An Outreach Program of MarineParents.com
One of my sons and his wife were home visiting recently when his cell phone chirped. He looked down, smiled and then read the message aloud: “Happy Anniversary!” It was from his brother, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton.
My daughter looked puzzled so I asked her: “Don’t you remember where you were six years ago?”
“Hey, I was only nine,” she said. “What’s to remember?”
“You were at Parris Island,” my wife said, “watching your brothers graduate.”
“Oh,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking down at her own I-phone. Then she added: “It was hot.”
It was hot, with temperatures pushing into the high 90s and the humidity trailing close behind. I remember that well, but what I recall most was the rush of emotion when I first saw them. Sporting close-cropped hair, a sinewy musculature and a lean and hungry air, they had the look of the wolf about them. Mostly I felt a surge of pride, mixed with admiration at what they had accomplished. There was also – to be honest – a hint of fear, wondering at what their future held. And as I watched them hug their mother, their aunt and their sister I also felt a sense of gratitude, an appreciation for the simple fact that my sons -- like everyone else in uniform there that day -- had volunteered to serve their nation in a time of war.
That was six years ago aboard the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island. Much has happened to them, and to our family, since the muggy spring night they tumbled out of a bus with that deer-in-the-headlights look to line up on yellow footprints painted on a road while drill instructors screamed at them. What is known as the process already had started and it would continue from that night until the day their senior drill instructor placed an Eagle, Globe and Anchor pin into each of their hands. It was – quite literally – the difference between night and day.
I suppose we all grew up, or at least grew wiser, as the two continued their journey with the Corps over the course of the following years. Going off to war is a life-changing experience for any young man, and so it is, too, for their families who hug them and then watch them leave, wondering not only when, but if, they’ll ever see them again. It’s a thought you try to forget, but like an itch you can never quite reach, it is always there.
My mother, who is 91, knows a thing or two about watching loved ones sail off to combat. She married a young Marine officer and then sent him off to fight in World War II. She saw him again two years later. She keeps a large map of the world tacked to the wall in her laundry room. On it are colored pins representing the different places her husband – my father – was stationed as well as her two grandsons. Dad’s journey is marked in purple, and his pins aren’t many: North Carolina, California, Hawaii, a hell-hole called Iwo Jima and mainland Japan. In contrast his grandsons are a bright rainbow of red and blue pins arcing across the face of the map.
A quick look confirms that my sons – between the two of them over the course of the last half decade -- have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as deployments and training sessions in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. There was a hurry-up cruise in the Mediterranean Sea when revolts shook first Egypt and then Libya, and Marines on board ship were briefed on the Suez Canal – just in case they were ordered to go in and take it. Then they’ve been to other countries such as Italy, Ireland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Kuwait and other points on the compass. Sometimes it was for a few hours inside an airport terminal, other times they were there for at least a couple of days. That map on Mom’s wall is studded with pins. Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton, as well as Parris Island, are represented, too.
Of course you can’t really measure a journey just by looking at pins on a map. It’s a good starting point, but it doesn’t begin to tell the tale, doesn’t capture the years that have passed or the living and growing – some of it easy and smooth, other parts rough and harrowing. No, a map doesn’t begin to tell that story, but there are other ways to appraise the passage of time. Tattoos, scars, stripes and ribbons help fill in at least some of the details.
1.) Tattoos: It seems like just about every Marine gets at least one tattoo. One son carries an image of St. George fighting a dragon across his back; while the other – among several tats – simply has inked low on his back the name of another Marine. Similarly that Marine carries my son’s name on his back. That way they’ll always have one another’s backs, just like they did in Iraq when things got hairy. One son has four tattoos, the other five. Each means something special – just like one son’s buddy who carries inked into his flesh the names of their 10 Marine brothers who died during a deployment to Afghanistan.
2.) Scars: Those aren’t laugh lines under the right eye of one of my Marines, the one who retired at the ripe old age of 22 with a 60 percent disability rating. Luckily he was wearing his safety glasses or the shrapnel that sliced up the lens would have taken out his eye instead. That happened to one of his buddies in Iraq. Now, that Marine has quite a collection of glass eyes to wear. It always made a strong impression with the locals in Afghanistan, my son says, when his friend would tap on his false eye with his forefinger. Injury and dealing with it is a way of life for our Marines, one we who love them can only try to understand. Like one son said, he has just as many good friends with one leg or none as he does with the two they were issued on the day of their birth.
3.) Stripes and ribbons: They both have them. They don’t talk about them. None of the Marines I know do. One son came home from a deployment with a red vinyl-covered folder with a citation inside. It was at the bottom of a duffel bag with some dirty uniforms. “Oh, yeah. I almost forgot,” he said, pulling it out and handing it to his mother. It reminded me of when he was a small boy and always forgetting about the notes from his teachers that were tucked away in his backpack. When his mother asked what the citation meant, he responded, “It’s sort of like an ‘Atta boy,’ but with paperwork attached.” The last time I saw the citation, it – along with a couple of others like it -- was in a bottom drawer of a chest in his old room. I guess it’s still there. The other son explained it this way: “Some guys get ribbons and medals, others don’t, but it doesn’t mean the guys who don’t have them don’t deserve them. It just depends on who was looking at you on a particular day. That’s all. Besides, the guys who were there with you know what you did and that’s what really counts.”
And so they go on. There are other ways to mark their journey, and ours:
1.) Decals and shirts. Neither son is what is sometimes called moto-tards. They get their high-and-tights (even the one who is now a civilian), but eschew T-shirts with skulls, bulldogs and the like. It’s as if they are saying, “We know who we are, we don’t need a shirt to proclaim it.” Their Mom, sister and wives like hoodies with the words Marine Corps on them. Likewise with their trucks, except each has a small decal on the back window. Each is the name of a buddy who died in combat, and the date he died.
2.) Pebbles and photos and gravestones. I don’t know when the habit of leaving a pebble or small rock on a gravestone became popular (I’ve traced it back centuries into Eastern Europe – because I’m a history nerd, that’s why.), but our Marines – all our Marines -- have adopted it. Along with their buddies, both have left pebbles atop the graves of the fallen, their friends who are buried at national cemeteries. If your ever privileged enough to visit Arlington, the graves of those who died in Iraq and Arlington are adorned with them. And my sons have photos of the graves of their friends, those who died at 19 or 20 or some other ridiculously impossible young age. They pass them back and forth via social media on-line with their other friends who are in and just out of the Corps. As one explained, it’s not morbid, but simply a way of keeping the departed a little bit closer.
3.) Prayers. Both sons have asked us to pray for specific Marines. The first time was in a letter from Afghanistan when one son told us how he thought he was going to die when a friend, a Marine sniper, got the two bad guys who had him pinned down. That sniper died three days later, leaving a wife and small child. Our son wrote to ask us to pray for his friend and his family. Over the years, both of our Marines have sent along similar requests for those who flew home early on angel flights as well as brother-in-arms who were wounded and their families. And so every day when I sit down at my desk, I bow my head and remember to my God those mentioned by my sons. How could I do anything else?
4.) On the home front: I’ll always remember the way my heart stopped the day I drove up to my house while my sons were in Iraq and found an olive drab sedan sitting in front. Turned out it was two men looking for yard work. Still, I think I aged that day.
B.) Or the day at church when our then 11-year-old daughter’s Sunday school class was asked to write down and pray over their biggest worry. While most of the girls wrote about school problems or not getting a new cell phone, our child wrote that what was most on her mind was the simple fact that her brothers were deployed and could die at any moment. The teacher gave us the note and we had a long talk that night. (Please don’t ever ignore your other children because you are so worried about your Marine.)
C.) Then there was the time a young man at church told me one of the reasons he joined the Corps was because I had honestly answered his questions about what my sons had gone through. He appreciated my honesty, he said, and decided that if my wife and I could handle it he was sure his mother could, too.
D.) And my wife will always remember the Marine vet who sat in her office and realized he had finally found someone at the college where he had just enrolled with whom he could talk. He knew it, he said, when he saw the photos of our sons in dress blues (the standard boot camp shot) that she keeps near her desk.
It's been six years and counting since we went through the looking glass and we’re still evolving as Marines and as a Marine family. And the remarkable thing about it? Well, there are so many others just like our Marines, so many families just like us. What strikes me most is that our sons’ story, our family’s story, isn’t remarkable, but is like that of many other Marine Corps families. It sure has been one interesting ride.