Chris Hrbek

On a patrol, in a canal, with a grin. How I’ll remember Chris Hrbek.

Chris Hrbek was almost always smiling. In combat he was a competent and caring leader. He was killed by a secondary IED when he dismounted his MRAP to check on his team in other vehicles after the primary IED exploded.

A week earlier we were at a compound right by the strike location

Then, he had been carrying an extra large pack. In addition to his ammo, his water, his radios. He was carrying this giant thick pack. As we searched a compound I saw him take it off and open it up. It was full of stuffed animals. He gave one to a child in the compound.

This is the kind of man he was.

He was a great Sergeant, he was a good man. We were as friendly as a young officer and an already seasoned Sergeant could be in different organizations. He helped teach me as he did any of the other young Officers. He was always professional, capable, and as I said, nearly always smiling. He grinned as he showed me his coin collection in Lejenue, NC. He and I laughed together when we ducked below a mud wall, machinegun fire rattling feet above our heads. He didn’t smile later at the firepit the day he saved the Sergeant Major’s life, applying seven tourniquets to treat severe bleeding from the pressure plate IED that had detonated. When Sgt Hrbek was killed, they fast tracked the bronze star award for which he had already been nominated for his actions that day, so it could be awarded before his burial. But despite the seriousness of that day. And our work, and his professionalism I’ll always remember him smiling.

As much as I wish I could do more justice to his memory and memorialize him better, I don’t think I can. Others have.

In the wake of his death my Intel chief and I racked our brains and our predictions. Could we have given better assessments? Better warnings about low metallic signature pressure plates?

Could we have known a return to this compound a week later would be so dangerous?

Would it still have been worth it to show the place to the Battalion coming in to conduct a Relief In Place (RIP) with us in this battlespace? That week? Two days before they took it over?

It probably would have been an accepted risk. Even if we knew it.

The ground was swept for secondaries by an actual EOD technician – a damned good one. Not just a Marine doing his best with a metal detector.

War doesn’t have to make sense. Its not always preventable. It cant really be blamed on anyone but the enemy.

The EOD tech, My Intel Chief, Me, the Commanders of the area, we may have sought the responsibility or the blame or the power to have changed the past.

But we couldn’t.

On my next deployment I got there just as a friend “shorty”  from school was leaving. He was the intel officer that replaced me in that battlespace.

“Hows old Chapawalli?” I asked

“Oh, the Taliban owns it now.”

“What?!”

“Yeah Man…we didnt have the force to keep patrolling it, so we had to stop and the Taliban own it again now.”

“God damn it.” I thought. But then, asked myself how does this differ in any way from the way this whole war is gonna go?

It doesnt.

Good people will die. Americans, Afghans. And the bad guys will retake the ground. And sometimes they kill people who came to help. To mentor. To give hope.

And stuffed animals.

And the people we offered a glimpse of freedom and peace to?

They’ll be plunged back into the dark age.

In the two weeks in August of 2021 I realized how much hope I held out that I was wrong in this pessimistic expectation.

I was holding out hope that less bad warlords would hold some ground. That the Afghan army and government that soaked up more casualties each year than the US did in 20 (total Afghan Security Forces casualties estimates are 20-30x those of US KIA)

would still be able to hold on and endure and protect pockets where girls could grow up in less fear and terror, and go to school.

Maybe the Taliban will be more moderate this time.

Maybe they will meet their commitment & allow any Aghan Allies who want to leave to do so safely.

But so far its not looking that way. Even for American Citizen babies born to American citizens who had been Afghan national interpreters before their naturalization. We’re still working hard to try to help her come here.

When we succeed she will be a bit safer. But not all the way safe. For “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

And on this Memorial day, there is a lot to memorialize. I wrote about that here.

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