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Purposeful Life

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Two days ago, I wrote about the death earlier that day in Afghanistan of my friend’s son Will. The theme of the post was the senselessness of the war and of such deaths. Today I celebrate Will’s purposeful life.

Lawrence Dabney, a war correspondent, wrote about Will two months ago in The Faster Times, describing him as

the sort of Marine that war films are made about. Unflappable, assured, and grimly competent, he is charismatic in spite of the ridiculous mustache that he and half the Corps seem to sport (not, as I first thought, a Movember thing—these last the whole deployment). At 23, he is young for a Sergeant. Both his parents are history professors.

Sgt. Stacey joined the Marines five years ago. He hesitates before answering why. “Saying I came in for the war makes it sound like for some reason I like it, which isn’t true,” he says, squinting a little in the desert sun. “But I came in because I felt like it was important. Now that it’s winding down, I feel like there’s other things I want to do.” When his contract expires, he plans to go back to school to study history.

Tuesday, Dabney wrote again. I hope you don’t mind if I quote at length from the piece.

[Will] commanded the squad I was embedded with when I ended up in my first firefight, and it was plainer than anything that he kept the men under his command alive. I’ve already written about him, his confidence and charisma and strangely rugged wisdom for a young man of twenty-three, his ridiculous mustache, but now there is more to say because Will is dead.

Will was killed this morning by an IED blast somewhere in Now Zad district of Helmand province. He was the only casualty, though another marine was injured by a second IED. He was on a dismounted foot patrol and some halfwit insurgent managed to cram enough explosive material into the bomb that it killed him. He’ll be buried in Arlington, I hear. Today was his mother’s birthday.

… No-one wants another Marine to die either but there are those who are special, whose loss hurts more than others, and Sgt. Stacey was as special as they come. He had a bright and concentrated flame within him that could cut through stone. It spelled death and failure for his enemies and gave life to his comrades. Quite literally gave life—there is no doubt in my mind that his cold competence, his charisma and cool under fire, his wisdom so far beyond his years that I wonder just what it is that old people are supposed to be so wise about, kept the men under his command alive.


There are people like that in the world, and you know within seconds when you meet one. Their madness bends them to different winds but ours took us both to war. In it there is the potential, sometimes, most certainly in Will, for incredible things. To change the universe we live in, the course of humanity itself and the prisms through which we understand the world. But it comes at a price, and—most unfairly of all—that price is only borne by those who through dumb luck do not live to see their madness bloom.

They die. They must pass through the fire to become who they need to be—they are drawn to it like moths—and it not a test of fortitude or courage but only of chance to determine whether they emerge from the other side alive. If they do, the world awaits. But most do not. Many die in the first moments of their descent; Will was so close to emergence that he could feel the daylight warming on his skin.

Will was a rarity among service members. Young and wise is nothing new to the military, but his intelligence and charisma made him something special. Had it come to it I do not doubt that the Corps would have done everything in their power to convince him to stay. He is the sort of man you would want commanding your troops, analyzing a million pieces of data to save a few extra lives, beloved by every man beneath him though none truly knows him.


He brought something human to the world, an attribute in remarkably short supply for all the humans there are. His soft-sandpaper, young Clint Eastwood voice doled out insight and kindness to the men he led and the people he met. Among all that, he was an ordinary and relatable human being who gave me a sharpie to ‘fix’ my smiley-face patch and whose Facebook picture is just him, standing in a crowd, holding a can of beer. His life ended in tragedy, but it was lived in grace.


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