It was in the earlier part of November, 2005 when I was called to the garrison HQ to receive an emergency Red Cross message informing me that my grandfather had passed away. I was in my third year of service as a direct contractor to the Army and my duty station was in Iraq. More specifically, I was at Tallil AFB near the city of An Nasiriyah. I was granted an emergency leave so that I could go back to the US to be with my family so I stowed my gear, packed my duffel and made the long trip home. This was the first time I would make this trip, but I’m getting ahead of myself so let me back up a bit. You see, my grandfather had served in the Second World War, actually both of them had. They were brothers. PFC Eddie Kassab, the one I’m speaking about here, had survived WWII through some pretty tough odds, including being on the third wave of the Normandy invasion at D-Day where thousands had died during the beach head assault. His brother, SFC Joseph Kassab, who married my grandmother, was killed in that war, He was a bombardier and his plane was shot down during the Guadalcanal campaign. It wasn’t until 27 years later that the wreckage of the aircraft and remains were found and recovered. When Joseph died leaving behind his young wife and new born son, Eddie began looking after her, sending home money for her and the boy, my father. They wrote back and forth to eachother after the dissappearance of Joseph and when he returned to the US after the war they courted and were eventually married. Joseph was laid to rest with the rest of his flight crew in Arlington with full military honors. Eddie, who died much later in life, was also afforded a military service there. That was my first time being in Arlington National Cemetery, a place reserved for men and women who had served their country in a military capacity. It is difficult to describe just how immense and powerful that place is, the impact you have on your life just from standing on those grounds is indescribable. If I had to try I would say it’s a mixed feeling of Honor, pride, sorrow, and a profound sense of loneliness. There are row upon row of white marble markers spanning miles of emerald green grass and broad shade trees. The markers themselves are simple, nothing fancy, but the respect they command is beyond contestation. There are also wall vaults for those who were cremated, one of these would become Eddie’s final resting place. The US Army's honor guard performed his service, while a trumpeter played “Taps” and his flag was folded and presented on behalf of a grateful nation to my father who Eddie raised as his own son. In the distance a 21 gun salute was given by seven riflemen firing three shots each. It would be the only time in my life that I saw my father cry. We took the time after Eddie’s service to walk to Joseph’s grave marker as well, passing thousands of other markers and I found myself wondering how many of these people were forgotten by the years. How many of them left behind young children. Were they killed in combat? How many of them were laid to rest with a grave full of unfulfilled dreams? The sacrifices they made weighed heavily upon me. It was a feeling I would carry with me long after I had left that place.
Years had passed and I found myself still working in Iraq for the US Army, I was stationed at Camp Taji this time, on the edge of Sadr City, a real dust bowl. I was in my eighth year of service when I was again called to Garrison HQ, another emergency Red Cross message had come through informing me that my Father had passed away. It was December 29th 2010. For hours afterward it felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I called my Mom as soon as I could to make sure she was ok and to see if there was anything she needed before making arrangements for yet another emergency leave. I again stowed my gear, packed my duffel and headed out. Now, it’s only fair to give you an idea of whom I’m talking about here, my Father, Jan, had been a Navy man and had been stationed on submarines as well as destroyer class ships during the Vietnam War. He signed up for service when he was just 18 years old and when he left the Navy he went directly into the Maitland Fire Department in central Florida and stayed there for many years. Eventually he expanded his training becoming the 80th paramedic in the state as well as a certified rescue diver and instructor. More importantly, he was a great father who raised two boys as a father should and later in life, he was a pretty good drinking buddy. His teachings and advice have helped me through some of the toughest times in my life. It was because of his prior military service that he was also awarded full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. There was a waiting list of about 8 weeks at the time because of the high volume of casualties from the wars in the Middle East so it wasn’t until February of 2011 that he was finally laid to rest. This time it was the US Navy’s honor guard who performed his service. I remember it well; they stood in their dress whites throughout the ceremony in the biting cold as the wind whipped by mercilessly. The honor and discipline in these men was no less than awe inspiring and through my sadness I couldn’t help but feel an amazing sense of pride for who my father was during his life. We all stood as a trumpeter again played “Taps” to the folding of my Father’s flag which was presented to my Mom on behalf of a grateful nation after a 21 gun salute was ordered in the distance. My Father’s remains were also placed in a wall vault that became his final resting place; his marker being only about 20 feet from Eddie’s marker in the adjacent wall and even though it was freezing that day, we took a little extra time to visit Eddie and Joseph again. Walking the grounds of that place again awakened all the feelings I had felt the first time, probably even more so. Again, I have to tell you that words couldn’t accurately describe how that place makes you feel. The grass had turned brown by now but was still immaculately manicured, and the precision placement of the grave markers was flawless. There were thousands of names that dated all the way back to the American Civil War. I went also with my brother to pay my respects at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was an impressive mausoleum that is guarded twenty four hours a day by the US Army’s horror guard. After it was all said and done and we had left Arlington and met as a family, my Mom, my Brother and his family, myself and my family and some close friends to remember him for a while over some food and drinks, and though nobody seemed to really have any appetite we still stayed there for hours. That was the first time in eight years that I had seen my Brother and would be the last time I saw him alive, but that part comes later. Eventually we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, each having a very long way to travel back home and I had to get ready to go back to Iraq, heavy hearted or not.
I had only been back in theater (that means deployment) for a few months when I was reassigned to Al Asad AB as my permanent duty station. It was a place in the middle of nowhere and was originally a Marine base but transferred to Army and Air Force some time in 2010. I had made some good friends there, settled in and finally started coming back to myself when I received a message from my brother’s wife asking me to call her, said it was important. Thinking back on it now, I remember feeling a little angry that she wouldn’t tell me on email. Internet I had in my room, but a phone…well I’m no general and I had already settled in for the night. It was about 21:30 hrs. (9:30 p.m.) on a night in late July so I got dressed and made the quarter mile walk to my office where I could use the phone, cursing under my breath the whole time. It took me about 20 minutes just to find my phone card in my cluttered desk drawer, but when I finally did amongst more unsavory mutterings I made the call. She answered quickly enough but her voice sounded strained so I calmed down and asked her what was going on, I figured something wasn’t right so she didn’t need me jumping her case on top of it. It was then that she told me my Brother’s body had been found in his home in Whiteville NC. He had been having a hard time with depression since our Father passed as well as marital problems and he had made the decision to take his own life at the age of 36 leaving behind his Wife, Stepson and Daughter who was only 5 at the time. I was blindsided to say the least, no one saw this coming, and he left no real reason as to why so there still is no closure, no understanding. I was angry… no, I was furious! But I’m getting ahead of myself again. She had called me not only to inform me of what had happened, but also to ask if I had Mom’s phone number because she didn’t have it and didn’t know how to get in touch with her to tell her. I told her not to worry about it and that I’d take that on my shoulders and get back to her. It had only been five months since we laid our Father to rest and to say I dreaded making that phone call was a ridiculous understatement. It was easily one of the toughest things I ever had to do, but it had to be done all the same so I dug Mom’s number out of my wallet…and stared at it…I don’t know how long but it felt like a long time. What else could I do? What could I say? It’s not like I had an instruction booklet for delivering bad news and this was as bad as it gets. After a few deep breaths I dialed her number and decided to take the direct approach. She answered the phone and we exchanged hellos, and I asked her what she was doing. She was out shopping with Robbie at the Tractor Supply Co. He was a longtime family friend and all around good guy. I told her that I had some pretty bad news and asked if she could find a place to sit down there, but she told me it was ok to just tell her what happened so I did exactly that. I gave her all the information I had at the time, I didn’t know how to sugar coat it so I didn’t. She took it pretty well up front, not breaking down until later that evening. My Brother, SPC Troy Kassab, had enlisted in the US Army with our Father’s permission when he was only 17 years old. He was a combat medic assigned to Ft. Carson in Colorado before transferring to the 82nd Airborne Division in Ft Brag NC. He deployed to Cuba among other deployments overseas before being attached to a Ranger Unit as their medic and doing other deployments that he never would talk about much. After the army he lived in NC where he worked in restaurants while attending school on the G.I bill and volunteering on the Hickory Rescue Squad as an EMT. He eventually completed school in Winston Salem NC where he got his PA degree in general practice. Troy was a self-educated, brilliant man who wasn’t perfect but who is? He saved lives in the Army, and then continued to do so in the civilian world until his death in July of 2011. He was a husband and a father, a brother and a friend. He was important to us. It was because of his past in the Army that he also was awarded full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the wait was much longer and his funeral wasn’t held until November 15th of 2011. I remember that day and the days leading up to it like it was yesterday. I had ended my deployment in Iraq on November 3rd, making it back to the US on November 6th. From the time of his death I had stayed in contact with Mom and his wife Andi to make sure they were ok and help in any way I could with the affairs and expenses. When I finally did get home I pulled my truck out of storage had it inspected, fueled and ready to go. It was unfortunate, but my wife was in college and had work at the time so she couldn’t come with us so my daughter and I made the long trip from Houston TX to Hickory NC to see Troy’s wife and kids. While I was there I also picked up a close family friend of ours who needed a ride and made the long drive to Arlington VA...again. The US Army’s honor guard met us there to perform his service and again the attention to detail, the respect given to the deceased, and the discipline shown was flawless. There were more friends this time than family in attendance but I was there with Mom, Robbie, my daughter, and some very close family friends, some going all the way back to our childhood. The ceremony was the same, every time the same. I remember thinking I hated the way “Taps” sounded as they folded the flag and I was angry and hurt when I stepped forward to claim my Brother’s remains and walk them to the wall vault that would become his final resting place. I have to say though, that through my grief and anger, I was a little bit pleased to see that he was placed so close to my Father and Grandfather. I left a pair of my own dog tags in his vault, it made me feel better that he wouldn’t be alone in there. I guess it doesn’t make a lot of sense now but at the time it did. I stood over his marker and said a silent prayer before heading out to see Dad, Eddie and Joe’s markers and pay some respects. The grass was that brilliant emerald green again, and the sense that I stood in a place of honor reserved for our nations fallen still struck me through the heart. After that we just kind of faded away from that place making our way home. Troy’s wife Andi had decided not to come, she was angry, she felt betrayed and abandoned, so on my way home I stopped back in Hickory NC, dropped off Michelle and made the drive to Andi’s house to present her with Troy’s flag as it had been presented to me. I remember hoping that her decision wouldn’t leave her with later regrets, but it was too late to change it now. The drive home was a long one, one that rekindled so many unanswered questions. Three generations of my family laid to rest leaving me as the only surviving male member of my family; something that still weighs upon my heart today.
But this is their story, and though it seems a sad one, that is not its intent. This story was written so that you the reader could understand that there is a place where over a hundred thousand Josephs and Eddies, and Jans and Troys are resting. Each one of those stone crosses and stars have a face, a name, a history, and they made a sacrifice for you and for me. They were people who gave up their futures so that we could have one. They were people who had dreams, families, and who put all of that aside for what they believed in. They weren’t perfect people, but they deserve to be remembered. If you do nothing else after reading this, at least take the time to think about the freedoms that you have, freedoms that have cost us so much…