Not All Military Losses Are in Combat, But All Are Remembered

By: Sean Peters
Reprinted with permission from his Tumblr account.
I’ve been meaning to post this for some time but I haven’t done it because it’s hard. Some of y’all have posted your stories of loss and how it’s affected you. This is mine.

As background: the setup for this is that I went to Texas A&M and joined the Corps of Cadets in preparation for my military career. Freshman year was quite a lot like going to boot camp… for a year. Sure, there were intervals. We had a Christmas break, spring break, Sundays off, Saturdays off if there wasn’t a football game, etc. But in the meantime there was a lot of military activity. Uniform inspections. Formation twice a day. Pushups. Situps. Running. Mountain climbers. More pushups. Some considerable amount of getting screamed at. Learning to spit-shine shoes. Polishing brass. Not to mention the academic efforts involved in trying to get through your first year at college.

So there was a fairly high level of stress involved here. And while all this was going on, it was emphasized that your whole class was in this together. If anyone fucked up, the whole group sucked it up. It was expected that if anyone was having trouble, his classmates were going to carry his ass if necessary. So what that meant was that we developed a very strong bond with each other. I haven’t seen most of my classmates in a number of years but I would still take a bullet for them.

Sean and Joe as cadets in 1985

Joesph Walker Swinney and I started the program together, and at the time the picture was taken, had just put on our boots and spurs, and as seniors, were ready to assume our rightful place as the ruling class of the school (I’m the dork carrying the clarinet).

In addition to the freshman year stress, we had both lived through a bunch of heartache our junior year, when due to a bunch of political bullshit, we were both sweating what our cadet positions were going to be our senior year. We were roommates and spent some considerable amount of time crying on each others shoulders about the whole thing. In the grand scheme of things, this was really pretty meaningless, but it meant everything to us at the time. By the time this picture was taken, it was settled. I was going to get the position I thought I was going to get, he was going to be assigned one level lower, but was ok with it. We were on top of the world. And we could not have been any closer.

Right after the picture was taken, the term ended. Joe was an Army cadet, and in what was called the Simultaneous Membership Program… meaning he was in ROTC and the National Guard at the same time. So he was looking forward to a summer training program with the Army National Guard. I was due to leave for midshipman cruise in mid-June.

So a few days after this was taken, we went home, him to Dallas, me to Waupaca, WI. We talked by phone once or twice. I was aware that he was going to be leaving for summer training before I was, and was trying to figure out what his address was going to be so we could write (this was waaaaayyy before there was an Internet). I was never quite able to straighten that out, though.

Then: I’m asleep in bed one night, and the phone rings. It’s like 0100. By the time I’m fully awake, I can hear mom already heading for the kitchen to answer (again, waaaayyy before wireless phones, we only had one phone in the house). I hear her voice, talking low, then she comes to get me. It’s for you, she says.

Of course the obituary came later. That night, it was just Carol, Joe’s mom, crying and telling me he had been killed in a jeep wreck that day.

I was poleaxed. Because, you know, I had just been with him. The next week or so was a blur. I had to get to Dallas, do a wake for my best friend, be in the funeral (where, at the age of 20, I became a pallbearer for the first time), get on a plane back home, and get on another series of airplanes to the western Pacific for my cruise.

While I was deployed we pulled into the Philippines, Singapore. Thailand, and Hong Kong. All of this should have been fairly exciting for someone who had never been anywhere before, and to some extent it was. But mostly I was just kind of numb. After a month I came back home and promptly came down with pneumonia. I was down with that for several weeks, recovered, and went back to school. I thought I was ok.

But I wasn’t. I was able to do my military duties without too much difficulty, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about academics to really get the job done. I wound up the fall semester with less than a 2.0 and on academic probation. This was sort of a wake up call.

I applied myself really hard the spring semester, and given that football season was over, I had more time to apply to academics. I got pretty good grades. Life was looking kinda good. I thought I was ok.

But again, I wasn’t. I rolled into my fifth year (yes, I packed four years of education in to five years of actual attendance, mostly because I changed my major, but partly because I was kind of a fuckup as a student). I thought I was over Joe’s death. But I wasn’t. I cried a lot. Drank a lot. Blew off class a lot. Net result: failed statistical mechanics. Failed thermodynamics lab. Got a D in quantum mechanics. Got indifferent C’s in everything else. Got hauled before the Colonel (CO of the NMCROTC unit) to explain myself. Of course there was no excuse. Was informed that I was heading to the Fleet one way or another after one more semester, so I’d better either unfuck myself or I was going to be wearing a crackerjack uniform.

So I did. Unfuck myself, I mean. Made up stat. mech. Got good grades in quantum. Threw myself at the feet of the dean and got him to accept some other courses in lieu of thermo lab. All this took time to arrange, and I was sweating it until a few weeks before graduation/commissioning, but I pulled it out, and walked across the stage. As was usual at the time, I was commissioned on the spot and got temporary orders to the NROTC unit, doing office work. After that I reported to the Surface Warfare Officer School Command Pacific, San Diego, CA, in early July 1987, for accession training.

That’s the story. So, 27 years later, it’s over, right? Mostly. I go for months at a time now not needing to think about this. For the most part, it’s like it didn’t happen. But: please don’t call me late at night, because a ringing phone after bedtime still scares me to death. Every now and then, I still get choked up. Because he died and I wasn’t even there to help him.

There are times, even at this late date, that I wish I could just forget about all this. But in the end the sadness is wrapped around all my memories of him. It’s all I have left. If I were to stop hurting over this, it would be the same as if I stopped caring. And I can’t.

I tagged a couple of y’all who have lost people, no doubt there are others. Some recently, some farther back. All I can tell you is that yeah, it never stops hurting. But after a while it’s not as bad. Even if it fucks you up a lot, eventually if you keep going you can live.

I hope this is helpful to someone. I’ve got to stop now, though, I’ve got something in my eye, again.

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3 Responses to Not All Military Losses Are in Combat, But All Are Remembered

  1. Tim Marcinko says:

    Joe was a great guy, I feel your pain sir, and though I dont think i was near as close to him as you are, I miss him too. God Bless you and thank for your service

    Semper Fi


  2. Joni Rhodes says:

    Sean, I just saw this for the first time. My husband works for the Aerospace Dept. at Texas A & M and I’m not sure how he found this, but he sent it to me via e-mail this morning and I was “shocked” as I was reading and realized it was about Joe. Thank you for taking time to share your heart. I read it through tears. I am Joe’s Aunt Joni. We were so close in age he never called me aunt though 😉 I was adopted so although I was Joe’s aunt we were somewhat close in age (I am 57 now). We were best friends and had so many fun times together!!! My husband gave him his first Corp hair cut. 🙂 We loved him so so so so much. I cannot see the Corp on the field or in the Christmas parade today without crying. I remember when he graduated from high school and Carol dyed his hair green for graduation. How I loved him. And I remember his favorite commercial when he was young…it was that commercial about “putting a tiger in your tank”…a gas commercial, I think. He had a unique personality and loved life. He was an exemplary young man. We lost — when we lost him so early in life. I’m glad to know he had a friend like you! Thank you for remembering him to this day. He still lives in all of our hearts. The one thing I believe is that one day we will see him again. He just got there ahead of us. I look forward to that day.

    God bless you Sean,
    Joni Rhodes


  3. Schelly Frost Witherspoon says:

    Sean, I finally just found this. Thank you so very much for sharing what can only be a very difficult thing to talk about. It is so helpful in healing to share with others who also hurt over the same thing. I can’t tell you how many times I think about Joe. We were in High School Band together and he was my dear friend. I loved him. Being a year behind me, we only just hung out together. Dating a guy younger than the girl just wasn’t considered when you are young like that. He went to A&M after high school. Just like me. But the corp kept him busy and we never saw each other. He came to my May wedding with another cadet (and BHS band alum) after school broke for the summer, and he was wearing his Junior brass (a little too early he said, but he wanted to show it off…… Joe was always one to bend rules 🙂 but he was sooo proud!
    So many memories of our crazy band antics, and trips that would last for days as we traveled for competition. I remember how he let me sleep on his shoulder through The Deer Hunter because the group wanted to see it, and I was dog-tired. I remember when he showed up for rehearsal one morning completely bald because he had joined the swim team! (He said he had shaved ALL his hair on his legs too!) CRAZY! We all thought he was crazy! And I loved him more.
    I still love and miss him to this day.
    If Joe’s family finds my comment, this is more evidence you have of just how Joe was able to touch another life with his sincerity and joy for living. It influenced me in so many ways that I would not have known without having had him in my life.
    God Bless you Joe. I still love you in my memories.

    Schelly Frost Witherspoon – BHS class of ’81 and Former Aggie


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