Living on Iraq Time

Every evening at 10, beeps emanate from the top drawer of my dresser. The sound comes from a watch that has resided there for just over three years. The 20 beeps signify that another day is dawning in Iraq. The watch belonged to my son, Specialist Martin Kondor, who was killed in action with the Army on the morning of April 29, 2004, in the city of Baquba, north of Baghdad. Martin was 20 years old.

Since his death, three Memorial Days have come and gone, and while most people think of Memorial Day as just a day off from work, an occasion for a backyard cookout or a chance to score a good deal at a spectacular sale, for families like mine, Memorial Day has a more somber meaning. For us, the day is a further reminder that our loved one is gone forever.

It’s not that we need another reminder. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of Martin. My wife and I each carry one of his dog tags with us at all times. His picture hangs on the living room wall with those of his two brothers, and his bedroom has been left essentially as it was when he was alive. Two of the last packages we sent to him were returned after his death, and they’ve sat unopened in a corner of the room for the last three years.

For most Americans, when the morning alarm wakes us up, we step out of bed to begin our daily ritual. As we jump in the car, most of us don’t think twice about our commute to work, and if we are concerned at all, it’s not for our safety; rather, we’re worried that there might be a traffic jam that will make us late and prevent us from stopping for a quick cup of coffee.

But when Martin’s watch beeped every morning, it signaled the start of a day much different from what most of us are used to. Martin and his fellow soldiers had all volunteered to go to Iraq as members of a personal security detachment. Their sole mission was to safeguard the life of a brigade commander. And their daily commute from their home base to Baquba, where the commander would meet with city officials and tribal leaders, was often interrupted by rifle fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

Martin — like many combat soldiers who have gone before and come after him, including his older brother, Trevor, who served with the 82nd Airborne — didn’t tell us much about what he was doing. He didn’t want us to worry. We learned most of what we now know about the last three months of his life from his buddies and his commanders.

My first indication of the nature of his mission and the situation he and the others were facing came in a satellite phone call Martin made to me after his team had survived a particularly nasty ambush. He described a horrific scene in which the convoy was taking fire from both sides of the road, with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades whizzing by his head from every direction. He said he just kept firing at every enemy target he could see; and when the convoy finally escaped the insurgents’ trap, he could hardly believe he and his team members had survived.

Exactly 20 days after I received that phone call from Martin, two grim-faced soldiers arrived at our door to tell us that Martin had been killed. It was an “improvised explosive device,” they said. An assassination attempt on the colonel. As the gunner on a Humvee, Martin was completely exposed to the blast.

Our only solace lay in the realization that Martin probably never had time to hear the blast that killed him, let alone feel it. Others are not always so lucky.

His buddies took his death pretty hard. A soldier from Martin’s company escorted his remains from Iraq to Germany, and one of his former platoon sergeants escorted Martin’s flag-draped coffin on the flight from Germany to the United States.

That sergeant and another who had helped train Martin assisted with the funeral arrangements and brought messages from Martin’s comrades and commanders in Iraq. Those still in the fight wanted us to know how much they respected and admired our son. Indeed, some of them got tattoos of Martin’s name or likeness, as did Martin’s younger brother, Joe. At Martin’s home base in Iraq, the colonel ordered that a school for soldiers on post be named the Kondor Education Center, in Martin’s memory.

Here at home, tokens of remembrance from Martin’s friends and former high school classmates still pile up at his gravesite. At his elementary school, his teachers planted a tree and placed a stone marker in front of the school. The inscription on the marker reads: “In memory of Army Specialist Martin Kondor, an American patriot.”

A scholarship fund was created at his high school, from which an annual award is given to a graduating senior who exhibits qualities of leadership and patriotism. And the county Veterans Administration office commissioned a bronze plaque to memorialize Martin and all the other local men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The plaque joins the others, which date back to World War I, on the portico of the county courthouse.

As Martin’s buddies have completed their tours in Iraq, several of them have made the journey here to his hometown to pay their respects to us and to Martin. Tears always well up in my eyes as I watch each of them salute his gravesite. Others have written letters or e-mail messages, telephoned or sent packages or photos.

Last month, on April 29, the third anniversary of Martin’s death, we received an e-mail message from the man whose life our son had sworn to safeguard. He’s now a brigadier general, stationed in Baghdad this time on his second tour in Iraq. In his message, the general said: “None of us who served with your son will ever forget the day that he passed away. We will never forget him or his service to our nation. It was an honor to serve with your son.”

As I read those words, I realized that the greatest memorial of all for a fallen soldier lies not in the gravestones, bronze plaques or markers that display his name, but rather in the memories of his family and friends, and in the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers and countrymen.

And so before heading out to the big sale or the opening of the town pool or the neighbors’ backyard barbecue, take some time to attend a local Memorial Day ceremony. Do this not just to glance over the gravestones or the plaques or the markers that list the fallen soldiers’ names, but out of respect for the friends, family members and comrades they leave behind — some of whom have died or are still alive or have yet to confront their fate.

Someday, Martin’s watch will fall silent, and I will no longer have my daily reminder of the new day dawning in Iraq. But his mother and I, his brothers, his friends and the soldiers who served with him will always have our memories of who he was and what he did for his country. And we will gladly tell his story. Isn’t that the purpose of Memorial Day?

Mike Kondor, an assistant department manager at a home improvement store.