SGT Mason L. Lewis
26 February 1981 – 16 November 2007
When I lived in NYC, I was always aggravated by the subway ads, not only because I was very cognizant of myself as a captive audience, unable to look away, but because my mild OCD made it impossible for me to not read every banner sign as I rocked along the dark corridor doing the daily grind. Instead of people watching, like most normal New Yorkers do to pass the time on the train, I tormented myself trying to figure out if I picked up any Spanish from years of reading bilingual poster ads.
Conspicuously absent on any given base in Iraq are advertisements. Sure, there are a few, but overall it’s nothing compared with what we are bombarded with here at home on a daily basis without even realizing it. On a FOB (forward operating base), there are no billboards, marquees, bus decals or those terribly annoying banner ads lining the ceiling of the subway. There really aren’t too many stores or restaurants with big flashy signs out front announcing their own presence. The only T.V. soldiers ever really get a chance to glimpse at is usually in the DFAC (dining facility), and soldiers are rarely there long enough to pay much attention to it. An American operating base in Iraq is remarkably free of corporate advertising.
What you do have, however, are equally annoying, good-old-fashioned, cork bulletin boards. You’re usually smacked in the face with one while standing outside the company office waiting to talk to 1st sergeant, or while hanging around some designated smoking area where someone took the time to build a really nice wooden gazebo next to one of those really aggravating boards. I say they’re aggravating because of that previously referenced OCD–the one that doesn’t let me walk past a sign without reading it–but also because there was almost never anything actually useful to the reader pinned to the board. It almost always served the needs of the individual who wrote the flier.
More specifically, the boards were generally used for warnings and to admonish disobedient soldiers who could not follow simple instructions. They almost looked like press releases complete with graphic and quite often disgusting photos that demonstrated the consequences of “doing your own thing” as it’s called in the Army. Sometimes I hoped that someone other than myself was reading certain signs, like the one that informed those in leadership positions that smoking soldiers (civilian translation: smoking is a form of physical punishment that usually involves some combination of push ups and sprinting like a jack rabbit) in full battle rattle (civ. trans: ceramic plated body armor vest weighing 20-50lbs depending on whether or not ammunition and other equipment was attached to it) in the middle of the desert on a 120 degree day was a BAD IDEA that could possibly lead to serious injury or death. I generally hoped someone other than myself read those announcements.
I did not care, however, to see the photo of the melted hand that some poor soldier ended up with after a firefight or some other kind of attack because he decided he wasn’t going to add gloves to the list of clothing items that made 120 degrees feel like 200 degrees in the middle of Hell on Earth. It generally irked me that someone felt this was an opportunity to warn soldiers that they should wear their standard issue gear while on mission, as if these kinds of grotesque wounds were simply the unfortunate result of a failure to follow instructions and weren’t somehow an expected consequence of war. I often suspected that the person who wrote the flier had himself (or herself) never actually been out on mission–or at least never stepped out of the vehicle–and would probably drop dead of shock if he had and learned that it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to not only remove their gloves on hot days, but also their Kevlar helmets and sometimes even–gasp–their bullet proof vests!
The soldier’s body armor embodies the trade offs of modern civilization that remind us for all our advancements in technology keeping us safer, healthier, and protected from the cruelties of nature, there is a price. At the time I was in the Army, it seemed like they came out with a new version of the vest every year. They were constantly striving to make it more protective while at the same time it needed to be lighter, more flexible, and less cumbersome. When I deployed, the latest modification was the under-arm plate added to protect the area of the body that had become the kill shot for snipers. It was the most vulnerable spot in the vest. When a soldier lifted his or her arms in any direction, a huge area of the body became exposed, opening up the heart and lungs to penetration. The plates that were inserted into the vest closed some of this gap, but they also added a few pounds to the weight. More importantly, they seriously inhibited movement. We looked like an Army of Pillsbury Dough Boys running around with our arms pushed out. The vest saved lives, no doubt. But it also hampered the soldier’s mobility, which was a danger in itself.
While removing the vest wasn’t necessarily unheard of, most soldiers wore their vests most of the time while out on mission. Like I said, there’s no question the vest saved lives, and as a result, it got worn. Getting used to the body armor can be one of the most difficult adjustments for a new soldier to make in preparation for deployment. Most soldiers go through basic and advanced training wearing a much lighter version of the ballistic vest. It’s generally not until you get to your unit do you start going to the firing range and doing field training exercises wearing full battle rattle in an effort to get used to its weight and awkwardness. I remember I used to feel like a modern day knight walking around in it because it seemed almost as ridiculous as a full suit of medieval armor. (For a female soldier, having to squat to pee in the thing when you’re nowhere near a porta-potty is a nightmare). The vest incredibly hampers the mobility of the soldier, at least until he or she gets used to moving in it.
It was about halfway through my deployment, before I met my husband, when one day I was standing outside the company, waiting to talk to 1st sergeant, that I read a flier I will never forget. The message was to be careful while wearing your vest. It warned soldiers that simple tasks like turning around can require a great deal of care and balance when wearing body armor. There was a picture of some kind of lift parked next to a building. The flier went on to explain that an American soldier who was on a mission to help train Iraqi soldiers fell off the lift and died. He was only two stories up, but he was crushed by the weight of his vest when he fell and later died from the internal bleeding it caused.
I didn’t know the soldier, but I can’t even explain the feeling that came over me when I read his story. I will never forget what I thought: to come all this way over here, for your family to be back home worrying every day that you’re going to get shot or blown up, and to die in an accident–to be killed by the very thing that is supposed to save your life–I couldn’t make sense of it. It just didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right. I know war generally isn’t fair or even right, but this just smacked of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. ”Died in a non-combat related training accident.” That’s how it’s listed in Honor the Fallen, the Military Times online database (http://militarytimes.com/valor/army-sgt-mason-l-lewis/3194071). It wasn’t just non-combat related–he was on a mission to help the Iraqis learn how to protect themselves so that we could go home and get out of their country.
I had no idea at the time I learned of SGT Mason L. Lewis’s death that I would someday have a son who’s middle name would be chosen after him. I had no idea because I had not yet met my husband, and all of my husband’s friends, to know that the death of Mason Lewis left a hole in all of them. On this last Wednesday, like every November 16th since I’ve met my husband, a series of phone calls and texts rang in a circle across the country, between a small group of young men, just to say we remember the day, we remember Mason, are you okay? Some of them wear tattoos that say “Strength and Honor” in memory of him. All of them need that phone call on that day.
When I was pregnant with my son and reading through baby books looking for names, I asked my husband if he liked the name Mason. That’s when I learned that the soldier whose death had touched me in such a distant way was much closer to my life than I realized. I never had the honor of meeting Mason, but when my husband told me how he died, I knew exactly who he was. I never forgot him because I was so shaken by the way he died, and while my heart went out to my husband for the loss of his friend, it brought me some kind of selfish comfort to know that my husband knew the soldier on the bulletin board. He wasn’t just the poor soldier who died so unfairly anymore. He was missed and remembered, and I had the honor of witnessing how his life continued to be celebrated by his friends who loved him.
Mason’s death is a story of tragic ironies, and I suppose it’s fitting that the week before the anniversary of his death, the news was abuzz with a certain constitutional law professor at Suffolk University in Massachusetts named Michael Avery. Professor Avery responded to his institution’s request for support in sending care packages to troops that it is “shameful” to support men and women “who have gone overseas to kill other human beings” (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2808535/posts). The most accurate response I have to that statement is this: Professor Avery is an idiot. That may sound like an understatement, and it may not be very eloquent, but it is profoundly accurate. Professor Avery is an idiot because he has absolutely no idea what deployed soldiers actually do. That part’s not his fault. Most civilians don’t know what a soldier’s mission is. But unlike most civilians, he thinks he does.
The reality is that the actual conventional war part of the Iraq war was over in less than 60 days. We declared war on a nation and its leader. We invaded said nation. We captured said leader. Every second we stayed beyond that point was in an effort to rebuild the country and not leave it in a shambles when we left. Every firefight and bomb dropped since then has been in support of that mission. Even if you’re an ill-informed conspiracy theorist who thinks our ulterior motive is oil, that doesn’t change the above listed facts. I don’t want to detract from Mason Lewis by making this entry political. The point I’m getting to is poignantly relative to his sacrifice. No matter how anyone feels about the reasons we went or why we’re there or how long we stayed, what everyone needs to understand before forming any strong opinions about the war or the soldiers fighting in Iraq is that our armed forces devote more troop strength, time, energy, and I suspect money to building schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, clean water supplies, and training the Iraqis to take care of themselves than we do killing “other human beings.”
But that’s not what made me want to throw up when I heard the news of Professor Avery. What made me want to vomit was that not only do our soldiers sacrifice precious time with their families and years of their lives to go overseas and try to train Iraqi soldiers what should be obvious things, like you can’t slaughter a village just because they aren’t the same sect of Islam as you, or even something as simple as how to detain someone without beating them senseless, but many of our soldiers give their lives in the service of that mission.
When I heard Professor Avery’s comment, I immediately thought of SGT Mason Lewis. There is a Facebook page called R.I.P. Mason Lee Lewis (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6476283260&v=info). There is only one thing on it really. It’s a newspaper article about how some of his friends organized Operation Mason in honor of his memory after he died. The article explains how Mason frequently asked his mother to send him toys for the kids in Iraq. He was deeply troubled by how kids in Iraq often played with dangerous things like sharp metal cans. Operation Mason was organized in his honor to request toy donations for Iraqi children.
Mason Lee Lewis didn’t go overseas “to kill other human beings.” He didn’t go down in a blaze of glory or earn a posthumous medal for being brave in a firefight or even roll over an IED in his vehicle or loose his life in a rocket attack. He lost his life doing something infinitely more heroic. His family can truly, quite literally say that Mason Lee Lewis sacrificed his life trying to bring peace and freedom to a war torn country. Mason Lewis lost his life trying to teach Iraqis how to protect and take care of themselves, and that self-sufficiency is the most fundamental cornerstone–the very essence–of freedom. I don’t know how to do justice to or properly honor someone I never met, except to say that his life and his death have profound meaning for me without ever even having met him. I hope his message speaks to everyone who reads this. I know it speaks far louder than a piece of paper on a bulletin board ever could.