Prior to joining the Army, Memorial Day was special to me simply because it was my birthday. Even after joining the military, ceremonial events honoring the fallen and those servicemembers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of America never had much meaning for me. As an Army journalist, I simply covered the events, wrote my article and tried to celebrate my birthday.
Then came Iraq. On April 17, 2005, I survived death when an improvised explosive device detonated my vehicle – killing one soldier and wounding everyone else. My deployment with the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) from 2005-2006 made Memorial Day personal. For the rest of the deployment, I no longer feared death, I anticipated it. I survived that attack, but during the rest of that tour, I met several young brothers who didn’t. Memorial Day would never be the same.
For the past 16 years I’ve posted tributes on my social media platforms honoring the 41 soldiers who died during that deployment to ensure they were not forgotten. Five were African American. Of those five, I was extremely close to two of those brothers.
Sgt. Tyrone Chisolm, 27, an Armor Crewmember from Savannah, Ga., was killed on Veterans Day in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005. I’d just finished covering an event when we got word that there was a soldier killed in action. After it was revealed that it was Tyrone, I was stunned. I had lunch and dinner with him several times and we had talked about hip hop, the Bible, and life. He was soft-spoken and had an infectious smile that lit up the room. As an Army photojournalist, shooting pictures of his memorial service was one of the toughest assignments of my tour.
Cpl. Jeffrey Williams, 20, a Combat Medic from Warrenville, Ill., died after an IED detonated his vehicle on Sept. 5, 2005. I’d been on patrol with Williams and will never forget how we had stopped at an Iraqi village to meet the locals. They offered us chai as a welcoming gesture, yet Williams was skeptical of the act. I aimed my camera to take a photo of him holding his cup of chai and he jokingly said, “If these Iraqis poisoned this damn tea, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt all their asses!” Covering his memorial was the closest I came to crying during that deployment.
As of May 12, the Department of Defense listed 4,419 military casualties from OIF and 2,218 military deaths in the War in Afghanistan. African American deaths from those conflicts were:
Operation Iraqi Freedom – 441
Operation Enduring Freedom – 193
Operation Inherent Resolve – 16
I’d written the memorial articles for nearly 50 fallen soldiers as an Army journalist from various races, color, and religion. After Taps is played, I’ve wondered what happens to the memory of those who fell. Do the communities they came from remember them on Memorial Day and pay tribute to their sacrifices? Having come close to death, I wondered if my community of Sunnyside would have paid tribute to my legacy, should I have been killed by that IED blast.
Thousands of African Americans join the military from communities that look like the one where I grew up. Some join to escape poverty, for education benefits, to gain discipline and figure out their life moves, or to maintain their family lineage of military service. They leave their communities and take their hometown pride with them across the world and yet the symbols of patriotism we usually see in the U.S. are most often White men. The media never hesitates to use our faces when it wants to exploit the worst of us. Perhaps more images of Black men and women in unform and in ceremonies like Memorial Day, July 4 and Veterans Day, would help dispel some of that.
When my brothers and sisters fell in combat, I have to wonder if their communities have forgotten them? Were these brothers and sisters glorified and amplified for their service? Do our communities know the stories of valor, courage, and heroism that African American soldiers have displayed on the most recent battlefield? Most recently, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Joe Biden on Dec. 16, 2021, becoming the first African American soldier in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to garner that medal. According to Cashe’s citation, he suffered fatal injuries while serving in Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, after rescuing fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle during OIF in the Salah Ad Din Province. It took 17 years for him to be recognized with the highest medal for gallantry.
There are hundreds of servicemembers who have died performing acts of valor – but it feels as if our communities are oblivious to such acts. Whether it was in the American Revolution, the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War, the trenches of World War I, the forests in Europe during World War II, the rice paddies of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq, African Americans have fought and died in our nation’s wars. They are our fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends – and knew all too well when they deployed to harm’s way, there was the possibility of not returning home.
This Memorial Day weekend, it is my hope that African Americans share the legacy of these men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation. Williams had the honor of a U.S. Post Office building dedicated to his memory. That is a great start. For the many African Americans who served in uniform, the sacrifices of the fallen have given us a deeper appreciation for what Memorial Day truly means. As for me, it is hardly just about my birthday anymore.
Donald Sparks is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major, who has accomplished many awards in journalism and photojournalism during his time in service as a Public Affairs senior enlisted leader. His military awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Medal, Army Meritorious Medal and the Purple Heart. He is a recipient of the Ancient Order of Saint Gabriel given to those rare individuals whose careers embody outstanding achievements and accomplishments in the spirit, dignity, and sense of sacrifice and commitment epitomized by a career that so singularly distinguishes the individual as a contributor to Public Affairs that they have few peers. He is a graduate of Evan E. Worthing HIgh School (Class of 1986) and University of Texas at El Paso (2013) where he earned a Masters of Leadership Studies.