Warning to readers: This is not my typical blog post about venture capital, entrepreneurship, startups, etc. This is a very personal, unfiltered stream of thoughts. If you have a problem with profanity – stop now.
I still remember giving you shit about your middle name. Austin. “The 6 Million Dollar Man”. I’ve no idea why I still remember that, but I do. I suppose some things are just indelibly etched into one’s mind. That’s the funny thing about being in the military – you tend to forget the big shit, and remember silly little things like that.
Writing this is hard. Really, really, really hard.
I remember your deceptive baby face. Behind those blue eyes, blonde hair, and youthful good looks, you were built like a brick shit house. You were quick to laugh at even the silliest of my jokes, and just as quick to punch someone’s fucking lights out if they were getting stupid. Even so, you know, I don’t think I ever saw you in a sour mood? Not once. Even when the shit was really bad, you just smiled, made a joke, and kept on trucking. You have no idea how many days and nights that kept me going.
Twenty years ago, you and I were on a shared journey. When that journey was over, we both got swept up in life, and went our separate ways.
You died 7 years ago. St. Patrick’s Day, in 2002. And I just found out about it. I am angry at myself for not picking up the phone, and calling you more often – keeping in touch – being a friend.
It’s a sad fact of life that guys don’t write Christmas cards. We never call home. We do a pretty crappy job of keeping in touch with the people we care about. I wish it weren’t that way – because now, it’s too late for me. I can’t grab you, shake you, and look you in the eyes and tell you all of the things that I should have been saying to you for the past twenty years. I can’t save you from yourself. But I can’t dwell on it, can I? Such is the nature of a soldier’s training: Put it where it needs to be. Toughen up. Move on. Deal with it later. I can’t help it, though. It hurts. I’m crying right now just writing this.
In 1990, we were ramping up for the Persian Gulf War. I still remember the day that I got my little love note from Uncle Sam in the mailbox, gently letting me know that I still belonged to them, even though I had been out for 6 months or so. You drew morgue duty back in the States.
The last time I spoke with you was in 1991, just after the war. I was back home in Georgia, and you had made your way back to Connecticut. We talked about things a bit, and I could tell you were dealing with it as best as you could, but you were different. We were trained for button-pushing tank combat, where you rarely, if ever, were in close proximity to enemy combatants. You, however, had to endure seeing the effects of war up close and personal – dead G.I.s – 379 of them all told.
My wife asked me how close we were as friends … back in the day. “Pretty damn close,” I said. Then, I thought about it. Did you know that we had nearly 2,200 meals together? Even though most of them were terrible, we made the best of it. We also drank an estimated 2,086 beers and almost 600 shots of whiskey together. There is the healthy side, too. Conversely, we also ran almost 2,500 miles together, and did a whopping 36,000+ pushups together. We spent a ridiculous amount of time in the “great outdoors” together, too: Hohenfels, Grafenwoehr, Area Mud, Winter Warrior, REFORGER, FTX, rollouts, alerts, lariat advances, you name it. Nothing says “good times” like toting an M16 and freezing your ass off in a few feet of German snow. That’s the kind of shit that makes you a brother for life.
I remember sneaking your girlfriend into the barracks, because women weren’t allowed in the barracks back in those days. We’d dress her up in some Army sweats, pull the hoodie over her head, and distract the CQ while we ran her up the stairwell. You still owe me for that, by the way.
I remember pouring back what seemed like a truckful of Hefe Weissens and going out to get tattoos. You decided to get a big red rose that stretched across your bicep. You wanted a banner underneath it. And while the rest of us were happy getting some gal’s name permanently inked onto our bodies, you simply put “Langster”. I remember saying to you – “Really? You are putting your fucking nickname on your arm?” And of course, there was your reply. “You idiots are going to break up with those chicks at some point, and you’re gonna be stuck looking at her name for the rest of your life. Me? My name ain’t ever gonna change.”
Guess what, bro? You were right.
I remember looking at you one morning in the field. You were brushing your teeth for what seemed like the 12th time that morning. I asked you why in the hell you were brushing your teeth so much out here in the middle of nowhere, since there were no women out here to impress. I remember you smirking and whispering in your best “tough-guy-who-is-respecting-light-and-noise-discipline” voice: “Hey! Hygiene is fucking important, douchebag!”. That still cracks me up to this day.
I remember pulling guard duty together in the cold air of Grafenwoehr one night. After our watch, you pulled your Sony Walkman out of your field jacket and plopped in a cassette tape that your sister Heidi sent you. She would always send you tapes of new music that was hitting the charts back in the States. I still remember you handing it to me saying “Damn, bro, you gotta hear this band. They call themselves Guns ‘n Roses. This song Sweet Child O’ Mine is pretty awesome. These guys are gonna be big.” Personally, I thought they were overrated. Again, you were right.
There were countless times where I was tasked with doing something, and you were never far behind me, ready to help your squadmate out. You were always ready to pitch in and help out your brothers. We always knew where to find you – at the center of the fight. Which is why it is so hard for me to understand what happened. I just got off the phone with our old friend Dreier – the old man of the bunch – then 27, now 47. I told him the news, and like me, he is struggling for answers.
In talking with your friends and family, I am learning more about your journey in life after our time together overseas. Some things are better to be kept in the heart, rather than in print or on the Internet, and I am sensitive to that. I do not profess to fully understand what happened, Mikie. But I’m trying. I swear to god I am trying.
In some cosmic way, I feel like I let you down when you needed me the most in your life. I could have, should have, would have … been there to help you. Had I just known. Damnit, had I just known! I would have dropped everything going on in my life if it meant making even the slightest difference for you in your own life. My wife keeps telling me that there was nothing I could do. And deep down inside, I know she’s right. But it doesn’t matter. You are gone, and you aren’t coming back.
This is a burden that I will carry in my heart until the day I die.
From me, Dreier, Harmon, Sinke, Gerdes, Woodberry, Hyatt, Cortez, Shepherd, Gonzalez, Cervantes, Bolden, Rivers, and the rest of 3/64 Armor, 3d Infantry Division: Rock of the Marne, bro. Eight times, Keeyah.
Rest in peace, man.
Michael Austin Lang
U.S. Army, 3d Infantry Division
You were a damn fine soldier, a good man, and a best friend. Save a spot at the bar for me. The next round is on me.
Your eternal friend and fellow Marne dog,
U.S. Army, 3d Infantry Division