I have a photo of me and Patrick Rix in my bedroom. You can’t tell it’s either one of us in the picture, but it has been a cherished possession. It’s even more cherished now.
It’s nighttime in southern Afghanistan. There are cots in the foreground of the picture, enormous otherworldly military vehicles behind them and an eerie glow coming from behind one, known ominously as an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected). There are thousands of stars in the sky. Rix, who was a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard, is sleeping on one of the cots, and I’m on another. Star Tribune photographer Rick Sennott shot the picture as we followed Rix’s unit, a transportation company out of Duluth, on a mission to deliver supplies to a remote British military base in Helmand Province.
Earlier this month, Patrick Rix was riding with a group of other motorcyclists when he crashed on his bike. He was killed. He was 42. He was one of a number of motorcyclists who died in separate incidents around the state at around the same time, and his name was dutifully among those added in news stories as cautionary tales about riding without a helmet.
Right about now would be the time to put it all in perspective: the adrenalin-loving warrior and the risky behavior of driving fast without a helmet; the misfortune of a soldier who survived firefights and explosions in the dust of Afghanistan only to lose his life on the Dowling Avenue entrance ramp on Interstate 94.
But that seems too easy and not at all appropriate.
In the fall of 2009, my relationship with Sgt. Rix was short but intense. His company was stationed on a Marine base called Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, and Sennott and I were there to show readers what the Minnesotans were doing. They had already suffered one casualty during this deployment, a young specialist named George Cauley, and this convoy would prove to be eventful and grueling: 146 miles in 52 hours, including an early morning gunfight with insurgents in which Rix, who in civilian life worked for the Duluth public works department, manned the .50-caliber machine gun atop the MRAP. He may or may not have dropped one of the enemy shooters during the fight.
In the story I would write, I described Rix as a multi-tattooed veteran of the Iraq war who was a grab bag of contradictions: a devotee of Chuck Norris who read Nietzsche; a gravelly voiced combination of Tony Soprano and a professional wrestler. With his tattoos, constant cigarette in his mouth and shaved head, Rix was a visual aphrodisiac for Sennott, who couldn’t shoot enough pictures of him. One of his favorite songs was a foul-mouthed satirical homage to country-western music.
I’m not sure if Rix had been ordered to watch out for me and Sennott during our time there, but he took on the task nonetheless, a coarse guardian angel. When we went out on the mission, Rix wrote down our blood types, in case there was trouble. Sennott’s body armor was a ragtag vest from the Israeli military, hard to wear and harder to put on. I shot a picture of Rix and a bunch of other soldiers trying to cinch Sennott in before we went outside the base.
Even during the intensity of the convoy, confronted with small-arms fire and IEDs, Rix paid attention to how much fluid I was drinking, concerned about dehydration. At one point he ordered me to pee in a Gatorade bottle, which I dutifully did, with full body armor front and back and crouching inside the fortified MRAP. Rix was angry at what he saw: “Rusty pipes,” he growled. “Not good,” and he ordered me to drink more water.
I am convinced now that if anything bad was going to happen to me in Afghanistan, Rix would have gotten himself in the middle of it. If that reflects some sort of too-close relationship between journalist and subject, so be it.
While Rix didn’t ask for anything in return, I didn’t want it to be all give and no take. During a stopover in the convoy, Rix told us it was his daughter’s birthday back home in Duluth. It was a 9½-hour difference in time zones, and it was about 6 in the morning where we were, a desolate camp without a functioning toilet, let alone cell coverage. I handed the newspaper’s satellite phone over to him and demanded that he call his daughter to wish her a happy birthday before she went to bed.
Before we ended our time with his unit, Rix dropped a book off on my bunk — “Horse Soldiers,” about the first American soldiers who rode horses into northern Afghanistan after 9/11. I still have Rix’s Afghanistan address in my Amazon.com account from when I sent him a new copy of the book to replace the one he gave me.
He was home on a family emergency when the story about his unit appeared. There was Sennott’s picture of him on the front page, sunglasses on the top of his shaved head as the convoy pulled into a safe haven, looking like something out of “Mad Max.” He called to say he had been at a convenience store getting gas when someone stopped him and asked if he was the man with his picture in the paper. He seemed to enjoy the attention.
I got a call from Rix about a year after everyone had returned home. In the voice mail he left, he said he was dealing with some issues. I called him and left a message but never heard back. After he died, I asked the National Guard if Rix was still serving. I learned that he had been medically discharged last year.
The services for Patrick Rix were on Saturday in Duluth. Since he served in Iraq and Afghanistan with different units, soldiers who were deployed with him planned on wearing yellow ribbons on their sleeves to identify one another, and their formal connection to him.
It won’t be difficult to identify what he meant to them.
Mark Brunswick covers military affairs for the Star Tribune. He has reported from Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.