to befriend a fighter

by tobias crabtree

there are ways in which a friendship defines itself. the time i sat quietly and looked across the room at the blonde haired kid who was to be my partner for the next ten weeks does not count as one of those moments. the gunny said my name aloud and followed it with, “you will team up with Brian Foster.” i didn’t know Foster, i knew of him and that was all. i could tell by looking at him that there would be a contrast in our personalities.

i was not your prototypical marine. i had little use for polished boots that might immediately be stomping through mud and sand. i did not care for most of the shouting, nor did i particularly care for being told what to do. i did, however, like what i was doing and i realized that some of these things were a part of the whole package. when possible, i spoke my mind and i did not lose my sensibilities to the system i prescribed to. i was 28 years old when i joined and i joined the marine corps because i wanted to do so. i performed well in boot camp and was given the opportunity to choose my military occupational specialty. i chose to be a rifleman, which is a very basic, professional infantryman. in short, it is not difficult to get that job. my goal was to try out for a special forces type unit–reconnaissance–where i would be trained as a member of a small team used for special missions. i had been to college. i had worked construction. i was doing exactly what i chose to do.

Foster was a good damn marine. his boots were polished. he was a tow-head with icy-blue eyes that were skirted with white, almost invisible eyelashes. we did not like each another. it wasn’t hate…but it sure wasn’t love. the school we were attending was the marine corps sniper school. it’s, umm, difficult. i think, at the time a 70% attrition rate was common. men failed. men quit. men got broken. on graduation day there was only a skeleton crew of the group that began the ten week course. i’m a little skinny guy and i lost 20 pounds. there is no “feeling out” process. every day is a test and a couple of failed days and you were going back to your unit with your tail between your legs. you really had to believe you would finish or you would simply fail.

a sniper team is two men. the rules are that you can never to be more than an arm’s length away from your buddy. the stories produced from this historic school are mythical and, having been through it, i will say i understand why. there is something imbibed in the heart of a man that struggles mightily amongst his fellows, that allows his stories to grow alongside his stubborn nature. just as one needs have the grit to push his own limits so must he be able to tell his story. how many nights have i regaled the feats and failures of my past? –too many, i’m sure.

so, as a team, our purpose in life was to pass the course and, in so doing, become efficient at all the skills involved in that occupation. in that school, the tests are many. there is little sleep and never enough food. it’s a pain in the ass. with my partner at my side (literally) i remember looking into the indeterminate future and deciding to take it one breath at a time, otherwise it seemed a sisyphean task. days blended together and sleep became something we daydreamed about even while running towards our next objective. tests were passed. memories assaulted. limbs pounded. jaws hardened.

Brian Foster and i occasionally found time, even in the midst of all we endured, to argue and disagree. as we dug out a wallow in which to hide (called, not-so-coincidentally, a “hide site”), a wallow which would fill up with rain later that night, i could feel his disgust with some of my habits. rain would come and turn our hole into a two man soup. that night–or was it morning, i don’t remember–we argued aloud and almost forfeited up our position, which could have resulted in our being dismissed from the school altogether. there is always a mean-hearted instructor looking for you in sniper school…always. on one occasion we were on the run from a group of instructors who had spotted us from a hilltop. they were in a vehicle, we were obviously on foot. we carried with us all of our training gear that included rifles and radios and water and everything else that could be thought of, so we were burdened and unable to move like we would have liked. the instructors came down onto the flat and Foster and i used the opportunity to duck into some particularly thick roadside brambles. dirt roads laced the training area and if given the chance, one could move along them at a better clip than fight through the thick undergrowth. we had been on the road, a bad choice considering the circumstances at the time. as we laid with our hearts hammering we heard the vehicle approach. the instructors spoke loudly and scornfully to the trees and bushes and to us. “we know you’re there…why were you on the road? come on out, you’re done.” we were not gonna come out. no way. i heard the unique sound of a CS grenade (a “tear gas” grenade is used commonly for crowd control…in this case, used in an attempt to flush two particularly rowdy varmints from the bushes) being “popped” and then tossed into our general vicinity. Foster looked at me and said, “i can take it if you can.” we buried our faces in the lowest roots of the plants that covered us.

oh my, CS gas is burly customer. it gets you and then it gets you more. as i began to thrash about and struggle for my breath i decided to find my compadre so that i could maybe find strength in a fellow sufferer. i only saw the blonde of the back of his head as he ran, hat in hand, ruck sack in tow, bushes thrashing, mud flying, away and away from the scene. i needed no prodding. i ran like a rabbit in his wake.

today i count Brian Foster as one of the closest people to my heart. we have suffered, lost, fought, and lived together. now and then, one of us will look at the other and smile and say, “i can take it if you can.” since that day in the bush, 17 or so years ago, we have changed. he is ever the stalwart pillar, i am the ever flowing stream. we contrast. he followed a ten year career in mixed martial arts and had his fair share of wonderful powerful moments in that oh-so-primal sport. he is a professional. he retired from the fight (although he cannot leave it and still trains with the best in the world) and followed his career as at tattoo man. he taught me the art and i continue to follow that path as a profession. our lives intersect. the memories are vivid and in full color. (how can i ever forget that next morning after the fight with Joey Villasenor when the milk  from his cereal ran out the hole in his lip…and i laughed at his choices and so did he). i lived for a year in a treehouse we built in his backyard. Summer, his wife, only smiles and endures and raises her eyebrows at the craziness she has grown to know (and love).

Brian carries scars across his heavy wrinkled brow. he has had numerous surgeries to repair his nose and body. his smile is big and as real as the sun. his ears are misshapen and beg to be drawn in a cartoonish style. he is tattooed like a character from some older, more colorful world. his fists carry the marks of his wars and the blue in his eyes has grown deeper with time on the planet and the knowledge it has given him. his drawings are beautiful and are a window into the soul of the man who has made them. we are fellow artists now, a far cry from sniper partners…or is it? what are we if not for the suffering it takes to make us? the most powerful picture i have ever seen of Brian is how i saw him last. he stood with all his scars and his punished ears while holding a perfect reproduction of himself in his arms. his newborn son wriggled and stretched while Brian looked on. him, his son, and all the universe within. another fighter born.