Small Wars Journal

A Soldier's Soldier

Wed, 11/11/2009 - 10:04am
I wrote this essay a little more than five years ago, back in April 2004. The story, however, is not dated. Like most soldiers, I've lost some of those I was connected to in these wars we have been fighting. Double digits now, and who knows how many WIA. This is what happens after a decade of combat. Some losses, however, strike closer to home. On this day, we shall remember. This is about one of those whom I will remember.

A Soldier's Soldier

By Robert L. Bateman

On Friday morning we heard the news of the death of Pat Tillman, formerly of the NFL, but most recently of the 75th Ranger Regiment. After September 11 Tillman turned down a renewal of his NFL contract, a contract worth $3.6 million. Instead he joined the Army and became a Soldier.

America will continue to mourn Tillman. There will be numerous tributes in his honor. Already countless sportswriters have expounded on his truncated career. I would be surprised if the NFL does not trot out some memorial to him come the beginning of the season.

This is all well and good. His was honorable service. He placed his life on the line when he did not have to, for reasons wholly unselfish. That is something I respect. Tillman had it all, the American Dream, and he chose to join those of us serving on the ramparts. He did so solely because that was what he thought was the right thing to do. I did not know him.

I did know Bradley Fox.

Bradley Fox was about five foot six. He probably weighed 140 pounds soaking wet. He was raised by his mother alone, his father was not around. He was a high-school dropout. He had dark brown hair which he wore fairly long for an infantryman. But then infantrymen often shave down to the skin on their scalps, so even an inch of hair looks shaggy to us. Fox was his own man.

His grin was infectious. He had this tightly compressed smile, even when he was pissed. You could tell when he was mad because the grin expanded a tad and tightened at the edges. Almost a grimace, but not quite. But even that usually passed quickly. Fox was irrepressible.

Tillman might have been a millionaire. He was probably a good soldier too. There are no bad soldiers in the Ranger Regiment. But Bradley Fox, well, he was the best infantryman I ever saw.

Once upon a time I was his commander.

Fox was a buck sergeant and I was a brand new Captain when we first met. We were both new to our unit, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, part of the First Cavalry Division. At the time I was waiting for a company command and Fox was the vehicle commander of a Bradley in one of the line companies.

I met him on a freezing day in the field at Fort Hood, Texas. It was the winter of 1993/4. Fox had one Bradley M2 and a few dismounted infantrymen with him. That day he was the "Opposing Force" working against a platoon of four Bradleys about to "attack" his position in training. Using lasers and receptors we would replicate combat. I was the evaluator.

From a distance I watched him do the most incredible things with his Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and his crew. I watched, and that day I learned, quietly. There was nothing I could do to make him better. He was a natural. Fifteen minutes after the start of the exercise all four of the vehicles attacking Fox's outgunned OPFOR were "destroyed" and their dismounted infantry were pinned down. Fox was preparing a counter-attack. I had to stop it there. There was nobody left to continue the attack against this dynamo.

It was 4-1 odds. He was not supposed to be able to win.

Three months later I assumed command of one of the companies. The reconnaissance platoon was part of my company. They were short a sergeant.

Despite the fact that he was the "wrong" specialty for the Scouts I appealed to the battalion commander. I wanted Sergeant Fox in the Scouts, and Sergeant Fox wanted to be a scout. My commander acceded and Fox became one of my soldiers.

Fox was a natural and his soldiers followed him with the sort of devotion that men reserve for true leaders. He was a winner. He was the best this country, or any country, could possibly make.

Bradley Fox and I parted ways, as Soldiers do, when we each moved on to new assignments. We both made the Army our career. I became a Field Grade officer and now work in the Pentagon. Fox climbed the enlisted ranks to Sergeant First Class and was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment.

On 14 March Fox was in the turret of his Bradley on a road in Baghdad when an IED went off. It sent shrapnel into his brain stem. He was evacuated to Germany. He never regained consciousness. On 20 April Sergeant First Class Bradley Fox died in the hospital in Germany.

Pat Tillman was a great football player, and he was doubtless a good soldier. I honor his service. But it takes nothing away from him for me to say...he was no Bradley Fox.