Editor’s note: The following column was submitted by Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, who is the U.S. Navy’s chief of information at the Pentagon. He worked with U.S. Army Major Jaimie Leonard, the former Warwick resident who was killed in action in Afghanistan earlier this month,when she also was stationed at the Pentagon.
Everybody always liked Jaimie Leonard.
She laughed a lot, smiled a lot, hugged a lot. That big, toothy, girl-next-door face of hers fairly beamed when she was happy. And she always seemed to be happy.
The last time I saw her was in Afghanistan at some base, somewhere. I was over there for a short stint, couple of months. She was deployed with the 10th Mountain Division.
I caught her eye before she caught mine, and she ran right up and wrapped her arms around me like I was a long-lost brother or cousin or some other close relative.
That’s how she treated everyone. Like family. Like you were the only person she wanted to be with at that very moment. And, in truth, you were. She loved people. She loved friends. She loved life.
“Hey, sir!” she yelled. “Embrace the suck yet?”
Embrace the suck. That’s the little saying we used to share. She taught it to me when we worked together on the Joint Staff.
Jaimie said it was a common phrase in the Army, a soldier’s way of reckoning with the rigors of Army life. Nothing easy about soldiering, especially these days when so many of them have deployed to war five, six, seven times or more. When so many of them have lost friends and spouses and brothers and sisters. When so many of them have suffered grievous wounds ... some wounds you see and others you can’t.
“Embrace the suck” is the trooper’s way of not merely accepting these hardships, but relishing them, turning them into a point of pride. It’s Army parlance for “yea, it’s tough, but we’re tougher.”
It was also our little way of getting through long and trying days at the Pentagon. And it became my little way of remembering that, no matter how bad I thought I had it, there were men and women out there who had it much worse ... and were handling it much better than I was in my soft, cushy office.
When Jaimie saw me getting down or frustrated or just plain angry at some stupid staff decision, she would flash that beautiful smile and ask me if I was embracing the suck. And I would tell her, “absolutely I am,” even though I didn’t mean it. And she knew I was lying. But she didn’t care. She just kept saying it. And before long, I really did start to feel better.
Jaimie was like that, positive and persistent. Nothing dampened her spirit. I never saw her down. She was a veritable bulldozer of optimism, just so damned upbeat all the time. It got to be rather annoying after awhile.
But Jaimie knew. By the time she came into my life, she had already deployed to Iraq. She was a combat vet. She knew what it was like to see friends die and others wounded. Jaimie may have been an incurable optimist, but she knew exactly how to reconcile sacrifice and service.
She wrote movingly once about her best friend, a woman whose husband had been killed in Iraq.
“I think a piece of her also died that day,” Jaimie said of her friend. “But as I’ve gained more perspective, I’ve also regarded other concepts such as citizenship in a different light.”
Leave it to Jaimie to find the silver lining.
Well, a piece of me died on the 8th of June. That’s the day Jaimie was killed at the hands of a man wearing an Afghan uniform.
I don’t know all the details. I don’t want to know all the details. Jaimie and her team were conducting some sort of meeting with Afghan soldiers - soldiers they were mentoring and supporting - when an argument apparently broke out between the killer and another Afghan.
The killer started shooting. Jaimie went down. This time, there would be no getting back up. This time, there would be no search for the silver lining, no way for her to “embrace the suck.”
She is gone. It is over. The bright light is out.
From what I can gather, she did not suffer. I’m glad for that. I will cling to that. But now we who survive her - and there are countless others closer to Jaimie than me - are left to suffer. We are all left to miss her.
Our nation will likewise suffer. Our Army, too. You don’t lose someone like Jaimie Leonard and just carry on smartly. Doesn’t work that way, no matter how much Jaimie would have wanted it to. She was just that good. She moved people just that much.
A few years ago, Jaimie penned a compelling Memorial Day piece in her hometown newspaper, The Warwick Advertiser. She encouraged people to find a little more meaning in the day, to reexamine their sense of citizenship the way she had.
“Take measure of what you have done for your country,” she said, “and ask yourself if you could do more.”
From now on, June 8th will be my Memorial Day. I will remember Jaimie on that day. I will try to take measure of my life on that day. And I will ask myself if I can do more. I will raise a glass in her honor, and I will try - despite my sorrow - to embrace the suck.
I will do that for Jaimie, not because I want to, but because she deserves it.