For Steve Agee and thousands of veterans, every day is Memorial Day.
For some, remembering the fallen is a matter of duty and honor. But for many, it’s also not a choice; losing a buddy in war is a pain that never goes away.
Agee is a police officer in East Peoria, Ill. He hasn’t been to war for a decade.
But every day, he thinks about Trevor Win’E, a young man who was born and raised in Orange, who joined the Army, who was sent to Iraq, who never heard the explosion that shredded his truck.
It was Agee who was assigned to the patrol. But a half-hour before departure, he was needed for guard duty. When an officer asked for volunteers to replace him, Win’E stepped up.
“I’ll go,” he shouted.
It was a shout most everyone on base knew. Win’E was always the first to volunteer. He said he didn’t like grass growing under his boots.
Before the sun rose above the horizon the next day, Agee learned that the man who replaced him on patrol was dead.
Win’E’s remains are in Fairhaven Memorial Park, just down the road from his parents’ house near the Orange Plaza. Today, the park is peppered with small flags, just like thousands of cemeteries across the nation.
There is a brotherhood in war, between the living and the dead, that is never broken. Yet for tens of thousands of veterans, men and women who survive, that brotherhood can be a test.
It is for Agee.
After more than a decade, the father of two young children still struggles to reconcile why he is alive and Win’E is gone.
Agee spends much of his free time talking with other survivors, sharing the pain of battle, the guilt of survival and how he has learned to turn most bad days into good days.
He is open about all of it. He hopes – maybe even needs – to help.
Win’E and Agee didn’t have much in common.
Win’E loved the mountains, snowboarding, the ocean where he learned to scuba dive. He went to Calvary Chapel High School, joined band, played golf, excelled at ice hockey.
Months after 9/11, Win’E enlisted in the Army. He was 20 years old.
By that time, Agee was a 30-year-old police officer in East Peoria. It’s a town of fewer than 25,000 nestled on the Illinois River, in a region most don’t consider the South until they hear the accents.
Like so many police officers, Agee enlisted in the Army Reserve. He drove trucks, helped with fuel. He never dreamed he’d leave Illinois, much less be sent to Iraq as a gunner.
But that is exactly what happened.
In Iraq, in a man named Mike Small, Agee found his mentor and war partner. They soldiered as a team. Small drove. Agee manned the gun.
On April 30, 2004, they needed guards at the gate. An officer knew Agee was a cop back home and figured he could help if things got out of hand at the gate, as they sometimes did when locals entered to work on the base that, in reality, was like a little America. Background checks could be especially ticklish.
Toward evening, as they worked the gate, a soldier approached Agee.
“Mike and Trevor got hit,” he said. “It doesn’t sound good.”
An improvised explosive device had destroyed Small’s truck. Hours later, Agee learned that Small survived and Win’E didn’t.
Many civilians might think Agee got a lucky break. But war isn’t like that. You bleed with and for your buddies. Sometimes, you die with them.
Living can be tougher.
PTSD RIPS FAMILY
Agee came home filled with guilt.
He asked, over and over, why he was allowed to get his career going, start a marriage, when Win’E was killed before he got to do either of those things.
He heard no answers.
“I had my life. And he was taken at such a young age,” Agee said, talking on the phone in the cab of his truck before going on evening police patrol.
“For a long time, I struggled with … being alive. ”
His wife, he said with gratitude, pushed him to seek help, to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs. Little by little, medication and counseling eased the pain of post-traumatic stress. And helping others with the disorder became a salve.
In 2010, Agee said, he heard a voice. Perhaps it was his own, though Agee believes it was Win’E’s. The voice told him it was time to let go, to have a family, to live.
Soon, Agee and his wife had a baby girl, Piper. A few years later, they had a son, Parker.
Things didn’t keep going well, however. Agee thought he was healthy enough to stop taking medication for PTSD, the drugs that warded off the anxiety, the depression, the crying outbursts. He wasn’t. The couple divorced.
Agee started searching the internet – aimlessly, he thought. One night, he stumbled onto Facebook and saw an unusual name: Debi Win’E.
Debi was Trevor Win’E’s mother. She might sound familiar; Debi Win’E is the Gold Star mother I wrote about last Memorial Day. Agee is the mystery man from the Midwest who promised to ride his motorcycle into town last summer.
The night they connected online, Agee and Debi Win’E corresponded into the morning. She gave him a lifeline.
“We want you guys to be OK,” the mother told the survivor. “It hurts us that you are suffering. We love all of you.”
Agee promised to climb on his motorcycle as soon as he had a break. He said there was someone else who needed to come: Small, the blast survivor. The two men rode out last summer.
In Orange County, Agee rode with Rick Win’E, Trevor’s father. They checked out every beach along the coast. They rode to Lake Arrowhead. They didn’t talk. They didn’t need to.
A few weeks ago, Agee returned to Orange County, this time by plane. He could stay only a few days, but he wanted to visit the Win’E family before Memorial Day, to thank them for turning his bad days into better days.
“She just knows when I’m having a bad day,” Agee said. “We both believe God brought us together for that reason.”
As he sat in his truck near the Illinois River, Agee confessed that he discovered one more healing power. He calls it “ink therapy.”
The tattoos are on his right shoulder: an American flag, a battle grave, boots and a helmet. Agee sees them in the mirror and remembers Win’E. He sees them and honors Win’E.
Agee sees them every morning.
Another Memorial Day dawns.
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