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Every few weeks on social media, I see a post about the anniversary of someone I knew who was killed in combat or in a military training accident. Too often, it can feel overwhelming.
They are not people I met while reporting for The Times. They are men and women I knew from the years before I became a journalist, when I was a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Most of my service after Sept. 11 was as a bomb technician, and when I deployed to northern Iraq in 2007, seven men in my unit were killed in just six months.
I wish they were the only people I knew who died in combat.
Memorial Day offers moments when everyone can reflect on losses like these. The public can largely opt out if they choose to, but after nearly two decades of fighting there are still American service members dying in these wars, and the number of remembrances continues to grow. In the past 15 years, I’ve attended funerals for people killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and though Arlington National Cemetery is closed this weekend because of the Covid-19 outbreak, I expect there will be more funerals to attend once it reopens to the public.
Clicking through Facebook, I find myself nearly skipping over the post telling me that it’s been eight years since a friend was blown up driving over an improvised bomb in Afghanistan. His name was Chris Mosko, and before he died, he told me he applied for the explosive ordnance disposal field after I visited his R.O.T.C. unit in Philadelphia and gave a recruiting pitch to the midshipmen there about becoming bomb technicians.
C.J. Chivers, a Times colleague, wrote about Chris Mosko’s death. I could not; I was a mess.
I attended Mosko’s wake in San Diego a couple of days after Chivers’s story was published, staring at his body in a half-open coffin, when a woman walked up and spoke to a kindly looking man standing in front of me: “Did you read what The Times wrote about Chris?” she asked him. The man smiled and said he had, and that he had really enjoyed it. It was Mosko’s father.
There, on what had to be one of the worst days of his life, Mr. Mosko smiled because Chivers had taken the time to write about his son’s death.
That remains as much a Memorial Day to me as this three-day weekend.
As I began my new life as a civilian and started to write for At War, which is now a channel of The Times Magazine but then was one of The Times’s many blogs, I thought about that exchange at the wake. The act of remembering, of focusing in the moment, in writing cleanly about a life taken way too early — there was something truly honorable, human and decent about that. For the first time, I saw journalism as a new cause I could pledge myself to.
I had occasion to write about other friends soon enough. Almost a year to the day that Mosko was killed, another friend of mine in the Navy explosive ordnance disposal field died in a car wreck. The friend, Timmy Johns, had been badly wounded while we were in Iraq together years before, but since he had not died in combat, his family did not receive the attention paid to those killed overseas. So, I wrote a piece with his mother in mind, though she was someone I had never met. Within an hour or so of the story going up online, I heard from a mutual friend that Timmy’s mother had seen what I had written and liked it.
That was really all I cared about. That was a Memorial Day all its own. I wanted his mother to know that, if ever she felt alone in her grief, there were people out there who loved her son and mourned his loss too.
With more than 7,000 Americans killed in war since Sept. 11, we at The Times are never going to be able to write about each one the way he or she deserves. But looking back, I can see many stories by colleagues who have written respectfully, sometimes lovingly, of our nation’s war dead. These stories that can be read and reread as a way of remembering those we have lost.
Personally, writing about these losses has made them easier to deal with. In 2013, as I was starting journalism school on the G.I. Bill, I wrote about my friend Erik Kristensen, who was killed in Afghanistan. His helicopter was shot down as he tried to rescue fellow SEALs on a mountaintop in Kunar Province. Now when I think of him — that big, goofy, hilarious and brilliant guy who embodied all of the values of the Jesuit high school we went to — it’s more possible to smile than to just wipe away tears.
That Memorial Day is June 28, 2005: not the day the nation chooses to observe, but the day Erik died. We can set aside a day for remembering, but the fuller story is that with thousands dead in wars the public pays little attention to, every day on the calendar is a Memorial Day for someone. This grieving will last for generations to come.
How nice it would be to have to remember all of this only one day a year.