This Memorial Day, Remember with Me
Some of the friends from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq whose stories I work not to forget.
MY CALENDAR IS FILLED with death.
Starting in the spring, when the Taliban’s summer offensive would start, and ending in the winter, when their attack levels would drop, nearly every month is marked by the anniversary of the death of someone I knew in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The dates are for a peer, a subordinate, a few superiors, and many Afghans—who, lest we forget, lost at least 66,000 soldiers and police during the war.
I have their names tattooed on my back. I wear a KIA bracelet with their names on it. In my office hangs a memorial with their pictures.
But despite these reminders, I often forget their anniversaries, and when I fail someone’s death day, I burn with guilt. My memory, scarred by repeated TBIs, PTSD, and moral injury, struggles to reach back.
Weekly, I make the trek to my post’s TBI clinic. I see a multitude of specialists. They are conducting a rearguard action against more than four years of deployments.
Despite their best efforts, I’m losing more of my friends’ stories with each passing day. I feel that I’m alone, straining to remember.
But Memorial Day gives me time to remember all of them and to reflect on their lives. As I do, I renew my life’s pledge: to be a man worthy of the sacrifice they made.
Their stories are worth remembering. Their lives are worth honoring. I share their stories so you can help me remember, too.
EARNING RESPECT AS A YOUNG, inexperienced lieutenant in a unit filled with multi-tour veterans is a challenge every brand-new officer must overcome. Everyone watches you; they want to know how you’ll perform in combat, if you’re reliable, if you’re worthy of their respect.
When I was in this situation in Iraq in 2008, Chavis always treated me with respect even though I had yet to earn it. He’d greet me with a smile, a warm handshake, and this greeting: “What’s up, Lt?”
That smile. That’s what I try to remember. And how young Chavis was—a baby, really.
Raised in Hampton, Virginia, and known as “Nard” by his family and close friends, Chavis was already a multi-tour veteran by the age of 21. He was only a year removed from his first deployment when our squadron was thrust into Baghdad’s raging sectarian inferno.
He served as the lead turret gunner in his patrol, the most dangerous job in our unit. Although the DoD had improved its up-armored Humvees, turret gunners were still exposed. And in urban warfare, that exposure could end your life.
It ended his on 14 October 2008.
Chavis stood up over his turret shield to warn Iraqis about an improvised explosive device he worried had been placed up the street. As he stood up, a sniper killed him instantly.
I visit him often at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60. I kneel. I weep. I place my hands on his tombstone.
And I try to remember.
I remember his memorial on a hot October evening in Baghdad. Taps. The twenty-one-gun salute. His patriot flight home. And the grief-ridden friends who made a video montage in his memory.
He was the first one to go on my calendar. The first of many. And each day, despite my attempts to keep his memory in view, I forget a little more about him.
But when I remember him, I see his smile. Just that smile could change the tone of a room. And I remember the warmth he showed me when I’d done nothing to deserve it.
YELNER DIDN’T HAVE TO BE out there. But like many of us, he yearned to be on the front lines.
Hailing from Lafayette, California, Yelner—we called him “Wingnut”—was helping Afghans rebuild their country as part of a provincial reconstruction team.
PRTs were a joint initiative on the part of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. They were designed to extend the reach of the Afghan government through good governance and development.
Yelner wasn’t a driver by trade, even though that’s what he was when I knew him. Officially, he was a weapons loader for aircraft. But he jumped at the opportunity to serve as a driver on the front lines. And when we arrived in Afghanistan, he volunteered to be forward deployed to Tagab, Kapisa, an insurgent hot spot.
By this point in his military career, then, he had volunteered three times: first to serve in the Air Force, second to serve in Afghanistan, and third to serve in the most dangerous part of our area of operations.
That’s a type of courage—and sacrifice—few can understand.
He showed us that courage daily, calmly driving his Humvee into IED-laden dirt roads. In rural Afghanistan, there is often only one road into a valley. And one road out.
On 29 April 2008 Yelner drove into a valley with only one road. The Taliban had plenty of time to set up the double-stacked anti-tank mine that killed him.
His memorial, like so many, was excruciating. Grown men, full of bravado and swagger, wept openly. Their own mortality lay before them.
The PRT was different after Yelner’s death. It is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on good governance, development, and humanitarian aid after your friend is killed while trying to do that kind of work.
The zeal for the mission evaporated. Like so many before us, we lost our naïveté along with our comrade.
My unit finished our time in Afghanistan and redeployed. But Yelner’s death and the combat we saw left many of us devastated.
Some struggled with reintegration. Others were admitted to intensive inpatient programs. Still others separated or retired. A few of us continued fighting the wars.
We all, however, tried to remember Yelner.
But how do you remember a man whose life was snuffed out so close to its dawn? How can you convey his bravery?
When I visited his grave site on a beautiful hill in Lafayette, I was reminded that Wingnut broke out of stereotypes. He was an airman on the front lines with battle-hardened soldiers. A man raised in liberal California who longed to serve in dangerous places. A Jewish man helping a Muslim country to rebuild following years of war.
That’s how I remember Yelner. It’s a view of him that speaks to the selflessness at the heart of his approach to military service.
I ONLY KNEW Jesse for a little while. Maybe two months. But in those two months we became friends.
Jesse was part of an embedded training team of Marines advising the Afghan National Army. To me, he was also a mentor. I was a young Air Force officer leading a squad of multi-tour soldiers in combat operations in a district that was full of insurgents. I needed all the help I could get.
Luckily, I had Jesse as a role model.
From Randallstown, Maryland, Jesse had enlisted in the Marines and was then commissioned as an officer. He led from the front: Despite his rank, he often served as a turret gunner. He honed his leadership traits during his first deployment to Iraq in 2005.
Now, on the edges of the empire, Jesse shined as a leader. He worked hard to convey his passion for his men to the Afghan officers he mentored in the hope that they might become similarly dedicated to those under their command.
Jesse was slated to be off on 9 September 2008, but had agreed to replace one of his fellow Marines on a mission into the Nijrab Valley.
There was, as always, only one road into the valley.
Two days after these deaths, on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, the Marine whose place Jesse had taken on the mission welcomed a baby daughter into the world.
This spring, I visited Jesse at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60. His family had left a picture resting against the tombstone. It showed him wearing his blues, beaming.
That’s how I try to remember Jesse. His sacrifice. His leadership. His love of the Corps.
And I think of that daughter being raised by her father.
I ALWAYS KNEW how Casey would die.
I knew that one day I would receive a phone call from a comrade who would tell me that Casey had passed and that he didn’t know the cause of death.
On 2 November 2013, a former PRT brother called me with that exact news.
Casey was gone. But truthfully, he died with Yelner in 2008.
A proud Irish American from St. Louis, Casey embodied the spirit of that blue-collar Midwestern city.
He loved tattoos, punk rock, whiskey, swearing, and, most importantly, mischief.
After nearly every dismounted patrol, he would walk into someone’s hooch, drop his pants, and yell out, “Hey, get a load of this,” with a massive grin on his face.
That was Casey—provocative, boisterous, an envelope-pusher. The life of the party.
That all changed when the Taliban killed Yelner. We could not have known then that they killed Casey, too. It just took six years.
In August 2008, I went on a two-week R&R. When I returned, Casey was gone. He’d been sent home following the Yelner attack. He had struggled to maintain his footing after.
I never saw him again.
He eventually separated from the Army, but his demons did not stop their assault on his soul. He never could forgive himself for Yelner’s death.
For Casey’s wake, his body was arrayed in his service dress. All his medals from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan looked immaculate. But despite the embalmer’s best efforts to prepare him for the viewing, it was plain that the war had wrecked him in his final years. PTSD, TBIs, depression, and guilt killed Casey.
I don’t like to remember Casey the way I saw him that day. I prefer to remember him as a leader.
When I think of him, my mind returns to 29 April 2008.
After the IED attack, a helicopter picked up all the forward-deployed teams and ferried us back to Bagram Airfield (BAF). After we landed, we hurried off the rotator and started walking into the hangar.
Before we walked inside, one of my troops collapsed and began sobbing uncontrollably. He and Yelner had been close.
I froze. I didn’t know how to handle this situation. I hesitated.
But Casey didn’t. He gently pushed me aside, picked up my troop, and hugged him.
After a minute, Casey pushed back to look the man in the face and said, “Yelner knew you loved him.” Then they embraced again.
When I visit Casey’s grave in St Louis, that’s how I remember him. I touch the 82nd Airborne seal on his tombstone and remember that embrace at the end of the world.
WHO WEEPS FOR SOHRAB? Who mourns for a slain soldier from a vanquished country?
When I think of Sohrab, I remember his bravery, especially whenever someone quips that the Afghans didn’t fight and therefore deserve the hell they are enduring.
Sohrab’s life puts such nonsense to shame. The son of a general, Sohrab could have ridden the pine at a cushy desk job if he’d wanted.
Instead, he volunteered to serve as a commando. Educated and trained in the United States—he was married to an American woman—Sohrab spent his entire adult life fighting on the front lines, killing America’s most dangerous enemies until the day his luck finally ran out.
On 16 June 2021, the Taliban surrounded his Joint Special Operations targeting team in Dawlat Abad District, Faryab Province.
After hours of fighting, his 22-man team ran out of ammunition. Sohrab had little choice but to surrender in the hopes of sparing his men’s lives.
The Taliban walked Sohrab’s unarmed men into the middle of a bazaar and executed all of them.
Two months later, Afghanistan fell.
If Sohrab had survived that fight in Faryab, we would have rescued him and his family. Miraculously, we ferried a small contingent of Afghan officers Sohrab was associated with to the United States during the fall. Sohrab could have been part of that story.
I sometimes daydream about a reunion with this small contingent. I picture us partying together like we did in Kabul. I imagine Sohrab calling me a “Chair Force” officer again; I try to respond in kind, but Sohrab, at home in America’s jocular special operations community, bests me with a Pashto joke at my expense.
That’s how I like to remember Sohrab.
He was the best of Afghanistan’s young officer corps. He fought with distinction against a state-sponsored enemy, and he worked tirelessly to rebuild his war-stricken country and reform its corruption-filled army.
Tragically, there is no gravesite for me to visit. All I have are memories of him.
He deserved a better fate.
Memorial Day 2023
MY BROTHERS- AND SISTERS-IN-ARMS’ GREATEST FEAR is that our country will forget our comrades who were killed in its service.
It is easy to understand such a fear.
That makes it tempting to brush these wars aside. It is easy to solely blame our vanquished allies. It is easy to move on, to look away. Who wants to remember such things?
The last tragedy of our all-volunteer military force is that while it was designed to unburden the population following the Vietnam War, it overburdened those serving: They were responsible not only for fighting America’s wars, but also for grieving and remembering them.
My brothers- and sisters-in-arms spent our youths fighting state-sponsored insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. We toiled in the dirt, learned new languages, and did our best to help local forces to stand on their own. Then all that we worked for came tumbling down.
We continue to struggle to find meaning in the deaths of our comrades.
It’s likely that the reverberations of all this will soon be felt in your communities, too, if you haven’t felt them already. America is inheriting a number of serious problems associated with its two-decade-long war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Consider some statistics. Forty-one percent of veterans are still reeling from trauma spurred by our chaotic Afghan withdrawal. Seventy-six percent of Afghanistan veterans report sometimes feeling like “a stranger in my own country.” And this March, the VA’s suicide hotline received 88,000 contacts—the highest volume recorded in a single month.
The lights are blinking red. It’s time we pay attention.
I’ve come to accept that a complete reckoning for America’s war on terror will take years or decades; it might not even happen in my lifetime, if it happens at all.
But the least American society can do in the meantime is to help us remember. With each passing year, the memories of our friends and allies grow murkier. Our stories are lost with time.
So, this Memorial Day, please do enjoy your time with your family. Celebrate the freedoms our country is known for. Drink a Bud Light.
But I encourage you also to reflect on the sacred duty we must all take up: to help remember those killed in our nation’s wars, including—and perhaps especially—those who died in wars we now deem a mistake.
We must remember them. We must shoulder the blame.
We cannot look away.
We may have moved on from the “forever wars,” but our responsibilities to those who fought them are just beginning.
Will Selber is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.