Three years ago this summer, I drove to Camp Lejeune on a Friday afternoon to pick up my son. He’d been granted a “96″ â€” four days of leave â€” and because he’s a collector of strays I wasn’t surprised, when I arrived, to find a second passenger awaiting me: another young Marine who needed a lift to Raleigh. He was introduced to me simply as Damas. (Marine grunts, I learned early on, deal almost exclusively in last names.)
My son and Damas tossed their gear into the trunk and climbed in the car. It turned out that Damas had a brother in Charlotte, and that the bus station in Raleigh had been designated as their meet-up spot. Both my son and Damas were in the middle of infantry school prior to their first deployments to Iraq, and I listened as they talked about their training. Where my son is Southern and self-effacing, Damas was from New York City and brashly confident. They seemed like an odd pair of buddies. Then again, the Marine Corps is a perfect meritocracy in the sense that its most capable members are quickly identified and acknowledged. The two young Marines in my car were some of those: They were already good at the job of harnessing lethality, and knew it. So of course they’d be pals. In that line of work, cultural differences always give way to competence.
It was well after dark by the time we arrived at the Raleigh bus station. Damas’ brother wasn’t there yet, and a cell phone call revealed he was still at least an hour away. We were in for a long night. Marines don’t leave each other on the battlefield, nor do they leave each other in bus stations. As the evening crept slowly toward midnight, we waited in the car. I didn’t mind. I like the idea that Marines look after each other.
Eventually a pair of headlights loomed in my rearview mirror. Damas got out, transferred his gear from my car to his brother’s, and they set off for Charlotte. He and my son ended up in different battalions after their infantry training, so I never ran into him again. In fact, it was only a few days ago that I learned his first name: Leopold.
You probably know where this is going. The reason I learned his full name is because I read it in the newspaper. Lance Corporal Leopold Damas was killed Aug. 17 by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This war is now personal.
I wish I could remember whether I shook his hand. I hope I did.