Each year, we remember that Memorial Day is not just third in a three-day weekend, the first of the summer season, but a day to honor duty and patriotism. Our freedom to do as we please is sometimes at odds with recognizing its price.
Decoration Day was the original name. Across the country, American flags decorate veterans’ graves, including those at the Grove Street Cemetery. On Memorial Day, the crowd there will watch the annual parade stop to honor those who march and those who lie beneath the flags.
The names of the war dead, the bugler playing taps and the rifle fire in salute are sharp reminders of the costs, costs that continue.
Call it asymmetric warfare, the war on terror, or the war to replace despots with democracy, the conflict that began on Sept. 11, 2001 is fought by volunteers, by those willing to fight it. Many of them are citizen soldiers.
Among those in the Massachusetts National Guard are three with the Belmont Police Department: Sergeant Ben Mailhot, Patrolman Paul Cowing and Patrolman Philip Kucha.
All three served in Afghanistan: Mailhot and Kucha as captains and Cowing as a staff sergeant. Kucha was the last to return home.
This was the second tour in a war zone for Phil Kucha. A graduate of UConn in political science, he joined the Belmont Police Department after his deployment in Iraq.
From July 2007 to July 2008, Kucha was in Iraq serving as a lieutenant in the military police. In charge of 44 men in three squads, Kucha provided security for officials of the Iraqi government, such as Prime Minister Maliki. His troops convoyed Iraqi vehicles with US Army armored vehicles bristling with weapons. Kucha notes that youngsters grow up fast under these conditions: a 19-year-old, once in detention for missing a class in high school, now provided security in a turret behind a .50 caliber machine gun.
While in Iraq, Kucha and his unit also participated in the now famous surge, which reversed what many considered a lost cause. Kucha provided security in insurgent–dominated neighborhoods, manning strong points whose presence helped dislodge the terrorists from Baghdad citizens, most of whom wished to be left alone.
In Afghanistan from early 2011 until 2012, Kucha, by now promoted to captain, was liaison to the Afghan police chief of Kabul, Lt. General Salangi, as well as an antiterrorism officer. Kucha and his men went on patrol around Kabul, the capital of a country still lacking the skills to build a road.
In the cool Afghan mountains, he at least did not have to contend with the 120 degree heat of Baghdad, while he wore up to 60 pounds of body armor. As advisor to a government official, Kucha went by the Army policy that Americans had to embrace the local culture while offering change.
Veterans like Kucha come back from war with memories that most of us would rather not experience or remember. American troops are mortared, rocketed and shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the National Guard chaplain, a local rabbi with a congregation in Framingham, got shot at in Afghanistan. More deadly are the improvised explosives devices – IEDs – whose aftermath Kucha has seen first-hand.
In spite of the dangers and cultural differences between Americans and their allies, Kucha has no doubts about pursuing the war to the point where Americans are no longer threatened by another 9/11.