In my youth, I knew Nov. 11 as my sister’s birthday. As I aged, I learned that it was also Veterans Day. Now, having spent time with American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines—and time elsewhere with soldiers from other nations—I think I have a much better understanding of what the day is designed to commemorate.
For the last three years, I’ve found myself looking past Veterans Day, to Nov. 15, which is now a more significant date on my personal calendar than many officially recognized holidays. It’s only by a quirk of fate that the day means anything to me, but that quirk of fate had a lasting impact on me, and far more so on four different families.
I need to back up a little. In October 2004, I was halfway through my second stint with Time magazine’s Baghdad bureau. Conditions in Iraq were rapidly deteriorating. Mobility was limited, reporting increasingly dangerous. And in several places, working as an embedded reporter almost certainly meant coming under fire.
Ramadi was one of those places. Some military men considered it more dangerous than Fallujah, but, at that point, it still seemed like a good idea to spend time there with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, one of the outfits trying to keep the city from spiraling completely out of control. By chance, I was briefly billeted with the 2/5’s Whiskey Company, which was charged with, among other things, patrolling the main thoroughfare, known as Route Michigan, which almost guaranteed they’d get attacked. A week later, I returned for a few days to report on Ramadi and on combat stress among front-line soldiers.
During that second visit, I mainly rode in company commander Capt. Pat Rapicault’s Humvee, a vehicle with the call sign Whiskey Six. I’d initially thought Rapicault—”Frenchy” to his men—was Cajun, but I later learned he’d grown up in Martinique and France before attending high school and college in Mississippi and enlisting. He was joined by Cpl. Marc Ryan, a steely-eyed South Jersey native; Cpl. Lance Thompson, who hailed from Indiana farm country; and Lance Cpl. Ben Nelson, a Californian.
Late one night, Whiskey Company rode out to support other Marines. I sat behind Ryan, who drove. Rapicault was behind Thompson, who manned the radio, and Nelson was in the gunner’s hole. “We’ll probably get hit,” Ryan said. He’d know, I thought; he’d already served a bruising tour in Ramadi with the 2/4 Marines, then he re-upped and came back after spending only two weeks at home.
Indeed, he was right. Whiskey Company was ambushed twice that night. Whiskey Six was very nearly disabled by roadside bombs that detonated a few feet from the front tires. The wheels were flattened, the windshield spider-webbed and covered with engine oil. When Rapicault bellowed at Ryan to get moving, Nelson had to shout down directions so he could steer to safety.
Now I see that night as the most frightening experience I’ve ever had. Then, it was part of my job—and even more so, part of theirs. At the end of the month, my stint in Iraq ended. The battle for Fallujah commenced. Fighting continued in Ramadi. And on Nov. 15, I learned from the newspaper the next day, a suicide car bomber rammed Whiskey Six, killing Patrick Rapicault, 34; Marc Ryan, 25; and Lance Thompson, 21. Ben Nelson was seriously wounded but survived.
I didn’t know them well, but they may have saved my life. I happened to be in New York visiting my parents, so I went to Ryan’s funeral in Gloucester City, N.J. Later, I met Rapicault’s older sister, Christine Cappallino, who lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The next year, on Nov. 15, I joined the Ryans for a memorial they held at a local bar. Two years later, I visited Lance Thompson’s family, the Rapicaults, and Ben Nelson, thinking I’d write about how they were handling their losses.
They were wary but welcoming, still mourning but generous. I think they felt the stories I’d written for Time about Ramadi gave them a window into what life “over there” was like for their sons and helped memorialize them in some way. They, in turn, gave me a window into their lives and the steps they were taking to protect and maintain the memories of those they’d lost—the gatherings, the T-shirts, the stickers and photo books, and the scholarship funds. I saw Gloucester City High pull out a stunning last-minute victory on the day they retired Marc Ryan’s jersey. I saw how Lance’s brothers, Matthew and Philip, his cousin Casey, and his mother, Melanie Smith, had all gotten the same tattoo Lance had on his wrist—the Chinese characters for gung-ho. And I saw that the Rapicaults, who had moved to a planned community in central Florida in the 1990s to be nearer to Patrick, were doing their mourning in isolation. Their English was shaky, leaving them largely unable to plug into the networks the Ryans and Thompsons had at their disposal. Cappallino had moved from New York to Florida to help out her father and stepmother (then 91 and 74, respectively), but she was finding it hard to adjust to the new surroundings. More to the point, they were heartbroken about Patrick, as was Vera Rapicault, his widow, who had moved to Oregon.
Ben Nelson had improved dramatically and was working again—as a radio dispatcher for the Plaster County’s sheriff’s office—but he still felt the effects of his injuries. The explosion had collapsed his lungs and severely burned his hands, neck, and face. Shrapnel had pierced his back, shattered his jaw, split his tongue, and broken seven teeth. His back and knee were badly bruised, likely from landing after the blast pressure popped him out of the turret into the air, which saved his life.
There had been hard times, a few ups—especially the birth of a daughter, Kaitlyn—and a lot of downs. His father and friends helped out as they could, but in the main, his greatest asset was his preternaturally poised wife, Emily. She was 21 when she got the call telling her Ben was wounded. “She grew up fast,” a friend of hers told me. “She’s everything to me,” Nelson said last winter.
Time couldn’t run the story I wrote, which was immensely frustrating for me and, I imagine, for the families as well. But they were extremely gracious about it. Melanie Smith and Linda Ryan took to comforting me about it; they told me that it was meeting each other that really counted. Our connection wasn’t much when measured temporally, and I daresay we had different opinions about the war itself, but I found myself opening up to them in ways I almost never do with people I write about.
A lot of people spent more time and faced more harrowing situations in Iraq than I did, but I think I’ve learned a few things about war through my various experiences in conflict zones. The biggest, I’d say, is that it doesn’t really end. It marks the people who experience it, and it marks their families, too. “It’s not what happens to you; it’s how you deal with,” Ben Nelson’s father told him at one of his low points. And that’s true, particularly, I think, with mourning. It doesn’t go away, but if you can make some peace with whatever happened—whether it’s by saying someone died doing something they loved or performing certain rituals or finding others who know the feelings involved—it gets a little easier to meet the days ahead.
Last year, on Nov. 15, Melanie Smith laid four roses at Lance’s gravesite in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill cemetery, red ones for Lance, Marc Ryan, and Pat Rapicault and a white one for Ben Nelson. “I notice [the anniversary],” Nelson said last year when I asked about it, but “I miss them just as much every other day.”
I don’t know exactly what I’ll do this Nov. 15, but it’s already been on my mind for a while, and I’m sure it will remain that way.