For memorial day, in memory of all who have died as a result of wars worldwide, for peace and justice.
Austin Koth grew up on my street and taught me some of the basics of life, like the word “Fuck”. He also taught me how to dive, how to play hide and seek, and how to take risks. We once took inner tubes down the creek nearby after a huge snow storm melted, ending up miles away and walking home. My parents were not too pleased.
But he was still allowed to babysit me, and probably saw a lot more of my growing moments than I did of his. But I did see some of his, and I recall his decision to enter the Navy, after which I did not see as much of him.
Stin was the kind of guy that everyone in the neighborhood knew and remembered. During a truth-or-dare game, he would end up in a speedo, sneaking into a neighbors pool in the middle of the night and doing laps. He would also sneak into the local public swimming pool in the middle of the night, or do crazy shit off home-made jumps on a snowboard, down otherwise boring backyard hills.
When it became known that he was deploying to Iraq for a 6-month tour, I was a bit numb. I didn’t want to think about that. A guy from my highschool had been killed in Iraq and another was heading there. I didn’t want to think of Austin filling a local hole because of some bullshit mission to find nonexistent weapons at the behest of George Bush. The war I had stood against with all of my being had become a very real thing in my personal life.
The last time I saw him was Christmas, 2005. I told him right before he deployed to be careful, and he knew from my glance what I really meant; “Don’t fucking die in this bullshit”. He knew I had been protesting since 9/11 against a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He knew I had been an instrumental part of the walkouts the day the war started, when me and 300 others shut down Towson, Maryland in the freezing rain for the whole day.
He also knew George Bush was an asshole, but this asshole was his Commander in Chief, and he wanted to be part of the story all his fellow service-members were part of. He knew the justification behind the war was full of lies and deceit, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that hundreds of thousands of his buddies were going over there and so was he.
Stin was the last person to back down from a dare. Austin was deployed in early 2006 with a Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, to identify and diffuse or detonate roadside bombs (IEDs). These units, made famous recently with the award-winning film “The Hurt Locker”, suffer the highest casualty rates throughout the Iraq-occupation.
I spent months waking up to open the newspaper, waiting to see his name. Everyday I had the same horrible feeling in my stomach as I read through the names of the dead, sometimes a dozen U.S. troops a day. 822 U.S. troops would die that year.
That summer I had been put in touch with a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who wanted to be part of a tour I was organizing, mixing music and anti-war organizing. They were all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was just starting to really take off as a group. I moved back east from California to organize the tour, staying at my parents house and doing non-stop phone calls and emails. Occasionally I ventured to other states to play shows.
On a short tour I played a show in New York at Bluestockings Books, a radical activist coffee shop in the Lower East Side. For some reason that night, I didn’t play a song I had been playing at every show in that time period, a song called “In The Blink of an Eye” that I had written about Austin’s deployment to Iraq. For some reason it didn’t feel right. Maybe I didn’t want to think about it. Maybe it was some more powerful force that kept it from my hands and lips;
They’ve got bombs on the road
You’ve got bombs in the sky
So many dying
For a flag to fly
Everything could change
In the blink of an eye
So we hope you make it home alive
After the show, I got my phone out of my guitar case and saw several missed calls, all from family members. I knew someone had died, but who? My mother? A friend? I started shaking as I called my brother.
Brett answered in a flat, low voice. “Do you have somewhere to sit down”. “Who died? Who died?!” I asked.
That was all I needed. “Motherfucker. God damnit. This fucking war. Austin fucking Koth. What the fuck?”
Austin had been blown to shit by an IED at Camp Victory, planted by members of the Iraqi military moonlighting as insurgents. But I didn’t blame them. I blamed the politicians who sent Austin and a million others from my generation into Iraq to walk around in circles to defend the interests of a mob of U.S. corporations and Pentagon brass with something to prove to and take from the world. I blamed George Bush and his cabinet’s violent, possessive fantasies. I reflected on this more recently in a song called “Placing The Blame”;
And how would you react
If soldiers occupied our streets?
Would you fight in the name of your country
Like Muhammed and Khalid?
We took this nation’s world
And everybody knows what for
I don’t blame the ones who built the bomb
I blame the ones who built the war
After getting the news I hung up with my brother. My anger nearly surpassed my grief, but both flowed together. I took some time to myself hunched over in a corner before making a few more calls. A group of friends were nearby and allowed me the space, then asked what was up. They took me to the East river and my friends Jay and Rosie got me the most important 40 oz. of my life. I let the river, alcohol, and compassion of friends keep me safe.
Then I traveled home to face the reality of the situation.
His closed casket served as a grim introduction to his injuries. His shoulder had been ripped off his body, completely blown apart. His face and chest were probably gone. He was killed instantly, at least.
And some fresh-faced sailor somewhere was training to fill his bloody boots.
Stepping away from the coffin, I found myself looking at his picture book, mostly memories of good days past. I was fine until I came to the photo of his unit standing with his Field Memorial. It was his helmet, his rifle, his boots. I lost it. That image is burned in my mind. That’s my friend, a fucking gun and a helmet. That’s it.
As the viewing ended, I realized there were metal pins people had on with a Field Memorial insignia on them. I looked in the basket but they were all gone, I was gonna flip out; “Can I get get a fucking pin”, I thought. “For my friend?!” As I walked away a man I did not know came up to me with a pin, it was his personal one, but he gave it to me without a word. His look told me he was former military, and he understood that I needed it more than him. Whoever he was, I think about him often. At least some glimpse of positive humanity lingers in my mind when I look at that pin, which sits on the mirror in my truck to give me a daily reminder of the human costs of war and the beauty of good friends.
I made my final peace with Austin over his coffin, in a graveyard that sits right across from the high school I had dropped out of 6 years earlier. I vowed to continue my efforts to end war. I vowed on his life to exit my comfort zone if it meant being effective, to take risks, to throw myself into the work and dedicate a portion of my life to confronting and overcoming future conflicts.
When the rifles were fired in his honor, I felt the violence of war. I understood the cracking of those bullets to signify the horrible way in which millions and millions of people in this world have met an early and disgusting death. I will never forget the intensity of that moment and the weight that it carries.
The funeral ended with Stin’s mother getting the flag that covered his coffin, which I wanted to destroy. “Fucking flag, they replaced him with this flag. They did this to him for this flag. What does that flag have to do with us?” I didn’t see it. Others did, and I respected that, but the idea of replacing a mother’s love for her son with a flag will never make any sense to me.
“Thanks for your son, Ma’am, here’s a flag we got at the Walmart.”
Stin, the dude who would run down the street and leap over the biggest bush, or free hand climb up the dangerous rocky slope behind the mall, dead in Iraq. Killed in a war that generations in the future will look back on in anger, sadness, and frustration, wondering just what the hell we were thinking.
Those of us from my generation will look back on these years and remember the friends and family members we lost, and reflect on the lives that were taken in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stin’s real memorial, the one that means the most to those of us who grew up with his charismatic and life-loving energy, is a bench behind my childhood home. We all used to pass time there doing mostly illegal but also legal things. We talked philosophy, politics, bullshit, and more. We developed funny mythology about our neighborhood, naming trees, reflecting on funny things from the past.
The original bench was sawed in multiple pieces one night and littered with Christian pamphlets. We think one of our friends had a wild religious episode and decided this was the site of sin. So after Stin’s death some of his closest friends got a new bench, with a gold plaque for him on it. It reads:
Edward Austin Koth
Born June 27, 1976 – Towson, MD.
Died July 26, 2006 – Baghdad, Iraq.
Hopefully I will sit on this when I’m an old man and reflect on the life of this great dude.
For my part, I continue to uphold the oath I took over his coffin.I have worked since his death as an ally to Iraq Veterans Against the War, and co-founded the Civilian-Soldier Alliance with other non-veteran anti-war organizers. We work to support service-members and veterans to build a movement against war within the U.S. military.
I also carry on his legacy in a funnier way; whenever I stand at a cold body of water, the kind you would have to a be nuts to get into, I harness his energy and dare myself in his honor to throw myself in. I don’t always do it with the speed and willingness that he would, but I eventually pull it off!
That’s his spirit, and that’s how I keep a little piece of him alive inside of me.