Nine years after Marc Alan Lee became the first Navy SEAL killed in the Iraq War, his mother sat watching TV images of the black flag of ISIS flying over the city where her son died.
“Gut wrenching,” Debbie Lee said on Monday. “The sacrifices that were made, the blood that's been shed.”
The city is Ramadi, and the mother had gone there herself in the year after her son was cut down in a ferocious firefight where he showed such courage that he was awarded a Silver Star.
His comrades had further honored him by naming their Ramadi base Camp Marc Alan Lee. His mother returned from her visit to the city in 2007 with some of its powdery soil in a clear plastic bag. The bag and its contents sat in her Arizona home as the news came that Ramadi had fallen to ISIS.
“That place where my son’s blood was shed,” she said.
This past April, Debbie had seen remarks about Ramadi made at a press conference by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey suggested that the city is “not symbolic in any way” and that losing it would not be a major setback.
“I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of the campaign should it fall,” General Dempsey said.
In response, Lee wrote him an open letter.
“I am shaking and tears are flowing down my cheeks as I watch the news and listen to the insensitive, pain-inflicting comments made by you in regards to the fall of Ramadi,” the mother told the general. “My son and many others gave their future in Ramadi. Ramadi mattered to them. Many military analysts say that as goes Ramadi so goes Iraq.”
She went on, “What about the troops who sacrificed their limbs and whose lives will never be the same? Our brave warriors who left a piece of themselves in Ramadi? What about the troops who struggle with PTS/TBI who watched their teammates breathe their last or carried their wounded bodies to be medevac’d out of Ramadi?”
She continued: “You, sir, owe an apology to the families whose loved ones’ blood was shed in Ramadi. Ramadi matters to us and is very symbolic to us. You need to apologize to our troops whose bodies were blown to pieces from IEDs and bullet holes leaving parts and pieces behind. Ramadi matters to them. You need to apologize to our troops who endured the extreme temperatures and battled the terrorists in some of the worst battlefields in Iraq. Ramadi matters to them. They carry vivid memories of the battles and the teammates whose future is gone. Ramadi matters to them.”
She concluded: “You and this administration have minimized that Ramadi could fall. Now you are minimizing that it is falling, but you Sir WILL NOT minimize the sacrifice my son Marc Lee made or any of our brave warriors!”
She ended the letter with “Awaiting an Apology.”
And not long afterward, that is what she got.
“I do apologize if I’ve added to your grief,” Dempsey wrote. “Marc and so many others died fighting to provide a better future for Iraq. He and those with whom he served did all that their nation asked. They won their fight, and nothing will ever diminish their accomplishments nor the honor in which we hold their service.”
Dempsey then sought to reconcile those words with the present reality, saying, “We are in a different fight now, with a different enemy, and with a different relationship with the Government of Iraq. They must determine the path and pace of this fight.”
Dempsey did not add that the path and pace of the fight as set by the government of Iraq is generally to abandon its U.S.-supplied weapons and flee. That was again evidenced in Ramadi over the weekend.
“It is sickening to me,” Debbie Lee said.
A continuing comfort to her is her son’s last letter, an email that arrived a fortnight before his death. She had been amazed by the depth and power of these words from the homeschooled son who had always needed extra nudging when a subject did not interest him.
“Language was not one of the strong ones,” she recalled on Monday.
His was now a soul seared to eloquence.
“You can feel the deep impact of being in Ramadi, being in the war zone,” his mother said.
In the letter, the son wrote of the elusiveness of glory and of the enormity of violent death.
“I have seen death, the sorrow that encompasses your entire being as a man breathes his last,” he said. “I can only pray and hope that none of you will ever have to experience some of these things I have seen and felt here.”
But amid the worst, he had seen the importance of kindness and decency, moments when America was at its shining best. He urged those back home to do their part in the struggle to make our country realize its full greatness:
Ask yourself when was the last time you donated clothes that you hadn’t worn out. When was the last time you paid for a random stranger’s cup of coffee, meal or maybe even a tank of gas? When was the last time you helped a person with the groceries into or out of their car?
Think to yourself and wonder what it would feel like if when the bill for the meal came and you were told it was already paid for.
More random acts of kindness like this would change our country and our reputation as a country.
It is not unknown to most of us that the rest of the world looks at us with doubt towards our humanity and morals.
I am not here to preach or to say look at me, because I am just as at fault as the next person. I find that being here makes me realize the great country we have and the obligation we have to keep it that way.
The 4th has just come and gone and I received many emails thanking me for helping keep America great and free. I take no credit for the career path I have chosen; I can only give it to those of you who are reading this, because each one of you has contributed to me and who I am.
However what I do over here is only a small percent of what keeps our country great. I think the truth to our greatness is each other. Purity, morals and kindness, passed down to each generation through example. So to all my family and friends, do me a favor and pass on the kindness, the love, the precious gift of human life to each other so that when your children come into contact with a great conflict that we are now faced with here in Iraq, that they are people of humanity, of pure motives, of compassion.
This is our real part to keep America free! HAPPY 4th Love Ya
P.S. Half way through the deployment can’t wait to see all of your faces
On August 2, 2006, Lee and his team got into a gun battle with a large force of insurgents in south-central Ramadi. The citation for his Silver Star reads:
“To protect the lives of his teammates, he fearlessly exposed himself to direct enemy fire by engaging the enemy with his machine gun and was mortally wounded in the engagement. His brave actions in the line of fire saved the lives of many of his teammates.”
Now that Ramadi has fallen these nine years later, his mother should not be the only one who is sickened.
And, particularly at the approach of Memorial Day, the faraway horror makes it all the more important for us to keep doing our part back home.
We have to live by those words Lee wrote in that last, surprising letter, the words his mother cited on Monday, her voice vibrant despite the dispiriting images of that black flag flying where her son died.
“The greatness of our country is each other,” Debbie Lee said.
The Ramadi soil that sits in a plastic bag in her Arizona home is a challenge to every American.
“It’s kind of like talcum,” she noted.