Today, I am thankful for Derek O’Brien.
For those of you who don’t know him, Derek O’Brien is a Green Beret. Derek O’Brien is nineteen years old. By the time you read this, Derek O’Brien will be in Afghanistan, shooting people while having bullets whiz past him. By the time you read this, Derek O’Brien may be in a coffin.
I can still see his jittery hands. I first made his acquaintance at the local school coffeeshop with a few friends of mine. He wandered around in circles for a bit, scouting the students occupying different tables, coffee in hand. Before too long, he saw something in my four friends and I. Perhaps we were laughing; perhaps we are just the coolest people ever. But he slowly shuffled towards our table and said, “You guys mind if I sit down? Anyone sitting here?”
With a brief pause and glance towards one another, we offered our collective “sure” and pulled up a chair. Sneaking nervous glimpses at the floor, then at us, he explained, “I’ve got six hours before I ship out to Afghanistan, and I thought it’d be nice to talk to some civilians.”
For the next two hours, the five of us exchanged thoughts with Derek. We inquired about his motivations for joining the army. He wasn’t entirely sure himself, other than that he was “good at yelling at people” and being “paid out the ass”.
Derek told us stories about his two years in training. We heard about boot camp, hiding in the mud, taking orders and being yelled at. We cringed as he used choice four-letter words to detail his experiences. We directed our full attention as he recalled a breakup. “My girlfriend broke up with me two days ago,” he explained. “That night I grabbed the nearest waitress and…see, all the girls in Pendleton are crazy for army guys. Except for my girlfriend of two years.” We felt for him as we saw the faintest hint of a tear lost somewhere in his stony, nigh emotionless face.
I held the ring that he earned for two years of training as a Green Beret. According to Derek, they are “past the front line. The first to go in.” As he leaned back in the booth, he proclaimed, “My goal is to make it through life without getting shot or stabbed. If I do that, I win.” I looked at the scars on his hands, the bruises on his arms. He showed off his heavy metal tattoo and the snakebite on his knee. I stared at his shaking left hand; the shaking left hand that would be holding a rifle in the next twenty-four hours.
Derek is not the kind of person that I would be friends with had I met him in any other context. I don’t do heavy metal. I’m not very athletic, or very aggressive, for that matter. I can hardly handle killing a spider. But as I listened to this person, who either had met my four friends and I by dumb chance or some sort of divine intervention, I saw not the Derek in front of me in army garb. I saw a different Derek.
As he told us about his passion for music, and how he wanted to eventually become a musician, I saw Derek in high school. I saw a kid with long hair with parents who were constantly fighting. I saw a kid who loved that was loved. I saw a kid who was hurting. As I looked at the Derek that is, I saw a little bit of the Derek that was. In-between the rapid darting of his eyes and his jerky movements, I found that Derek, searching for a smile. It was faint, and as a flash, disappearing as quickly as it came. But it was unmistakable. It was there.
Eventually, the time came for all of us to depart from Derek, and for Derek to wait in his hotel room until the morning. We solemnly walked out of the coffeeshop and into the lonely Indiana night. For a few moments, we exchanged polite lies about how we would all meet again, each of us knowing the probable; the inevitable. As we split from Derek, I watched him march in a straight line past a dim streetlamp; his shadow reflecting onto the concrete. There was a discipline even in the way he rigidly paced back to his Best Western hotel room. That was the last I ever saw of Derek O’Brien.
It’s easy to watch the news. It’s easy to talk about the left and the right, and to form opinions about the war. It’s hard to put a face on those things. It’s even harder to look those faces in the eye and have conversations with them. Because then, you are not talking to a statistic. You are talking to a living, breathing human being, with thoughts and fears and aspirations. It is humbling, saddening, and altogether incomprehensible.
The five of us drove home in near silence, wishing that we prayed with him, offered him our faith. But life is never that simple. We instead decided to keep him in our prayers, and to be thankful for him and his sacrifice to the country. I am thankful for Derek O’Brien and what he is doing for myself, for others, and even for his own self; perhaps for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. Today I am thankful for Derek O’Brien, on the front lines. What are you thankful for today?