The DoD announcements of KIAs are made 24 hours after family notification. They say who died. They say when and where. And they describe the unit, down to the battalion level.
Beyond that, the branches have different conventions. The Marines don’t say much more except that the circumstances are sometimes described as “while conducting combat operations” and sometimes as “supporting combat operations”. Usually it is “conducting”.
The next day, other media will have established more details. Most of the time, the death was caused by an IED, a roadside bomb. These deaths must be terribly frustrating for the guys on the scene. One of our own is killed – abruptly – and there is nobody to shoot back at. Which is, of course, the point.
A few funerals ago, a Marine was telling me about his favorite work. He was sometimes assigned to a SKT – a Small Kill Team. If a foot patrol discovered a big anti-vehicle bomb that was hard-wired to a trigger, they would identify the triggering location and call in a SKT.
The SKT would find cover and call forward a large vehicle. He told me they take the muffler off and drive it very slowly toward the bomb. When they see someone run to the trigger, they halt the vehicle and turn-off the engine.
It always plays out the same way. The insurgent at the IED trigger waits. Then the insurgent at the IED trigger stands up to look around and try to understand why his target stopped. And then the insurgent at the IED trigger is shot.
This is pristine COIN – counterinsurgency. We know he is a bad guy and we can guarantee that there will be no collateral damage. And by turning his own tactic against him, we discourage that sort of behavior. It is perfection.
Since the beginning of the war, the enemy has also used cell phones to trigger IEDs. They have disadvantages including some loss of control over the precise timing of the explosion. As counter-COIN, they have the advantage of greater protection for the triggerman.
the museum at
COIN is about hearts & minds and training and exit strategy. We don’t let the enemy get close to us and when he does we dominate him. So most of the KIAs are from IEDs. But not all.
A day after the DoD press release, we learn that John Sparks was a machine gunner and that he was killed from small arms fire. From those two facts, we can be confident about some conclusions: This was not the frustrating result of a bomb that left his friends with no one to shoot at.
Indeed, he was certainly shooting back. He was individually targeted because his fire was effective. John Sparks faced the enemy and gave his last full measure of devotion to his friends at his side and to his country. He died a warrior’s finest death.
I would be honored to attend his funeral.
Friday, in Chicago:
We gathered at Midway and broke out the flags. Howard was driving by. Sometimes people passing honk at the red, white & blue. Sometimes they wave, salute or shout.
Howard stopped in the street and got out of his car and walked toward the entrance of the armory where we were formed. Then he spoke his words of encouragement and gratitude.
I caught up with him just before he got back into his car and invited him to join us. He said he couldn’t. Bad knees. He said they were beginning to ache even during our brief conversation. He said he left his cane at home. We shook and parted.
A little later it was time to go inside the hanger. We had just started to file in when Howard returned. He was wearing his Marine cap and jacket. And he had his cane.
consider Tom. He would ride 354 miles
today. 172 miles from
mile escort. 172 miles back to
But what is most revealing of the spirit of the PGR is the timing of the email announcing this escort. It was sent at noon on Thursday. But we all reported to the hanger at 0800 Friday.
I understand that John’s funeral will be Wednesday. We will be there too.
Saturday, in Afghanistan:
(Photos and quotations courtesy of DVIDS.)
“My friend is gone and it seems that no matter what I do, the pain in my heart won’t go away,” said Cpl. Jeffery Holsey, a machine gun team leader and roommate of Sparks. “John had the best qualities a person could ask for. He was always laughing and always smiling. He never let the troubles of the world get him down.”
“Sparks loved machine guns,” said Holsey. “He would always say that ‘Everyone wants to be a machine gunner until it is time to be a machine gunner, because the hurt we carried separated the men from the boys.’”
“He was a physically tough and mentally focused Marine who never quit. He was a mentor, friend and leader within India Company,” said Capt. Christopher Esrey, the company commander for India Company. “India Company is shaken by his loss, but we will carry out our mission in his name. Sparks will be greatly missed as a fellow Marine, a friend and a brother. His sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
“It is my personal and professional honor to be a part of this memorial service and to pay tribute to Lance Cpl. John Sparks’ life and his sacrifice,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the commanding officer of 3/5. “I give thanks every day that I had the opportunity to serve with and lead a man such as John, a man that gave his last full measure defending his nation against its enemies.”
Wednesday, in Chicago:
The funeral for John Sparks would be held at Robert’s Temple Church of God and Christ, near his home. It is the peak for autumn color. In this neighborhood few of the leaves have fallen but most have turned to yellow. Emmett Till lived in this same neighborhood. At this same time of year he traveled to Mississippi to visit relatives. Emmett had just turned 14.
He left his great-uncle’s house to go to a small grocery store where he spoke to the 21 year-old married proprietor.
Several nights later, simply because he had spoken to her, her husband and his half-brother kidnapped, tortured, killed and mutilated Emmett. They attempted to hide the body though it was recovered from the Tallahatchie River after three days.
His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral to show the world what racists did to her boy. That funeral was held at Robert’s Temple Church of God and Christ in September, 1955 and it inspired the Civil Rights Movement that transformed our society over the next decade.
So it was fitting that an African-American war hero from the same neighborhood should have his funeral at the same church.
Lance Corporal Kevin Stevenson was a friend of Lance Corporal John Sparks. Kevin created a tribute to his friend and wore it to the funeral.
I introduced myself and found out who he was. I asked if I could photograph him. He said I could but he wanted to pose with fellow Marines.
Mine is a USA family, but I didn’t mind. It was certainly easy enough to find three volunteers.
The 50-mile escort from church to cemetery moved at 60 MPH. The weather was beautiful.
The cemetery ceremony featured “echo-Taps” – where each bar is repeated, as if echoed. Usually, one bugler nearby plays three notes and then another bugler farther away repeats those same three notes. It produces a powerful effect.
I had taken this portrait of the bugler standing with the VFW guard just before the guests assembled.
After the ceremony, I returned to look for the second bugler. He wasn’t around, so I asked the NCOIC of the rifle detail where he was. “There was just one bugler.”
It was a performance worthy of John Sparks.
This page is not finished, but I am not available for the next five days. I will finish it when I return.
I want to be able to take my time and do a job worthy of John Sparks.
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