The Tragedy and Grace of Sgt. William Stacey
There aren’t too many Marines that I wanted to get a beer with once we were back home. I made good friends with many of them, but there weren’t more than a dozen who I really thought I’d spend time with once we’d returned to the civilized world of women and booze and concerns about what type of blinds to put on the windows. A lot of the real world doesn’t make sense out there. A lot of the things people here worry about. Try watching Real Housewives and imagine what it looks like to a Marine just returned from their deployment. Beer makes sense though. Everyone makes plans to get a beer together once they’re back. I drank a lot of non-alcoholic Becks over there but needless to say it just ain’t the same.
Sergeant Stacey—Will, as he became once I’d returned to the States and exchanged a few emails with his mother—was one of the few I made plans with. He commanded the squad I was embedded with when I ended up in my first firefight, and it was plainer than anything that he kept the men under his command alive. I’ve already written about him, his confidence and charisma and strangely rugged wisdom for a young man of twenty-three, his ridiculous mustache, but now there is more to say because Will is dead.
Will was killed this morning by an IED blast somewhere in Now Zad district of Helmand province. He was the only casualty, though another marine was injured by a second IED. He was on a dismounted foot patrol and some halfwit insurgent managed to cram enough explosive material into the bomb that it killed him. He’ll be buried in Arlington, I hear. Today was his mother’s birthday.
It’s easy to understand the Marines’ occasional fury towards their foes, towards sometimes the entire snarl-fucked catastrophe of Afghan society, when this sort of thing happens. It is not unlike the moment in Restreapo when one of the soldiers tries to explain his reaction to the passing of Doc Restrepo. He says (and I paraphrase here) ‘Fuck no, not him, anybody but him.’ No-one wants another Marine to die either but there are those who are special, whose loss hurts more than others, and Sgt. Stacey was as special as they come. He had a bright and concentrated flame within him that could cut through stone. It spelled death and failure for his enemies and gave life to his comrades. Quite literally gave life—there is no doubt in my mind that his cold competence, his charisma and cool under fire, his wisdom so far beyond his years that I wonder just what it is that old people are supposed to be so wise about, kept the men under his command alive.
In the end, though, their lives came at the cost of his life. That’s the bargain that the military demands of you, and it is as much a devil’s bargain as it is a life raft. You give everything you have to keep your comrades alive. They do the same for you. But sometimes everything means your life. You give it because of the possibility that someone else might give theirs for you.
Will didn’t dive heroically on a grenade. He didn’t throw himself into the path of a bullet or get hit trying to drag a comrade to safety. He died the same way that this war has progressed: in a storm of madness, blindness, and shattered hope. The IED that killed him will achieve nothing. The withdrawal will occur on schedule, and the insurgents’ grip on Now Zad will remain insignificant until the day that the local police chief, who differs from a mobster only in uniform, takes command after the Marines have left and the Governor has fled. The only change wrought by that hodgepodge of wires and fertilizer was the death of one of the most potent bundles of raw potential I have ever met. Will could have been president. He would have made a good one.
I can’t pretend that I knew Will incredibly well. He did me the kindness of granting me an interview and one of the first things he told me was that the last reporter he’d dealt with, a young woman from the Washington Post, had been justifiably elbowed in the face for being an intrusive jackass when a Marine had died. But we got along well. Very well, in fact, and I spoke with more that day as he took me on patrol, and afterwards, and the next day before I caught the first leg of my long ride home. His parents are history professors. He was about to finish his five year contract in March. He was going to go to university and study history. He spoke of maybe working for the CIA down the line.
In among all that there was a certain kindredness between us, I think. I do not know if he felt the same way but at the very least he did not elbow me in the face, which I will take as a good sign. He had in him a streak of great madness, by which I do not mean ‘much’ madness but a madness that could lead to great things.
There are people like that in the world, and you know within seconds when you meet one. Their madness bends them to different winds but ours took us both to war. In it there is the potential, sometimes, most certainly in Will, for incredible things. To change the universe we live in, the course of humanity itself and the prisms through which we understand the world. But it comes at a price, and—most unfairly of all—that price is only borne by those who through dumb luck do not live to see their madness bloom.
They die. They must pass through the fire to become who they need to be—they are drawn to it like moths—and it not a test of fortitude or courage but only of chance to determine whether they emerge from the other side alive. If they do, the world awaits. But most do not. Many die in the first moments of their descent; Will was so close to emergence that he could feel the daylight warming on his skin.
Will was a rarity among service members. Young and wise is nothing new to the military, but his intelligence and charisma made him something special. Had it come to it I do not doubt that the Corps would have done everything in their power to convince him to stay. He is the sort of man you would want commanding your troops, analyzing a million pieces of data to save a few extra lives, beloved by every man beneath him though none truly knows him.
But I do not think he would have taken the offer. He had too much else to do. Too much of the world to change. Had he gone to the CIA they would have been only a stepping stone, because for all their mystique the agents of the world’s most overhyped spy agency are ultimately impotent to alter the course of events that surround them. Will had it in him to remake continents. Of those that do, too few live to do so. It is the reason that the worst leaders of the world are invariably the ones who never took any risk themselves, who never allowed themselves to be forged in the fires of danger and death and horror.
Will entered those fires knowingly, but it is still an insurmountable pile of fetid horseshit that he did not survive to the other end. I can understand the use of IEDs as a tactic in asymmetric warfare; I can even understand the motivation of insurgents in the context of what limited and misleading information they have. But if I were in a room with the men who planted that bomb, I would murder them with my bare hands, and feel no regret for having done so.
But Will’s death should not be about—is not about—anger or wasted potential. Because what he had, for the twenty-three years he had it, he used to its utmost extent. He saved lives. He helped turn Now Zad from a scarred hell to a place where hundreds of children can walk to school every day. He brought sanity and compassion to a place sorely in need of both. He loved and was loved by a beautiful and unyielding girl, from high school on through five long deployments, and whose email address he laughed as he gave to me because he had to say ‘Kimmy’ three times in a row, and I could see that just saying it made him glad.
He brought something human to the world, an attribute in remarkably short supply for all the humans there are. His soft-sandpaper, young Clint Eastwood voice doled out insight and kindness to the men he led and the people he met. Among all that, he was an ordinary and relatable human being who gave me a sharpie to ‘fix’ my smiley-face patch and whose Facebook picture is just him, standing in a crowd, holding a can of beer. His life ended in tragedy, but it was lived in grace.
I still owe him that beer. I’ll owe it to him until the day I die. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven, but I’ve always had a romantic fling with reincarnation. So be sure that if and when I am born anew in another body, my soul will seek out Will’s, and I will take him to whatever the local equivalent of a bar is, for whatever the local equivalent of an alcoholic beverage may be.
I’m looking forward to it.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Will was in a vehicle convoy when he was hit by the IED. He was on a dismounted (foot) patrol with his squad at the time.
This article previously kept Will’s personal relationship private until permission was received to write about it.
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