The Soldier's Guiding Paradox: 'Protect What You Love'

Aug 18, 2014
Originally published on August 18, 2014 3:43 pm

Writer Elliot Ackerman, former Marine officer and veteran of five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, explains what being a man means to him: It's protecting what you love. Unfortunately, that notion is often at odds with the job of a soldier.

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We've been asking men this summer about what it means to be a man in America.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: It means protecting what you love.

SIEGEL: That is Elliot Ackerman. As a boy, he played with G.I. Joes and dreamt of being in the military. As a young man, he served as an officer in the Marine Corps and deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Ackerman tells us that in the military that idea of protecting what you love creates a unique tension.

ACKERMAN: Remember, the mission comes first, not the people. How does a man balance the inherent carnage of a wartime mission with the loyalty and love he feels for those in his command? I mean, it's difficult. But I'm going to give you a moment that defined that for me. I was in Afghanistan in 2008 leading a special operations team. And one day, a friend of mine who lead another team got in a very big firefight in a city south of us called Shewan. And we got called down to help out. And in the morning it was time for us to go back to our base. There was only one way in and out of the town. And we were spread out in a large convoy with my trucks up front and the back half of our sister team bringing up the rear. And as we drove through the town, it exploded around us in an ambush. Guys with black masks ran out from behind buildings with rocket-propelled grenades. We had people shooting at us with machine guns from the rooftops. And that type of situation, what you're taught to do is just put the pedal to the metal and drive as fast as you can getting out of what they call the kill zone. So we drove as hard and as fast as we could, getting shot up all along the way. And as I made it out of that town, Shewan, I pulled off onto the shoulder real quick and opened up the door of my Humvee. And being in front of the convoy, I looked behind to see how many of the trucks had made it with me. And there was nobody behind me. Slowly and surely, we sort of limped out of Shewan. And my friend, who was a Special Forces team leader who'd been at the back of that convoy, we we're trying to figure what had happened and if we had everybody. And it quickly became apparent to us that we were missing one of our guys - a guy named Dave Nunez. Dave's truck had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. And he had had both of his legs broken in the back of the truck. And the truck was on fire. A couple guys from our team had tried to get Dave out, but they couldn't in the flames. And he burned to death.

At that point, we were pretty shot up. The trucks of ours that could run were all towing other trucks. And we weren't in a position to go back and get Dave. When you go to war, it's important for everybody to know that they're going to come home in one way or other. And that's a, you know, that's a pledge we all make as brothers, you know - never leave a man behind. It sounds good but when you actualize it on the battlefield, often times it can be never leave man behind and someone's going to get killed doing it.

The decision was made not to do it. And we were able a few hours later to orchestrate things so another team could go in and get Dave's body out at night. His body was recovered. Obviously, we would've been the one who'd like to do it. Not a day goes by that I don't think about that decision, you know. That type of courage and balancing isn't only relevant to the battlefield. It's relevant to everyday life. How do you find the courage to protect what you love when you know that you'll be letting someone down by doing it? As a father and husband, I often encounter these types of decisions. I never know if I'm making exactly the right choice. All I can do is protect what I love. And seeing that it's been protected, trust that I've done right.

SIEGEL: That's former Marine Elliot Ackerman. He's now a contributor for The Atlantic and The New Yorker. His first novel, "Green On Blue," will be published next year.


And our series on men's lives continues Wednesday. I'll be talking with Mark Pierce and his son Jeremy about their family's tradition of military service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.