When I first met Army Sgt. Dustin D. Laird, he was already dead.
I had been in the country no more than a few days when the order came down to cover the memorial. I was a combat correspondent, U.S. Marine journalist, on a base in Iraq.
This was back when we covered all the in-country memorials, before Information Operations officers at some higher level decided that Al Qaeda and the Taliban used the photos we produced as motivation, as recruiting tools.
It wasn't the beginning of the war. The invasion was 2003. This was 2006, smack dab in the middle of a colossal mess in Iraq. Insurgents everywhere, blending in with friendlies, blowing up our Marines and soldiers with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).
That's how Laird went, I would learn. Rolled over an IED with his armored vehicle.
I had been taught that shooting pictures of and writing the story for memorials was one of the higher honors a correspondent could undertake, and that they were to be handled with the utmost of care.
"You are recording their last living memory" we were told, "don't f*** it up."
The hardest part was remaining objective, but that's always the hardest part. There are literally uniformed soldiers and Marines — often the types of guys who could clear a bar in a fist fight — soaking their shirts with tears during somber prayers and quiet goodbyes ...
... And you are the guy in their faces with a camera.
I had been told all sorts of things by these mourning soldiers and Marines in my time.
A Marine staff sergeant once took me outside — at another memorial, months later — and told me he was going to rip out my spine and mail it home to my mother. Later, he read the story I wrote and shot me an email.
"I apologize. You did a really good job. Thank you." It said.
"It's OK, Staff Sergeant, I understand." I replied.
This happened often, but it was the hardest when the emails came from family.
I received notes from mothers, fathers, sisters, sons, and daughters, all giving thanks. The wives were the hardest to hear from, they always wanted to know things about their lost loved ones — things I usually didn't know, last words, last wishes.
I knew a few things about Laird though. A few things I wish I didn't know.
I knew — because my officer-in-charge made me find out — why Laird received a bronze star and a posthumous promotion to sergeant. These are things not usually given lightly — at least at the time I thought they weren't.
My officer was a little green, and insisted that I find out why in order to complete the story.
So I did some digging. Finally, I found out from his officer the reason why he earned such honors usually reserved for highly meritorious actions of heroism or leadership.
"He hit the ied, and if he hadn't hit it, someone else would have."
I was flabbergasted. I couldn't put that in the story, even if I listed all of his medals and honors. One doesn't usually get rewarded for driving over a bomb one doesn't even know is there.
How could this be? That the Army would take a mother's son to Iraq and replace him with a medal he didn't actually earn, a medal given to him as much by the randomness and hell of war as it was by the brass who signed off on the award orders.
Later I would find out this was common practice for many units. A soldier steps out of a vehicle and onto an IED and he's awarded for merit. Used to be that the Purple Heart was the standard that measured blood spilt in combat.
I guess unit commanders thought it was the least they could do, add another piece of ribbon to a soldier's collection, before collecting his remains and sending them home to their family.
The injustice blazed inside me though, admittedly. Families can't hug a ribbon. Soldiers don't fight for medals or battlefield promotions. Hell, they don't even fight for America or Freedom or any of those other nifty catch phrases we hear so often.
They fight and die for each other, when it comes right down to it.
In my search though I did find something out that I insisted be put in the story. In the Marine Corps, at the time, most of these memorial stories followed a cookie-cutter approach. Like much of the procedure, memorial stories followed an equation, so they all pretty much looked the same.
"Servicemembers of said unit gathered to say goodbye to (insert name here) (insert date here)."
"(Insert name here) died conducting combat operations in Iraq" — was the standard phrase.
Throw in a few quotes from the various sermons, tie a bow on it, publish it online.
Like war itself, there was much about producing these stories that was cold and unforgiving, like a scalpel.
Laird's was different though, at least for me. It was the first story I ever published under a byline. I've now been a journalist, in one form or another, for several years.
Still, to this day, Laird is the anchor and standard by which I write all words.
One thing I know about Laird was that when they pulled him from the wreckage, they knew he wasn't going to make it. They did their best for him, patched him up a bit, loaded him into the back of a vehicle, tried to make him comfortable.
But he wasn't comfortable.
His last request was that they prop him up so he could see his fellow soldiers finish the mission.
That was how he passed.
So, as war tends to be in so many ways, there was some duality with Dustin D. Laird's story. The Army's reflexive, administrative nature had likely awarded him medals without even knowing the whole story, without even caring if he earned them or not, in fact, knowing he probably didn't.
Hearing his last request — made at the young age of 23, dying on the battlefield — I suddenly knew Laird had actually earned that medal.
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