Adapted from Chapter 4: “If Not Me, Then Who…”
Even so close to going back to Iraq, Travis’s demeanor was calm. He was doing exactly what he wanted with his life, and instead of complaining about spending the next twelve months in a war-ravaged city that could justifiably be labeled a hell hole, he felt fortunate for the chance to put all the hard work of the last eight years to good use.
As [Travis and his brother-in-law, Dave] listened to one of Travis’s favorite iPod playlists, which consisted of everything from Johnny Cash and Elton John to Ben Harper and The Roots, Dave took a sip of his beer and leaned against his car in silence as his visible breath blended with smoke from a small grill to fill the chilly air near the two-man tailgate. Dave knew young Americans were dying in Iraq almost every day, including a soldier named Private First Class Ross McGinnis, who had died the previous weekend in Baghdad. The nineteen-year-old Knox, Pennsylvania, native, who dove on top of a grenade to save the lives of fellow Army soldiers, would later become the fourth US service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism displayed in Iraq.
Dave was an avid reader, particularly of military-themed books and magazines, and was following the war closely. He knew Travis faced severe risks in Fallujah, particularly in a unit that guided Iraqi soldiers around the city’s hostile streets. Though he never mentioned the full scope of his fears to Ryan, or for that matter Travis, he was worried about whether he would see his brother-in-law again. In fact, part of him wished he could talk Travis out of leaving, even though he knew it would be an exercise in futility….
“Hey, Trav, if I tripped you right now and you fell and broke your ankle, do you think they’d let you sit this deployment out?” he asked.
Travis chuckled at Dave’s joke, but didn’t say much in response. A brief moment of slightly awkward silence followed. Suddenly Travis spoke up.
“You know what though, Dave?” Travis said with an unmistakably serious look on his face. “If I don’t go, they’re going to send another Marine in my place who doesn’t have my training.”
“If not me, then who . . . you know what I mean?” he continued. “It’s either me or that other guy who isn’t ready, so I’m the one who has to get the job done.”
…A few days later, Amy [Brendan’s girlfriend] was at work in Arnold, Maryland, when a surprise visitor walked in. She gasped.
It was Brendan, who smiled and opened his huge arms to give her a hug. The Navy officer had just come from nearby Silver Spring, where he had surprised his mom, and couldn’t wait to embrace Amy after three months in Iraq. He was finally home.
Later in the week, Brendan was calling friends to let them know he was back in the states. During one call, Amy wasn’t sure who was on the other end of the line.
“It’s your favorite,” Brendan said with a smile.
Amy knew instantly that it was Travis. He and Brendan were coordinating hanging out during Travis’s planned visit to Annapolis, where he would serve as a groomsman in the wedding of his friend Ben Mathews, whom Brendan had once given the friendliest of bloody noses at football practice.
“I can’t believe Brendan surprised me like that,” Amy said to Travis. “Did you know?”
“Guilty as charged,” he said with a laugh.
“Well listen, Trav, I’m thrilled to have him home, but I want you to stay safe over there too,” Amy said. “I’ll probably be at work when you come down to Maryland, so if I don’t see you, good luck over there.”
“Thanks, Amy,” Travis said. “Take care of the big guy for me.”
A few days later Travis and Brendan met up for the weekend in Annapolis before attending the Sunday Washington Redskins-Philadelphia Eagles game at Fedex Field in nearby Landover.
When they had gone to previous Redskins-Eagles games together in Philadelphia, Brendan had boldly entered a notoriously hostile environment to cheer on his hometown team. But sporting their sense of humor and mature realization that the winner of a football game didn’t have a huge impact on the world, Brendan and Travis would occasionally trade jerseys and pretend to root for the opposing team. One time when Travis was being yelled at by a fellow Eagles fan, Brendan collapsed into his seat with laughter.
As always, the afternoon was filled with cold beer, great stories, and some friendly trash-talk after the Eagles pulled out a 21–19 victory. The former roommates had once again switched jerseys to fool the fans around them.
“It’s not going to be easy over there,” Travis told his good friend as they walked out of the Redskins’ stadium. “But I guess doing something important never is.”
“Well, if there’s one motto I try to live by, it’s this,” Brendan said. “If you make the most of what you are doing, there is no way to regret what you are doing.”
“Thanks,” said Travis. “I’ll remember that one.”
More than a hundred American troops were killed in Iraq in December 2006, including Major Megan McClung, the highest-ranking female Marine officer to die in the Iraq war and the first female Naval academy graduate to be killed in combat. McClung was a thirty-four-year-old former classmate of now Major Doug Zembiec, the Naval academy wrestler-turned-warrior whom Travis admired. She was killed along with two US Army soldiers by an enemy roadside bomb in Al Anbar province on December 6, less than three weeks before Travis was scheduled to arrive.
“It’ll be tough for both of us,” Travis now said. “But just think, the next time we hang out . . . you’ll be a SEAL.”
“Yeah, if I can make it through BUD/S,” Brendan replied.
“You will,” Travis assured him. “Just pretend I’m there trying to finish first.”
“That might work,” Brendan said with a grin. “And the next time I see you, you’ll have made it out of Fallujah twice and probably be a Captain.”
Brendan, in a rare display of emotion, reached out to pat his friend on the back.
“You stay safe over there,” Brendan said.
“I’ll try,” Travis said. “I’ll definitely try.”
After a few days that felt like old times, the one-time roommates were once again going their separate ways, like thousands of friends and family members separated by war. While predicting the future was impossible for any warrior deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, the close friends couldn’t have known that particular day’s significance. It was the last time Brendan and Travis would see each other alive.