Final Salute

03.05.14

A Man to Believe In: Eulogy for Marine Master Sergeant Aaron Torian

On February 15, Marine Master Sergeant Aaron Torian was killed in action in Afghanistan—likely one of the last Americans to die there. His friend and comrade Elliot Ackerman shares his eulogy.

Master Sergeant Aaron Torian was killed in action in Helmand Province on February 15th, 2014. This eulogy was given at Arlington National Cemetery two weeks later. With the current withdrawal of troops, he is likely one of the last Marines to die in the Afghan War.

My friend Aaron Torian was a believer.

He believed in his God.

He believed in his family.

And he believed in the men he fought alongside, his friends.

If you were lucky enough to stand next to T, to hear him tell you how he and his Afghans would irrigate fifty acres of desert from an abandoned Russian swimming pool, or retrain two-hundred dispirited Commandos, or reroute the Internet so we could all call home, if you stood at his side, the both of you sharing the late afternoon sun in your face, while he wore a dirt-stained t-shirt and his work gloves, and if you heard him tell you these things, it was impossible not to, you also had to believe.

T and I were on the same team in Afghanistan in 2008. There are a lot of guys from that team here today. Recently, it seems the time which spreads from those days to these passes with greater and greater speed. We used to call ourselves Drifter 873, Skull 7326, the 207th Commandos. More and more though, I think we just call ourselves friends.

I remember a patrol from back then. It was summer. Three days out, each one so hot I swear you could see the sun baking cracks into the desert floor. There was some village we’d decided it was important to get to. I can barely remember why now. At the time, I thought I’d figured a clever way to get down there unseen. I’d picked the route.

It was a dumb route. We drove through canyons so high they blocked the sun. We got our trucks stuck in flooded ravine beds, almost losing one to swiftly rising waters. When we finally made it into the village, the axle on one of our trucks split in half.

The memories have kind of blurred now, where we were, what we were doing there. But I remember it was a bad and remote place. I remember the way the Afghan villagers peeked out of their mud-walled homes, looking at us like we were Martians. I remember the cadence of the radio transmissions between our vehicles. Each one was tense with growing fear and resentment, each one of us turning on the other as our patrol failed and we felt our safety threatened.

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Master Sgt. Aaron Torian of Paducha, KY (Elliot Ackerman)

I remember T’s voice, too. Through it all his alone was different. It was purposeful, coming in a steady rhythm, as if he weren’t even there with us, as if he were on some other patrol, one that was going well, telling us what he was doing to fix the truck, to get the convoy going. Never doubting, always believing.

When we finally got back to our firebase it was late on the third night. Our Afghan cooks, not thinking we’d make it back that day, forgot to fix dinner. We were furious. Willy was homicidal. I remember exactly how I felt: small, like a complete and utter failure. This whole thing had been my idiot idea.

Willy ensured we did a good debrief. Sitting on the torn sofas of our team room, eating Ramen, or crackers, or whatever else we’d scrounged up for dinner, our sweat and resentment hung heavily in the air. At first the debriefing was quiet. One or two of the guys making an obvious point about something that’d gone wrong: Maybe we should’ve taken a different route, sir? Or, If it’s that important to get down there maybe we could line up some helicopter support? But quickly the debrief went sour, discussion turning to accusation. Whose fault was it anyways that truck three got stuck in the ravine? Why didn’t EVERY Humvee have a pioneer kit on it?

I remember looking over at Willy. Even he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Sitting there, exhausted, without a good meal, it seemed we’d decided to eat one another instead, becoming mean with it. And in that moment, I felt I’d lost control.

Then, from the back of the room, when it seemed we’d all chosen to just hate each other, T’s voice rose up in that calm and even T-way: “C’mon guys relax, relax. I mean we did it together and we’re all still friends.”

And in that moment, with T’s joking words, we were, again, all friends.

T believed in his friends.

When we came home we all went our separate ways, as is often the case. T and I kept in touch. He was deciding whether or not he wanted to stay in the Corps. I was helping him think through the options. But somewhere along the way the dynamic between us flipped. I felt I was no longer checking up on T, but that he was checking up on me. He was always there, reminding me of our time together, reminding me of my best self, reminding me to be the person he believed in.

I’d like to read you part of an email from a few weeks ago. It’s the last time I heard from him:

January 27th

Elliot,

I read the Fourth War: My Lunch With a Jihadi. It is awesome to read your articles. I too get my share of writing in … as always, I never read a book, write a sentence, or listen to a ‘tasty lick’ without thinking of our time together. I have learned a lot and surprised myself out here.

The first day I arrived, I wanted to run for the gate. Somehow become Sgt T, build a structure, hire some Afghans. I have learned to manage all that. Though, I still do run the Bobcat from time to time … I swear, my timing has made me the luckiest Marine. Fallujah, the elections, Zerekoh and 207th Commandos in ’08, the first Marines to conduct Village Stability Ops, and the first Marine to run a split team in an AO the size of Helmand. The teams and platoons are what I am most fortunate to have been a part of. These guys make it happen.

It sounds like you are having a blast. I know you are. Did you find any brown

loafers like the one’s you used to rock? I can get you a really nice pair down

in Helmand. You can crush the heels and everything.

Lang and I talk about you often. We miss you.

            You are my hero, Cracker!

-T

It’s quite a thing to get an email like that from ‘Iron Edwards’.

He believed in me like this. And I was just his friend.

How much did he believe in his family?

Jurley, I know you’re sitting here today, surrounded by some people you know well and others not as well. A sea of serious, sad-faced guys, some in uniform, some not, all trying to hold it together for you, and for T. But I assure you, we all know you and your three kids better than you can imagine. You might wonder how that can be? How is it we all know you and your young family so well? It’s because T never stopped talking about you all. Never. I must’ve seen a hundred pictures of Elijah’s curly head before I ever met him. I remember talks with T later, after we’d come home from that trip to Afghanistan, when you were pregnant with Laura Bella and my wife was pregnant with our first, Coco, also a girl. T and I talked about the fathers we hoped to be to our daughters. How we needed to be good to them. How, if we did our jobs right, we’d be the first men they ever learned to love.

When I started writing this, a friend of mine said: “Elliot, you know who the eulogy is for, don’t you?”

I didn’t say anything. I realized I didn’t know.

She told me: “It’s for his children.”

Elijah, Laura Bella, Avery, nothing can undo what’s happened, but just as I believed in your Dad, I’m certain of your growing hearts. I know in them you hold his capacity for belief. Every time you love another person, every time you give yourself to your work, in short, every time you believe, you’ll be honoring your Dad. And what’s more, you’ll be feeling in yourself that truest part of him.

And I promise you won’t have to do it alone. Remember: your Dad believed in his friends, and he was right to.

Since T passed there’s a memory I’ve been going back to, it seems to be there whenever I need it. It’s July, 2008. We’ve planned a series of helicopter raids in the Zerekoh Valley, promising everyone we’ll have a landing zone built to support the operation—promising before we’ve even begun to build it. Dave Gunther and I have convinced a four-star general and a colonel of our plan, but the whole thing hangs in the balance. T’s sworn he and his Afghan laborers will get the zone, a gravel lot the size of three football fields, built and walled-in within the next two days.

Well, we’re on the last day. The helicopters will come in the morning. I’m alone, walking out of our firebase. I’ve gone to check on T’s progress. I’m passing by our guard towers, and I’m terrified of what I’ll find beyond them. The sun’s dipping behind a low rise of the Hindu Kush, and the day is finally cooling off a bit. I come out the front gate and turn a corner.

Then there it is, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Rows and rows of ten foot high HESCOs walling in an absolutely perfect helicopter landing zone. Spread on top of the HESCOs are almost a hundred Afghans, all bent over, all swinging shovels and picks, nearly lost in the mix of setting sun and dust, finishing the job. None of them stop. They keep working. Then, on a corner of the wall, T stands up, big and strong as he was. He’s got a pick in one hand and a shovel in another. He reaches both arms in the sky and he looks terrifying, a neckerchief over his face like he’s a cross between Achilles and Billy the Kid. In the sun and the dust, I swear he just about glows. He waves at me, and then pulls down his neckerchief. On his face I see it: a damn huge smile. He knows what he’s done, what he’s pulled off.

Unlike T, I’ve never known much about God. But in that moment I swear to myself, and I swear to God that I will never doubt Aaron Torian again.

So, like I said: T was a believer.

He believed in his friends.

He believed in his family.

And he believed in his God.

He’s not here anymore. I don’t know where my friend is. But what I do know is now it’s our turn to believe, for him.

Master Sergeant Aaron Torian is survived by his wife Jurley and three children, nine, four, and two years old. Assistance can be sent to: The Torian Family Fund. UBS Financial Services. 1985 Eastwood Rd. Suite 110 Wilmington, NC 28403