The average age of the military man is 19 years. He is a short haired, tight-muscled kid who, under normal circumstances, is considered by society as half-man, half-boy. Not yet dry behind the ears, not old enough to buy a beer, but old enough to die for his country. He never really cared much for work and he would rather wax his own car than wash his father's; but he has never collected unemployment either.

   He's a recent high-school graduate; he was probably an average student, pursued some form of sport activities, drives a ten-year-old jalopy, and has a steady girlfriend that either broke up with him when he left, or swears to be waiting when he returns from half a world away. He listens to rock and roll or hip-hop or rap or jazz and 155-mm Howitzers. He is 10 or 15 pounds lighter now than when he was at home because he is working or fighting from before dawn to well after dusk.

TROOPS SLEEPING NEXT TO TANKS


   He has trouble spelling, and thus letter writing is a pain for him, but he can field strip a rifle in 30 seconds and reassemble it in less time in the dark.

   He can recite to you the nomenclature of a machine gun or grenade launcher and use either one effectively if he must. He digs foxholes and latrines and can apply first aid like a professional. He can march until he is told to stop or stop until he is told to march.

TROOPS DURING SANDSTORM


   He obeys orders instantly and without hesitation, but he is not without spirit or individual dignity or the capacity to think for himself, which may one day save his life or that of his platoon members. He is self-sufficient. He has two sets of fatigues: he washes one and wears the other. He keeps his canteens full and his feet dry.

   He sometimes forgets to brush his teeth, but never to clean his rifle. He can cook his own meals, mend his own clothes, and fix his own hurts.

TROOPS SLEEPING IN HOLES


   If you're thirsty, he'll share his water with you; if you are hungry, his food. He'll even split his ammunition with you in the midst of battle when you run low.

   He has learned to use his hands like weapons and weapons like they were his hands. He can save your life — or take it, because that is his job. He will often do twice the work of a civilian, draw half the pay and still find ironic humor in it all. He has seen more suffering and death in his short lifetime then he should have to see in a hundred lifetimes. He has stood atop mountains of dead bodies, and helped to create them.

TROOPS SLEEPING IN MUD


   He has wept in public and in private, for friends who have fallen in combat and is unashamed. He feels every note of the National Anthem vibrate through his body while at rigid attention, while tempering the burning desire to "square-away" those around him who haven't bothered to stand, remove their hat, or even stop talking.

   In an odd twist, day in and day out, far from home, he defends their right to be disrespectful. Just as his Father, Grandfather, and Great-grandfather, he is paying the price for our freedom. Beardless or not, he is not a boy. He is the American Fighting Man that has kept this country free for over 200 years. He has asked nothing in return, except our friendship and understanding.

   Remember him, always, for he has earned our respect and admiration with his blood.





A Letter from One of the Fallen

   The following text is the last letter written by Army PFC Diego Fernando Rincon, age 19, of Conyers, Georgia, to his mother. It is dated Feb. 22, 2003 and was received March 22. Rincon was killed in Iraq in a suicide bombing seven days later. Rincon was serving with the 2-7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia. Its simple eloquence speaks volumes, and in the words echo the feelings of all soldiers in all wars. Most would not consider Rincon a poet, but in this short heartfelt letter from a young soldier to his mother resides the purest poetry, powerful enough to move much older men to tears.

Hola Mother,

How are you doing? Good I hope. I'm doing OK I guess. I won't be able to write anymore starting the 28th of this month. We are moving out. We are already packed and ready to move to a tactical Alpha-Alpha (in Iraq). Once that happens, there will not be any mail sent out. We will only receive mail that is less than 12 ounces. At least that's what they said. I'm not sure where exactly we're going [to] be at yet, but it is said to be a 20-hour drive in the Bradleys.

So I guess the time has finally come for us to see what we are made of, who will crack when the stress level rises and who will be calm all the way through it. Only time will tell. We are at the peak of our training and it's time to put it to the test.

I just want to tell everybody how much you all mean to me and how much I love you all. Mother, I love you so much! I'm not going to give up! I'm living my life one day at a time, sitting here picturing home with a small tear in my eyes, spending time with my brothers who will hold my life in their hands.

I try not to think of what may happen in the future, but I can't stand seeing it in my eyes. There's going to be murders, funerals and tears rolling down everybody's eyes. But the only thing I can say is, keep my head up and try to keep the faith and pray for better days. All this will pass. I believe God has a path for me.

Whether I make it or not, it's all part of the plan. It can't be changed, only completed.

Mother will be the last word I'll say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes. I'm not trying to scare you, but it's reality. The time is here to see the plan laid out.

And hopefully, I'll be at home in it. I don't know what I'm talking about or why I'm writing it down. Maybe I just want someone to know what goes through my head. It's probably good not keeping it all inside.

I just hope that you're proud of what I'm doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up. I just want to say sorry for anything I have ever done wrong. And I'm doing it all for you mom. I love you.

P.S. Very Important Document.

Your son, Diego Rincon



THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME ...
Left: 1944 — a helmet and rifle mark the grave of a dead GI in Germany's Hürtgen Forest.
Right: 2003 — a helmet, rifle, and boots on display before the funeral of a GI killed in Iraq.