An Outreach Program of MarineParents.com
I first met the colonel when my sons were deployed to Iraq. Those were the days it was easy to let people get on my nerves, especially when they tried to be helpful.
Some tried to be reassuring, saying “the situation” wasn’t as dangerous as it once was. Others took a different tact, telling us they knew what my family was going through because their children were enrolled in college in a different state and they hardly ever got to see them.
My wife, who is smart and kind, would always thank the well-intentioned, then gently steer them away before I could say anything harsh. Sometimes, she would explain quietly about being the parent of two Marines in a combat zone and ask them to pray for our sons and all those deployed. Then she would assure them we were praying for their children, too. Me, I gritted my teeth; a lot.
It was nearing Thanksgiving and we hadn’t heard from either son in a while. And here’s a hard truth: when loved ones are in combat, the slogan “No news is good news” only carries you so far. My wife had started spending more time in our sons’ old bedrooms, their old ball caps held up to her face so she could inhale whatever essence of them still remained. Me, I kept gritting my teeth; a lot.
That was the night the telephone rang. And that is how I met the colonel.
All he said was simply that he was a member of our church who now lived in another city. We had never met before, but he had gotten the names of my sons from the church secretary that afternoon. He said he had called up to get the names of members who were deployed. Now he was following up with parents and loved ones to get addresses because he wanted to send each of them a Christmas card.
I told him I thought that was nice of him and he said, “Well, I know how lonely it can get when you’re overseas, especially when it’s Christmas time.”
As I was to learn, he knew what he was talking about. The colonel was a Marine during WW II and saw action with Chesty Puller’s First Marines at two of the bloodiest fights in the war: Peleliu, where his division had a casualty rate of one in three, and Okinawa, where American casualties numbered around 70,000 versus an estimated 100,00 Japanese killed.
And like most veterans with extensive combat experience, the colonel didn’t talk about it much. Instead, he preferred talking about the traditions of his beloved Corps and keeping in touch with today’s Marines. Besides, he said with a chuckle in that first phone call, “I also wanted to meet a man who could raise not one, but two, U.S. Marines.”
Then he asked me how my wife and I were doing with two sons deployed to a combat zone. And so I told him and he listened and that was enough. He listened. He said he didn't have a magic solution, except maybe he did. He said he'd pray for my sons, just like he knew my wife and I were doing.
Needless to say, the colonel and I hit it off. And so we kept in touch over the years, mainly with notes and postcards. He was always interested in my sons and what they were doing. He understood when one of my sons had to retire with a disability rating of 60 percent after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He approved when the other became a drill instructor.
“They’ve done well,” he said in one phone call. “After all, I was in the Marines for nearly four years and never made it past private. When I got home and joined the National Guard, I made colonel.”
“Aren’t the Marines kind of notorious for not giving out much in the way of promotions and medals, especially back then?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose,” he said. And it was my turn to chuckle.
This past spring, the colonel called me again. He was in an extended care center not far from my home and said he just wanted me to know. My son the drill instructor was home on leave the next week, and I gathered up him and his brother and we paid the colonel a visit.
I thought we were going to cheer him up. I stayed in the background as he quizzed my sons about their careers in the Marines and talked a bit about his. I could tell he enjoyed the visit, but he was getting tired. We were getting ready to leave when he grabbed each of my sons’ hands and said he would like to pray for them. They agreed and the colonel offered up a heartfelt prayer asking the Lord to bless all Marines, those alive and those who have gone on. Then he asked the Lord to protect my sons, the drill instructor and his brother, who is now a deputy sheriff. Later, they both told me how much that prayer meant to them.
Before he let go of their hands, he thanked them for coming to see him. Their visit was a gift he appreciated, he said. I thought it was just the other way around: getting to visit the colonel was a gift for us.
The colonel died last week. He was 92. He lived a good, long life and left two children, five grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. My son, the deputy, and I went to the funeral to say good-bye. We sat in the chapel and watched the honor guard of retired Marines in their dress blues, we listened to our pastor's sermon and we listened to a grandson, another minister, eulogize the colonel.
It was a good service for a good and honorable man.
I saw his family at the visitation and told them I was sorry for their loss. But how do you explain to them that a man’s death is your loss, too?