You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

My best friend died in Iraq. I might not want to talk about it, but I want people to ask.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/11/2021 Garrett Cathcart
a man and a woman smiling for the camera: Garrett Cathcart and Dave Fraser in Killeen, Texas, in December 2005. © Family handout Garrett Cathcart and Dave Fraser in Killeen, Texas, in December 2005.

A few years ago, I was on a first date with a woman I had met just the day before. My West Point roommate had introduced us nearly a decade after our graduation, and she was striking. I was clearly out of my league. She had changed her flight back to California to have dinner with me, and we were doing the chef’s tasting at a new restaurant in Denver. I was on a roll. She couldn't stop laughing, and the server even told us we were a cute couple. It was easy and natural.

After the scallops, she noticed the silver bracelet I always wear on my right wrist, inscribed with the name of my best friend, Dave, who was killed in Iraq. Who is he, she asked. And what does KIA stand for?

When I told her, it got awkward. She said all the things people think they should say: What happened? I’m so sorry. What was it like?

Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.

I empathized with her. She was trying to be respectful and compassionate. But I wasn’t really sure how to answer. Sometimes I wanted to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. And the momentum of a great night was fading, quickly.

A grisly day, a grisly death

In Iraq in 2006, I was an Army reconnaissance scout platoon leader in northern Baghdad. It’s clearly not first date material. But if I had known her better, maybe even after a few years, I would have told her about the operation just outside the northern gates of Baghdad. It was broad daylight, and even now, I mostly remember it in small pieces: Shotgun breaches to open doors. Flash-bangs. Rotary wing aircraft providing overwatch. Women screaming at us not to take their husbands.

Remembering Donald Rumsfeld: A respected and admired leader who simply stayed too long

But we did. We loaded their husbands into the Humvees to take them to the detainee operations center, where they would be kept or released.  

Then, on the way, a bone-jarring detonation.


After the smoke cleared, I could see that the truck in front of me was gone, obliterated with 500 pounds of explosives buried under the road. I called a medevac for the two guys whose bodies were still relatively intact, but they hadn’t made it.

As I waited on the bird, I began the grisly task of collecting remains. I was the patrol leader, and I felt it was my job, literally, to pick up the pieces. The team leader of the truck in front of me was a Georgia boy named Justin – a father of two with a wife waiting at home. He was the funny one. Beloved by everyone in the platoon. I found his leg. It was much heavier than I thought it would have been.

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.

Video: In Iraq, an old U.S. foe is stronger than ever (Reuters)

Seven years later in that restaurant, instead of telling her this story, I made a joke about someone at the bar across the room. She laughed, and we moved on from talking about the war. I had saved the night.  

Unhappy homecoming

I never told her about how, a few weeks after that 500-pound IED explosion, I got an email from my best friend's mother. Dave Fraser and I had run cross-country together at West Point, then were stationed at the same Army base and lived together. We were deployed at the same time, in different regions in Iraq. We had a rough plan for when we got back – South America. Dave wanted to climb the Patagonias. I wanted Rio.

In the email, Dave’s mother had done, I suppose, all she could manage. She had written, like a form letter, addressed only to me: We regret to inform you that our son David has been killed in action. It left me stunned, crushed and confused.

USA TODAY Editorial Board: This July Fourth, America will leave Afghanistan independence in its death throes

I went to the operations center and checked the reporting. Dave had just been killed in action in Baghdad. He died from a special, especially lethal, kind of IED, called an explosively formed projectile. It was his last patrol before going home.

a group of people sitting on the ground: Garrett Cathart, seated in center, while he was a commander in Afghanistan in March 2011. © Family handout Garrett Cathart, seated in center, while he was a commander in Afghanistan in March 2011.

We were supposed to go home at nearly the same time, so my own homecoming coincided with his funeral. I was lucky to be able to go, I guess. On the way there, my buddy and I passed a large group of protesters who held signs that read, “Thank God for IEDs.” My buddy kept driving.

Because of people who hold signs like that, it means something to me when other people actually want to learn about what happened. It’s a way of keeping the memory of those we lost alive. It’s a way of knowing what we have here and the cost of it.

It never stops mattering

A lot of Americans tend to forget about veterans until Veterans Day comes around. That’s one of the reasons why, 13 years after Dave died, I co-founded an initiative, called Mission Roll Call, to unify and amplify veterans’ voices. We needed a way to take the voices of veterans directly to policymakers on issues that are important to us: access to health care, suicide prevention, post-traumatic growth – a lot of things we don’t like to talk about. But it's time now to talk about them. We’ve lost more veterans to suicide since Sept. 11 than to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something has to change.

Veteran: I lost both my legs fighting in Afghanistan. Staying there doesn't honor our troops.

Some veterans want to talk about their service, and some don’t. Some want to talk about our care after service, and some don’t. But it never stops mattering that people want to know, and that they support us after we take the uniform off.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Garrett Cathcart © Grant Miller Garrett Cathcart

Over our last course and another glass of wine, my date asked me why I wear this bracelet. Is it a way of honoring my friend? Is it a way to remind myself of what happened?

“So people ask,” I replied.

Garrett Cathcart is executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonpartisan veteran advocacy group. He served in the Iraq and Afghan wars as a cavalry scout with the United States Army, as an Iraqi Army military adviser team chief, and as a cavalry troop commander in Afghanistan in 2010.  

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My best friend died in Iraq. I might not want to talk about it, but I want people to ask.



image beaconimage beaconimage beacon