By Doug Stanton
Author of Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan
©2009 Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. Originally published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, May 5, 2009
Horse Soldiers is the untold story of a victory won by U.S. Special Forces and other Americans, alongside Afghan counterparts, at a critical time in our recent history. Part sociologist, diplomat, part foreign policy expert, the men in the book enacted a nuanced campaign that is a template for the way future conflicts can be approached, and a window to where we are in Afghanistan today. And, according to those who know, their ethos is simpatico with emerging national policy concerning Afghanistan. In other words, these guys got it right. One of the reasons I wrote Horse Soldiers was to understand the world my children would inherit after the events of 2001.
When I was writing my first book In Harm’s Way, I witnessed the sense of sacrifice that those WWII veterans possessed. I was surprised that sometimes their grandchildren hadn’t talked to them about the historic events of that night in July 1945, when the USS Indianapolis went down. With some modest means, I started a scholarship program for the grandkids of the survivors, one of the requirements of which was that they write an essay about their grandfather. This project was meant to foster a legacy in these young people of the sacrifices made by those who had come before them.
Recently, then, I was startled and more than saddened, after hanging up the phone with Betty McCoy, of Palm Coast, Florida, the wife of Giles McCoy, of the USS Indianapolis, who told me that Gil had just passed away after a battle with cancer. My son and I had visited Gil and Betty, making a last trip to say goodbye, although I didn’t want to admit that at the time.
Gil, a WWII Marine, having survived Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and the sinking of his ship, devoted himself to a life of helping others. He was about as resilient and strong a character as you could meet, and yet alongside his own steely self-awareness he possessed real powers of empathy. He never used phrases like “everyone agrees with me so I must be right.”
This idea of legacy, of being bound together around the campfire or kitchen table of shared experience, is important, because it’s in those moments that we move to the heart of solving problems, global and local, big and small. And of all people, I have learned that the people I write about in Horse Soldiers, the modern soldiers of the U.S. Army Special Forces, are trained to walk a selfless mile in another’s shoes during often dangerous journeys meant to create change. And as with McCoy, when I call their actions heroic, I’m using a word they are too humble to use in describing what they accomplished.