SSG Paul Barclay: Memorial Day Thoughts
(First published on May 29, 2006)
Like many people, I have in the past few years come to a new appreciation of the service and sacrifice of the men and women in our Armed Forces. I also find that I have a difficult time expressing that appreciation, not because of the usual internal struggles I have, but because the very language of patriotism, especially realized as praise of the military, feels unnatural.
I’ve never known anyone closely that has a military career. I say this even though after High School, 4 of my close friends did join up: my proto-goth Tears-For-Fears girlfriend joined the Navy (!); my best friend, the Army; another, the Air Force Reserve; and later, a guy I was in a Mod band with joined the National Guard. All of us were counter-cultural in a suburban way, never discussed a Military career or were particularly patriotic or even remotely interested in guns, killing people, defending America or blowing stuff up. It was 1986, and it was all about college money. The cold war was winding to a close and the holiday from history just winding up. In a few years, my friends were all out in the civillian world, never to return to the uniform.
Then came one of those surreal, awful moments where the name in a tragic news story is one you recognize. The name was Paul Barclay. The incident was on April 14, 1994 when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by friendly fire as a part of Operation Provide Comfort in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. All 26 people on board died. Paul was one of them.
This photo is September of 1971 . That’s Paul on the far right, I’m right next to him (click to enlarge). Paul and I didn’t really know each other. Our parents were friends. Once they moved to another state, I never saw him again. We would get Christmas cards and such, and our parents kept in touch. I’ve seen his parents a couple times in recent years, but I’ve never mentioned Paul. Never did. I’m going to call them today, though, and tell them I do remember and I wish I had said something before. In my insulated little world, though, reaching out to a grieving parent is something I have no clue how to do.
Paul evidently wasn’t like me in high school. According to his Arlington Cemetary page, he dropped out his junior year. In 1988 he had gotten his GED and joined the Army. By age 24 he was a staff sergeant in the Special Forces (the Green Berets). “He was 150 percent military” said his wife of 2 years, Melissa.
Special Forces Graduation, 1992
That was about as far from my experience as you could get. I graduated from USC Film School in 1990. I was in the midst of paying my dues in Hollywood. My default mindset, liberalism, was receding, my natural conservatism mostly latent. I was mostly concerned at that time with girl trouble. I was depressed.
Paul at that point was somehow involved in enforcing the UN mandated no-fly zone in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Kurds, at the behest of the first Bush administration, had risen up against Suddam Hussein, who repressed them brutally. Tragically, we had troops stationed very close to these atrocities who could do nothing at that point to stop it. Eventually came Operation PROVIDE COMFORT, led by the 10th Special Forces Group, of which Paul would later be a part. From a history of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne):
Operation PROVIDE COMFORT was one of the largest relief operations in history. During the critical first three weeks, the 10th Special Forces Group directed and executed the overall ground relief and security efforts. In the words of General Galvin, the CINCEUR “…10th Special Forces Group saved half a million Kurds from extinction.”
The conditions in the refugee camps shocked the world. Before 10th Group arrived, an average of 450 refugees perished daily, with 70 percent being children. In two weeks time the rate was approximately 15/20 per day and of these, only 28 percent were children. 10th Group had made the difference.
To this day, the Kurds love Americans, even though we initially abandoned them under Bush 1 and (as yet) failed to deliver the promised peace and stability in the rest of the country. The Kurdish north is stable and prospering today, and I think that is in part the legacy of Provide Comfort. It did not come without cost.
Niether is it forgotten. There is now an Eagle Flight Monument Detachment memorial in Ft. Rucker Alabama. It was moved there from it’s orignial location in Germany and was re-dedicated on April 14th of this year.
An event of this magnitude is so horrible and would appear to be the result of such unbelievable incompetence, one would wonder what happened and why. As it turns out, there appears to be no easy scapegoat. One person was court-martialed and acquitted, I think justly so. This is not the time to go into that story, but it seems the definitive book on the subject is Friendly Fire, the Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq, by Scot Snook. It appears not one thing went wrong but maybe more like 100, none of them in and of themselves catastrophic, but in the end adding up to tradgedy. If anything good came of this incident, it seems that certain procedures coordinating between different services have been vastly improved as a result of this accident. I have been amazed at the depth to which the armed services consider these events in minute detail in an effort to be always better, safer and more effective.
I think about Paul and the whole incident now a lot more than I used to come Memorial Day. The conflict he was involved in 13 years ago is still not resolved. Sadaam is dead and gone, but peace and stability have not yet come to southern Iraq. I hope for a better future for all Iraqis, but I wonder if we will leave them yet again to the wolves among them.
“They came to save us, and to give us dignity. Their sacrifice will remain in the minds of our children for the rest of their lives. We will teach their names to our children, and keep their names in our books of history as heroes who gave their lives for freedom.” – Kurd Sheik Ahmet, April 17th, 1994 memorial service in Zakhu, Iraq.