Maybe I should have written this last weekend, Memorial Day weekend, when everybody was gung-ho about people in uniform. But holiday or no, I thought you might want to know about Marine Lt. Col. Chris Douglas.
If I use the word “hero,” he will visit a heap of grief upon me, so I will leave the labels to you. Since 2003, Douglas has twice taken Marine units to Iraq, the first of them Albany’s Fox Company. All returned safe and sound that time, but a couple of years later, when he volunteered to lead a contingent from West Virginia, 48 from the battalion died, five of those men directly under Douglas’ command, his guys.
Now, at age 45, several years after retirement eligibility, Douglas will lead a battalion of Marines from Toledo, Ohio, and from places in Michigan like Grand Rapids and Lansing, to Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom will be 10 years old in October and seemingly grows more dangerous by the month. It took seven years for the first 500 Americans to die there; in the past three, American deaths were 900.
I asked Douglas the crass question: Isn’t he afraid that he’s tempting fate, that he’s “pushing the envelope,” going back into combat again and again and again?
“I believe when it’s your time, it’s your time,” he said. “I feel that I have to do my part for my country, and if some people think that’s corny, so be it. This is what I do best, lead men into combat, and that’s my contribution.”
It’s not like Douglas is some footloose 19-year-old with no entanglements on the homefront. He’s a career state trooper, a member of the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. More importantly, he’s married with an 11-year-old son who already has endured Christmases and birthdays without his father and a wife who seems to be two steps shy of canonization. The colonel understandably is jealous of his family’s privacy — so names will not be used — but they live in Saratoga County, and he describes the wife as “a rock star.”
“There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that is more important to me than my family, and if either one of them, my wife or my son, were to say ‘no,’ I would not be headed to Afghanistan,” he said emphatically.
But it was not easy, coming back from Iraq the second time and explaining to his son, just 6 at the time, that five of those young Marines who had treated him like their little brother had been killed.
“I remember each and every one of the five, everything about them, their names, ages, how they got killed, talking with their families, everything,” said Douglas. “The first one was Cpl. Bryan Richardson from West Virginia, my radio operator, just out of college. And when I called home to tell my wife that Cpl. Richardson was dead, that’s when she reminded me that I was eligible to retire from the Marine Corps.”
Last weekend was the sixth anniversary of the combat death of one of his best buddies from Iraq. Marine Maj. Rick Crocker, a police officer from Santa Monica, Calif., was killed on May 26, 2005, while on patrol with Douglas.
“I was talking to him one minute, the next minute I had gone downstairs to make a radio transmission and he was killed by [a rocket-propelled grenade],” he says. “He was our civil affairs officer, working with the local populace, and even some of the local sheikhs were saddened by his death. Rick was a real hero, and he’s the guy I thought about all Memorial Day weekend.”
Of the 1,000 or so Marines he is taking to Afghanistan, maybe half have never experienced combat. Douglas knows those young men stand a better chance of coming home sound if he is leading them. He says he owes it to them.
Does it bother him that support for the war wanes, and for most Americans, Afghanistan probably is no more than a two-minute distraction on the nightly news?
“It has been the topic of conversation in my home, I won’t lie,” he said. “I wish that Americans would keep in mind this really is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m confident about the outcome in Afghanistan.”
Chris Douglas is not unique among Marine officers; many are on their third and fourth deployments. Maybe that’s the point: These guys are doing the dirty, dangerous work for us, and the only time we learn even their names is when something awful happens.
Even if you’re among the 53 or 59 percent who believe we’ve been there too long, when you’re headed home tonight from that safe job at General Electric, or from the Harriman Campus, or the Gazette, say a prayer for Lt. Col. Douglas and those young men from Michigan and Toledo he will take to Camp Pendleton this summer and from there to Afghanistan.
Stay safe, Chris, stay safe.