For Sgt. Brock Jones and the rest of the soldiers in his unit stationed at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, this Fourth of July will be a day like any other.
“We don’t have any special plans for the day,” he wrote in a recent email to a member of his family. “In most cases, it’s pretty much business as usual for most of the soldiers here.”
And that’s just as well, as far as Sgt. Jones is concerned.
“I prefer to keep holidays as nondescript as possible so it doesn’t cause me to miss home any more than necessary,” said the man they call The Soldier/Poet because when he is not soldiering he is pursuing a doctoral degree in creative writing. “It’s going to be the same schedule for me this Friday as it is every Friday, and I will be doing what I normally do.”
It hasn’t always been that way for Sgt. Jones, who this year is experiencing his fourth Fourth on deployment. During his first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003, he and some buddies decided to make their own Fourth of July firework with 250 pounds (no, that isn’t a typo — 250 pounds) of explosive powder from the Iraqi ammunition supply area they were guarding. They piled the powder upstairs in an abandoned brick guard tower, and made a trail of powder and string down the stairs. When they lit the trail, Sgt. Jones said they were all “astounded” at the speed with which the fire moved up the stairs.
“We were standing there, kind of dumbfounded, until someone yelled ‘Run!’ ” he said. “We took off, and I looked back just as the main pile of powder ignited. Burned in my memory is this image of four guys in mid-run with frightened expressions on their faces as this big flash went off. We were all surprised by how bright it was for a second or two.”
The explosion and the attendant flash of light were heard and seen by their platoon sergeant at a base three kilometers away. Sgt. Jones and his men managed to avoid serious trouble for what he called “our little celebratory fire,” and they all resolved to quit playing with that powder — especially on the Fourth of July.
These days, he said, “the others of my unit haven’t really said much about the Fourth to me, other than they wish they were somewhere other than Afghanistan.”
“I think that’s pretty much the consensus,” he added. “We know we have a job to do while we’re here, but that doesn’t keep us from yearning for the fireworks, the parades and especially the family time.”
Somehow in that yearning and longing, however, the holiday has become almost sanctified among those who sacrifice to serve — and those who sacrifice to support their service.
“The Fourth of July is special to me and my family because I feel like we have some ownership in it,” said Sgt. Jones, whose support system back home includes his wife, Amy, their daughter, Samantha, his parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. “I feel a special kind of pride in the sacrifice that our family has made and continues to make, having put real skin in the game when it comes to the best values that America represents.”
As I read his words, I could feel the poet in this soldier emerging.
“I’m not sure if what I do makes America any safer or any better,” he said. “But I know that my service makes me better. It reminds me that there are causes bigger and more important than myself, and that these causes are worth my time, my sweat and possibly even my blood.
“In my mind,” he continued, “these causes don’t hover in the lofty realm of patriotism — at least, not in the hollow patriotism you find so often in the rhetoric of politicians and pundits. Rather, it emanates from the profoundly personal realm of service, hope and selflessness. To me, those things are real. They are practical, tangible manifestations of heart, spirit and honor. I can feel good about that. I can find comfort in that. I can celebrate that.”
Even if only in a nondescript, business as usual sort of way.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr