Remembering Phil Esposito

Guys,

I hope with these e-mails there is some lessons being learned. Hopefully young leaders, both officers and enlisted, will gain some wisdom from an old war horse.

Company Command

I took command of a company of a Division Headquarters, Headquarters Company (HHC) after the fragging deaths of two officers in Tikrit, Iraq on June 7, 2005.  Captain Phil Esposito, the Commander, and First Lieutenant Louis Allen, of the New York National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division were mortally wounded when a Claymore mine was placed in the window they were sitting next to as they played the board game Risk.

The window had a board over it so they did see or hear the assailant. Three grenades were thrown into the room immediately after the explosion of the Claymore. Lou had arrived in Iraq only four days before the attack. Military investigators determined that the mine was deliberately placed and detonated with the intention of killing the officers.

I took command of Phil’s company on June 10, 2005. A few days later I charged Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez with the double homicide of Phil and Lou. In 2006, two years before his trial, Martinez volunteered in a plea bargain to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. The convening authority rejected the deal. Two years later on December 4, 2008 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Martinez was acquitted and walked from the courtroom a free man.

I have strong opinions on this issue. All I can say is when I charged Martinez with the murders there was no doubt in my mind, then or now that he was guilty of this heinous crime. I never knew Lou but I was good friends with Phil and wanted to share a little about him.

Phil

I always wanted to command an Infantry Company in combat. I thought it was the pinnacle of an Infantry Captain’s destiny. I went to Iraq in 2005 with the 42nd Infantry Division, a storied and proud unit of the New York National Guard. The unit had fought with distinction in both world wars and was among the first responders of 9/11.  But when I reported in to the unit in the summer of 2004, it was light years from where I wanted to be.

If I had controlled my own fate, I would have been at that moment, in the first year of the occupation of Iraq, blazing across the desert atop an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, raining hate and discontent on Islamic insurgents near some unpronounceable Iraqi village.

I would be wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that I would have earned leading my company to glory while defending America from evil and smiling from ear to ear like a kid who just scored a date with the prom queen.

Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard Division Staff. One of many Captains assigned the boring job of studying maps and giving recommendations to the G3, the Operations Officer, making coffee and useless PowerPoint Slides. I knew it was an assignment I was bored to death with.

When I first arrived to the unit I met my new Company Commander, a short, strong-looking man with dark eyes and jet-black hair named Phil Esposito. Phil and I would become good friends.

Phil was an insanely fit captain of Italian descent who graduated from West Point in 1997. Despite being a physical phenomenon Phil was a quiet and genial man.  He sometimes seemed too gentle for the Army, but as a leader, he always showed a quality of courage beyond the strongest of leaders. In his own quiet, determined way, he may just have been one of the toughest men I ever knew.

It was always wonderful to me how Phil could control a group of Soldiers by virtue of his shyness and interior calmness. He was the opposite of the ideal combat leader. He lacked forcefulness, manipulation, and all those drives and instincts that marked other ambitious company commanders I had met.

Phil was the opposite of all that, he would look you straight in the eye while crushing the bones of your hand in a heartfelt handshake. Once he felt comfortable would launch straight into, say, the latest about the training of the company and how proud he was of his Soldiers.

Phil had such eagerness and vigor for what he was doing that when I was around him I caught myself feeling bad that there wasn’t an undertaking of equal importance in my own life as commanding a company. It wasn’t about the war, that he was so fired up about so much as the whole idea of taking his company in Iraq – a truly awesome endeavor when you thought about it.

America was In Iraq trying to put a country back together after overthrowing a long standing dictator. In the summer of 2004 at Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division- the most deployed unit in the army, the war was seen as long overdue.

Phil was the kind of guy you’d want to have at the helm of leading Soldiers in this endeavor: immune to heartbreak, way more knowledgeable than most of the senior leaders in the unit about the whys and hows of Iraq and what America was doing there.  It came through in the example he set. He seemed capable of working eighteen hours a day for twelve months straight driven by his desire to get all his Soldiers home safely.

Phil was a quiet guy, but came alive was when he talked about his family.  He was passionate and caring, especially about his wife and young daughter.

Phil was raised just outside of New York City, where he developed into a talented athlete. Beyond his physical strength, Phil was blessed with a powerful sense of right and wrong. This sense came from his devoted parents who taught Phil to love his neighbor -and defend those who could not defend themselves. Phil seemed to take these lessons to heart.

While visiting his parents shortly after I returned from Iraq, they told me a story. One day in school, Phil got into a scuffle sticking up for a student with a disability. It’s the only time his parents ever got a phone call from the principal – and they couldn’t have been prouder. Phil’s passion for helping others led him to become a caring brother, a loving father, and eventually, an officer of the United States Army.

Phil’s decision to join the military wasn’t an easy one for his family. As a veteran of Vietnam, Phil’s father understood the sacrifices that accompany a life of service. He also understood that. After graduating from high school with honors, Phil accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy.

Less than half of those who begin this intense training path graduate to become Army Officers. Yet there was little doubt about the determined young man from New York.  And in 1997, Phil earned the Gold Bars of a Second Lieutenant— and later, became an Armor Officer.

Phil easily earned the respect of the men and women in his command due to his commitment to excellence. I always remember a quiet, wisecracking friend who introduced himself to me. On June 7th, 2005, he would give his life for these ideals.

His passing away and the tragic circumstances surrounding his murder are not important, what is important was the courageous life he lived that made him one of the best leaders I have ever known.

He was an iron-souled warrior of colossal moral courage who always set the personal and physical example in everything he did. The Soldiers in the company would talk openly of their admiration for him. After his death, he had become a symbol to all of us.

When he entered a tent in Kuwait six months later to tell the company we were going to drive, rather than fly, to Tikrit, Iraq, where our new base was going to be the room fell silent.  He led that convoy of three serials and more than sixty vehicles 500 miles through Iraq without a single incident.

For his courage, I am indebted to Phil for being my friend. After his death, I commanded his company. I did the best I could, but it was far from the standard that he had set.

I did all I could do to find and punish the person, who murdered Phil and took his and Lou’s life, it is a debt that will not diminish with time – and can never be repaid.

Our nation is blessed to have volunteers like Phil, who risk their lives for our freedom. We’re blessed to have families like Phil’s and Lou’s who raise the sons of such courage and character who sacrifice everything for their beliefs. And we’re blessed with the mercy of a loving God who comforts all those who grieve for the loss of these heroes.

Straightness, honesty, naturalness, loyalty, courage—all these qualities could be used to describe Phil, but none is quite right, for the quality that made him a good man and great friend embraces all these.  Many of the heroes I write about possessing courage, charm and professional skill. Phil, by contrast, is celebrated as a hero because his intelligence, nobility and most of his all his generosity matched his courage. He was braver than any of us. He was the best of us. He is missed fiercely.

Bibliography:

Allen, Barbara. Front Toward Enemy: A Slain Soldier’s Widow Details Her Husband’s Murder and How Military Courts Allowed the Killer to Escape Justice] . New York: Morgan James Publishing , 2010.

Gavin, Robert. “Army said no to guilty plea .” Times Union (Albany), December 16 , 2008 .

Woolverton, Paul, and Corey G. Johnson. “Jury acquits Martinez of murder charges .” Fayetteville Observer, December 5, 2008.

Phil 42ID