Paul Carron RIP
“Quit smirking,” I snarled at the plebe in front of me. “I’m not sure why you think it is funny that you just got your ass kicked.” The kid actually hadn’t gotten his ass kicked, but he had just lost one of his four mandatory plebe boxing matches in a close decision. Apparently a lot of other people had joked with him about it – how much boxing sucked, etc. and he thought that I was going to have the same reaction when he explained how he had done.
“You should be fucking pissed off man. I’m not sitting here telling you that you need to be a professional boxer or that you should go and sulk in the corner, but you just got beat up because someone else either had more skill or wanted it a hell of a lot more. Is that funny?”
“No, sir,” came the prompt response.
“Look man. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know what combat is like. I’ve got one year on you and I sure as shit haven’t been there, but I know that, if nothing else, finding that killer instinct when someone is trying to knock you the fuck out is important.”
“Yes, sir,” he agreed.
“You need to make a decision man. You’re either gonna be a guy that laughs off failures or you’re gonna be a guy that learns from them and works hard so they never happen again. I know if I had to follow someone out the back of an airplane into combat I’d sure as shit want the guy who had done everything he could to be the best warrior he could, and not the guy who laughed off his failures as unimportant. How about you?”
It was my sophomore or “Yearling” year at West Point. I had successfully finished the dreaded plebe year and Camp Buckner, which meant it was time for me to have my own plebe and have my first military leadership position. My roommate and I each were given two kids to look after – it was our job to teach them how to succeed as a freshman at West Point. One of our four was a skinny, baby-faced kid with big ears by the name of Paul Carron. He was the subject of my current boxing is equal to life rant.
I won’t lie. When I first feasted my eyes on Paul I thought, “This kid is gonna have a rough time.” So my roommate Nate and I did all things that Yearlings do to make sure he’d succeed. We pushed him on knowledge, we tore apart his room and uniform to make sure they wouldn’t get in real trouble with the upperclassmen, and we PTed the crap out of him. The whole time I was waiting for the kid who looked like he was twelve to crack.
He just never did.
He would get this scrunched up look on his face, find a new deeper reserve, and keep moving. Over time we realized that Paul, the son of a Sergeant Major, was just never going to quit. Later that year, so impressed with the way he had performed, we asked him to represent our company in Sandhurst – an extremely rigorous international military competition that takes place over a nine mile obstacle course. It struck me as he completed the course next to me and we all collapsed from exhaustion that this baby faced kid had become a leader in his class. He worked hard, cared passionately about those around him, had maintained the NCO sensibility bestowed on him from his dad, and would not quit in the face of adversity or back down to any challenge. Paul Carron was going to be a great officer.
Years later, as I was going through the Captains Career Course, I bumped into Paul at Fort Benning. He had just taken a job as a platoon leader in 3/75 – he would go on to be an XO there as well. We grabbed lunch to catch up and I realized that while he looked every bit the part of the kid, he had changed markedly. His time in the real military had sharpened his focus on the need to train hard and take care of his soldiers, but he was also keen on how he fit into the Army and how he could make a difference in the larger organization. He sat there for an hour and explained his outlook on what he would contribute as I listened intently and provided what feedback I could. It was one of those awesome moments where you realize the kid you used to mentor had surpassed you as an officer.
We went our separate ways and bounded the occasional message back and forth, but in short order Army life pulled us both away to our own challenges and I lost sight of him again. Years later, I’d receive multiple emails from my West Point classmates letting me know that a letter Paul had written to the Washington Times had been published. The letter, included below, called several in the Hollywood and political arenas to task for their absurd comments about our Armed Forces. I couldn’t possibly have been prouder.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR. Published in the Washington Times 24 March 2006.
I was fascinated to watch the exchange between actor Richard Belzer and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (“Into the lion’s den,” Inside Politics, yesterday). I have completed four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I participated in the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and parachuted into Iraq three years ago this month. Most recently, I had the privilege of leading an infantry company in Mosul, Iraq. I use this as context, not authority, because, according to Mr. Belzer, participating in a conflict indicates a lack of understanding.
When I was younger, my father made me read a book by James Michener, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri.” When I finished, I told him the book was about naval aviators during the Korean War. He looked at me a little disappointed and told me I had missed the point. The book to him was not about pilots or the Korean War — it was about the bravery of men. At the end of the book, the captain of an aircraft carrier is watching his men suit up for yet another mission when he asks himself out loud, “Where do we get such men? Why is America lucky enough to have such men?”
Today, while actors and talk-show hosts see fit to broadly characterize the men and women of the armed forces as “19- and 20-year-old kids who couldn’t get a job,” we should be asking the same question.
I wish Bill Maher, Richard Belzer and the young adults of my generation who comment from campuses and talk shows all over the country and mistake knowledge for understanding could see what’s really happening over there. I welcome their right to disagree, but I wish they would educate themselves well enough to disagree intelligently.
They should see a 22-year-old spend two hours sitting on a hard concrete floor negotiating an electricity contract or generator plan only to hit an improvised explosive device emplaced by the very people he seeks to help; a 19-year-old female medic advise a 19-year-old Iraqi mother on how to treat her child’s ear infection; or men still dazed from a bomb blast that killed a friend and wounded seven others return from a mission and roll up their sleeves to give blood for the wounded, then clean the blood out of their vehicle to do a night patrol.
They do it without ceremony or formality; they do it because it is their job and they are driven by sense of purpose few in other professions can understand.
“Where do we get such men?” From all over — not just America, but from many other countries, but I know for sure the dedication required to do what they do every day is equal to the demands of any “real job.”
CAPT. PAUL CARRON
At this point Paul was a Ranger Instructor at 5th Ranger Training Battalion. Coincidentally, one of the Duke students I had mentored had just returned for a weekend to celebrate his graduation from Ranger School in Durham. I asked him how it had gone and got the usual Ranger School gripe stories. He paused though and told me that one guy had been particularly hard on him and that he thinks the guy knew me.
“Oh yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah man. This guy was a Captain but he acted like an NCO on crack. If anyone fucked around even a little he was on them. Always relaying stories he had experienced. He just kept saying, ‘The work you do here makes all the difference when you get out there. You have to make a choice. Are you going to be the guy that just tries to slide by and brush off your failures as good enough or are you going to be a freakin warrior and try to crush every mission? I know who I’d want to follow. How about you?’”
“What was his name?” I asked.
“Captain Carron,” he responded.
“Paul Carron?” I asked.
“Yeah that’s it!”
It was my turn to smirk.
A year later, Paul was awarded the MacArthur Leadership Award for exemplary service and leadership, an honor awarded to only a handful of officers each year. He was on his way to making those changes he had begun to form early in his career. I’d expect nothing less.
Paul died in Afghanistan on September 18th, 2010, three days after his 33rd birthday. It was his fifth deployment. He left behind his loving wife Susan, his two-year old daughter, Madeline, and his unborn son. He also left behind the hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, much like me, who had the pleasure and honor of serving with him and being touched by his passion, kindness, character, and devotion to duty. He is the best our country had to offer, and I miss him dearly.
Rest in peace my friend.