When the Tempest Gathers

by Major R. W. Pallas

“Body and spirit, I surrendered whole, to harsh instructors, and received a soul.”

-Rudyard Kipling

War memoirs, or reflections, fictional or otherwise, are hard to compete with–especially in the Marine Corps. You can start chronologically with the fictional work by Anton Myrer, a US Marine, who penned “Once an Eagle”. It continues with works such as “With the Old Breed” by Eugene Sledge, and “Goodbye, Darkness” by William Manchester. James Webb brings us front and center to the Vietnam conflict with “Fields of Fire” only to be complimented by “Matterhorn” written by Karl Marlantes. You’ll quickly realize Marlantes provides a work of “fiction” leaving the reader to question where the blurred line of reality starts and ends as you thumb through the pages of his other work “What it is Like to Go to War”. Fictional or not, these Marines left an indelible mark capturing specific time periods of conflict.

I fall into the category of the new war, the next generation. My generation was led through the infant stages of our careers reading Nathaniel Fick’s “One Bullet Away” desperately searching to fulfill the same calling he sought:

“In Athens or Sparta, my decision would have been easy. I felt as if I had been born too late. There was no longer a place in the world for a young man who wanted to wear armor and slay dragons…I wanted something more transformative. Something that might kill me…” (Fick, N. “One Bullet Away” Kindle page 4)

That book opened the door to the new war, the HBO “Generation Kill” crowd. The war was quickly summarized over time by other services and authors hallmarked by the tragic events of Patrick Tillman captured by Jon Krakauer in “Where Men Win Glory” and the widely televised Abu Ghraib incident. Colonel Andy Milburn provides a work that seems to bring a sense of pride to what many call the “Long Wars”, some even the “Lost Wars.” Colonel Milburn dictates the story I feel many veterans, myself included, of those wars wished to be conveyed. In a world of conflicting views and ethical dilemmas, Colonel Milburn provides a simple answer to why many of us were there, or continue to serve in that theater:

“Although I am the one telling the story, it is intended to be as much about those with whom I served as it is about me. Because I am a Marine-and without, I hope, appearing parochial-much of this story is about Marines, who in a sense belong to a world of their own. With its emphasis on ritual, tradition, obedience and hierarchy, the Marine Corps is a culture far removed from the society that it protects…

The Marines who landed with me in Mogadishu were much the same as those who marched on Baghdad, captured Fallujah, and subsequently took the fight to ISIS in Northern Iraq…” (A.Milburn page xi).

The fabric of the uniforms change from generation to generation, but the fabric to which each and every Marine is cut remains constant. Andy Milburn gives the new generation a voice through telling his own story. A story gripped with inconsolable loss (both personal and professional), fear, and gut-wrenching hardship through painstakingly clearing a city overcome by terrorists. One, single, door, at a time–fully knowing there is nothing but the possibility of pure, unyielding death on the other side of each and every door. Only to find himself, years later, trying to gain back the bloodied territory Marines so valiantly won years before.

His story is not a heroic take, in fact, many lessons he bestows as what not to do should something similar arise in your own career. He also conveys the great burden of command, time away from family as a husband and father, empty phone calls and e-mails in an attempt to generate any semblance of normalcy, and the weight of decision-making in combat that comes with the enhanced responsibilities as he progresses from enlisted to officer spanning a 31 year career.

In one of my favorite lines from the book he encapsulates the gravity to which accompanies increased rank:

“His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to follow orders.” -elder Von Moltke (A. Milburn pg. 117)

This tale is one any service member can find solace in, and one to which I believe Andy searches for himself documenting not just the glory of success on the battlefields, but the broken relationships, lives, and his own personal journey as he tries to find the meaning of it all, and answer the question, “Was it all really worth it?”

“I do believe that we are a force for good here, Andy”…He climbed onto his rack and stared at the ceiling. “But some of the shit that happens here is going to stay with me for a long time,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Despite Rocco’s words, I was mired in guilt. Guilt for our callous entry into that family’s lives, leaving them forever changed while ours went on as before. (A. Milburn, pg. 178)

As the story unfolds Colonel Milburn provides a level of transparency that almost enables many others to do the same. The loss for both personal and professional events leaves Colonel Milburn with a challenge left to face on his own–like so many of us. His candid account of physical and mental exhaustion far from the battlefield reveals the toll many service members battle long after the kinetic events unfolded.

“a profession that commits them to being instruments, not architects, of national policy. That is the lot that they have chosen. “Theirs is not to reason why; theirs is but to do and die,” in the words of Victorian poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson.” (A. Milburn pg. 313)

I am a Marine Aviator by trade and have never cleared a door, gone through the funnel of death entering a building, or shot a round toward the enemy, but strangely enough relate to every page penned by Colonel Milburn as a fellow wearer of the cloth. In fact, two short months ago, holding my six month old daughter, my own past came back to me as my wife and I sat in our Hawaii home on a cool Sunday afternoon.

Watching a documentary about an Army Apache unit on the initial push into Iraq, faulty intelligence put their flight path over the largest Iraqi unit in the country, them never knowing. In the monochromatic hue of green that filled the screen, mimicking the image of night vision goggles, I heard and saw the tracer fire riddle the sky intermingled with rockets. I was transported back to almost a decade earlier on my first deployment, never realizing I had never dealt with the events that occurred on January 11, 2012. By the time I actually heard the voice of my wife asking me, “Do you need a moment?” I sat in embarrassment as she picked up my daughter and walked quietly downstairs. I never realized I sat soaked in sweat with tears running down my eyes sitting on the couch reliving the events from almost a decade before. In the words of Colonel Milburn, “Only then did I realize what a strain it had been trying to tamp down the chaos inside, while pretending that nothing was wrong.” (A. Milburn, pg. 314).

I share that story because Colonel Milburn took the time to share his own. We are a storied culture, with a historic past captured by the men and women who take the time to painfully pen down their own personal accounts opening themselves to the world about the events of their own lives–in one way extremely cathartic, another way, extremely delicate as the world is now aware of something so very personal. But this is how we heal, this is why we write.

Colonel Milburn’s work is the perfect 10/10 in my opinion. It will be added to the list of quintessential memoirs for the men and women who have served during that time period.

Personally, I owe him a debt of gratitude as his story has enabled me to confront my own past. He has also opened the door for the next brave soul to take pen to paper and write the next memoir for those who continue to fight.