I remember a simple metal band around his wrist after our time together in Iraq, after we had both retired from military service.
The band is inscribed: “MNF-I CSM 1 AUG 04 – 5 MAY 07 -- 2,614 KIA. 19,304 WIA. 2 MIA”. It now has a place of honor on the summit of Gold Star Peak, 30 miles north of Anchorage, where it was ritually “hiked in” in the company of some of The Troops.
Remembering fallen military personnel on Memorial Day makes me think of Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger, thankfully still standing. CSM Mellinger was and is my friend, a title he shares with thousands of other troops. He was the command sergeant major for the Multi-National Force, Iraq, from August 2004 to May 2007. He was the ranking Senior Noncommissioned Officer in Iraq, and the right-hand man for the Commander, Gen. David Petraeus and his predecessor, Gen. George Casey. He was and is a Ranger.
CSM Mellinger’s time in Iraq overlapped my tours there, though his responsibilities and accomplishments were significantly greater. My responsibilities were for the mission and personnel of American Forces Network, Iraq, leading a team of 30 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines producing video for the Pentagon Channel and running Freedom Radio for the benefit of The Troops in theater.
CSM Mellinger had more significant responsibilities, as he was responsible on behalf of the commander for all the enlisted personnel of Multi-National Forces Iraq, the U.S. forces and our coalition partners. In those times, we had many more than 100,000 personnel in Iraq.
CSM Mellinger and his team were guests in our Baghdad Freedom Radio studio from time to time, where my then 1st Sgt. Melissa Rolan (now a Command Sergeant Major herself) hosted them with a fierce pride and personally conducted the in-studio interviews.
CSM Mellinger was always cheerful, and talked about The Troops, and all the factors that affected the well-being and the morale of The Troops in a war zone. His confidence and his cheerfulness were contagious; The Troops seemed to genuinely respect him and want to be around him, and it seemed the feeling was mutual.
He was one of the last of the Vietnam-era draftees still on active duty. He was experienced; as a paratrooper he had more than 3,500 parachute drops under his belt. He was also a Ranger, really an elite element of the Army. When you see a Ranger, you say: “Rangers Lead The Way!” and they respond: “All The Way!” And they do. Pretty much in everything they do.
CSM Mellinger maintained a log-book of his time in Iraq, a leader-book, five inches by eight inches and covered in pale green fabric. Many military leaders keep them. I’ve seen a picture of his leader-books; they take up a full bookshelf in his home.
CSM Mellinger’s meticulous records include the names and the circumstances of every Troop that was Killed In Action, Wounded In Action and Missing In Action from the time when that was his responsibility in Iraq. On the anniversary day of the death of a Troop under his watch, he will, to this day, post on social media a short biography of The Troops and the circumstances of their deaths, for their memory, for the memory of their families, and for his own memory.
This is absolutely not about him. It’s about the Fallen, and what we can do to remember them, and remember their families, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters, blood and non-blood family.
CSM Mellinger is retired now, wearing a suit for one of those big defense companies. His job is still to ensure the company’s “defense equipment” meets the needs of The Troops. He never mentions the company name except in business situations.
As many retired military personnel do, CSM Mellinger also assists wholeheartedly in outreach through support groups, such as Houses of Heroes, which honors and serves military and public safety veterans and their spouses for their faithful and sacrificial service to our country. This involves hammer and nails and a lot of kneeling down repairing homes, or installing a wheelchair ramp for a veteran’s spouse, now in her 70s, who last saw her husband as he went to Vietnam. CSM Mellinger would tell you, “It’s no burden.”
Many military personnel, all the way back 3,000 years, make a personal pilgrimage to a sacred place to deposit a sacred object which is a part of their Burden. Sometimes they will put a 20-pound rock in a rucksack and hike up the side of a mountain to add the Burden to a cairn of rocks piled on the summit of the mountain.
They do it for the memory of the Fallen, and often, to help transform the Burden into another form, a life of continued service for the Fallen, and for those left behind and still standing.
RLTW – ATW.
Dan Epright is a contributing writer for The Murfreesboro Post. He served in the Air Force from 1976-2011 and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He lives in Smyrna.