Letter from Charlottesville
Jason Christy (Foreign Affairs ’06) reflects on his service as a U.S. Marine in Iraq and his time at U.Va.
Photo courtesy of Jason Christy.
Life never fails to amaze me. Numerous times over the course of this year, I have paused to reflect on how fortunate I am to be a fourth year at our beloved University. My name is Jason Christy and I am a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and a combat veteran.
Last year I was in the most volatile place an American could be in the world — Fallujah, Iraq. I was part of the assault that quieted that city and I was there long enough to see its first free elections.
I returned home last spring on the Thursday after Easter. I remember getting off the bus waving to people, smiling when I saw my family and friends, hugging them and then seeing three of the most important people at that reception: the parents and younger brother of my friend, my Marine, who did not return with me.
Brad Arms was a corporal when he was killed Nov. 18, 2004. I remember being told of his death and thinking that it was impossible. He was the first Marine I was ever put in charge of and one of the best Marines who I have ever served with.
He had been promoted in Iraq and accordingly was moved to another squad where he, too, could lead Marines as a noncommissioned officer. He died doing just that. He was shot twice by insurgents while going to the aid of others that were under attack.
He had not turned 21 yet and he was a rising junior at the University of Georgia. He and his family are from Charlottesville. I had dinner with his mother and father Monday — it would have been his 22nd birthday.
After seeing his family upon getting off the bus, I mustered what little composure I had, straightened my uniform, swallowed hard and began the moment I had rehearsed over and over in my head for months.
As a Marine, I can say that one of the hardest parts of losing a friend in combat is that you have to continue on without them. You cannot stop to escort his body as it is returned to American soil and tell his parents how great he was or express to them your remorse for their loss. You cannot be there to lay him to rest — those tasks are carried out by other Marines.
So the moment I approached his family was one I had prepared for and pondered for hours and hours. To me, it was one of the most important things I would do in my career as a Marine. I hugged his parents and brother, they smiled and said, “Welcome home.”
I presented them the ceremonial sword worn by Marine noncommissioned officers — it was the gift our platoon had chosen to give them as a token of the respect we had for their son. I expressed our collective remorse, sympathy and gratitude for their son and his sacrifice.
Then I walked away and once more embraced my family and friends, said goodbye to my Marines, warned them to not get hurt or in trouble during their first free weekend in over seven months, and got in my own car to drive home. There I quickly showered, changed and left. My family, smiling at me as I left my house, knew they would have to wait to see me.
I drove straight back to the place I had missed most, the dear old University of Virginia. I made it into Charlottesville shortly after 10 p.m. and walked into the rugby house to see nine of my teammates and closest friends waiting on me. I was immediately jumped, berated, tossed around and merrily greeted.
We left immediately and went to O’Neill’s, where we stayed until the bar closed and ran up a ridiculous tab. I have never had such a good time spending so much money.
The greatest moments in life are defined by the emotions we experience. That day, like my first day fighting, was full of joy, grief, fear, love and gratitude. I consider it one of the unforgettable moments in my life.
I stayed at the University the entire weekend, only returning home for a family dinner that Sunday. Over the course of the weekend, I was brought up to speed on the progression of the men’s rugby team. It seemed that while I was off in Iraq, our club, in its first year as a Division I competitor, was ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation. That was something to look forward to in the fall.
I returned to my duty station that Monday and began the long process of demobilization. Our company also began planning the memorials for the five Marines that had been killed in Iraq.
After the memorials were done, what was left of spring flew by and soon it was summer. I was still on active duty, but I would be released from it at the end of summer so I could return to the University and finish my fourth year, graduate and become an officer in the Marine Corps.
Beginning my fourth year, it is remarkable how events this year have paralleled those that preceded it. When the football team beat Florida State and I hung from the goal post, it was the same weekend that I got into my first firefight.
When the Virginia rugby team beat Virginia Tech in the Union championship, it was the first time in over 20 years that Tech had lost that title and it was the same weekend that, a year ago, the assault on Fallujah began.
This year, on the 230th birthday of the Marine Corps, I was at a ball dancing and drinking with my “beautiful date.” Last year, I was in the second day of the assault wondering if I would make it out alive.
Last Nov. 18, the day the fourth “Harry Potter” was released and the weekend of the fourth-year fifth, also marked the same weekend a year earlier that I lost a great friend.
This year I am captain of the rugby team. Our team is still in the top 25 and we plan on improving that ranking this season. My teammates are extraordinary — they, like my Marines, never cease to amaze me. I spend almost as much time with them as I did my Marines last year. I have rugby matches where my Marines come to watch and cheer. Brad’s family has seen every home match this year.
Every day I walk through Grounds, awestruck by the majesty of this place. I realize how lucky I am to be here both as a student and a Marine. Some of my Marines are returning to Iraq this summer and some of those I served with last year have been back there for months now.
I have been all over the world, and I have many great memories, but my favorite ones are from the University. As a fourth year, I realize how strange leaving this place will be. To say goodbye to so many friends and faculty will be difficult, but then I remember that I will have graduated from the University of Virginia.
Being a rugby player or a veteran of a foreign war is no small feat, but neither is graduating from this University, a school with all its tradition and history that creates scholars, leaders and citizens who will impact the world.
As I walk through Grounds, I don’t just see the Lawn or the Rotunda — I see the strength of the nation I love in the peers with whom I am so honored to have attended this fine institution. I hope that all of us realize the enormity of our circumstance and none of us take that for granted.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2006, issue of The Cavalier Daily.