Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

H. R. McMaster: The Soldiers I Remember

If we are to honor all those who’ve died in our names, we must remember each individual soul. On this Memorial Day, I pay tribute to Private First Class Joseph Knott…

In World War II, America lost 291,557 military lives in combat. But, as Pulitzer Prize–winning author Rick Atkinson wrote, “each death is as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint. The most critical lesson for every American is to understand, viscerally, that this vast host died one by one by one; to understand in your bones that they died for you.” 

Perhaps back then, it was easier for more Americans to feel that reality in their bones. These days, with a relatively small all-volunteer force, the American people are more distant from those who fight in their name.

Combat veterans suppress dreadful memories of battles, but never forget their comrades who fell alongside them one by one. Their countenances, often smiling or laughing, flash before our mind’s eye. I see them unexpectedly. Sometimes they come in waves. 

This Memorial Day, in between the backyard barbecues and parades, Americans might hear statistics of our fallen soldiers, like the approximately 650,000 who died in battle since the beginning of the War of Independence 240 years ago. They might know that 7,054 American military personnel died in the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But most are unfamiliar with the stories of individual soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. That is a shame.

To help our fellow Americans appreciate such a sacrifice, we who served alongside those heroes should tell the stories of our fallen comrades as we lost them: one by one. 

Today, I would like to share my memory of Private First Class Joseph Knott, the first trooper killed in action after the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment returned to Iraq for its second combat tour of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even now, I still see Joseph, smiling, in my mind’s eye. Just 21, from Yuma, Arizona, he was the very model of a cavalry scout. In fact, his photo, in silhouette standing guard in the gunner’s station of his Humvee as the sun set behind him, was selected for the cover of our regimental magazine only a week before his death. 

The date was April 17, 2005. As always, I briefed our security detachment—really a small scout platoon—before we departed our base in Iraq. Six of the battalion’s soldiers had been wounded the day before. I made sure I met and shook the hands of every soldier in the battalion task force that had been attached to our regiment. 

Our mission that day was to assess the situation in the so-called “triangle of death” area south of Baghdad so we could refine our plans to defeat the enemy. The area—filled with infiltration routes, or “ratlines,” from Syria along the Euphrates river valley—was well-suited to al-Qaeda terrorists. Narrow roads paralleling the canals that crisscrossed the area made our forces easy to spot and vulnerable to attack. It was the perfect place to manufacture bombs and suicide vests for attacks in Baghdad. And al-Qaeda needed to behead only a few people in the small towns before all the locals understood that they were to see nothing and hear nothing about the explosive device factories the group had established there. 

Halfway through the patrol, I switched places with our Command Sergeant Major, John Caldwell, a charismatic and courageous larger-than-life man whose bad back would have more than justified him forgoing another combat tour. But “Big John’s” dedication to his soldiers overwhelmed the constant pain he endured to lead our troopers back to Iraq. 

Our eight-vehicle convoy of six armored Humvees and two Bradley fighting vehicles headed out on the Mullah Fayad Highway—a narrow, two-lane road lined by tall reeds alongside a canal. Caldwell’s vehicle, containing three other soldiers including Joseph, was positioned in the center of our column.

Suddenly I sensed that tingling feeling at the back of my neck. The evil presence of al-Qaeda was palpable. From the front right seat, I grabbed the hand mike and pressed the transmit button, instructing our troopers to “be vigilant and stay low.” 

A moment later, fifty yards in front of me, a large explosion washed over Caldwell’s Humvee. A cloud of black smoke and debris obscured the road. 

“Punch through it!” I told the driver. We drove to the far side as I reported the attack, requesting medical evacuation at a secured landing zone just ahead of us. Then I jumped out and met our platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Matt Hodges, at Caldwell’s Humvee. Sergeant First Class Donald Sparks and our interpreter, Mr. Kamel Abbo, were injured, and Caldwell was seriously wounded. We treated him and got him to the landing zone just as the medevac helicopter landed. But we were unable to save his gunner, Private Joseph Knott. I held Joseph’s hand and said a prayer. Hodges and I folded his arms across his chest and covered his body. 

Two days later I eulogized Joseph, surrounded by his fellow cavalry troopers at our base in Baghdad. I wish that more Americans could witness combat memorials to the fallen so they could understand how fortunate we are to have selfless young men and women willing to fight and sacrifice in our name. Eighteen years later, I welcome Free Press readers back to that ceremony, with the speech I gave about Joseph.

We are here to honor and say goodbye to one of our Brave Rifles brothers, a great cavalry trooper and a fine man, Private First Class Joseph Knott. Private First Class Knott, like all of you, volunteered to serve his nation in time of war. On 17 April during operations in the South Baghdad area, he made the ultimate sacrifice to bring peace to this difficult region, defeat the forces of terrorism and hatred, and permit children, both in Iraq and in our own nation, to live free of fear. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and with his family—his father Jerry, his mother Pamela, his sisters Susan and Sheila, and his brother Jerry.

I then shared the reminiscences of Joseph from soldiers in our platoon. Grief shared is grief divided. 

Corporal Dillard recalled how “he strived for excellence in everything he did and always kept the morale of his fellow troopers high.”

Staff Sergeant Hodges, who I know has the highest standards, described Joseph as an “exemplary soldier. . . motivated and disciplined.” 

Specialist Bruce recalled that “everything he did, he put all of his energy into it and made sure it was done right.”

Sergeant Braxton recalled that “he was the type of person who would do everything he could to help the next person.” 

PFC Ryan said that PFC Knott “was always the one to make us laugh. He was always singing or looked like he was posing for a picture and smiling.”

Sergeant Harris said “he always had a smile on his face and served our country proudly.”

Military units conduct memorial services to renew their commitment to each other and the mission as well as mourn the loss of their comrades. I went on to highlight our responsibility to Joseph and his memory:

We should also draw strength from Joseph Knott’s example. I, for one, will do my best to follow his example—to put fellow troopers before myself, to do my very best to win this fight against terrorists and the enemies of freedom, to maintain my sense of humor and enjoy the company of my fellow troopers. If I could sing, I would sing louder. Today we honor PFC Joseph Knott with words as we pray for him and his family. I ask that tomorrow we all do our best to honor PFC Knott with our deeds as we continue to serve our nation in this great Regiment. 

Our troopers did honor PFC Knott and others who fell alongside him in South Baghdad and in western Ninewa Province as they defeated modern-day barbarians while demonstrating compassion for the Iraqi people. As the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment departed Iraq a year after Joseph’s death, the mayor of the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, Major General Najim Abed Abdullah al-Jibouri, wrote the following to the families of our fallen troopers:

To the families of those who have given their holy blood for our land, we all bow to you in reverence and to the souls of your loved ones. Their sacrifice was not in vain. They are not dead, but alive, and their souls hovering around us every second of every minute. They will never be forgotten. . . . We see them in the smile of every child, and in every flower growing in this land. Let America, their families, and the world be proud of their sacrifice for humanity and life.

Combat memorial ceremonies help military units, which take on the qualities of a family, communalize grief and resolve to continue the mission. At the end of the ceremony, soldiers kneel one by one, or with their squad, in front of the fallen soldier’s boots and helmet, which sits on top of an inverted rifle. The soldier’s ID tags dangle from the trigger housing. At the end of the ceremony, each soldier grasps the ID tags for a moment to pay a personal, silent tribute to their brother or sister. 

I wonder if, on this Memorial Day, all of us might imagine reaching out, holding those ID tags for a moment, and pledging to live well, strengthen our Republic, and treasure the freedoms that Private First Class Joseph Knott and all of our fallen warriors fought to preserve. 

H. R. McMaster was the 71st Commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. He is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and served as an officer in the United States Army for thirty-four years. 

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