I mentioned earlier that I had lost a LT last week. Technically he wasn’t mine I suppose, but as the company RTO for a while I dealt with him very, very often. I won’t say we were “friends” but whenever we were together we bonded over our shared New England heritage, and love of literature. His death hit me hard. Perhaps a lot harder than even I can admit, since I was awake at 3am last night still just laying there thinking about seeing his goofy smile.
Well, the Sniper didn’t help that today. What follows is his story about going to the funeral. CPT Yacubian will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and I look forward to spending time with him in the future. I don’t understand his death, and haven’t come to grips with it, but I will always remember him for the smile.
(Captain Yacubian is on the left, the Captain on the right was my incredibly awesome Company Executive Officer.)
There are numerous things that can be described as bittersweet. Bidding farewell to your children as they leave the nest, parting with good friends after a visit, moving to a new location to start a new life; all of these combine the sadness of loss combined with the hope of something new and exciting filled with opportunity and potential. Some things, however, are ever more bittersweet because they are full of the finality of a life ended early mixed with the fleeting happiness of seeing old comrades, friends, and brothers whose presence is made even sweeter and more precious by the knowledge that they will disappear shortly after you see them. That is what today was.
When I first met a young 2LT Yacubian so many years ago I was a staff sergeant in a National Guard infantry unit. I had spent eleven years on active duty and a couple in the Guard before the young lieutenant with the perpetual smile walked into the armory to meet “his” new platoon and Dave (the senior squad leader) and I kind of gave each other a look as if to say “this one is going to take some breaking.” After very little NCO to Officer training, Yac was doing very well and promised to be an excellent leader. All throughout the considerable crap we put him through, he never lost that smile. Eventually, I was transferred to another company immediately prior to our deployment and Yacubian and Dave went to another. During our deployment to Afghanistan the two squads that got the most trigger time in the battalion were Dave’s and mine and as a result, our two platoon leaders got a lot of very valuable infantry leadership experience without losing a man. I last saw 2LT Yacubian and Dave shortly before we left Afghanistan. This was years ago.
Last week I received the news that Captain Yacubian’s life had ended abruptly in the saddest possible way. I wrestled with this news partly because it was difficult to believe, partly because it is so painful to hear about someone so bright, promising, and full of life suddenly ceasing to exist. Today was his memorial service. After a month of near drought conditions here in Virginia, the skies opened up and dropped a deluge of water on us in lieu of the tears that we felt that we, as infantrymen, could not shed as an unprecedented crowd gathered in front of the Leeds Road Episcopal Church in Markham, Virginia. His family and friends were on hand as well as scores, possibly hundreds of his colleagues past and present. The church was packed wall to wall and the overflow stood in dozens of groups of four, five six, and more in the torrential rain outside the church until such time as they opened up the auxiliary hall which was then filled in its own right.
While the main service progressed the rest of us caught up under the shelter of the auxiliary building. It was good, we all agreed, that we were seeing each other but sad that it took these kind of circumstance to bring us together to do so. After the main service ended in the church, the 3-116 battalion commander came over to the auxiliary building to say a few words. When he concluded his remarks, he asked if anyone would like to say a few words about CPT Yacubian. I demurred because I felt my words cheap and I knew that I would not be able to get through so much as a “I knew CPT Yacubian when…” without my voice cracking and involuntary sobs escaping my chest. I was humbled when I was singled out as having known him and worked with him by another commenter with stronger resolve than I had. More importantly we learned the genesis of his nickname, “Roo.” Apparently in his youth he was an equestrian of no small achievement and his friends called him Lawrence (his given name), then “La-Rue,” then “Rooster,” then “Roo.” I think Rooster fit him best since he woke us up early and in a loud, boisterous manner. His first girlfriend who had known him since he was 13 explained this to us via the implementation of ironclad will and endless love. When it was over, we once again filed out into the rain.
After milling about discussing the service and the weather and logistics and who had been promoted and who had not, I found my great friend and brother Dave. The marathon drive from Florida combined with the circumstances made him look as if he had been punched in the gut and I imagine he has looked that way for a week since he got the news. We caught up briefly and then we set about to the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill to give CPT Yacubian a proper Irish wake. The tavern did well.
A place was set at the bar with a sign that said “Reserved for Captain Lawrence Yacubian” with two fingers of Makers Mark in a rocks glass holding it down. Considering the number of infantrymen in the tavern at the time, anyone trying to usurp that seat would have ended up in a bloodbath born of rage and sorrow. We all ate and drank and toasted in the good captain’s honor. The “official” toast libations were courtesy of an officer colleague who is currently working in Dubai, but had the foresight and generosity to arrange for a literal glass wall of Makers Mark filled two-fingers high all around the bar and delivered by one 1SG Buntz in an appropriately brief, but concise infantry fashion.
After that, the rapidity of refills increased two-fold and the revelry increased tenfold. We were locked in a loop of nostalgia intermittently punctuated by the sad realization that we were here because we had to show our respects to a fallen friend and that we needed to do this more often than just at funerals. We all promised that we would not let this kind of thing be our rallying cry. We all promised that we would get together more often than this. We all promised that we would keep tabs on each other better so that this thing would not happen again. We all lied.
I would like to think that we did not purposely lie and in our hearts this is true. But this happened at the last funeral and the one before that; and here we are at another one. We fail each other time and time again because we get too busy and life interrupts our intentions and we lose track of those who we call brothers but for whom we do not show enough care. One of the people that stood to talk about Rooster said that in his final weeks he looked different. His perpetual smile had not only diminished, but had disappeared. He was clearly not in a good frame of mind and nobody caught it. And here we are yet again, saying “well, I guess we should have noticed. I wonder if I could have done something about this. I feel responsible.” Maybe it is true.
When it was time to part I took the rocks glass of Makers Mark and handed it to Dave because I didn’t want it tossed in the sink and I didn’t want some asshole townie to chug it. We took it outside to the fence that surrounded the tavern and prepared to toss it into the adjacent graveyard. Dave asked if we should say a few words and I, being me, related an embarrassing, funny anecdote about my former LT and Dave said something more appropriate before we shared the whiskey with the assembled dead. I can only assume that, being good Shenandoah boys, they appreciated the gesture.
Hugs of brotherhood deeper than brotherhood followed and we all parted ways bestowing upon each other the best and most earnest of wishes of good fortune and safe travel. My ride home was 45 minutes of hell in silent solitude navigating the winding back roads of the Virginia wine country. I kept playing mental movies over and over in my head until my eyes welled up and I had to stop for fear of losing control of my emotions and the car. One thing that came up in discussion during our time at the tavern was how we handle emotion nowadays. All of those with whom I spoke who had deployed and seen trigger time responded the same way: “I am almost always bereft of emotion. I am like a stone or an ice cube. But sometimes, some things will set me off like an uncontrollable wave of emotion. It is like someone opened a floodgate and all of that which I have been holding back pours forth for a few moments and then, once again, there is a nothing.” A drought of emotion. I think this is what happened to our dear friend and comrade. I think he was swept away in a flood of emotion and was never able to get his head above water again. For this, and because there was no one there amongst his brothers to serve as a lifeguard, he drowned.
I feel a fist clenching around my heart and tears welling up in my eyes as I type these words: we could have saved him. This is our fault.
We need to do more about this. There are lots of negative stereotypes about guys sitting around the bar at the American Legion and VFW posts drinking beer and reliving their “glory days” but what people do not understand, people who have not been there, is that this is catharsis for them. This is how they vent. This is how they keep tabs on their brothers and make sure that they are not heading down paths to dark to return from. We need more of this. We need to call our brothers from time to time and check on them. We need to realize that no other person on this earth has the same experience as the guys in our squads, ships, flights, and whatever other unit size we had. We are all we have. If we do not hold onto each other, we lose a piece of ourselves. And we have already lost far too much.