In late 2006, days before I completed my training as a Marine Corps human-intelligence officer, our commander delivered some terrible news. First Lieutenant Nathan Krissoff, one of the very best from our small community of intelligence Marines, had just been killed in action in Iraq.
I hadn’t met Nate, but I knew who he was. We all did. He was the model officer our instructors had talked about. Brilliant, funny and confident, Nate was a natural leader that someone like me—a former journalist who knew next to nothing about leadership before learning the hard way through Marine Corps training and three combat deployments—could only wish to emulate.
Well before the Marine Corps knew him, Nate was already a scholar-athlete and a leader: student president of his elite prep school in Pebble Beach, Calif., captain of the water polo and swim teams at Williams College in Massachusetts, and an accomplished classical pianist and a poet. “He had plenty of career options,” his younger brother, Austin, said to me this weekend.
But Nate chose the Marine Corps in response to 9/11 and out of a larger sense of civic duty, which he wrote about in his application to become a Marine officer. “The price we pay for the liberties and luxuries we enjoy in this country is eternal vigilance,” he wrote. “I wish to put my money where my mouth is by having the honor to serve.”
Today, I find myself asking how many other sons and daughters who “had options” like Nate had will rise to the occasion, but there are troubling signs that privileged Americans, at least, are sitting on the sidelines. I attended Yale University’s graduation ceremony last week and found that only one brave student out of the entire graduating class is joining the U.S. Army. Disturbingly few kids from top schools go on to any kind of government service, opting instead for jobs in finance and consulting and law.
Nate chose a path that was hard for him and for his family, on behalf of the rest of us. His family members, while suffering the unimaginable pain caused by Nate’s death, doubled down on national service. His brother, Austin, accepted a commission as a Marine officer just days after Nate was killed. Their father, orthopedic surgeon Bill Krissoff, was inspired by Nate’s service to the extent that he sought and received an age-waiver from President George W. Bush to join the Naval Medical Corps at the age of 62. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I chose this, and I wouldn't have it any other way.”
Nate’s qualities shine through in his final letters home from Iraq, a handful of which his family has agreed to share, below, for Memorial Day because of their instructive value about the nature of service and sacrifice. While reading them—the last one is the toughest to read—I can’t help but wonder what all of us are doing, to, as Nate puts it below, “earn this.”
10 September 2006, on his departure to Iraq
Almost five years to the day after September 11, 2001, I have the chance to put my money where my mouth is in terms of service…. I'm constantly reminded of that famous quote from Tom Hank's character at the end of Saving Private Ryan: "Earn this." Earning it will mean sacrifice, determination, doing my job to the best of my ability. I chose this, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
The complexities of the conflict and the shifting perceptions of the world are all but totally irrelevant to the fact that we fight for the men at our side; my success will be gauged by the responsibility to safeguard Marines and accomplish the mission, not by any other metric. I'm lucky to be deploying with such a phenomenal, savvy group of guys.
12 September 2006
Folks, Just returned from a several day excursion with some of the Recon boys from Lejeune. Vast disparity between the built-up, air-conditioned living on the huge firm base that sits outside the city of Fallujah and the desolate, dust-villages that make up most of the rural areas of the country. This base has been built up several years now: amazing chow halls with a cornucopia of food, air-conditioned trailers, showers, plumbing, internet cafes, etc. Of course there is a large population of service members who spend all their time in country never leaving the wire. In my opinion, hard to do our job sitting behind a fortress. The Marines/soldiers who patrol the streets and interact with the people are the ones who make or break it over here. The people here are tribe/village/family based - utterly different than anything we're familiar with. What a beautiful country though. Barren, fine moon-dust covers the ground. More to come.....time is running out at this internet station.
12 October 2006
Hey Guys, Returned from a couple day excursion. Covered in flea bites. These suckers are wicked over here. At first I was not sure what I was getting bitten by out in the field. Some kind of fly, gnit, gnat, tick or flea of some kind...the desert kind. Bad. Then we all realized that - when we take over an Iraqi house for a few days and sleep on their "sleep-mats" - they are totally flea infested.
I made about 30 new friends the other night when I broke out my "Cutter - Deep Woods" and started bathing folks in toxin to keep the bugs away. They still get you though. The Marines are great. It's the best part...just rolling with them. These are great guys, real professionals. We actually had an EOD bomb-sniffing dog along with us on the last excursion. So focused. Wouldn't even pay attention to the packs of feral Iraqi hounds that yap and howl all through the night when people walk by. We all liked having a war-dog along. Funny quote from that anonymous Marine letter home...when a Marine asked an old Iraqi man the following: "Have you seen any foreign fighters around?" "Yeah, you." I've gotten similar responses from talking to Iraqis out in villages. They're always very polite. Invite you in, sit down for tea, even though they are fasting during Ramadan. They'll talk all the issues, but always at arms length - keep themselves distanced from any kind of direct involvement with anything. "I am a simple farmer," is about the standard line.
On 30 October 2006, Nate wrote to his brother Austin, who was attending Officer Candidate School in Quantico. Nate described the loss of a member of his unit, and what it should mean to Austin and the other officer candidates.
We had a Marine with 3rd Recon killed in action about two weeks ago out west. Sniper shot. He went down in the street and a full-fledged, complex attack was initiated by the enemy. Other Marines – under fire – risked their lives in the ensuing events to recover him, triage him, and get him on a HMMWV to Fallujah surgical. All this happened as Marines counterattacked, bullets snapping by as they took up defensive positions. I knew the events because I talked to them afterward. Included is his memorial pamphlet. I wish I had the chance to know him, all the Recon guys admired him, looked up to him, and are devastated by his loss.
Why do I tell you this? Because Sgt Simpson and many all-Americans like him are the ones you will be entrusted to lead, protect and stand in front of. Never forget that all the trials and training you and the other candidates (eventually Second Lieutenants) go through is not about you. America's sons and daughters will be entrusted to your care. You owe them competence, discipline, courage, judgment, etc. Post Sgt Simpson's memorial picture, perhaps up on your squad bay read-board, tell your fire team and squad and platoon about him -- as a clear reminder of what this is all about. Keep it with you through the trials ahead. Because when you hear the final roll call, the long bugle playing taps, and the bagpipes wailing – we better have done everything short of the hand of God Himself to accomplish the mission and bring Marines home. It is a sacrifice he and many like him have made fighting for each other. Earn it.
On 9 December 2006, Nate was killed in an IED attack while supporting 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in al-Amariyah, Iraq. After the mayhem of the attack, two Marines in the vehicle swore that they had been freed and led away from the burning vehicle by Nate. Even in death, it seemed to them, Nate had been helping and leading them.