“In Winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again”
-Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems
In January of 2013, Colonel Rick White left this earth. I would like to speak of him again.
I’m sitting here this Veterans Day in Afghanistan thinking about the one individual in the military who had the greatest impact on my career. It takes about a second to come up Colonel Rick White.
I served on the Brigade staff and as a Company Commander in 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. This was 2005–2006, when things were not going so good. First hand, I saw a collective group of junior officers come together for a common purpose in the most demanding of human conditions. Fortunately, we had a leader like Rick White.
Our Brigade had a book written about us. Blackhearts, by Jim Frederick detailed how one of the platoons in our first battalion descended to hell. The book came out a couple of years after the deployment. Locked in my bedroom one evening I read it in four hours.
Our Brigade lost 55 soldiers, killed in action over the yearlong deployment to South Baghdad; 56 when you include the suicide of our deputy commander six years later. Adding up the wounded raises the number to a couple hundred, and it’s impossible to count when you include the mental issues soldiers in our brigade continue to face a decade later. It’s hard to argue that in my adulthood there is anything else that could have a greater impact on my intellect, my career, or my life. Moreover, I can’t begin to describe this impact without talking about with the man who was my immediate boss, a man who I talked with every single day.
I first met Rick in early 2006. He had just been assigned to second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division as the Brigade’s Deputy Commander. One sensed an intensity with Rick immediately, and I could tell that the staff, and the brigade as a whole was now better off with him on board. About a week later, I would run into Rick on a Sunday morning at the local O’Charleys in Clarksville Tennessee. Like me, Rick was a single officer with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than to get brunch, a bloody mary, and watch some football. Rick was also wearing a CCM jacket to go with his Maine Blackbears cap. No doubt, I was going to enjoy working for him. Even better, Rick was a member of Theta Chi, a fraternity that every graduate of Norwich University is familiar with.
As the Brigade neared its deployment, we had to undergo a Convoy Live Fire. Every individual in the Brigade, from the Commander on down had to participate prior to the Iraq deployment. Rick’s emphasis on the officers of the Brigade staff executing the live fire properly truly set him apart. He reminded us that nothing would set him off more than an officer not meeting the standard, to include the wearing of proper gear. He was intense, and his focus led to a successful live fire, which in turn got us ready for the long slog ahead.
Throughout the deployment, Rick maintained his intensity. He was a champion not just for the staff, but for every soldier in thee Brigade. Following a force protection assessment of an outlying FOB by Division HQ, the assessment team made the recommendation that the soldiers at the FOB …This set Rick off, here were soldiers on patrol nearly 16 hours a day, often outside the FOB for days at a time, and when they return they only want to eat and sleep. Rick exploded at the briefer, essentially saying “we ain’t fucking doing it.” Three days later a division FRAGO came out directing every unit on the Liberty Base Complex to fill sandbags to deliver to outlying FOBs. Good on the briefer for taking the message to higher. Sometimes you just have to speak your mind, no matter who the audience is.
What truly made me appreciate Rick was our daily meeting. Rick, the JAG, the S2 and I would meet every morning to review detainee packets and to make recommendations on their disposition. Rick was calm in his decision-making, and listened to everyone in the room. Rick also took ownership of the detainee facility, making frequent visits to the soldiers who worked there. It was an underappreciated, yet difficult job. Rick saw gaps where no one else did, and filled those voids with his leadership. I have taken this lesson to heart over the past ten years and use it as a blueprint in my life as a staff officer.
In warfare, you are not an intellectual and you’re not a warrior unless you have passion for what you do. Passion is what best describes Rick White. He served as out deputy commander for our training prior to and throughout most of our deployment. Rick was passionate for every soldier in the Brigade, from his peers to the newest private. I watched him threaten the brigade staff on the consequences of not wearing proper equipment during a live fire exercise, and I watched him travel to every single outpost and checkpoint manned by soldiers of the Strike Brigade. Intellect is more than knowledge; it is part passion and loving what you do. Rick put a bullet in his head a few years back. Every Memorial Day weekend, and every Veterans Day I change my Facebook profile to a picture of us standing on a FOB adjacent to the Euphrates River. It is literally the least I can do to remember him. When my packet went to the last promotion board, I checked my file to ensure everything was in order. I found myself staring at an OER I received as a junior captain, only because Rick’s signature was in the rater block. This year I did my best to write and speak of him. It’s a little bit more. The best I can do is carry a small piece of his passion to the career I have chosen.
“How are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?
For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
I hear you make some cheery old remark –
I can rebuild you in my brain
Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.”
-Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems