FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND…

Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding-Elton John

Mike and memories. (Photo by Steve Traywick)

Mike and memories. (Photo by Steve Traywick)

“Check it out

Going to work on Monday

Check it out

Got yourself a family

Check it out

All utility bills have been paid, you can’t tell your best buddy that you love him…

So, check it out….” John Mellencamp

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived”-George S. Patton

I did tell one of my best buddies that I love him today. He’s my friend. He was one of my mentors. He taught me how to be an effective NCO and how to be a decent Human Being. He taught me how to relax and have fun. He taught me how to take care of my troops by taking care of his “kids”. I watched him and learned. Now, he’s dying from a killer form of cancer. God, I’m going to miss him. I knew that as long as Mike was around that I had a friend in the world. I knew that there was someone I could go to for advice. Someone that would tell me I was being an idiot in a way that I couldn’t possibly get butthurt over it. After I finished the Master Gunner Course at Ft. Knox in August of 1986 and reported

Mike, the Drill Sergeant (Photo by Steve Traywick)

Mike, the Drill Sergeant (Photo by Steve Traywick)

back A Co 2/8 Cav 1st CavDiv, the first thing I did was collar a Sp4 and ask him what was new in the company. I’d been gone for three months. “Well, second platoon got a new platoon daddy.”

“Oh yeah? What’s he like?”

“I heard he’s pretty cool for a former drill sergeant.”

“What the fuck??? He was a drill sergeant???”

“Yeah, he just came in from Knox.”

“Well, SHIT! There goes the company. That’s all we needed is a tight assed drill.”

Later that day I met SFC Mike. He did come across as a fairly cool dude. Somehow he didn’t strike me as drill sergeant material. He stood about five foot eight and had a swarthy complexion almost as dark as my own. He had a prominent nose and a well-trimmed moustache, and dark eyes. If anyone didn’t know better he and I could have passed for brothers; well, maybe cousins. The first time I passed him in the hallway of the barracks I made it a point not to speak. I’d had a bad experience with my last platoon sergeant in Germany, another drill sergeant, and didn’t want to have any more to do with this new guy than I had to. Mike wasn’t having any of that. He cornered me and introduced himself. He asked me who I was and where I’d been. I told him. He told me that he’d heard of me and asked me how the Master Gunner Course was. He basically put me at ease and started a conversation. At one point he told me that since I was a new Master Gunner that if there was anything I needed from him just to let him know.

To me this offer coming from an E7 was huge. I was none too sure of myself. I was school trained and knew my stuff as a tank commander but would now be stepping into a tank company master gunner slot. I’d be the commander’s gunnery expert. I’d be in charge of setting up and running gunnery training for fourteen M1 tank crews. I had sense enough to know that cooperation and good will from the platoon sergeants would be paramount to a successful run. In his own way, on first acquaintance, Mike let me know that I’d have his cooperation. This went a long way to building my own self-confidence.

In hindsight, I think Mike recognized something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I was fairly adept at avoiding any type of command responsibilities aside from commanding my own tank. That was the one command responsibility I felt comfortable with. Myself and the three guys on my crew, a one and a half million dollar tank was no problem. Being responsible for keeping fourteen tank crew proficient in tank gunnery and making sure the company commander didn’t look like an idiot when we occupied a range was an entirely different story. I’d gone to Master Gunner school for the simple reason that my first mentor and tank commander, Mark McDowell went and considered it the pinnacle of a tanker’s career was enough for me to set that as a goal for myself. If I didn’t do anything else before I ETS’d, it was something I absolutely wanted to do. I didn’t care to be a platoon sergeant or a first sergeant; that would involve responsibility that I didn’t think I possessed. I knew I was a good tank commander and that was good enough for me, but I had to reach for that final gold ring.

It didn’t take long for Mike and I to become fast friends. He had a smooth, cool way about him. He wasn’t a screamer. He could get the most out of his troops with a quiet word. His people and the junior NCO’s loved him. I can’t remember that I ever heard him raise his voice. One afternoon, he, I and some other NCO’s were hanging out in the First Sergeant’s office when one of his buck sergeants came in. Mike asked him “What are the kids doing?” The sergeant replied telling him to the man what his people were up to. Mike simply nodded and said “okay” and gave a couple of instructions. The sergeant (Hector Lopez) said “okay” and left. Mike never gave his instructions a second thought. He’d put the word out and would trust his juniors to make sure things got done. His leadership style was like jazz music, smooth and cool.

I wish I could write about all the adventures Mike and I had. There would probably be some sort of legal ramifications if I did. Names would definitely be changed to protect the innocent. I have to tell some of the highlights. A morning at the National Training Center in Ft Irwin stands out. We’d been going for about three straight weeks in the field. The only faces I’d seen we either my crew or members of my platoon. One morning the company lagered together and we had a chance to get off the tank and move around to check on friends. I saw Mikes tank across the lager and bee lined to it. I had to see a friendly face. I stood around and compared notes with Mike and his platoon leader, 2LT Goodell. We sat on Mike’s tank for about an hour swapping stories of the adventures and misadventures we’d experienced in the past weeks. Some of the screw ups were so ridiculous that we started laughing and before long we had tears running down our dusty cheeks. We’d not had showers or a hot meal in the time we’d been there. Just the release of a good belly laugh was a tonic.

I found out during that NTC rotation that Mike could be a buddy f***er too. When our rotation was finally winding down and we were looking forward to going home, Mike came up to me and said, “Hey, TW (my nickname), hope you don’t mind, but I volunteered you for ‘turn in’ detail. That was the closest I ever came to losing my temper with Mike. He’d just volunteered me to stay at Ft Irwin for an extra ten days turning in the tanks we’d drawn. That meant fixing whatever defects the Ft Irwin assholes found, real or imagined. It meant ten more very long days of breaking and replacing track. With our battalion gone, rations went with them. We were orphans. We lived that ten days on small, cafeteria boxes of frosted flakes and water.

Finally, the last tank was turned in. Mike set us up for showers. We learned the meaning of Heaven, a shower after forty-five days of dust and filth. We came out of the showers,

Mike, a friend

Mike, a friend (Photo by Steve Traywick)

half wet, to walk into a dust storm. Oh well between an E7, two E6’s and an E5 we came up with enough change for someone to sneak to post and buy a six pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor; The Bull. The volunteer (SSG Leroy Thomas) had got back to our tent with the luke warm malt liquor and we’d just popped the tops of our first alcohol in a month and a half when Mike burst into our tent. “If youse guys want out of here tonight, you’d better pack your shit pronto!” He could have tossed a frag grenade into the tent and not got the same reaction. Elbows and assholes! We were packed in minutes and walked out into the dust storm. Somehow, we made it to the airfield and got on board a homeward bound jet.

Mike and I had plenty of adventures. He decided to go to Master Gunner school himself. I helped him prep for it and he sailed through. As my time in the Army wound down, somewhere in the back of my mind I thought Mike would put a pistol to my head and walk me to the reenlistment office. He didn’t. When I asked him about it years later, he told me that since he figured I was grown that I knew my own mind and what I wanted to do. You can’t fault a buddy for giving you credit for knowing what you want to do, whether you do or not.

There was a long period of no contact with Mike and then the miracle of the internet put us back in touch. We’ve managed to keep in touch. Now I live ninety miles from him. We haven’t seen each other on a regular basis, but just knowing that one of your best friends is just up the road is sometimes enough. I know that if I needed him Mike would be there with either lawyers, guns or money and I’d do the same for him and that’s enough. It’s what friends do.

I found out in August of this year that Mike had been diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer. My heart broke and is still breaking. The first time I got up to see him after getting the news, it was important that he know just how much I appreciated him for everything he’d done for me. He told me that when it was over that he was going to buried not far from me at Ft Indiantown Gap National Cemetery and that he’d appreciate it if I were at the funeral. I told him, “Mike, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” I tried to tell him how much he meant to me, but made a poor job of it. I broke down in the middle of the street by his house. I was just trying to tell my buddy that I love him. Mike just shook his head disgustedly, patted me on the shoulder and went home.

I went to see him again today. I did better. I took him some Army and tanker swag that I thought he’d appreciate. He did. We talked about his funeral arrangements. We repeated some stories that we’ve told each other a few hundred times and just hung out. He’s gaunt. He weighs maybe ninety pounds, but the eyes are the same. He knows he doesn’t have much time left and he’s facing it like the tanker NCO that he was and is. I’m dreading the phone call I know is coming. My buddy is going to be leaving me and all of us. The world will be such a poorer place. I’ll miss my friend, but I told him today that he’ll never be truly gone as long as there’s an old tanker around. He’ll live on. Knowing Mike, before long he’ll sitting at Fiddler’s Green with a cold keg of cold beer and some good stories. I can’t wait to meet him there.

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