bumpy ride and he was bumped around quite a bit, but it was a mail run and a little discomfort would be worth a word from home.
There was no attack by the enemy. There was no heroic blaze of glory that changed everyone’s life that day. Instead, his was the head vehicle and they came over a hill too fast. At the crest of the hill, the road took a sharp turn and there was an unexpected obstruction. The MRAP was on its side before anyone could react. Kyle was thrown from the vehicle and was crushed under its weight.
Everyone was stunned. This was just not supposed to happen. This was a routine mail run that should have resulted in the joy of letters from home. Instead, there was nothing but sadness.
As their assigned Chaplain, it was my duty to oversee the dignified transfer of Kyle’s body to the airplane which would transport his remains back to the States, then plan and perform the memorial service for comrades at his post. We also engaged in a necessary critical event debriefing.
It was all bitter and difficult for everyone. He was a friend. How could he be gone? Some felt guilty like they could have done more. Some felt angry. Everyone felt sad. No one who knew him will ever forget him.
Neither should any of us. Kyle was there in Iraq because his country asked him to go in response to the attack of 9-11. He was a Soldier.
He was also someone’s son. I briefly talked to his parents when I got back. They were dear folks who could not believe that their precious son would not come back into their lives. For them, every single day of their lives is a Memorial Day to remember Kyle.
So far in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been nearly 7,000 “Kyles” who gave their lives serving their county. Over 58,000 lost their lives in Vietnam. Some still remember the Korean War with 36,000+ who died, and a few still remember the days of WWII with its 405,399 military casualties. And prior to that, there were other wars and conflicts where about a million more “Kyles” gave their lives to defend our freedoms, including WWI, the Philippine-American War, the Spanish-American War, the American Civil War, the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and the American Revolutionary War. They were serving to gain and protect our freedoms; their lives deserve to at least be honored and remembered.
This year, the COVID situation has made it difficult to hold public memorial services. Most have canceled out of a desire to protect one another. But no one who has lost someone will forget.
Thank you for taking some time in your holiday off to remember our nation’s fallen. Thank you for teaching your children that caring for and protecting their country is a noble and honorable effort. Thank you for reaching out to a family who has lost a loved one in military service. Thank you for your moments of silent reflection for those who have been so deeply loved and have given everything so that we may have the opportunity to live in this great country. Thank you for taking time to visit the cemetery and thank God for our freedoms made possible by others’ sacrifice. Because of what they gave, this is a wonderful place of freedom and of great people.
May you have a peaceful and reflective Memorial Day.