In March 2003, I saw the seven guys who called themselves “battle buddies” prepare to board a chartered bus taking them off to combat duty.
Saying goodbye at the local National Guard armory, they were hugged by their girlfriends, siblings and parents, some sobbing, as the soldiers said their goodbyes.
The members of this Nighthawk platoon, who’d grown up together in our small city in rural upstate New York, talked with anxious anticipation and bravado about their upcoming yearlong mission in Iraq.
Like the other dozen or so National Guard soldiers of Charlie Company, they talked of fulfilling their patriotic duty and serving their country— reflecting the patriotism that runs deep in our region.
These battle buddies had joined the Guard to seek opportunity that is rare in our area, perhaps expecting a jumpstart into adulthood, or to pursue an endeavor that would add purpose to their lives.
Boarding the bus, each soldier was handed a paper bag, decorated with a hand-drawn smiley face and containing a chocolate-chunk peanut butter cookie.
With sparkling eyes, Pvt. Nathan Brown talked about both his military training and his future, while his girlfriend, hugged him and tearfully talked about her fears for his safety.
Brown wasn’t pro-war, but he said was ready to serve anyway, out of a sense of duty, a thirst for adventure and challenge.
“I’m excited about going to Iraq,” Brown said, bouncing on his toes. “I want to experience another culture besides ours.”
Nathan Brown didn’t come back alive.
He was killed about two months later while on patrol in Samarra, Iraq.
Three others of the battle buddies, who’d joined the Guard and served together, were seriously injured.
When Nathan Brown—a guy with quick wit who loved skateboarding—returned home in a casket, thousands of mourners, most of them perfect strangers, turned out to honor him..
In town after town, his casket was carried past crowds lining the streets as the mile-long funeral procession passed by.
Whether they were veterans, pacifists, firefighters, politicians motorcycle gang members, they all paid their respects and hailed Brown’s sacrifice for his country.
When the remaining members of the “battle buddies” returned to Glens Falls in January 2005, they were greeted by family members, war veterans and friends, who shivered as they waited for hours at night in a downtown diner parking lot, their faces glowing from the candles they held.
The battle buddies came back with faces tinged with grief over their losses, anxiety over what they called their “unfinished business” in Iraq, and uncertainty over what lay ahead of them in civilian life.
At Purple Heart presentation ceremonies, and a “Freedom Salute” gala held with military brass, these young men of the Guard’s Nighthawk platoon seemed to be reluctant participants.
Since their return, they’ve cocooned with their families, avoided the spotlight, and tried to get on with their lives in a low-key way.
The Brokaw special “To War and Back” reveals details of the battle buddies’ combat experience, a subject they won’t talk publicly about.
The special also offers keen insight into the struggles they’ve had readjusting to civilian life—with or without serious injuries— and how they’ve returned remarkably different people than they were just two years ago.
Tom Brokaw Reports: 'To War and Back' airs Sunday on NBC, 8 p.m./7 C.