I don’t think Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Ben Conner had being on the opinion page in mind when he emailed me last week, politely asking if there was some way I might be able to get a little bit of information on his deployment to Iraq in this newspaper.
But here he is anyway. Partly because the least I can do is get something in the paper about his deployment – and I wish I had the time and space to do a story about everyone who’s deployed.But Ben’s story is on the opinion
page for another reason, too. Because as I was thinking about Memorial Day and the debt we owe those who have given their lives so we can have such things as opinion pages, my mind took a turn.
That turn said this: we also owe something to the men and women serving now, in these dangerous times.
So many of whom are so young. Like Ben, whom I’ve never met and had never heard from before his email. And while I don’t know him, I learned enough to know Ben is just three years removed from graduating from Richmond Hill High School. He’s serving in the United States Coast Guard aboard the USCG Cutter Wrangell in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Ben’s cutter is one of five deployed there, each with 22 crew members – and the Coast Guard’s motto is Semper Paratus, or always ready.
"Our primary mission is the defense of two of Iraq’s oil platforms just off their coast," he wrote. "My duties on board are the safe navigation of the ship and maintenance of the outer deck. For operations I am a small boat coxswain (pilot) and boarding team member. We work side by side with the U.S., British, Aussie and Iraqi navies for the overall security of the OPLATS (oil platforms) and maritime law enforcement and safety."
Ben said he and his fellow coast guard crewmen conduct security sweeps on every ship attempting to enter the OPLATS, "sometimes up to two or three boardings a day per ship."
There’s a reason for the tough security. "The safety of these OPLATS is of the utmost importance for Iraq’s future since they supply 86 percent of the country’s total revenue," Ben wrote.
That’s well put. After reading up on it a bit, I learned a two-day shut down in early 2004 - about the same time Ben was getting ready to graduate from RHHS - caused by an attack on the platforms cost approximately $28 million while the price of oil ballooned on world markets. It makes these platforms inviting targets for those who want to see a democratic Iraq fail and our economy take a hit.
But thanks to guys like Ben, who didn’t tell me his age but is probably no more than 23, Iraq continues to get a chance to succeed. And so will we, as long as we have young men and women willing to serve in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and, yes, the Merchant Marines and Coast Guard too.
In other words, so long as we have people like Ben.
Who, by the way, deployed to Iraq last June and will be returning to Richmond Hill on June 18.
He’s done well over the last year, advancing in rank from E-3 to E-5, "mostly because of the amazing command and crew that I was lucky to enough to get the opportunity to serve with this year," he wrote.
And on May 18, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Ben Conner signed up for six more years in the Coast Guard. His reenlistment doesn’t take effect until June 1, but he asked to be sworn in early by his current captain, Lt. Carmichael, who is leaving before the first of next month. The swearing in took place while "up the Kwara Abd Alla River in Iraq on board a sunken ship left over from the first Gulf War," Ben’s email said.
That’s an interesting place to reenlist and probably makes for a good story – my guess is he already has plenty of stories to tell and my hope is many years from now he’ll regale his grandchildren with them.
Somehow, I think that's a hope shared by those whose memories we keep alive by honoring them on Monday, on Memorial Day.