Wednesday, May 30, 2007

S.Sgt. Donald B. Farmer

Yesterday, 29 May 2007, on the Western Washington University campus in Bellingham, Washington (the school at which I am currently earning an MA), a local anti-Iraq War group who displays the names of all the war dead around town on the weekend passed out little cards for students to wear in an effort to draw attention to the number of U.S. soldiers who have died since March 2003. Each card, about 2''X4'', had written on it the name of a fallen soldier, their home down, and the date on which they died. Attached to a long string, the WWU campus community spent the day with these cards our their necks. Protesting wars can be difficult, particularly in communities which host military bases or include large veteran communities. All too often "supporting the troops" is equated with "supporting the war," and when speaking out against the travesty of military action in Iraq, many misinterpret anti-war sentiment with, somehow, speaking out against U.S. soldiers. Of course, this is silly, as war protests are focused on criticisms of bad policy and not bad people (except, of course, bad policy makers). The Bush administration has made a concerted effort to disarticulate the war effort from the war dead - no photographs of home-bound coffins, limited media access to the front (tightly controlled 'embedded' reports not withstanding), and more recently, the moratorium on combat photojournalism which indicates, in anyway, the name of soldiers or the units involved. The action yesterday is, in my opinion, an important step toward recognizing that war affects individuals, and that soldiers are people with families, friends, and lives from which they were extracted to extend U.S. federal government policy beyond our borders. I am not a veteran. Nor are my brothers, my father, my mother, my aunts or my uncles. My grandfather was in the Army Air Corp./Air Force from 1947-1951 and never saw combat. The last member of my family to fight in an American war was my Mother's grandfather who fought in World War One. Of course, like many my age, I have friends from high school and college who are in the military and have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the era of the volunteer military, I, like many, have few personal connections to these wars. It's easy, then, for me to ignore, in a self-interested way, the goings-on in the Middle-East and Central Asia. My taxes pay for bullets and bombs, prosthetics, and night-vision goggles, but I am not in a position to lose much, personally, from these wars. However, as a citizen of the republic, I do take very personally the policies of my government, and as a democratic citizen, I am in part responsible for such policies. While I do not fight, and do not stand to lose a loved one in these wars, it is my duty to participate in the public square and to work hard to end this conflict. I whole-heartedly support local civil actions like those at WWU's campus yesterday, and this blog entry is my little way of bringing to the public square the story of one soldier.

I've never met S.Sgt. Donald B. Farmer. I don't know his family, or his friends, and I am unaware of his hopes, dreams, goals, hobbies, or his political affiliation. My only connection to S.Sgt. Farmer is that his name, home town, age, and date of death were printed on a small white card that I wore around my neck for 9 hours on the Tuesday after Memorial day. I would like to apologize to anyone who knows him if they feel like I am politicizing his death; that is not my intention.

S. Sgt. Donald B. Farmer died in Kuwait on 19 December 2004, he was struck by a passing vehicle and killed, along with another soldier, while changing a tire. He told his mother that, after serving in combat in Iraq, his assignment to Kuwait would be safe; he was 33. In his final contact with his 16 year old daughter, he wrote that he would send money home for Christmas. He is survived by his wife and high school sweetheart, his mother, his 16 year old daughter, an 8 year old son, and a 12 year old step-daughter. He was the son of Zion Illinois, and a standout football and track athlete who joined the Marines after two years of college in North Dakota. On 18 January 2006, the Zion city council passed a Resolution of Respect for S.Sgt. Farmer and it passed, of course, unanimously.

His friends and colleagues remembered him as mature, social, and fond of barbecues. When stationed in Italy, one soldier-friend of his recalled a time in which Farmer saved her from getting hurt while in a fight, and noted how he always kept his subordinates in line and protected. While stationed in Germany, Farmer impressed upon a Captain a sense of responsibility and friendship, exchanging Christmas care-packages prior to his death on 19 Dec. The spouse of one of his soldiers recounted a time at which, while in labor, S.Sgt. Farmer took her husband off a mission so that he could witness the birth of his son; he was a man who understood priorities. He was a beloved member of the 180th Transportation Battalion, 13th Corps Support Command, Fort Hood, Texas, and has been sorely missed by all accounts.

S.Sgt. Farmer was a soldier, and he survived combat to die while performing a mundane task that any one of us has done time and again. His family most likely did not receive the financial benefits that come with combat death, yet his mission in support of the ground forces in Iraq was a critical part of the war effort. We hear, often, of soldiers and marines being killed by IEDs, snipers, and helicopter crashes, but it is not often that the soldiers who die in accidents are showcased. Farmer, I am sure, would have taken a bullet to save the life of one of his subordinates, and surely would have given his life in an effort to complete a combat mission. But his job was not to go out on patrol, or to defend the Green Zone from mortar attacks; his mission was to keep the machines of war in good condition, and to ensure that the tools combat soldiers rely on worked dependably. He did his job, internalized it, loved it, and made it a career.

I am not one for hero worship, and I don't put members of the military on a pedestal simply because they are in the military - soldiers are people, and people are good and bad. I know men and women in the military who I wouldn't trust to take care of a goldfish, and I know others who are Westpoint Graduates or career oriented Marines with whom I have shared some of the best moments of my life, and I judge them on their merits. I cannot say much about S.Sgt. Farmer with any certainly, but I respect him, and I respect how he lived his life, how he maintained contact with friends from afar, and how he built what is, by all accounts a fine family. It's a shame that he's passed.

It's easy to say that we will "never forget," but those words are cliche. Of course we will never forget the Iraq War, and the loved ones of the war dead will never forget their lost friends and family members, but we as a people must not forget what happens when we send our military to war. There exists a sacred promise between the people of the United States and the men and women of the military; soldiers will go anywhere and fight anyone so long as the civilians make sound choices as to when and where. The civilian leadership of the Untied States has besmirched that promise, and when this war ends, we all have an obligation to atone for that violation of trust.