Robert Ayres (center) on duty in Iraq

My first boyfriend’s name was Robert Ayres, but everyone called him Bob. He had a crazy, curly mess of blond hair and the kind of eyes that any adolescent girl would be happy to spend hours gazing longingly into. His passion was music, and he first won me over by playing a pitch-perfect rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” after I told him it was my favorite song. I was fourteen when we met, and he was already sixteen. Even though he was in a serious relationship at the time, I was still smitten with the sweet, funny, scruffy hippie whose happy-go-lucky confidence seemed so foreign to my insecure young self. Within a few months, he had broken up with his girlfriend, and the two of us were taking the first tentative steps towards what would become a two-year on-and-off relationship, not to mention an enduring friendship.

Bob was my first real boyfriend, the first person to buy me flowers on Valentine’s Day, the first person I went on a real date with, the first person I snuck into my parents’ house when they weren’t home, and the first boy I ever exchanged “I love you’s” with. He introduced me to The Grateful Dead, taught me how to bang out a beat on the drums, gave me my first promise ring, and showed me how to shotgun a beer without stopping for air. He was the first person I ever smoked pot with, the driving force behind my adolescent punk phase, and the boy my little brother caught me kissing in our living room after-school.

When we were dating, he was the first person I saw when I got off the bus in the morning and the last person I wanted to leave when school let out at the end of the day. And even when we weren’t together, we stayed good friends. He talked me through some of the toughest times of my collegiate career, and we wrote each other long letters after he joined the Army and got sent to Iraq.

He knew exactly how to make me laugh, and he was unfailingly patient with me – able to diffuse my tempestuous teenage moods with an ease that even my parents lacked. When I committed that most horrible of high school sins and broke up with him because he wasn’t cool enough for my new group of friends, he took it in stride. He never judged me. And when I realized my mistake and came crawling back to him, he was happy to have me. He made me feel beautiful; he protected and loved me.

He was unflinchingly, unfailingly there for me while I was fighting to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be – regardless of which permutation of my pubescent personality was present at any given time. He may not have been the most intelligent guy, or the most likely to succeed; he didn’t have a life plan, or a license, or a lot of money, and he wasn’t doing very much to change all that. But he was a genuinely good guy, a fiercely loyal friend, and the kind of first love you never forget.

President George W. Bush

Bob died on Saturday, September 29 in Baghdad. He was hit by sniper fire while providing cover for his fellow soldiers. He was 23-years-old, and it was his second time in Iraq.

We kept in touch for most of my college career, but when my mother told me the news about his death last week, we hadn’t spoken in months. And yet, somehow I knew what she was going to tell me before she said anything. I had called him a few weeks ago on a whim, just to check in and see how he was doing. I didn’t know he had been deployed again, but even so, he would normally have checked his messages and called back. He didn’t.

As we go about our lives here in Isla Vista, it’s hard to ever imagine what he was seeing during his last days alive. While I was complaining about the fog, he was fighting enemy fire. While I was planning my Halloween costume, he was preparing for insurgent attacks. While I was studying film, he was studying sniper locations. And now, whereas I wake up every morning in sunny Santa Barbara, he will never wake up again.

It’s hard for me to make sense of it. I keep expecting to hear his voice on my answering machine, or open the mailbox and get a long letter full of silly misspellings and the kind of incessant inside jokes that should have died a long time ago. The only thing I can wrap my head around at this point is the pointlessness of his passing. Sure, he may have saved the lives of some of his fellow soldiers, and God knows I admire and applaud him for that. But, was his presence in Iraq really accomplishing anything? I know he thought it was.

But, when I weigh his death – and the deaths of the thousands of Americans, Iraqis, and Coalition forces since the war began – against the supposed progress the American administration claims is being made in the country, I find it hard to have faith in what we’re doing over there. Every single day, the news reports increased violence and unrest in Iraq. And no matter how many men and women we send there to die in the streets of Baghdad, things don’t seem to be getting any better.

Still, it’s easy for us to forget that there’s a war going on. It’s easy for me to get lost in the day-to-day machinations of my life in Isla Vista. I go to class, to work, and to parties. I catch snippets about snipers and bits about body counts on the morning news, and I keep going through the motions that are my daily routine. I feel like there’s not much else I can do. The Iraq War looms in the back of every political conversation, in the trailing bits of televised news that are left after Britney’s custody battle and Lindsay’s release from rehab. It’s a specter over social science classes, a reality brought home once in a while by the rarest glimpse of a bloody attack on the other side of the world. It’s a mess that we college students know we will have to deal with one day, if only in the broadest of international geopolitical terms. But in the meantime, it’s not something that we deal with on a daily basis. And it’s easier forgotten than fixed.

But, now I can’t forget it. I can’t even stop thinking about it for more than a few minutes at a time. Someone I love has died, and while his presence in Iraq may have been entirely in vain, his death doesn’t have to be. Forgetting may be the easiest way to move forward, but it is not the best. To be honest, though, I’m not entirely sure what the best way would be.

U.S. Army logo

But, what I do know is that something must be done. Bob was just a normal kid at the local community college, trying to make ends meet and figure out a way to make a living making music. A clever recruiter figured out that he was an easy target, and the next thing we both knew, he was off to basic training. He is one of thousands of otherwise normal kids who have signed their lives away chasing the glamorized “Be All You Can Be” glory that should have gone out of style after Vietnam.

“The troops” are not a nameless, faceless mass of statistics and surges. Every soldier in Iraq has a family and friends at home. Every soldier in Iraq has a first love with fond memories of lazy after-school afternoons, flowers on Valentine’s Day, impromptu drum lessons, and promise rings imbued with far more value than their cheap veneer suggests. Every soldier in Iraq deserves not only the support of their fellow Americans, but the genuine attention. Politics aside, I truly believe that the only way to really support the troops is to pressure the administration to find a way out of Iraq; whatever that way may be.

Bob was my first love. He was also the first graduate of my high school to die in Iraq. I hope with all my heart that he was the last. May he rest in peace, and may his memory serve as a constant reminder of all that is wrong with the war in Iraq.


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