Editor's Note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, is a 2008 journalism graduate of University of Illinois. He recently was deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. From there, he will be submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.
The Army is a culture of validation. We walk around with our resumes on our chest: rank, airborne and marksmanship badges, even the perception of prestigious versus bland unit patches. But possibly the No. 1 validation of a modern warrior is the combat patch.
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A soldier wears his unit patch on the left shoulder sleeve to signify the unit to which he belongs. When he has deployed to a combat zone with that unit, he then also wears that patch on his right shoulder sleeve.
Many of the soldiers in my platoon come to our Afghanistan rotation, Operation Enduring Freedom X, able to wear multiple combat patches - a specialist on his fourth deployment, a staff sergeant on his third deployment.
During a short month in Afghanistan, our combat outpost already has been mortared, peppered with AK-47 fire, and rockets have shuddered our doors. But with a blank right sleeve, things seem incomplete. Now it was time for the platoon to be validated in the eyes of our peers.
Our battery commander, Capt. Mclynn Howard, flew to our combat outpost just for the occasion.
My platoon was called to attention. It was the usual 110-degree summer day, the new screaming eagle 101st patch sweating in my hand. I took my place at the front of our formation and saluted Capt. Howard. He saluted back, shook my hand to exchange the patch, and fastened it to the fuzzy, blank spot on my right shoulder. Then we went to each of my soldiers and validated their right shoulders with a new screaming eagle.
It is a great day when a soldier receives his first combat patch. Back home in garrison it tells his peers he has performed his duty; he has done what he signed up to do, and served in a combat zone.
But for many soldiers the true validation is the one given to the enemy, whether he has a patch on his right shoulder or not.
Before the moon rises in the east and blankets our valley with light as the sun does the day, the nights are the kind of blackness that sucks at your eyeballs. The lack of light pollution creates the kind of darkness that forces you to memorize every step to the shower and scan the dirt one foot in front of you with a red-lens flashlight, left and right, like a blind man tapping his cane down the sidewalk.
Then the stars fade through the thick blanket like imaginary light specks after holding your breath too long. The moon rises and the valley becomes visible.
That night, the Taliban decided to have a validation ceremony of their own by landing a few rocket-propelled grenades in our perimeter and putting a few new air holes in one of the soldiers' huts.
And the next day was Memorial Day. Our flags flew at half mast, thankfully in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice before us and not for anyone during our rotation thus far.
But the new patch on my right shoulder made me really feel part of that brotherhood, the legacy of our Army at war, and to have been validated in this, the next-greatest generation.