Paul Wolfowitz: Thinking of American resilience — and a St. Paul soldier — on Memorial Day

When I am in Washington on Memorial Day, I normally visit Arlington National Cemetery.

It’s a way of recognizing personally that this is not just a three-day holiday or the start of outdoor summer barbecue season. It’s an occasion to remember those who have died defending our nation. One of the most important things that we can do for the families of the fallen is to remember the sacrifices of their loved ones and honor what they did for our country.

It’s also an occasion to visit Section 60 of the cemetery where the fallen from our most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried — and where I visit, among others, the grave of Sergeant Michael Carlson of St. Paul, Minnesota, with whom I have had a special connection for over 15 years.

Sergeant Michael “Shrek” Carlson of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry division (The Big Red One) was born in Wisconsin on Feb. 14, 1982 — and died in Iraq on Jan. 24, 2005, just three weeks short of his 23rd birthday and barely a month before his division was scheduled to leave Iraq.  Michael died on the way to take down a suspected bomb-making facility, when the road collapsed under his Bradley fighting vehicle, throwing him and his entire crew into an irrigation canal and trapping them underwater.

It was purely by chance that I attended Michael’s funeral and interment at Arlington. It was an assignment made by the Secretary of Defense’s office on a rotating basis with officials from the senior Pentagon civilian and military leadership, to let the families and loved ones of the fallen know that the DOD leadership recognized and honored their sacrifice.

Michael Carlson photographed in 2002 in Kosovo. (Courtesy of Merrilee Carlson)

On that sad occasion I met “Shrek’s” mother, Merrilee, father, Dan Sr. and older brother, Dan Jr., as well as his fiancé, the lovely Crystal Beck. After the funeral, I sent Merrilee a booklet of photos from the Iraqi election which had been held just a few weeks previously.

Merrilee appreciated the gift, and reciprocated with something even better, an essay called “Credo” that Michael wrote as an 18-year-old high school senior. (It was re-printed by the Wall Street Journal and needed almost no editing.) It begins with a loving and admiring portrait of Dan Sr., a classic story of a hard-working middle-class American working 16 hours a day for 30 years. “I don’t know how he does it,” Michael wrote, “but I do know he does it for us. He wants my brother and me to have everything we need and most of what we want.”

Michael then goes on to talk about his love of sports, football, wrestling, weightlifting, skiing and hockey. A “gentle giant” who rescued smaller children from bullies, he acquired the nickname “Shrek’” from the cartoon character. He played line on his school’s state championship football team, but in his essay he rejects the idea of a career in sports, saying  – with maturity that’s astonishing for an 18-year-old and rare for anyone – that “life is more than just a game. In life there are no winners, everyone eventually loses their life. I only have so much time; I can’t waste it with a game.” He then goes on to describe his ambitions in terms that explain his volunteering for the military and serving selflessly for six years: “I want to help people. I want to fight for something, be part of something that is greater than myself.”

“Maybe,” he suggests, “a soldier, a cop or a Secret Service agent.”

The essay concludes with an almost eerily prescient dream of being a soldier in a war “helping to liberate people from oppression,” or a covert agent killing terrorists. Michael’s older brother Dan later said that Michael died doing what he wanted to do. And that seems to be true.

Of course I never got to know Michael, but I have gotten to know Merrilee. Someone has truly said that she is a “force of nature.” She has taken the enormous grief that hits any parent who loses a child, much less such a remarkable and loving son, and used it to help others deal with their grief, starting most of all with husband Dan and older son Dan Jr.

Merrilee says, without the slightest note of condescension, that men seem to have more trouble dealing with loss than women do. I don’t know whether that’s true, but she speaks from experience. John Bruning, collaborator on the war memoir “House to House” with David Bellavia, the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from Iraq, describes meeting Merrilee for the first time at the White House Medal of Honor ceremony for Bellavia.

Bruning was feeling uncomfortable and out of place, not only because of the setting, but because his own experience of combat as a journalist had turned him from an “extrovert who used to sing in public” and engage perfect strangers in conversation to someone who needed help dealing with the protective shell he had become comfortable hiding behind. Merrilee took him under her wing not only then but subsequently, to the point that Bruning came back to his old self and astonished his children on a road trip in Oregon for his daughter‘s 21st birthday by talking to strangers, as he had routinely done before. His children asked him, “What the hell is going on with you? You’re talking to everybody!”

A startled Bruning realized they were too young to remember his old extrovert self, “before all the heaviness of life turned me inward.“

“What happened to you?” his son asked.

“Shrek’s mom,” was Bruning’s simple reply.

Paul Wolfowitz was Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2001-05. He’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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