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NEWS | April 26, 2024

Reflections on Sgt. Richard Sherman: A life still living through social connection

By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Valentine D.C. National Guard

Twenty years ago, Sgt. Stephen R. Sherman, was in a vehicle filled with greeting cards for he and his fellow “Bobcats” as they were among one of the first Stryker brigades to be deployed to Mosul, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

His vehicle was hit with an IED, and he succumbed instantly.  Sgt. Sherman’s death was as his life: unique.  The vehicle he traveled in contained greeting cards sent by family members and supporting Americans in the earliest days of Operation Iraqi Freedom when our Nation was still wrestling with complex feelings after 9/11. 

While he was surrounded with the support and love of Americans in the form of greeting cards, Sgt. Sherman was physically in the vehicle by himself – he was alone while surrounded by love.

This represents many servicemembers, particularly after separation from service. 

Sgt. Sherman had indeed found a home within his family of Bobcats, although his journey to home was not as linear.  When his vehicle was struck by the IED, he was surrounded by love, but physically by himself.

On Feb. 3, I couldn’t help but see how many of the nearly 100 Bobcats gathered had spent the last twenty years riding in a vehicle by themselves.  While it was 20 years since Sgt. Sherman’s passing, it was 19 years since the Bobcat’s deployment ended and there was initially a plan to celebrate the 20th year, however, due to life challenges within the Bobcats – suicides, substance abuse, tough breaks in life, and a general feelings of loneliness, some decided, if they waited another year for the reunion, there’s no telling who might still be around. 

How is it that so many service members ride a vehicle by themselves when there is indeed love and camaraderie all around?

Some of it, I can imagine, is a lack of being able to communicate life with others.  Service is a lifestyle distinct from most.  Many Soldiers report the headache of sharing the experience with loved ones or even the ability to do so is futile.  There’s a popular hashtag on social media these days #IYKYK (if you know you know).  When it comes to Army service and combat deployments, if you don’t know, you don’t know, and many will argue that it’s best that way.  That’s why the U.S. goes to war, to keep war from coming to us.

But what I saw on that February afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery, were all guys who did indeed know.  There was Army life after deployment – separation from service, movement to new units, and medical separations.  Some came home to different family dynamics than when they had left, some experienced loss of family members that they missed while serving, there were also financial challenges, and even the grappling with aging. 

But you’d think after serving in combat with guys who’d become more brothers than battle buddies, one would be able to share any struggle and loneliness wouldn’t be able to grab hold.  But isolation and shame are enemies that can be harder to defeat.  Boxers would say, the punch that hurts most, is the one you don’t see coming.  These enemies often fly below the radar.

There were some guys who’d lost contact with another battle buddy who’d been injured and felt too ashamed to reach out again, so they continued to ride by themselves with all the love they need around them but being limited in their abilities to engage that love, support, and brotherhood in a real way.  For others it was a shameful divorce, distance, substance, or financial hardships.

Interestingly, there were some guys who’d been wildly successful after separating from service but felt shame even in their successes: Why me and not these other great guys or shame in being able to do for oneself but not for everyone?

The antidote, that day, and maybe for every day, was a rallying point centered on the memory of Sgt. Sherman.  The Bobcats overcame whatever kept them away before.  Some came from as far as the state of Washington.  And there was no person safer than his mom. She had about 100 sons surrounding her who were capable and most assuredly inclined to eliminate any threat or even discomfort that this Bobcat mom might experience.  There was no community that was more forgiving, embracing, and loving than this community. 

There were so many apologies given for not being in touch.  They weren’t needed.  Sgt. Sherman provided the place, the preconditions, the atmosphere for Bobcats to connect. 

Connection beyond shame, love beyond faults, and most importantly having some of the greatest times some reported having had in years.  Sgt. Sherman’s remembrance didn’t end at the gravesite. There were happy hours, dinners, hotel gatherings, walks through D.C. and Virginia and other points of connection that happened naturally and seamlessly once everyone was gathered.  The reunion was organized by Bobcat and D.C. National Guard member Lt. Col. Ryan P. Walsh. 

So, when it comes to how the Army combats loneliness, I believe if the solution were simple, the Army would have implemented it years ago.  However, it seems that a good place to start is the Sherman example – guilt and shame free gatherings. 

The U.S. Surgeon General calls loneliness and isolation an epidemic.  Latest numbers show 49% of Americans have “three or fewer close friends” and only 16% of people report they feel “very attached” to their local community.  For more information on how social connection impacts individual health and well-being visit here.  

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