The way he died -- shot in the neck and jaw by an Iraqi sniper firing through a trick taillight from the trunk of a car outside Fallujah -- makes it hard to imagine that Josh Pickard would say he was doing what he loved.
But all those who knew him best -- mother, father, brothers, friends, fellow Marines -- believe there was nowhere else he'd rather have been: a 20-year-old corporal driving a 26-ton tracked vehicle for the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, Bravo Company, 3rd platoon. Team Gator. Motto: "Yat Yas."
The young man who died that December day last year left a black hole, and a warm glow, in the hearts of a lot of Mercedians -- and anyone else who got to know him. "He was a great Marine," says Cpl. Anthony Schaffer, who served in the same platoon as Josh on his second tour in Iraq. "He was probably the best (armored assault vehicle) driver I've ever seen."
This is about a kid who'd knuckled three pickup trucks -- two around telephone poles -- while as sober as his minister. (As he was enlisting, his father Larry asked the recruiter, only half-joking, whether he'd have to pay for any military gear wrecked by his son.)
A kid who convinced the Haden twins, James and Stephen, to jump into lakes from cliffs near Yosemite 100 feet high -- he also talked them into skydiving. A kid who liked shooting at coyotes and squirrels with older brother Darren, singing to Brooks and Dunn, pounding a few Bud Lights. A kid who once topped out his dad's 2002 Corvette at 176 mph. A kid who carried boxing gloves in his truck, just in case somebody wanted to go a few rounds. A kid who made a younger girl at school "crave to be in the same room with him" because he made her feel so safe.
Then, at the end of high school, just as 3-year-older brother Darren had done earlier, Josh signed up for the Marines. After boot camp, and after one seven-month hitch near Fallujah, the wild kid came home a young man. Then, less than halfway through his second tour, the invincible daredevil-turned-crew chief was KIA -- killed in action.
The story of Josh Pickard has been repeated nearly 4,000 times since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. Families and friends all across America have dreaded the arrival of soldiers and Marines in dress uniforms, bearing a message none of them wants to hear. (Josh's mom, Terri, ran back into her office at a local bank, trying to hide.)
They've sung "Amazing Grace," heard taps and bagpipes, accepted flags folded into triangles and buried their Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Each death is a pebble cast into the American pond, ripples spinning outward, washing over those left behind in waves of emotion and memory.
"Predecease" is a fancy word for your kid dying before you do. Most of the KIAs in Iraq and Afghanistan have been young men, and a few women, whose lives still stretched out to unknown and unfulfilled far horizons. They weren't supposed to come home in coffins, however dignified. They were supposed to produce grandchildren, then tend to their own parents' and grandparents' memorials.
War turns that tempo inside out. "Now you will not swell the rout," wrote A.E. Housman in "To an Athlete Dying Young" in 1896, "of lads that wore their honors out/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man."
That hasn't happened -- and never will -- to Josh Pickard. Death by war in a big city absorbs of lot of those ripples in sheer anonymous numbers. Not so in Merced County, where three of its children have died on the latest battlefields of America. In a community of 250,000 -- where your cousin went to school with his cousin -- the deaths of three young people in uniform linger a lot longer and stronger than those in many other places.
Proof of that legacy can be found in what people have done for Josh since he died. His younger brother Tyson joined the Marines and was trained in boot camp by older brother Darren. A road was named after Josh in Oklahoma, which runs in front of his grandparents' house -- not far from where the "Grapes of Wrath" Joads hailed. The YouTube video of his funeral has had almost 19,000 hits.
His No. 50 Buhach Colony High School football jersey was retired at a moving ceremony before a game this season. Twenty-one oak trees have been planted for him on one of his uncle's farms. Five of his friends got tattoos featuring Josh's name, his dogtags, the Marines or praying hands. At least two of his buddies enlisted in the Corps after he was killed.
Josh's death last December came at a tipping point in the war in Iraq. That same month throughout Iraq, 23 other Marines died; only October, with 32 KIA, exceeded the lethal toll of the last month of last year. In all of 2006, 209 Marines were killed in Iraq.
He had arrived back in the "the Sandbox" for his second tour in early October last year; his first tour ran from September 2005 to April 2006, and he had volunteered to re-deploy sooner than his company was scheduled in the rotation. He landed in Anbar Province at Camp Fallujah, just outside the notorious Sunni city.
That put him right in the middle of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The month he landed, a Marine intelligence report leaked to the press called Anbar politically lost. ABC reported that the Pentagon was pondering a major pullback of the Marines from the province. Only three weeks before Josh was shot by the sniper, the Washington Post reported that a classified Marine intelligence report said the U.S. military was no longer able to defeat the bloody insurgency in western Iraq or contain al-Qaida's growing popularity there.
Here's what else was happening in the war the day Josh Pickard was killed. The State Department's Iraq Weekly Status Report noted that "attacks in Iraq have increased in the last three months to the highest level since the Pentagon began issuing the reports in 2005." White House spokesman Tony Snow said that same week that the president "is moving toward a decision on how to move forward" in Iraq. A Pentagon report issued a day before Josh died identified "incremental progress in the capabilities of the Iraqi government." Sen. Hillary Clinton said she opposed a "surge" in Iraq troop numbers. The day Josh died, the new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said America "cannot afford to fail" in the Middle East. A day later, the president himself acknowledged, for the first time, that the U.S. wasn't winning in Iraq.
A month before Josh died, 2,200 Marines were deployed from their fleet in the Persian Gulf to Anbar.
The surge was beginning, and, as usual, the Marines formed the tip of the tip of the spear.
Through the end of October this year, the death toll for Marines in Anbar totaled 87, about half the 164 men lost in the same period last year. "Josh served at the height of the battle for Anbar," Owen West, a former Marine infantry officer in Iraq, novelist, frequent op-ed contributor and commodity trader with Goldman Sachs, said in an e-mail. "Only three months after his death, the combat ebbed. Today it is hard to find a firefight in Anbar. After a three-year battle, the population recognized that the Marine Corps was the strongest force on the battlefield. The province is pacified, largely because men like Josh were willing to fight in what once was the most violent fight in the country."
Michael Yon, a blogger often embedded with troops in Iraq, wrote earlier this month that Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, "to the astonishment of everyone -- especially the United States Army and Marines -- is perhaps the safest city in all of Iraq outside of Kurdistan."
Whether apparent military success on the ground, permanent or temporary, is enough to comfort those Josh left behind remains an open question. But none of them doubts that Josh was right where he thought he should be. "Both he and Darren saw the purpose of being there," says Larry, 51, their father. "They thought they could make a difference." Adds Terri, their mom: "If we didn't have people like my sons, I don't know where we would be. I'm not political. My kids obviously believe in what they're doing."
Universally described as goofy, a ham, enjoying a child's sense of wonder and play, ready to lighten any tense moment with a joke or a grin, Josh showed this side of his character in the grim alternating boredom and terror of desert warfare. Once, on a dare, he crammed 78 sticks of gum in his mouth. Another time he chugged, without stopping, a liter of water. He loved to "grapple," and the 6-foot, 220-pound former defensive lineman could pin three guys at once. Lance Cpl. Luke Brooks says his laugh "sounded like a hyena."
Sometimes he could be found hanging, upside down, inside his armored vehicle, pretending to be a bat. He dressed as a ninja. He always made a face when being photographed. On freezing nights, he'd stalk outside the tent, shirtless, bitching about the heat. When his buddies rolled in from a night racing 60 miles an hour across the berms, he'd lie in wait in his skivvies, then spray them with water. Returning from a screwball patrol, he'd scream a line from the film "Napoleon Dynamite" in a sarcastic wail, "God, I hate my life!"
One of his favorite routines was to use the MARCBOT, a four-wheeled, radio-controlled robot-like device designed to identify improvised explosive devices (IEDs), to serve coffee to his platoon mates. From inside his observation post, Josh would direct the MARCBOT, clutching a Thermos, to the rear of an armored vehicle. "You'd open the back of your amtrac, and you'd see that cup of coffee," Cpl. Schaffer recalls.
In a savage irony, he was using the MARCBOT to search for IEDs when he was shot. He apparently lost sight of the robot for a moment, raised his head for a second -- and the sniper fired.
Several of his platoon members told Terri Pickard they gave up coffee after Josh died: "They just didn't want to drink it anymore."
As always, those left behind face a much more gray fate than did Josh, who died seemingly filled with loyalty and faith. Survivors confront grief and guilt, loss and pain, questions and doubt. How often, for example, does his father, a 6-foot-5 inch farmer with calloused hands the size of oven mittens, think of his son? The big man gulps around sobs, "Ten or 20 times a day." He recovers. "He is unstoppable," he says, using the present tense. "He is your best friend or your worst enemy."
His mother, divorced from Larry for more than a dozen years, visits the grave site at Santa Nella on the 19th of every month. She takes life a day at a time, but "I still miss him as if it happened yesterday -- it's something a mom will never get over." She harbors a hunch that her son "was scared going back for his second tour," but did so out of a sense of duty. A triptych of color portraits featuring Darren, Josh and Tyson, each in his dress blues right after boot camp, sits on her desk.
Josh's legacy? Brother Darren exhales a sound something like "hyuuuunnnh" before observing, "I know it's changed a lot of people's opinion about what it actually means to be a patriot. It's not just waving a flag or letting off fireworks on the Fourth of July."
His uncle, Rob Scheidt, head football coach at Merced High, thinks that before he left on his second tour, Josh acted differently from the first time. "As he neared the time before going back, that joy he had when he came home, that joy was lost. He was definitely not excited." Still, his nephew's sacrifice has only strengthened Scheidt's own patriotism.
Another of his coaches, Torrin Johnson, reckons that the world and the future lost out in not getting to meet or know Josh Pickard. And he admits to some personal agonizing, now that one of his proteges is gone, about whether the war is worth it. "But you understand Josh and his sense of loyalty to his country," Johnson reasserts himself. "Not just his county, family or friends -- he's going to make his whole country safe!"
Whether karma, kismet or coincidence, Josh wound up in the Marine outfit just right for him. The 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion's heritage extends to the early days of World War II, and its Marines and sailors landed on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. The unit supported the 2nd Marine Division in Vietnam, and since the fall of Baghdad has seized insurgent weapons caches, cleared highways, patrolled villages and aggressively sought to find, and disable, IEDs.
A video on its Web site shows past and present Marines in action and around camp in Iraq, with special tributes to some 20 of their number -- "We will never forget our fallen brothers." Josh, aka "Lunchbox," stands in front of the battalion's red flag, one hand on a strap across his chest, grimacing, for a change, at the camera. Throughout the video a heavy-metal song called "Genocide Junkies" throbs in the background: "Loaded, stormin' out of control/Fire up, hell ridin' we roll/Drinkin' from the well of the damned/Seize the roads, assault the land."
Like most of his generation, Josh had a MySpace page. The last time he logged on was four days before he died. Next to a photo of him lounging on his rack in shades, beanie, camo pants and boots is the phrase, "I'm Coming Back"; under "Josh's Interests" he writes that he likes meat lover's pizza and Bud Light the most. What would he like to achieve this year? "Get discharged from the Marines." Thoughts first waking up? "How many days to [sic] I have left in this hell hole?" Who would you like to meet? "ME as a civilian!"
Finally, How do you want to die?
Local news editor Mike Tharp can be reached at 209-385-2427 or email@example.com.