Our war came with its own sights and sounds. Most of us will remember the heat and the claustrophobic nature of stalking down third world streets filled with garbage, the smell of rot, looking through a narrow green tinted tube that limits your field of vision, all while burdened with body armor, weapons, and other equipment.
We will also remember our friends and team mates who patrolled those same streets and hit those same objectives with us in the middle of the night. One of those who I remember is my former Platoon Sergeant, Jared Van Aalst. He was the kind of Ranger who was always looking for an edge, a way to improve the platoon’s performance, and become even more proficient at the dangerous Direct Action raids that he led his platoon on night after night.
A lot of people called him “VA” for short, but I called him Sergeant while standing at the position of parade rest because I knew that it was in my best interest to do so. I had the unique experience of working with Sergeant Van Aalst for two years as he was my Platoon Sergeant in both Sniper Section and in Alpha Company’s First Platoon (we called ourselves the Glory Boys behind closed doors) within 3rd Ranger Battalion. How we worked together twice in two different platoons is somewhat humourous in retrospect although it certainly didn’t seem like it at the time!
We worked together for a year in Sniper Section before I got called into his office. Yup, I was getting my walking papers. No use in rehashing all the details. You could say we had some personality differences, but you could also argue that I had it coming. One way or the other there were no hard feelings then and should be none today.
There was no screaming or yelling, Sergeant Van Aalst was very professional about it, he said that I wasn’t being fired but just laterally transferred back to my old company, which was nice of him to say but it didn’t feel that way at that moment. He wasn’t kicking me out of the unit or sending me to the mail room but helping me walk on to a Team Leader position in a Rifle Company. In my experience in Ranger Battalion, it is very, very rare to be given a second chance like this. Rangers get Released For Standards and booted from the Regiment almost everyday. We shook hands like grown men are supposed to and we both moved on.
I only mention this because of what came next.
I arrived back at A/co the next day. The First Sergeant welcomed me back to the company, asked (well, ordered) me to shave my beard and get back into a uniform. I met my team, a machine gun team in 1st Platoon, and prepared to begin training up for a combat deployment to Iraq. The very next day my new Squad Leader brings me aside and says, “Listen, we’re getting a new Platoon Sergeant today.”
“His name is Van Aalst.”
VA walks over to A/co and calls his new platoon to formation to introduce himself. Afterwords he spots me standing in formation with my Squad and says, “Hi, Murphy!”
Some of my Ranger buddies said I had an expression on my face that day as if someone had just run over my dog. Needless to say, this wasn’t an ideal situation for yours truly! Sergeant Van Aalst led us through our Platoon Evaluations and train up before we deployed to Mosul, Iraq. I left with Sergeant Van Aalst on a C17 airplane on my birthday, July 7th 2005.
Another funny, but vague memory… No one told me to take one Ambien sleeping pill at a time so I popped both of them. This has the effect of making you wake up and act kind of delirious. When I came to a few hours later I was completely incoherent and starting tearing through the box lunch that the Air Force provides. I can still remember looking over and seeing Van Aalst look at me with extreme suspicion as I devoured my food in a very sloppy manner…due to the effects of the pharmaceuticals of course.
We were a small advanced element that deployed ahead of the platoon to help make for an easy transition into theater. On our way to the chow hall one night Sergeant Van Aalst told me that more than likely we would be conducting operations in Tal Afar, a city West of Mosul that was completely controlled by the insurgents in 2005. He told me that he had a bad feeling about that place and he was right.
Any past differences were put behind us, we had a mission at hand. Almost every night we were rolling outside the wire to hit Time Sensitive Targets, often times getting into firefights. I can recall lots of memories about VA, the time I had my .50 cal gunner open fire on a terrorist and VA let us get off some good bursts before yelling at me to have the gunner cease fire. The time he caught my Squad Leader and I watching some “questionable” Japanese animation and asked, “What the hell is wrong with you two!”
I remember his voice clearly over the radio, night after night giving a countdown before door charges were detonated and our platoon raided terrorist hideouts. I remember conversations I had with him about knife making, about what Ranger Battalion was like when he was a Private in the 1990′s, but mostly I remember his dedication to the Platoon and making sure that we were the very best at what we did.
When I asked a close friend and team mate about what he remembered most about VA, he said it was his professionalism and that he was not just your leader but also your friend.
Later in the deployment I became the Tactical Commander (or TC) of the lead Stryker in our convoy. That put me up in the first vehicle as navigator with Sergeant Van Aalst in the same vehicle. We worked well together and made a good team. With VA all too aware of our history together, he wasn’t afraid to break my balls a little either! VA was right about Tal Afar, we got into some firefights every time we went down there, not that Mosul was exactly a picnic in 2005.
We had some Rangers wounded on that deployment, the worst was our Platoon Leader (another great guy that I was lucky to work with) and a Squad Leader who many are now familiar with. SSG Joseph Kapacziewski eventually had to have one of his legs amputated but was able to come back to work, and lead Rangers in combat as a Platoon Sergeant himself with the help of a prosthesis. But that’s another story. When I was a liaison to Walter Reed after the deployment, VA visited Kap and told him he would have his position back when he was ready to come back to work. That happened, a few years down the road of course.
When VA had sent me on my way back to Alpha Company I had told him that I planned on going to SFAS, a decision which he supported when he again became my Platoon Sergeant. The Regiment is somewhat notorious for firing guys from their job when they return from SFAS but VA allowed me to keep my job and let me serve as a Team Leader in the Platoon up until the day came that they deployed to Afghanistan and I packed my jalopy of a car and prepared to drive to Ft. Bragg to start the Q-Course.
VA held another Platoon formation that day, this time to hand me a plaque and thank me for working with him. We shook hands again and I told the Platoon that they have every reason to tell people that they are the best Platoon in the Regiment, because that is what they were. Sergeant Van Aalst was a big part of that.
The reason why I’m telling this long-winded story is to point out the unique way I remember Sergeant Van Aalst. Everyone will remember him differently, his friends, family, team mates, and everyone else who crossed paths with him in one place or another. I remember him as an expert marksman who brought a sniper’s focus and attention to detail to every task he threw himself at. I remember the guy who had a sense of history and that I could talk about past Rangers and Ranger history with. I remember the dude who made knives and smoked cigars on the range. I also remember a perfectionist and a leader who held you to high standards.
VA was a big reason why our platoon succeeded in Iraq and why we all came home alive.
Unlike our first parting of ways, this one was for real. VA took the platoon on another deployment while I went to the Special Forces Qualification Course. Later, Sergeant Van Aalst went on to serve as a Delta Force operator. He was killed by enemy gunfire on August 4th 2010.
This Veteran’s Day, what I remember most about Sergeant Van Aalst is that he was someone who gave me a second chance. He gave me another shot at succeeding as a Ranger in an environment that is usually less than forgiving. I remember that I got where I am today because someone looked out for me and gave me the opportunity to live down past mistakes. That’s how I remember Sergeant Van Aalst.
Thanks for looking out for me, Jared.
Jared’s widow, Katie, runs the Jared Van Aalst Foundation, which holds fundraisers and seeks to raise money to send the widows and children of fallen soldiers to college. Please take a look and consider making a contribution at jvafoundation.org.