It’s 5 p.m. on Friday and our friends finish talking about how their son Nickolas loved to fish before presenting their son’s trophy to the match winner. Nick was killed–only 19 years old–by a sniper in Iraq. Others talk of their sons dying far too young and I try not to cry. My sons are still alive.
Mike and I have been invited to participate in the “Remember the Brave” precision shooting match in honor and in memory of our recent fallen service members. Veterans, families, and active duty Marines have come from as far as New Hampshire and 29 Palms, California to compete and to remember.
After a communal chili dinner we are joined by the young Marines who huddle with us around a propane fire pit, but it’s so cold outside that only our common bond and Crown Royal keep us warm. I suddenly miss being part of a military organization–a family that accepts and cares for you wherever you are in the world. The feeling is nostalgic, of course, and as such, pulls at only the romanticized memories, but I enjoy it nonetheless.
Mike and I hop into our truck-camper bed after a day of travel, windy sunshine and dust, and I’m too tired even to brush my teeth or wash my face; we haven’t yet hooked up the water. Still, the camper is luxury when I look out at the wind whipping at the soldiers’ tents. Even off-duty, they sacrifice.
“You look cute with your bird hair,” Mike tells me in the morning when I peek my head out of the covers. He already has the coffee going and the heat on; it’s not quite 40 degrees in the camper. We hug in the close confines of our wheeled home and I make him a breakfast burrito. He’s not a 6:30 a.m. breakfast kind of guy, though, so as he preps to leave for his morning competition, I add some salty potato chips to the remaining eggs and chow down.
I could eat a rhino in the morning, but if I were to tell Mike that (as I have in the past), his response would be something very like, “I’ve got a rhino for you!” And after 30 years together, it’s still always funny, and we laugh together.
Before he leaves, we share a small bar of soap and dribble drinking water from bottles over one another’s hands. I feel like an altar girl before the consecration of the Eucharist, but we’ve already eaten.
“If more people would use water this way, we wouldn’t have to worry about conservation,” he says, and I suppose it’s true. In any case, the moment is special. When Mike leaves, I take my roll of toilet paper to the outhouse, cover the seat, and try not to think too much about the cold breeze–and other things–below. At times like this, I focus on our founding mothers and pioneer women, and I simply cannot complain.
Mike competes with Nick’s father the first day and by the time the mother and I arrive, I’m ready to keep score. We are introduced to a 91-year-old veteran who lost his wife of 68 years less than a year ago, and he show us the rifles he will use for the competition; he built them himself. People were worried about him after his wife died, but his love of the military and love of sport shooting brought him back to life.
Over dinner that evening–steaks on the grill for all, consumed in the relentlessly chilly wind–I’m asked to fill in for an absent 4-man-team member for the final three competitions the next day, and despite the fact that I haven’t yet fired Mike’s Accuracy International AE MK III .308 rifle, I say, “Sure!” I figure that firing a rifle must be like riding a bike, and I’m honored to be one of the guys again.
With finally brushed teeth and a melted ice-block-water face wash, we’re in bed by 8, and before we know it, the birds are singing us awake. Mike and I dance around one another on the camper floor, both of us now prepping to be out the door by 6:45. No time for a rhino breakfast, so we grab bars–Cliff for him, Kind for me–and head to the range.
We meet more family of more fallen soldiers, all who are honored that this weekend is all about those they have lost, and the day flies by. When it’s my turn to shoot, I try to focus not only on the target and my breathing, but also on why I am here.
On the way back home, Mike and I talk about how we would react if we lost one of our sons–for any reason–but realize that we cannot even come close to imagining it. We know that it would be something that we could never “get over,” though our friends were given that advice at one time.
I try to lighten the mood by telling Mike, “I acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifice you’re making to drive back!” and we both laugh. We had recently watched an episode of “The Office” in which the married protagonists had undergone couple’s therapy after falling away from one another. Throughout the episode, they formally acknowledged every act the other did as a way of focusing on learning how to appreciate one another again. Although the dialogue was stifled and scripted, the lesson was, and is, relevant.
“I appreciate the fact that you’re not a namby-pamby woman,” he says. I smile, knowing that he’ll brag to his friends later about how I tied his score in the first match and beat him in the following two.
We arrived home with the knowledge that we had participated in an event that meant the world to families less fortunate than our own. And while even I am guilty of looking at death statistics on the news and remaining emotionally detached–they’re not my family–events like “Remember the Brave” remind me of all that I have to be grateful for, if only for just this moment.
Rest in peace, Nickolas Palmer–and all those who have died to keep our country free. I acknowledge, appreciate, and honor the sacrifices you have made, and will do my best always to remember.