What a Day. I set out from Sandpoint, Idaho, at about 10 in the morning on a medium warm August day. I was headed for the Spokane airport en route to Seattle. The sky was dark and I figured on rain. But when I got to just west of Coeur d’Alene on Route 90, a torrential hailstorm fell. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Immense hailstones slamming into my rented Cadillac, eliminating visibility, making the road icy. It was REALLY scary. I slowed to a crawl and prayed. In a few minutes the hail passed. Then it started again. I was really scared. Then it passed again. My fellow drivers drove well on the slick highway, which for some reason has immense ruts in it. But I made it to the Spokane airport, which for some strange reason is abbreviated GEG. My plane was right on time and off I went to SEA-TAC. My driver took me to my hotel and I took a short nap.
Then I met up with my pal Lisa Agustsson, a huge military supporter, and off we went to McChord Air Force Base, 90 minutes in traffic, to meet the troopers of the Second Squadron—Blackhawks!— First Cavalry Regiment of the Fourth Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. They are just back from 15 grueling months in Iraq, fighting, negotiating with sheikhs, securing peace in Diyala Province. They have been rocketed, bombed, shot at on a daily basis. Yet they secured a huge swath of “medicine territory,” as they call it, and helped “the surge” work.
I shook hands with several hundred of them and their wives and girlfriends and fiancées. They were young, alert, good-looking. Really brave. Cool, calm, confident. Enviable in every way. I was escorted by a super smart young fellow, Captain Damian Gill, XO of the Darkhorse Troop, and my host was the commander of the unit, Lt. Colonel Marshall K. Dougherty of Texas. Both movie-star handsome types and fearless. My pal Lisa was the absolutely perfect companion, greeting the men and their ladies kindly, complimenting all the women on their outfits, making everyone at ease. She would be a perfect politician.
It was an impressive evening. They made a terrifying grog of all different kinds of alcohol, beer, wine, spirits. All of them to remind the men of the different wars the unit had been in, going back to 1833. I especially loved the addition of Bud to the mix to symbolize blood in Vietnam. The officers jumped all over each other to taste the stuff. Lisa had a sip and said she loved it. At least she didn’t die from it.
Then a few short speeches. I got very teary as they talked about the men who had been killed, as they honored their wives. I thought about how scared I was of that hailstorm, and how tiny a thing that is compared to getting shot at and bombed every day. Really, these men and their families are the salt of the earth. In fact, I kept thinking, “Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” Thank God, this country is still producing men who will put their lives on the line for our sorry butts here at home.
Many, if not most, of the men I met had a fascinating hat, a cavalryman’s hat, a Stetson with braid around it, just like what Robert Duvall wore in Apocalypse Now, when he said he loved the smell of napalm in the morning. (In fact, Lt. Col. Dougherty talks exactly like what Duvall should have talked like.) Many of the men also had a badge portraying a bayonet, a grenade, and a wreath. This is the Combat Action Badge. You get it for really serious close-in fighting, like what one Sgt. Bokor of the 2-1 did in hand-to-hand fighting, eliminating about 15 al Qaeda he met when he rounded a corner in a village in Diyala. You get it for seeing an AK-47 pointed at you and instead of dying or crying, you hit the ground, roll, come up with your M-4, and kill the terrorist. You get it for having great big steel testicles.
At one point in the very long receiving line, Lt. Col. Dougherty said he guessed by now I knew what that badge was for. I told him, “Colonel, I will never know what that badge is for.” (I know what the badge for complaining is for.)
But after the speech I offered, the incredibly kind Sergeant Scott Dedelow, a tall, serious-looking, handsome fellow, a movie image of a tough sergeant, took off his CAB and gave it to me, to pin to the Stetson Lt. Col. Dougherty had already given me, along with Cavalry Spurs made from shell casings of brass. I was so touched that even now, as I write about it a few days later, I am blinded by tears. What can we say about these men and their ladies? That we owe them our lives, our freedom, our happiness, our everything.
God bless the 2-1 and all who serve this great nation for all eternity. Without them, there is only darkness and pain. They truly are our saviors, redeeming our lives with their blood.
I cannot stop thinking that every day, the news on TV has about three hours about the stock market’s moves that day, which are totally meaningless. The online sites and TV have hours about the latest political gossip, which is totally meaningless. But every day there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of episodes of extraordinary courage by American fighting men and women and their families and the media totally ignores them. Societies that do not pay attention to what is important do not survive.
Back to Sandpoint. I got my plane at SEA-TAC seamlessly, found my rented Cadillac, and headed east. I went on a sort of silly day trip. First stop on Route 2, Best Buy. I wanted to buy an XM radio. No one there could find one for a few minutes. I wonder why Best Buy cannot make that a bit easier. Plus, it is agony to get the damned thing signed on. I signed lots of autographs, posed for photos, and left. Next stop, a very clean general store and gas station about 20 miles west of Newport, Washington. It was owned by a Chinese immigrant who kept it spotless. I love it. Then to McDonald’s in Newport, where I posed for photos with a whole mob of motorcyclists. They looked terrifying, but they were in fact all cops having a weekend ride. America has gasoline in its veins.
I met a young couple—16 years old each—who plan to be neurologists. Good luck. Then to Mama Mac’s, a cafe, general store, and gas station in Priest River, a logging town with a lot of problems because of the construction bust. Mama Mac’s is one of my favorite places. Very reminiscent of my imagination of a mythical small town where a mythical Benjy grew up.
Then home to my perfect wifey, who was lying on our deck looking out at Lake Pend’ Oreille stretching peacefully out forever. It is a scene of an ideal home. Wifey. Peace and beauty and freedom and plenty to eat. The most beautiful place on earth and the most beautiful soul on earth.
Guarded by the Blackhawk Squadron. God bless them for all eternity. What would we have without them? Ashes.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer in Beverly Hills and Malibu.
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