The camera is shaky. As the image swims into focus it grows clear why: a table occupies the frame, two dozen empty shot glasses at its center, marshaled into a pile. At the pile’s peak a generous tumbler of scotch has been perched, glowing like the star on the Christmas tree. Cheers and indecipherable shouts echo from unseen figures around the table. The cameraman declares, “There’s a little bit of Will Stacey in every one of these.”
The moment descends into chaos. The edges of hands and elbows dip into the frame. Somebody tells somebody else repeatedly to put the flash on. Somebody else declares this will work out well. Somebody yells, “Don’t you dare, don’t you da—” just as a hand swoops in to steal the scotch tumbler. Then the video ends.
The Washington Apple, a candified red poison that had previously filled those two dozen shot glasses, was the preferred shooter of Sergeant William Stacey. He would order round after round of them, to his fiancée Kimmy Kirkwood’s great dismay, from any bar he could persuade to make them. Few outside Seattle know the recipe, but it is straightforward enough (crown royale, apple puckers, cranberry juice) to shout across a crowded bar. I’d never had one until I went to Seattle for Will’s memorial service in February this year, when I first met his friends and family. By the time the formal parts of the mourning were done, I’d had enough Washington Apples for an orchard.
The last thing Will Stacey said to me, three months prior, standing inside a piled earth perimeter dug into a vast desert plain on the southern fringe of Afghanistan, was to ask me to send anything I wrote about his squad to his fiancée and his mother. I was leaving, and he was going back out on patrol. His squad was returning to the same place they’d gone the past two days, taking fire both times. This time they’d have UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) support. Insurgents never fired with air support in the area, but UAVs flew too high to be seen or heard. Once the insurgents started shooting, Will explained matter-of-factly, the squad would call the UAV’s Hellfire missiles down onto their compound, and that would be the end of that small piece of the Afghan War.
The plan didn’t work out, though I did not learn that until March. The insurgents weren’t there. They’d vanished, overnight, across the mountains.
Arlington cemetery is one of those places that is so often mentioned that you don’t realize you haven’t actually been there in forever, or at all, until you’re actually in it. Green valleys that stretch impossibly on and on, planted to their brims with neat white headstones. The graves look like an audience; like a parade ground at reveille. They’re watching something, and you turn to look. The land tilts downward to the north, towards the river. The trees that line the tidal basin on the far side block most of the capitol’s rotten white sprawl—except for the Monument, rising like a spear from its heart.
I’ve never bought into patriotism, or American exceptionalism or manifest destiny or whatever they’re calling it these days. But it was impossible to see those valleys, filled with entire generations of lives laid down, and not feel a vicious and outsized beauty in the sacrifices that have been made to keep that pillar standing.
The White House has ordered men to do terrible things in the name of that pillar, just as it has ordered them to do great ones. More often than not, for the men and women like Will who only did their duty but better and with greater humanity, the oligarchs of Washington DC had nothing to do with the heroism that led to their deaths. Between those people and the pillar there is a different kind of understanding, a personal one, that concerns itself only with what we might become.
I wondered if Obama had that understanding, of what it is for a Marine like Will to lay down his life, as we waited outside the gates of the White House that morning for our tour. Around two dozen of us: Marines, family, friends, a bereaved fiancée, and a reporter. I’d had to sprint through the city’s pink-blue dawn in my suit just to arrive on time. It was my third day of mourning with Will’s Marine comrades and my liver was screaming surrender. The Marines wore dress blues, chatted casually, and seemed more imposing than the White House security detail. I gulped a Gatorade.
I’d had the younger half of the mourners on my roof deck the previous night—it was just getting warm enough to use it. We’d rambled through a few bars until a seven foot drunk and his fat friend tried to pick a fight with one of the Marines. I’d intervened and they tried to pick a fight with me. I was unhelpfully sarcastic at them until they went away, while the Marines got pizza. Back on the roofdeck we drank my roommates’ beer and I gave Kimmy the last of a bottle of scotch I’d drunk the bulk of on the day Will died. She said she didn’t like scotch but sipped at it until it was gone. At some point my brain shut down, the group took pity, and the evening stumbled to a close.
We saw Bo on the tour the next morning, but I don’t recall much else. Gilt; pictures of men I ought to have been able to recognize, furniture that looked as if it had never been sat on. The polite but slightly nervous young woman sent to guide us and offer the President’s condolences, who seemed relieved to take the obligatory group photos at the end and bid us farewell. We stood for a while on the sidewalk, sunlight belting stronger, looking back at the seat of all that power. Within a few minutes tourists started asking the Marines to take pictures with them and we had to flee or have half our party reduced to Disney mascot-hood.
We piled into cabs and curled over the city to the Iwo Jima Memorial. If I’d been there when I last went to Arlington, to visit my uncle Charlie’s grave at age six, I didn’t remember it. The image is notorious but not it’s scale; I had no idea it stood three stories tall. Constantine, a childhood friend of Will’s, told me that if you circle the statue it seems the flagpole is rising, and I wandered off to see for myself.
As I came round again to where the others were I saw Kimmy standing a dozen yards off from the group, shoulders hunched and kicking with small sobs, looking away towards the river. I walked over and stood with her looking out and for a while said nothing, voice failing, until her mother called her over for a picture with Will’s comrades. She brushed her eyes went to stand among the towering Marines, tiny in her black dress. In the picture she’s smiling.
We wound our way through Arlington to reach the visitor’s center, and were led to a dark underground waiting room where the funeral attendees were gathered. There were more Marines there from Will’s unit than I expected; most of the company was still in Afghanistan. It was good to see them, but of all the strangely happy and bitter conversations it was the brief exchange I had with Sergeant Hamilton that stuck with me. He was in a wheelchair, and very pale. Sweat shone on his forehead but he smiled and shook everyone’s hands and made jokes about his wife having to push him around everywhere now.
He seemed happy to see me, and we spoke for a while. Then he told me he’d been watching through his scope when it happened. He’d been on lookout during the operation and had watched the bomb go off under Will’s feet. He said he still sees it all the time; has nightmares about it. He said all of this matter-of-factly, the same way Will told me they were going to drop Hellfires from the sky and obliterate the men who’d tried to kill us the previous day. Sergeant Hamilton was hit by an IED later during that same operation. It nearly cost him his leg; he wouldn’t be able to start re-learning to walk for another six months.
Then someone else stepped up to greet the wounded Marine and the conversation switched tracks and shuttled on. I stood listening politely for a moment then slipped away. There are sacrifices in these wars that we don’t even think of, that we don’t even realize. How many people have watched their friend be murdered? How many people could endure that?
It took months to write this. I’m not sure why; something went on in the back of my brain that needed to go undisturbed until it was done, and then I’d be able to write again. Death is a lot to take in, even at this remove. So I went quiet for a while, then woke up, and it was Memorial Day and a good Marine and a great human being needed to be remembered.
General Allen cited Will’s in-case-of-death letter in his Memorial Day speech. In it Will said that if he’d saved one child’s life with his sacrifice, then it was worth it. I spoke to Kimmy’s parents after the funeral about metaphysics, trying to articulate something I’d never put into words and still did not fully understand; something about life and death what our lives are and why Will did what he did, because I think that on some level it’s why I do what I do. That it isn’t about an exchange of lives, but the value of them; that a life not lived fighting dragons would be no life at all. That whether the dragon wins doesn’t matter; what matters is that you fought. I’d had a lot of Washington Apples.
There was something of all that in the Marine funeral rites, on a dry grass field to the north of Arlington’s columbarium. The sun had come out hard and bright and I was sweating a little from the walk over as the flag was folded, as intricate and terrible a maneuver as I have ever seen. The guns fired. A string of medal-swamped generals filed past the family and whispered their gratitude for Will’s service and sacrifice. Will’s mother, Robin, nodded politely to each one. I wondered if she heard them. Will’s sister, Anna, hunched in on herself and barely looked up.
The funeral attendees left the graveside to stand in the shade of a long row of trees to the east while the family said their last farewells. One by one they stood from their chairs and went to the small wood box, and said some few words, and turned away. From the edge of the field I watched Kimmy sit there, the last, unable or unwilling to rise from her seat. The rest of the family had gathered a short ways away, and were talking softly among themselves.
She sat in that green plastic chair for maybe ten minutes, though it felt like hours. The sun had grown fierce. I wondered what she could possibly say, what anyone could say, the last words to the ashes of her only love. After this the physicality of Will would be gone; the ceremonies would be over, the salutes and the coffin and the tiny rubber duck he’d given her on a whim and that she’d carried in her purse every day he was deployed. A farewell was demanded of her, one that no-one should be asked for: an act of self-gutting, insisted on by time itself.
Kimmy turned twenty-four two days before the funeral. She was twenty when she started dating Will. They were together just over three years and at the end of it she rose from the chair and went forward and leaned over the small wood box of his ashes, and she said something to him. I don’t know what, no-one does, save she and Will. But those words have more weight to them than anything I’ll ever write or do. The courage demanded in that moment is something I doubt I possess. And then she turned away and walked back into the world.