John Ismay
Two blades. At Gonzaga, a plaque commemorating the Varsity 8 shell named in Erik Kristensen’s honor.

Two blades. At Gonzaga, a plaque commemorating the Varsity 8 shell named in Erik Kristensen’s honor.

Springsteen Plays “Terry’s Song” for Erik Kristensen



It’s a song about Terry Magovern, a frogman. And that night it was sung in honor of another frogman — Erik Kristensen, who was killed in Afghanistan.

Erik was a huge Springsteen fan.

Chandler is too. (shoot, we all are.) Here’s how it happened.

How cool is this?

Here’s the video of Bruce Springsteen singing “Terry’s Song” for Erik, in concert at the Perth Arena in Perth, Australia. According to this site*, it’s only the third time The Boss has ever sung it live since he wrote it in 2007.

I’m guessing he saw Chandler holding that sign all those hours and knew it would mean a lot to him. He didn’t need to know who “Erik” was, but he probably got an idea that he must’ve been someone special.

He definitely was.

When they built you brother

they broke the mold


*source: “Notes From The Road, Perth #3”

Terry’s Song (for Erik)

imageThis morning my brother Dave and I got an email from our buddy Chandler Comerford with this photo.

Chandler held this sign up for hours at a Bruce Springsteen concert yesterday in Perth, Australia. Chan was Erik Kristensen's best friend, and his roommate both at the Naval Academy and at our place in San Diego. The inset photo shows Chandler on the left, Erik on the right, celebrating as newly commissioned Ensigns on graduation day in May 1995.

Chan writes:

I held this sign up the whole concert - [Springsteen] saw it and he said “Ok - for Erik”  he played it in his final encore 2nd to last song (just him and an acoustic guitar) just before he closed with Thunder Road. People all around me were crying. Me too.


Read the lyrics, or listen to it here, and you’ll understand why.

They built the Titanic to be one of a kind,
but many ships have ruled the seas
They built the Eiffel tower to stand alone,
but they could build another, if they pleased
The Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt are unique, I suppose,
but when the built you brother, they broke the mold

The world is filled with many wonders
under the passing sun
But sometimes something comes along
and you know, it’s for sure the only one
The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel,
Jesus, Mary and Joe
and when they built you brother, they broke the mold

When they built you brother
they turned this dust to gold
When they built you brother
they broke the mold

They say you can’t take it with you
but I think that they’re wrong
All I know’s I woke up this morning
and something big was gone
Gone in to that dark ether
Where you’re still young n’ hard and cold
Just like when they built you brother
and broke the mold

Now your death is upon us
And we’ll return your ashes to the Earth
And I know you’ll take comfort in knowin’
You’ve been roundly blessed and cursed
But love is a power
Greater than death
Just like the songs and stories told
And when she built you brother
She broke the mold

A bad attitude is a power stronger than death
Alive n’ burnin’ or stone cold
And when they built you brother …

Bruce Springsteen wrote the song for his longtime assistant and friend Terry Magovern, who died in 2007. (it’s on his album Magic.) What I didn’t know until today is that Terry himself was a Navy frogman in his younger days — serving in the Underwater Demolition Teams — the precursors of today’s SEAL Teams.

Chandler served at SEAL Team ONE, and Erik at SEAL Team TEN.

They’re both two of the greatest guys I’ve ever met, so I have an idea of what The Boss meant when he wrote that song.

Thanks, Bruce.

Live The Fourth, Brother.

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Erik and I used to say that to each other instead of ‘goodbye.’ 

In fact, it was the last thing I ever said to him.

Back at Gonzaga, where we both went to high school, we attended Kairos — an intense three-day retreat that challenges your spiritual beliefs, and it was an experience we both cherished. But what to do afterwards? That’s the fourth day.

"Live The Fourth" then became an extension of Kairos, a challenge to live everyday thereafter in a way that honors what you learned there. And, at a school that challenged us to be "Men For Others," I can’t think of someone who embodied both better than Erik Kristensen.

In fact, it’s carved into his headstone.

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Of course he went. Of course he got on that helo and tried to save his guys. If you don’t yet know how Erik died, you could read this book or see this movie, but let me tell you a bit about his character. Then it all starts to make sense.

He’s the person all those Jesuits wanted us to be.

The priests and brothers gave us an example of piety and selfless service. It was up to us whether we chose to follow them.

Erik did. He followed so that he could one day lead.

When I heard the news in 2005 that a Chinook had gone down and a bunch of SEALs were onboard, I figured there was no way Erik was on it — he was a Task Unit Commander, and I assumed he’d be back in some TOC. But my brother Dave called to tell me otherwise.

Never before and never since have I cried as hard as I did right then. I flew from Guam to Virginia on emergency leave, and joined the growing crowd of grieving friends who came from all over the world to say goodbye.

In the years since, these same friends gather together every June 28th in remembrance, usually at a park in suburban Maryland. It’s called “E Day.” As friends’ families grow, the numbers of kids running around and playing has gotten bigger and bigger. At least one, born just a couple years ago, is named Erik — in his honor.

Erik’s will stipulated that part of his estate should fund a scholarship at Gonzaga, so that the sons of military personnel could have the chance to have the same great education he did. (if you’d like to donate, please click here.)

There were dinners, picnics, barbecues, and even a golf tournament in Erik’s honor. These were relatively small affairs, filled with familiar faces. These were the people who mourned him.

So when I heard that Lone Survivor would be made into a movie, it felt wrong. Wrong that some stranger was going to take this personal thing and make it public. 

I didn’t want to revisit the feelings I had all those years ago. And I sure didn’t want to do that in a theater full of strangers eating popcorn.

But Erik’s mom asked me and a couple other New York friends to go see the movie with his cousins Jen and Allison.

So, we went to see our friend here…

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…be played by this man.
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And I was surprised to find myself liking it.

All the anxiety I felt started to fall away early on in the movie when I saw something that immediately told me someone really cared about this story.

It told me this wasn’t being done for the money. It was being done by people who cared about our friends.

I explain more here, in NYT At War. There was lots more I couldn’t include from that interview, so maybe that’ll go into a future post.

So a big thank you to Jim Dao at The Times for giving me a thousand words to tell that story, and a huge thank you to Eric Bana for being so generous with his time.

And thanks to Erik for being a great friend who always always Lived The Fourth.

We miss you.

Trying to Bury a Six Year Long Obsession

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When Curt Hall was killed in action, I basically lost my mind.

The summer of 2003, we started off as classmates in 03-50N in EOD School at Eglin Air Force Base. He rolled out of our class on a landmine test in Ground Ordnance Division, and in the days before Facebook, we lost touch.

Fast forward to 2007, and I walk out of my battalion TOC at COB Speicher to use the head. A big tall guy in a desert flight suit stood nearby. He turned around. It was Curt.

My eyes glanced down to the patch on his chest, and I saw an EOD crab there. He had gone back through training and made it.

Big bear hug followed. 

     Curt, I’m so proud of you. You made it, brother.

     Glad to see you here.

     How ya been?

A few days later Curt was dead.

It was a one-in-a-million shot with a Type 63 107mm rocket. While driving in a convoy, someone cranked off one of these weapons on a flat trajectory towards the line of American trucks. This one hit Curt’s Up-Armored HMMWV right at the T-junction between the front and back doors on the left side.

A fraction of an inch difference at the launch point, and it would have sailed right over the truck. We’d still have Curt, and Curt would have another one of those “you not gonna believe this shit, but…” kind of stories. But in combat, Murphy and the enemy both get a vote.

Killed alongside him were Chief Greg Billiter and EOD1 Joseph McSween

The EOD team that did the post-blast assessment sent their findings to us at Speicher. It was my job to review their work and brief it up to Commanding General, Multi-National Division-NORTH (Task Force Lightning).

So there I sat in our plywood ops center, going through all the photos over and over again.

     How the fuck did this happen?

     How the fuck did those assholes kill my friend Curt?

Nearby, my teammate Chuck came by and pointed to something I’d missed in the photos. It was the base plate of a 107mm rocket.

     See that, LT? Heavy steel plate..all those canted Venturi nozzles…can’t be anything else…they’re all over the place here. Lucky shot.

Huh. Say again?

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I knew for a fact I never saw that weapon at Eglin, or when I was stationed in Guam, or anywhere else.

I thought I was Billy Badass coming out of our year and a half long training pipeline. Gimme an op and I’ll nail it. I really thought I knew what I needed to know in order to survive in combat.  

But here was evidence, drenched in my friend’s blood, that I really didn’t know anything. I maybe knew the basics. Maybe. But to be a good officer and a good operator, you had to work harder and learn as much as you can. Learn the things they don’t tell you in the classroom and on the range.

I flipped on my SIPRnet terminal and started digging.

All the time I could spare, I was datamining classified databases and SharePoint portals for useful information on the weapons taking out Americans.

At one point, I felt lightheaded and realized it had been three days since I’d actually eaten anything. My only food was coffee, Copenhagen snuff, and Marlboro Lights. Dinner at the DFAC that night was like a NASCAR pit stop: fuel up as quickly as possible, and back to the race.

I realized that the vast majority of “intel” on these weapons was simply descriptive. Length. Weight. Explosive fill. Max effective range. Etc. But nothing there to tell the guy carrying an M4 what to do about it. Nothing telling the counterproliferation spook about the new Iranian copies we were rolling up. Nothing about countermeasures.

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So I found a new little corner of the SIPRnet that let users register and write their own intel products. I thought I would get my pee-pee slapped (who does this Lieutenant think he is?), but I figured the something I’d write would be better than the nothing that currently existed.

     Research. Write. Deal with the day’s IED attacks. Repeat. 

10,000 edits later, I’d like to think I left something of value behind when I left active duty. That part of me lay happily dormant until I saw C.J. Chivers post this piece in The New York Times’ At War blog.

     Who is this guy? How the hell does he get this shit right?

     Journalists don’t walk this beat, too. Do they?

     Would the public actually want to read stuff like this?

An email to Chivers in late 2010 eventually turned into a phonecall in January 2012 where he said to me:

     You should go to Columbia J-School. You should become a journalist.

In a way, this whole thing goes back to Northern Iraq in April 2007. If Curt hadn’t been KIA, I probably wouldn’t be here in Harlem. I’d be back in San Diego screwing off in Ocean Beach, running Sunset Cliffs, biking with my buddy Neil, and hitting the farmer’s market every Wednesday.

But now I’m writing about the things you can learn from an Iraqi weapons cache. The things we expected, the things we didn’t, and the things that killed my friends.

I want people to know.

Now on The NYT At War: a reckoning, of sorts. And hopefully a beginning to the end of a six year-long obsession.

I hate those goddamn rockets.

And I don’t want to think about them anymore.
 

*******

My condolences to the Hall, Billiter, and McSween families. Your loved ones are missed by many.

My thanks to Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists, for the source materiel…and the patience. Thanks to Captain John Coffey, Command Master Chief Pat McLean, and Commander Jeff Stebbins for their trust and support in ‘07 — a better command team there has never been. To Captain Marty Beck for holding EODMU-11 together.  Thanks to “Chuck” for always explaining everything and getting a young LT up to speed; you’re the best NCO I ever worked with. And thanks to Chris Chivers for making me believe I could do this.

*******

photo 1: HT2(DV) Curt Hall, after completing Dive School. Taken from the EOD Warrior Foundation website.

photo 2: cutaway diagram of a Type 63 rocket. Taken from the Federation of American Scientists’ website.

photo 3: an Iranian copy of the Type 63 laid on an improvised rocket launcher in Iraq — a tactic likely similar in design to the system that killed Curt. Taken from militaryphotos.net.

correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Digger DiGuardo as the skipper of MU-11 when Curt was killed. Thanks to Dale Rock for spotting the mistake and correcting me. 

Attacking Chem Bunkers Is Bad Idea Jeans

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My roommates Adrian Bonenberger, Damien Spleeters, and I were talking the other night about the complete failure of the Fourth Estate to thoroughly question the rationale for invading Iraq prior to March 2003. And we thought that as journalism students now, with another new military action on the horizon, we should put up or shut up.

So, here’s my take on the mechanics of what Tomahawks and other kinds of air-delivered weapons do to munition bunkers, and the special kind of awfulness that would result from attacks on chemical weapon bunkers.

I wish the people in my government (politicians and military officers) truly understood how the tools they bought actually work. Explosives and cruise missiles aren’t magic, no matter what Jack Bauer and “24” taught you. 

(if the USG really wanted it to work, they’d use TLAM-Alphas. But that would likely be frowned upon in the international community.)

So put on your Bad Idea Jeans, read up, and I’d like to wish you a very Happy Airstrike Eve.

Many thanks to Laura Dimon and PolicyMic for running the piece.

The Sarin Sweepstakes

The post on InnoCentive struck me funny right away. 1,500 tons of chem, it had to be destroyed in situ, and the solution had to come by C-17s.

If our government is trying to figure out how to get rid of Assad’s chem stockpile, it’s easy to know what won’t work: airstrikes. Like the ones NATO carried out in Libya that only created a giant mess, and continue to kill civilians with damaged UXO spread about. Bombing chem rounds from the air will just create a plume that’ll kill lots of people.

With the post ruling out incineration and chemical neutralization as options, I thought about the only other one I knew. And that’s C4.

But how many 1.25-lb M112 blocks would it take? Figuring that out was the fun part. Running the numbers, you realize it would take tens of millions of pounds of bang and it would completely tie up the US Air Force’s fleet of C-17s and C-5s just to haul it all in. (taking for granted permissive air space.)

Somewhere in the Pentagon a friend of mine probably had to do the same calculations as the token EOD guy on a staff, and hand the bad news to a flag officer. It’s basic pre-mission planning.

Thanks to Noah Shachtman for running The Sarin Sweepstakes on FP’s blog.

Who Is Crowdsourcing a Massive Chemical Weapons Disposal Problem?

This photo appears in a challenge posted by an anonymous party on Innocentive, a crowdsourcing website. Shown here are hundreds of American artillery projectiles awaiting destruction in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Wonder who posted it? And what problem set is likely being addressed?

The evidence points to one organization, and a problem that probably has some politicians and flag officers losing sleep over it.

Coming soon: my first post for Foreign Policy.

Something Better Than Money

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Anyone who has ever faced the threat of being attacked with homemade explosives might owe Kevin Fleming a thank-you note.

He retired from Sandia National Laboratories not long ago, but before leaving he came up with what might be called a “disruptive technology” in US government jargon.

Mr. Fleming found a way to alter ammonium nitrate at the molecular level, and prevent it from being used as an oxidizer in explosives.

If his invention is adopted around the world, it’ll make the bad guys’ work much harder. And the rest of us much safer.

He could’ve patented his work and profited from it. But he felt that there is “something better than money.”

Today, on The New York Times At War: “One Man’s Attempt to Create a Fertilizer Compound That Won’t Explode.”

My thanks to:

  • Kevin Fleming, formerly of Sandia
  • Nancy Salem, Sandia Media Relations
  • David W. Small, JIEDDO
  • Dr. Eric J. Werner, Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Physics, the University of Tampa

Photo: Sandia scientists Vicki Chavez (l) and Kevin Fleming (r). Courtesy of Randy Montoya.

Would You Pass Up Millions in Royalties If It Saved Lives?

imageThis is ammonium nitrate in prill form. The photo was taken in Afghanistan, and shared with me by the Joint IED Defeat Organization in Washington, DC. Ammonium nitrate is used as a fertilizer, but also serves as an oxidizer in fuel-oxidizer explosives commonly used by the commercial blasting and mining industry.

Tim McVeigh used it too. So did Anders Breivik.

The Taliban is quite fond of it as well.

Recently, an American scientist at Sandia National Laboratory got sick and tired of seeing young servicemembers killed and maimed with it. So, he did some thinking. Then some testing.

Before long he had an ingenious solution to a problem that bedeviled the Department of Defense for over a decade.

His invention could become the global standard, and if he patented his work and took even the most modest of royalties he would stand to make millions of dollars in short order.

But he refused. Want to know why?

Doing so would take time; and in the interim, more young Americans would certainly die. He wanted to get his invention tested and fielded as quickly as possible. That way, some more lives might be spared.

In a profit-driven world, some follow a different internal compass.

This man deserves some recognition. Perhaps a medal, and maybe a good seat at the next State of the Union Address.

When was the last time you met a true patriot and global humanitarian?

I’d like to introduce you to Kevin Fleming.

Soon, at NYT At War.