You see it all the time in movies. And the scene is always the same: A wife or a father or a mother gets a knock on the door, and standing outside are two stoic men in uniform. There’s a formal introduction and a brief exchange of words, but the dialogue isn’t necessary. The wife or the father or the mother know exactly what’s happened. It’s the worst possible news.
Yesterday, on January 20, 2010, a woman named Debra Hays received that devastating knock on her door in Florence, Kentucky. A few hours later, at 9:13 p.m. MST, I got a phone call with the same tragic news. Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery, the son of Ms. Hays and a well-respected friend of Arizona Highways, was shot and killed in the line of duty. He was serving his country from a place called Camp Vegas, which is located in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. As I write these words, I’m quietly awaiting the final details of his regrettable death. Meantime, through the tears and the shock and the sadness and the shortness of breath that comes from losing a friend, I’m reflecting on the past six months.
If you’re a reader of our magazine, or if you’re connected to us through social media, you may recall that last fall I got an e-mail from Sergeant Montgomery. He was requesting some copies of our magazine — something that he and his fellow soldiers could use as a respite from the horror around them. Prior to that e-mail, I’d never heard of Sergeant Montgomery, Camp Vegas or the Korengal Valley. But a lot can happen in six months. In that short period of time, I learned a great deal about all of the above, and along the way, Sergeant Montgomery became an inspiration to everyone at Arizona Highways. In addition, he became the face of all the servicemen and women around the world.
It’s a role he never expected and never really wanted. He had no interest in the spotlight that we were shining on him. All he wanted was some magazines. What he didn’t realize was that in the process of reaching out to us, he was connecting an otherwise disconnected group of Americans with a world that seemed a million miles away. Through Sergeant Montgomery, our staff and many of our readers gained a new perspective on the war, and also some degree of enlightenment. Of course, that perspective and enlightenment came with an overwhelming cost. Without Sergeant Montgomery’s face and his name and our personal relationship, the news of his death wouldn’t have felt any different than the thousands of deaths that preceded his in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and all the rest. But as it is, the shocking reality of his death is hard to comprehend. For us, Thaddeus Montgomery isn’t just a name in a newspaper. Thaddeus Montgomery is a human being, and more importantly, he’s a part of our family.
Like other families, we’ve been aware of the realities. War zones are not playgrounds. They’re extremely dangerous places, but we never dwelled on that. Instead, we focused on the seemingly trivial things. Things like sending beef jerky and Cracker Jacks and peanut butter. It was the least we could do. That said, we know how meaningful it was to the 1st Platoon at Camp Vegas. In fact, shortly after our first shipment of junk food arrived, I got an e-mail from Sergeant Montgomery. He wrote:
“I just want to thank you, Mr. Robert Stieve, and the rest of the folks there at Arizona Highways for the many packages that have begun to arrive here at COP Vegas from the editorial staff at your magazine. Originally, I had asked only for a few magazines that the soldiers here could enjoy thumbing through, and about a week ago boxes began to arrive with tons of good stuff in them. I can’t thank you all enough for the kindness you have bestowed upon our platoon. As for the packages, everything you all sent was absolutely awesome. It didn’t take long for everyone to grab a handful of the things they wanted. Thank you Arizona Highways! We are all grateful for everything you have done to help us while we are away on this deployment. If there is anything I can do in return, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
When I opened that e-mail, I smiled at the humility of the sergeant’s last line: “If there is anything I can do in return, please don’t hesitate to ask.” As if risking his life wasn’t enough. That smile has since turned to tears. I can’t read his e-mails without breaking down. I wasn’t prepared for this. Not just the sadness, but also the regret of knowing that I’ll never have the chance to shake Sergeant Montgomery’s hand and thank him for his service to our country. Although we never met in person, I did have an opportunity to interview him live via satellite. It was an interview that took place on Channel 3 here in Phoenix. Like other military scenarios, there was a formal introduction and a brief exchange of words. We talked for quite a while, but after an hour, the audio portion of the satellite feed cut out, and we never got a chance to finish our conversation. I could see my friend talking, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Later that day, in a subsequent conversation with Sergeant Montgomery’s mother, she told me that her son wasn’t much of a talker, but once he got beyond his natural reticence, he usually said something profound. Sadly, I completely missed whatever profound things he might have been saying to me that day. I can live with that, however, because I’m well aware of the profound sacrifice he made on behalf of his country. He gave his life so that magazines like Arizona Highways can enjoy the freedom of speech, along with all the other civil liberties that come with living in the United States. I will never forget that sacrifice, and I’ll certainly never forget Sergeant Montgomery.
On behalf of everyone at Arizona Highways, our condolences go out to Ms. Hays and the friends and family of Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery. On this sad day we lost a friend, a son and an American hero. It was the worst possible news.
— Robert Stieve, editor