by Paul Roberts
I met Joseph Blanco in August of 2003 on Iraq’s border with Iran. My armored cavalry troop was in the midst of a four-month mission scanning the infiltration routes into Iraq, intercepting religious pilgrims as they braved the minefields, heat, and lack of water to reach the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. One evening I overheard soldiers in our sister scout platoon talking about a new private they had just received who was a black belt. As a martial arts student, I was intrigued, and walked across the perimeter to find him. His platoon sergeant pointed me in the right direction and I found Blanco sitting with the rest of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle crew on 25mm ammo crates. He wore all his gear, like a new private should, but underneath that Kevlar and gear I could see he had a round, cherubic face, a wispy Hispanic mustache, small hands with scars on the knuckles, and a beaming smile that lit up when I asked him about his black belt. He must have found it strange that a platoon leader and lieutenant would seek him out and ask him about Hapkido under a waning Iraqi sunset, but he seemed grateful and flattered by my interest and we talked long into the deepening gloom about our shared passion for the martial arts.
I told him that I had studied a little Taekwondo, but that I had really enjoyed my time in Stillwater, Oklahoma, studying Jeet Kun Do under Sifu Ladell Elliot. Though he hadn’t studied Jeet Kun Do, Blanco shared my admiration of Bruce Lee’s methods and philosophies, particularly his practice of determining what was useful in an art and discarding the rest—continually adapting and learning. Blanco told me he was a first-degree black belt in Hapkido and had studied in California. I could see the passion in his eyes as he spoke reverently about the discipline. As a rule, my 1st “Red” Scout Platoon and his 3rd “Blue” Scout Platoon generally operated away from each other in order to cover more ground while conducting reconnaissance, but I asked him if he was interested in training and sparring with me when our platoons found ourselves together. That very night Blanco and I squared up in the sandy soil behind a protective ring of Bradley Fighting vehicles and began what would become an unlikely friendship.
After that first meeting I didn’t see much of Blanco for the next couple of months. The searing days and more tolerable nights became a blur as we traversed the rough terrain of the border, searching out groups of men, women, and children as they attempted to sneak past us in the dark. A bit of my soul fell away into a dark place as I turned a deaf ear again and again to the women’s wailing and pleading when they realized we were taking them back to the Iranian checkpoints. Sometimes our Kiowa helicopter pilots would spot single bodies, the elderly who had succumbed to heatstroke. I don’t know if the time on the border affected Blanco like it did me. We never spoke about it.
Hapkido means “the way of coordinated power”—a quiet, smooth potential for violence. I witnessed this in Blanco when he and I first did some serious drilling and sparring In October 2003. We had consolidated as a Troop at Forward Operating Base Campbell, a sprawling, half-built Republican Guard complex consisting of square concrete buildings, gutted inside, with the ever-present sand drifting through the open doorways and windows. The new Iraqi Army was being trained on the FOB, and brand new barracks and buildings were being constructed. Bravo troop occupied some of these new billets for a few weeks. It was nice: tile floors, fluorescent lights, running water, and toilets. More importantly, it gave Blanco and me a clean, private place to drill. We stacked our weapons and tossed our desert camouflage blouses into a corner. Everything was white—the tile floor, the freshly painted walls, the clapboard ceiling, and the harsh fluorescent lights. Even the salt sweat stains on our filthy brown t-shirts. Blanco was a patient teacher. He explained that ordinarily someone just starting to study Hapkido would begin learning very basic fundamentals. But due to our current circumstances, he accelerated our drills. He showed me how to manipulate joints in the fingers, wrist, and elbows. He would grab my hands in his powerful, blunt fingers, step smoothly to the side, and my shoulder would suddenly scream in protest.
I thought I knew about fighting. I had studied a little here and there, knew I could take a punch, and knew I could wrestle. Sparring with Blanco, I realized I knew nothing. What we were doing was not about fighting, but about ending fights. On the border my platoon had broken up a riot of desperate pilgrims rushing to board the decrepit trucks we had scrounged to take them to the detainee point; I distinctly remember struggling with a scrawny, screeching old man as he pummeled his way past me. In the end I had to repeatedly punch him in the kidneys to make him let go of the grip he had on the truck’s railing. I thought of that old man and my inability to put him down without resorting to clumsy violence as I squared off with Blanco under the fluorescent lights; I pictured a more efficient, quicker way to subdue him. I imagined a cleaner, crisper, more easily understood end to the story that was unfolding around us.
Other soldiers laughed at us when they saw us throwing each other around. Some scoffed, most were puzzled, but a few were interested and wanted to know what we were doing. Blanco incorporated them into our drills. He would teach anyone who wanted to learn. Most would test him in their own way, but the result was always the same. Blanco would pursue them with a stolid grace, his expression still and inward, his small hands quick and decisive. I was scared of him like that.
We didn’t have long at FOB Campbell. In November we moved to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. We loaded our tanks and Bradleys in the dark and began the long road march in the early light as the sun peeked over the black smudges from the brick factory to the East. I didn’t see much of Blanco in the ensuing months. I was too busy leading patrols with my platoon, searching for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the men who built them or emplaced them. It was muddy, cold work. November and December in Iraq means rain, and rain means higher chances to get your Bradley stuck, higher chances that you’re sleeping under a leaky part of the tent.
The Euphrates divided the city proper and the eastern suburbs, and we patrolled these suburbs at night—huge columns of armored vehicles growling down the paved streets. We would stop on street corners and sit quietly in the dark, scanning with our night vision through a sleepy green haze, hoping to find somebody stupid enough to come out. They rarely did. Again I put my hands on people as we dragged women, children, and old men into the streets at night, shoving their own blankets in their hands to ward off the cold, shepherding them to the side so we could shoot 120mm tank rounds into their houses, destroying them. It was supposed to be a message to the male insurgents who lived there, but they were long gone before I even kicked open the door. One old woman spat on me as I dragged her out.
In January we picked up and moved again, to Balad. We were beginning to feel like regular vagabonds, true cavalry, more at home in the saddle than anywhere else. More rain, more cold, more raids. Raids are best done at night, harnessing the primal fear of the dark. Less eloquently, you want to catch them sleeping. Nothing compares to the blood pumping through your veins as you lead a grim, running file through the dark towards the target house. Nothing compares to the unique terror of wondering whether or not someone is waiting for you on the other side of the door.
We came home in April 2004. I spent a month at Walter Reed hospital being treated for Leishmaniasis, a disease carried by sand flies. Blanco did too. Back at Fort Hood we started training again. He lived upstairs above our Troop Headquarters. After work I would meet him in his barracks room and we would work out. Blanco was in his element there, a true instructor. We started from the beginning this time, working on the fundamentals, kicking and punching with his small collection of pads, everything done under the approving gaze of his many Bruce Lee posters. Away from Iraq I found the time and inclination to appreciate the many ironies of our situation—I smiled at the strange, sometimes panicked looks of the enlisted guys hanging in the hallways. Was I there for a surprise barracks inspection? I marveled at the cleanliness of Blanco’s barracks room. And I laughed the first time I saw him in civilian clothes. No particular reason; it just takes you aback the first time you see it. But the realities of life in garrison were beginning to sink in. I was a lieutenant and he was a private; there was nothing wrong with what we were doing, but I realized I really knew nothing about him and we had nothing in common.
In the end my new job as a troop executive officer kept me later and later each evening and my time at home with my wife, short as it already was, took precedence over training. I saw Blanco frequently at first, then less and less when he transferred to another unit on post. The last time I saw him was at the movies in Killeen. He was standing in line with a group of his friends. I walked up and shook his hand hard, beaming at him, happy to see him. He looked at me a little strangely, and for a second I wondered if my rank had finally overcome our camaraderie, but then he smiled at me gently below that little wispy mustache.
About a year later, I opened up my email and there, from a friend serving in Iraq, was a message simply titled, “Blanco.” I knew immediately, without even opening the message. I read the email anyway and discovered that Blanco, promoted to sergeant and serving as a Bradley gunner, had died with two of his crewmen when an enormous IED exploded under his vehicle. I felt a fierce, unexpected pride at learning he had become a sergeant, and an equally unexpected sense of loss. My wife drove us home that night, bewildered and unsure what to do as I leaned against the passenger window and quietly wept. She drove with one hand and steadied my shoulder with the other.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about Blanco. My friend, who sent me the email, pulled his burned body from the inside of the Bradley turret. The turret was cramped and Blanco was big; it took them hours to get him out. Years later my friend still had trouble sleeping at night until an Army doctor prescribed him pills for his anxiety. I watched the video, shot by Iraqi insurgents and published to the internet, of Blanco’s Bradley being blown up. The explosion picked up the thirty ton vehicle and tossed it through the air like a child’s toy. I raged at the computer screen until somebody turned it off. But these aren’t the things I remember about him.
Blanco had given me a pair of his old martial arts training pants to wear when we drilled. Bright blue, flared at the ankles, and extremely comfortable. The elastic at the waist has since worn out, but I still wear them around the house. I’ve yet to sew in a drawstring, so I constantly have to hitch them up. I haven’t trained Hapkido or any kind of martial arts a single day since the last time I sparred with him. I tell myself his death doesn’t have anything to do with it; I just haven’t found the right place and time. When I do, maybe I will better understand what he meant to me, to my life. Until then, I have only shared, murky memories that all soldiers must navigate until the end, and a memory of gentleness that just might be the path we all need to take.