At last, colonel gets his due
All leads back to the beginning.
Col. Darel Maxfield, of Spokane, finally stood on a stage at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma for a formal Army retirement ceremony late last month. After 29 years of military service and a 2 1/2-year battle with his own Army, he was finally appropriately honored for his long and outstanding service.
Though his retirement pay has yet to arrive, on Feb. 24 Maxfield stood at attention as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Col. Barry Huggins publicly thanked him for building the national training center in Iraq, for serving as battalion commander in Spokane for four years, and for heading the first Army Reserve effort to train units for prison missions in Iraq after Abu Ghraib. Huggins pinned Maxfield’s last campaign medal and the Legion of Merit to his uniform.
Hundreds of active-duty Army members moved through a receiving line of 12 retirees and their families to shake their hands. Afterward, Maxfield and his wife, Lesley, proudly posed for photos in front of a line of flags, a gratifying moment for a man whose deep loyalty to the Army had been so seriously tested.
My interviews with the conservative colonel began during his deployment to Iraq in 2007. A Bush-era military public-relations idea launched our email exchange, but a glossy version of war wasn’t Maxfield’s agenda.
I began to understand, though not share, Maxfield’s perspective. I never did argue with him about the war. When’s the right moment to do that with a full-bird colonel? When he’s halfway around the world in a 125-degree desert with mortars going off? No. When he has finally returned home, physically intact, but now combating PTSD? No and no. Perhaps after he’s had a stroke that the Army greets with inexplicable silence, and the sudden end of all his pay and benefits? No, no, no.
There never seemed a good time for an argument, and that has been the beauty of this conversation. As we talk about his retirement from the Army Reserve, nearly five years after our first interview, his opinions and mine diverge less often.
We’ll never see Iraq the same way, but I detect softening: “I don’t think (the Iraq war) worked out as George Bush wanted it to work out,” Maxfield said recently. “We weren’t hailed as the great liberators.” He’s weary of all the domestic political warfare. And his view of Afghanistan may be very similar to mine.
On Thursday, President Hamid Karzai called for the U.S. to move troops out of Afghan villages. Maxfield thinks that since we’ve captured Osama bin Laden, it’s time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.
He links the violence connected to Lewis-McChord to the enormous human costs of these wars. Like too many from that base, the staff sergeant suspected in the Afghan village massacre was on his fourth deployment, Maxfield pointed out. “I’m not trying to make an excuse for him,” he said. “That’s a human being who has seen and felt a lot of pain.”
For a long time, I had been unable to fully comprehend why anyone would want to work in the world of war. But then I heard how as a boy growing up in Spokane, Maxfield would sell homegrown Concord grapes to buy a G.I. Joe for $4 at White Elephant.
He and Lesley now lead a small Bible study group connected with their church. He tells of his own Jesus-visiting-the-temple moment: When he was around 8 or 10, he remembers one trip to the Spokane fair when he wandered off from his parents and climbed up on a big Army tank with a friendly sergeant. Soon, he was happily ensconced in the tank, as his parents grew worried and stern.
My closest analogy was more of a Helen Keller moment, when my warm, twinkling-eyed first-grade teacher taught us to not only read, but also write, in appropriately hued crayons, the word for the color red. It was magic.
At the end of Maxfield’s retirement ceremony, the band played, as they always do, “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” and the crowd sang.
Last week, I downloaded a clip of an Army chorus singing that song. I imagined Maxfield and his family beaming at that retirement ceremony. But as I listened, I suddenly flashed back to learning the “caisson” version in grade school, and then further back, to my birthplace – where else? – in a U.S. Army hospital.
I thought of the nature of the sturdy protection that, for better and for worse, I’ve taken for granted all my life. And unexpectedly, my eyes were stinging, too.
Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.