They don't wear dog tags. Their families don't know where they're going, when they'll be back, or the circumstances of their death -- if and when the worst should occur. Often, the only way they even know when another group has been on a mission is by an eerie and unmistakable sign: a pair of empty combat boots resting outside of the base chapel, signifying the death of a soldier.
This is the life of military Special Operations or Special Ops, as they're often called.
In the mid-'90s, I watched my boyfriend go from grunt Army infantryman to an elite Airborne Ranger. I watched him go from an 18-year-old, nave Tennessee boy to a trained killer who would spend the next few years of his life flirting with foreign soil, parachuting into danger, belly-crawling in trenches, and tracking war criminals. To say it changed him would be a gross understatement. It changed him so much that I called off the wedding.
Make no mistake, we both knew we were too young to get married, and I don't think either of us really even wanted to -- it just seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe it was all the WWII movies we'd seen.
Our engagement was never real to me anyway. We got engaged the day he learned he was being sent to Bosnia, a country neither of us had ever heard of -- we had to look at a map to know where in the world it was. Chris was going on his first Special Ops mission, his first time to face death. His commanding officers told him up front that there was a good chance that he would never come home, that this first trip could be his last, that there was no turning back, no room for cowardice -- that this was the big show.
Despite his bravado and his extensive training, Chris was scared -- so scared that he proposed. We took a bunch of pictures of each other, said many good-byes, sat around in silence, and cried.
He wrote me some letters while he was over there, but I didn't get any of them until he had already made it back home safely. Truthfully, I had already resigned myself to thinking he would die. So when he came back and was so very different from when he left, neither of us knew what to say or do. I was a light-hearted, 17-year-old high school student; he wouldn't answer me when I asked if he had to kill anyone over there.
That was it. The wedding was off. I walked away from it and back to my world of soccer games and proms, and he went back to his life as a government-approved assassin. We had some brushes after that, actually some damn scary ones (you don't want to jilt someone who knows 35 ways to kill a person without leaving a mark). But mostly that was it. We're friends again now, and he's moved on to a new career -- training military Special Ops in hand-to-hand combat.
After seeing that change in Chris, you'd think I would have learned my lesson about Special Ops soldiers. Hardly. For the first few years after Chris, I found myself drawn to these elite soldiers -- men who live off adrenaline, danger, and the blood of strangers.
For a short time I dated Brad -- another Ranger who was so friendly, jovial, and stable that I sometimes forgot that he was military, and then I'd see that screaming eagle tattooed on his neck.
I studied hap ki do with a Navy SEAL and he taught me how to stab a man with the man's own knife, while he's still holding it. I also learned pressure points and how to throw a man in a way that causes him to break his own neck. Once, on a first date with a Green Beret, that Special Op soldier taught me how to gut a man -- over dinner, explicitly demonstrating with his steak knife.
A few years later I got drunk in a Florida bar with two other Navy SEALS who spoke of swimming several miles in the ocean with boots on in hypothermia-inducing water. They joked that the swim was just to get to the target, that the real work began ashore.
From a Delta Force member I learned a little jujitsu -- Army-style: how to sneak up behind an enemy and choke him to sleep or to death; how to use the strength in my hips and legs and abdomen to kill a person in under a minute; how to break a bone so that it will either puncture the skin or cause internal bleeding. Fortunately, the night that I hung out with four Night Stalkers -- Army reconnaissance helicopter pilots -- I didn't learn much of anything. It's hard to teach someone how to fly a helicopter when you're all sloshed on tequila.
I don't know if any of these boys I ve known are in Afghanistan now. Probably not -- they've probably all finished their tours. I do know that their comrades are over there. Special Ops have already been sent to the Middle East to do our first bit of dirty work for us. Some of them may have been there all along. These forces will likely suffer the greatest casualties -- almost all they do is ground fighting. They ll go in first, and we'll never know about it. They'll die first, and we'll never hear about it. And when our infantrymen get captured and taken as POWs, Special Ops will sneak in and try to rescue them to bring our boys home again.
These men -- boys themselves, really -- are extremely well-trained and devoted to the job in a way that makes them lousy boyfriends, great drinking buddies, and exceptional soldiers. In the next few months, we're all going to come to realize that we owe them for our lives and the lives of our other fighting men. Say a little prayer for them today, some of them may be parachuting into some desolate region right now.