Stay small. This was something my uncle used to say when giving advice after someone accomplished something. Anything. If you graduated high school, stay small. If you got married, stay small. If you got divorced, stay small. If a friend died, stay small. College graduation, stay small. Grad school, stay small. First real job, stay small. I never thought about it when he said it. That’s the way it often is with great advice. You never appreciate it until you realize it yourself. And when you do realize it, you wonder why you hadn’t kept those words in your mind your entire life. Why did you have to learn it the hard way when you’ve been learning it and hearing it your whole life? That’s the way a lot of things are. Everyone has some special saying they tell themselves from time to time. Hindsight is 20/20. Keep calm and carry on. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Love is all you need. Don’t be a hero. Stay small.
The first time I felt the concussion of a rocket propelled grenade was when I was nineteen years old. I hunkered beneath my rack before grabbing my gear and putting it on. My uncle’s words were no longer his words. Instead, I heard my platoon sergeant’s words, “Be a small target.” The problem was that I was in a tent. I was literally inside the target. But still, the words were there, protecting me in a way. The words helped in nearly every situation I was in. If we were searching a house, I instinctively knew to stay out of windows. Nothing can be in a window frame and appear small. The same thing goes for doorways and staircases. Streets and alleys. Stay small.
When we were searching the canyons of Iraq, we were all small. But small things in large numbers become big things. Or, better yet, one big thing. We lost Lance Corporal Conner because we were no longer small. First we heard he was hit by a grenade. Later we heard he got hit by an RPG. But none of those things were true. He took a bullet just below the arm-pit, where our body armor broke to allow our shoulders and arms to move freely. The enemy hit the smallest target there was. Yet, even still, we tried to stay small. We were small. We are all small.
When I got back to the United States, I learned that one of my other friends died in Afghanistan while I was in Iraq. I talked to him the week before we left to go to two different battlefields. I asked him if he still believed in all of the things we used to talk about at home and in boot camp. About liberating the people, about doing the world a service, and about protecting the young. He said he still believed in protecting those who could not protect themselves. So long as he was still protecting those small people, he still believed in what he was doing. He believed he was protecting the small. He was protecting those too small to protect themselves. And he died protecting them. I remember visiting his memorial when I came home for good. His memorial was small. His picture was small. The school library it was set up in was small. An elementary school. It was in the same town both of us grew up in. But he was dead and I was not.
I think about how so many people use their experiences in war to grow. They use their experiences to build themselves up and become larger than they are. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I find it hard to be anything other than small. If I was not there, someone else would have been there to do the same job I was doing. If my friend (who I hesitate to name) hadn’t been there, someone else would be dead. To think anything different would be to think of ourselves as anything but small. I wish to remain small.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve gone to war. I’ve been married. I’ve been divorced. I’ve been to college. I’ve been to grad school. I am nothing. I am small.
I’m a teacher now and I teach the small. I hold on to the words my uncle once used to say when he was able to speak and I was able to hear him. I hold on to the words of my platoon sergeant. And I hold on to the words of my dead friend. Stay small.