He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms. – Psalm 18:34
It brought me mixed emotions to hear the news of SGT Higgins death in Afghanistan. The last time I saw the man, he was just a boy, like myself. Before the stripes, before the rigors of war, before the body armor, rucksacks, the long sleepless nights too countless to ponder took their toll. I barely knew him before he joined the Army, and can only guess at how the last few years changed him. As I glanced at the news articles, the pictures of roads lined with loved ones, friends, family, and even strangers uniting to give the young Ranger a hero’s welcome home—his last “welcome home”—it struck me as a story I have become all too familiar with. It pains and humbles me—but it also gives me hope.
September 11th, 2001 I was in the 8th grade. The first time I knew anything about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was when I heard the broadcast on the radio with a mouth full of braces on my way to the Orthodontist in Greenville, TX. I knew nothing about the Bin Laden family, Al-Qaeda, Pakistan, the Taliban, and would be hard pressed to point out Afghanistan on a map. I had never shot a machine gun, led a patrol, jumped out of an aircraft, or walked with heavy things on my back. I knew hardly anybody on active duty and much less anybody who had been killed in combat. I was a boy. A month later when Operation Anaconda kicked off and bombs fell from the night sky and Rangers and ODA teams hit the ground and began systematically dismantling the Taliban regime I was oblivious. (The commander of that Operation would later become my Superintendent at West Point). A decade later it seems almost completely contradictory to think that the fate of so many, myself included, could become so intertwined by these events.
I entered West Point in 2007. Among a class of cadets hailing from all 50 states and multiple foreign countries. Every year since then the names of the killed and maimed have become more and more familiar as class after class graduated in a time of war. At first they were barely recognizable—people I had never met but only heard of from the upperclassman. Still I felt connected to them. They had been where I had been and I was going where they were going. West Point fostered that connection, bringing back recently deployed graduates to tell their harrowing tales of combat, leadership, and sacrifice. For most of us, it only strengthened our resolve. It gave us unity, strength, a feeling of collective action—that soon it would be our ticket to be called and our time to assume the mantle of such burdens. Never alone. Always together.
That time has arrived. Like passing the point of no return on some sadistic roller coaster ride. I am locked in. Just waiting for the gate-keeper to press the button to send me into the abyss. That button is stamped May 2013. It does change things when you can put a date on it. There’s some fine tuning left to be done—more training here, Ranger school there. But you know you’re going. Hell, you volunteered multiple times without thinking twice. And every one of your friends, that you have grown to know and love are right there with you. You’re scared of things you cannot control. And even more scared of these things you can. It’s not a paralyzing fear, just one that keeps you honest and focused. And it’s not a fear of self-preservation—but a collective one. One that gets expressed non-verbally or hidden beneath the rough and tough humor between soldiers and brothers that would never admit it openly. But we know. It is staring us in the face. And yet we go—time and time again. But you find your resolve in the soul of the man at your side. And if you are worth your salt—he in you.
MAJ Dick Winters said in the epic miniseries Band of Brothers, “I am no hero, but I served in a company of them”. I don’t know anybody who has ever felt like a hero that performed heroic deeds. Even SSG Sal Giunta (the first surviving MoH recipient since the Vietnam War) credited heroism to his squad mates. I once saw SSG Giunta and he seemed uncomfortable with the position. In his book Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield, writes of one of the main characters “His was not, I could see now, the heroism of Achilles. He was not a superman who waded invulnerably into the slaughter, single-handedly slaying the foe by the myriads. He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attributes was self-restraint and self-composure. Not for his own sake, but for those he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to the single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of ‘performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.'” For some reason that resonated with me. True heroism is not some mythical idea. It is not some Arnold look-a-like toting a machine gun from the hip and performing superhuman feats. True heroism is accepting one’s mortality, accepting one’s own frailty, and acting in despite of it. It’s not about being fearless, but about acting despite the fear. Being willing to risk everything and asking nothing in return. “Readily displaying the intestinal fortitude to fight on to the objective and complete the mission—though I be the lone survivor.” SGT Higgins understood this. So did his buddies. So should everyone that has ever worn the uniform.
Those on the outside usually try to label such feelings as “patriotism”. To me, it feels like responsibility. A visceral feeling that comes straight from the gut. A burning desire to not fail for the sake of those on my left and right and all those that have come before me. All 1,944 of them.
I recognize the complexity of the conflict. I understand now what I did not a decade ago sitting in the car, riding to the orthodontist, a vicarious witness to the world events unfolding before my ears. War is not black and white and sometimes heroics and sacrifice do not pan out the way they are supposed to. Sometimes idealism gets misplaced and sometimes the cost is too high. Some things cannot be controlled. But for us, here, such issues only add to the risk we have already assumed. We only have a small part to play in the overwhelming stage of world events. But we will continue to try—doing all we can, is all we can do. So, in honor of SGT Higgins and all those like him—Sua Sponte. Rangers Lead the Way!
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy
at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.
The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.