If that strikes you as an improbable resume, the few observers of Nachez "Little Fawn" Washalanta's life will tell you that's because you ain't a Marine.
"You could tell he never fit in anywhere before ... until he joined the Marines" observes journalist Earnie Grafton. Grafton, a reporter/photographer for the San Diego Times and a former Marine, got himself embedded with Wash's light armored reconnaissance unit charging from Kuwait to Tikrit in March of 2003.
He was a short kid. So short I remember thinking he must have just squeaked by the Marine minimum-height requirement. I think he was barely 20 years old at the time. Too young to drink, but old enough to drive an armored vehicle into war.
He came from Ardmore, Okla., some small town where opportunity doesn't exactly shoot up from the hard-packed red earth. I remember that he hadn't had an easy life. He told me he had "screwed up" a few times back in Oklahoma. He was a tough guy who didn't talk much. He either said what he thought, which usually wasn't the right thing to say to your boss, or he simply clammed up. . .
Washalanta wasn't a poster Marine. He sure wasn't the type a press-relations officer would want you to write about.
"Screwing up" was how Wash came to the attention of Judge Tom Walker. Carrie, wife of Wash's commanding officer, wrote in to the comments section of Villanous Company, a blog maintained by a Marine wife
Wash had the worst family life ever. Father went to jail and mom was/is a drug addict. It became clear early on that Wash's mom was not a good caregiver and the same judge who put his father in jail put him and his little brother in the custody of a great aunt.
Later, when the great aunt could no longer keep up with the boys because of age, he put Wash into foster care. I know nothing more about his brother after this point. If I remember correctly, Wash bounced around foster care abit but finally ended up with a good family. He stayed with them until he graduated from high school.
The break from his "family of origen" doubtless paved the way for what happieness and success Wash enjoyed in his too brief life. The partisan feelings of those championing Wash, however, have buried the origen of his name "Little Fawn." Along with "Chez" and "Wash," "Little Fawn" is how he gave himself to be called by new or significant people in his life.
"People are probably reading this and shaking their heads," Lcpl. Weaver writes of one of the best friends he's ever known, "but this is how Chez' and I used to talk, and will talk when we meet up again. Until next time, Little Fawn."
No tribal affiliation is mentioned in the sources readily available for the young Oklahoman, but the name so perfectly fits the wary coltishness Wash often displayed you almost have to believe some native American shaman "read" Wash's spirit at birth.
One of Wash's teachers, Ms. Vanessa Chappel of Smithville, Texas, penned this recollection to Chez
My most fond memory of you was on our field trip to Grapevine Mills Mall and the Ft. Worth zoo. I don't know if you'd been included on any field trips before that time. You acted surprised that I invited you to go. But I was very happy that you went. When we returned, you and I had time to visit with each other while we waited for Christine to pick you up. I enjoyed that time very much. I was happy to have the chance to get to know you a little better.
Well, and yes, at-risk-youth, kids with trouble at home often maintain a reserve within themselves. Skittishness at simple human regard -- trembling at the common respect which binds our society -- these are the conditioned responses of trust shattered at an early age, trust not soon restored.
If journalist Grafton knew Wash's Indian moniker, he may have considered it too vulnerable. Aside from sounding so un-Devil Dog, "Little Fawn" would have rendered the portrait he gives us of Wash as a brooding loner altogether too sentimental and schmaltzy.
Grafton tells us of two encounters, two moments of "quality time" with Wash. One relates to the moody photo above. After snapping the picture of Wash taking a solitary smoke break, Grafton engages him about his job as driver of the 12 ton light tank they travel in. Having earlier overheard the tough young marine's complaints (" 'I don't want to be a f – -ing driver,' he said, 'I joined the Marines to fight,' ") Grafton expects a brusque brush off. Instead, Wash responds to the attention by offering a detailed explanation of the machine and its operation, revealing the deep pride he takes in his developing mastery of the beast.
The journalist sets the scene of his other moment of quality time: Wash's job isolates him in the cockpit of the tank, Grafton explains, so his limited social interaction often involves the squad outdoing each other as they grandiloquently rag on their young driver about the uncomfortable ride he's giving them across the desert.
One day south of the Tigris River, Wash got the vehicle stuck up to its axles when a dike we were crossing gave way on the right side. [Sergeant] Mike turned the air blue yelling at Wash, even though everyone, probably including Mike, knew it wasn't really Wash's fault. Everyone except Wash, of course.
I remember seeing the tough guy, the I-don't-take-crap-from-anyone guy, standing off by himself with his head down. I walked up to him. He had tears in his eyes and said softly, "I really f – -ed up. I let the staff sergeant down."
He hadn't, of course. I told him that, and later Mike told him the same. But Wash wasn't buying it. His pride wouldn't allow that.
There's much about Little Fawn that brings to mind that "underdog soldier in the night" Bob Dylan wrote of, so much in his story that gets you yearning for the chimes of freedom to ring for him. Again, Carrie, wife of Wash's commanding officer:
While we were driving from California to Virginia, we took a detour to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Ardmore is exactly what you'd think it was. Small, not high rent, dusty. The Gene Autry museum is there.
We met the judge who'd had been such a part of Wash's life at the cemetery and talked with him for about an hour. He gave the eulogy at Wash's funeral. Said that there weren't very many people there. Mostly guys from the local VFW.
The judge made sure that the great aunt who had first taken care of Wash received a flag. The mother was there but the look on the judge's face when he referred to her made me not want to ask more. I know that the CACO warned me off of her. She had somehow grifted money out of the Marine Corps and they were all pretty disgusted with her.
After Wash's foster parents died, he changed the beneficiary of his SGLI to his foster sister. I always think about that and it makes me sad. He didn't have anyone else to leave it to.
"To the Washalanta Family, My most sincere condolences go to your family. I met young PFC Nachez Washalanta in Iraq. My unit was attached to his battalion. We shared a helicopter ride back to Kuwait and later the freedom bird back to the USA, where I met his brother. We shared stories of our units’ exploits during the "march up" to Baghdad and spoke as peers despite our age difference. He was a fine young man and a credit to the Marine Corps and to his country.
Staff Sergeant Guevarra of 4th LAR Bn.
"Wash I am sorry for what happen to you. I think of you everyday and can't sleep a night with out that day replaying in my head. The truth is you were there because you were the best for the job. You were respected and loved by all of us Wash. I saw how important you were to every one that day and how important you were to me in the thoughts I have about you all the day. It hurts to know you are gone but I gain strength from knowing you were with the people you wanted to be with that day."
Sgt. Anthony Jones -- Nightcrawler 4 -- 1st LAR PRT Guard of Norco Ca
"Nachez,I found out to late you are my brother. I wish we could have had the chance and time to get to know each other. The friends of yours I have had the privledge to talk to maintain what a wonderful and brave person you were and how blessed they were to have you in their lives, even if for only a short time.
So, I thank you and love you...."
Suncerrae of Phoenix, AZ
"Chez: Today we went to a memorial to honor your life. What a big to do it was! You would have just quietly shrugged and said, "It was no big deal, that was my job." You were such a blessing to us Chez. You showed me what a hero truly is. You taught me the past is exactly that, the past. The future and what we choose to do with it is the only thing that matters.
Darrien and Jackson loved you so. Through your eyes they saw the whole world. Inside your bible they found their picture. It put them atop the world. Although it is so difficult to say, I am truly thankful you are finally at peace. Thank you for loving us enough to defend this country...so Jackson may never have to. I thank God for the time you spent with us. You are and will remain our precious hero. Semper Fi"
David, Jennifer, Darrien and Jackson of Norman, OK