SIX SEATS FOR A WARRIOR
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 04 June 2010
A busy week so posting a day early. Much trouble and turmoil in the country and world these days but for this week a look back a few days with tie-in to a couple of months ago--most likely you'll laugh, think, be angered, and get a little misty. Such is life.
"The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executive or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) -- American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist
Memorial Day--arose from the rack well before daybreak, poured a cup of stiff coffee, wandered back to our cozy office, and turned on the computer to catch up on world events before exercising and preparing to attend a late-morning ceremony honoring our nation's heroes.
After scanning the news headlines proceeded to Facebook. First, to check on a few business matters then peruse some postings. One stood out. Colonel Ken Plato, USMC (Retired), and a long-time friend whose Dad--a Sailor--I wrote a Commentary (ANOTHER OF THE "GREATEST GENERATION" ORDERED HOME) about back on the 22nd of January, posted the following remark, "As you celebrate Memorial Day today, take a few minutes to read this sad tale of one Marine's final trip home, and the disturbing circumstances his family would endure. It bothers me what this might say about America's attitude toward the sacrifices our military members face every day."
The story more than "bothered" me. It sickened me. To that in a moment.
First some background...
The guest speaker at the Joshua Tree (California) Memorial Park Memorial Day service was Colonel Kevin Nally, USMC--assigned to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. In a local newspaper article a few days before announcing the ceremony and inviting the public there was mention "Cpl Kevin Nally, USMC" would be the guest speaker. I've met Kevin and picked up on the rank typographical error instantly. The abbreviation for colonel is Col. Cpl is for corporal. The "o" not only precedes "p" in the alphabet but is on the same line and one letter left on the keyboard--struck by the right hand's ring finger of a trained typist. The typing mistake understandable. Maybe not so understandable slipping through proof and edit. Oh well, mistakes happen.
The ceremony's emcee, Major Ruffini, USMC, also from the Combat Center, tactfully announced he had been asked to note the correction. There was a little chuckle from the huge crowd. Shortly thereafter Colonel Nally was introduced and opened his remarks by commenting on the error. He pointed out, and with much humility, sincerity and class I might add, that there should be no mistake--there is a big difference between the abbreviations "Cpl" and "Col" and emphasizing corporals do far more work than colonels. He meant it. And the crowd laughed. But seriously, Kevin's right.
And lance corporals, too, do more work--and tougher work--than colonels. And arguably tougher work than corporals. Such is life in the Corps. Which brings me back to the Facebook post noted earlier. As a friend of mine, who was once a lance corporal and retired a colonel, responded when asked what lance corporals do, "Exactly what they are told." And yet these days they're prepared to step forward to lead a squad or section should firefight casualties require such. That too is life in the Corps.
I did not know Lance Corporal Justin James Wilson, USMC. A native of Huntington, New York, and half-a-decade resident of the sunshine state, he enlisted in the Marine Corps several years after I retired. Had I met him it would have been strictly coincidental. But I've known many young men like him. Young men moved by some inner voice that speaks--that tells them to become a Marine. The same voice moves young women. These are people who summon the courage to visit a Marine recruiter and enlist--they are a different breed. They want to be counted among the best. The ones that journey to a recruit Depot (and Officer Candidates School) and conquer the entry-level training challenge are a different breed still. And the kind of men and women with which I prefer to keep company. Sorry, no time to explain. Even if there was I'd likely fail. Marines know exactly what I mean. Nary a word necessary.
Justin Wilson's inner voice spoke after he saw a television documentary about the Marine Corps while passing time waiting for a hurricane to pass. "That is what I want to be," an uncle recalled him saying. That was 2004. Five years later Justin's goal of enlisting came true. And he earned his eagle, globe, anchor and title "Marine" at Parris Island.
Lance Corporal Wilson was what every single Marine--gender not withstanding and whether private or general--is first and foremost; a rifleman. But his primary specialty was armored truck driver. He was assigned to 3rd battalion 10th Marines (as Marines call it, "3/10" pronounced "Three Ten"), 2d Marine Division, II MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force), Camp Lejeune, NC. His artillery battalion (10th Marines is an artillery regiment) was deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, and part of Regimental Combat Team 7.
Though his primary duties were driving, he also conducted foot patrols--and anything else asked of him. And expected of him. That is what lance corporals do.
On Monday, the 22nd of March of this year, during combat operations, Lance Corporal Wilson was killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). His life a short one--17 March 1986 to 22 March 2010.
I have previously written about the gut-wrenching duties of a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer--the Marine officer who makes in-person notification to next-of-kin upon the death of a Marine. Therefore I'll not review the personal experience and the indescribable shock and grief a family endures. Just know that a Marine officer, who probably did not know Lance Corporal Wilson but would come to know him, was assigned the sobering duties. The experience will be vivid for life.
Six Wilson family members journeyed to Dover, Delaware, to meet Lance Corporal Wilson's remains. On the 25th of March the family, trying to travel south to bury their Marine, ran into some problems. Flights were overbooked and they were without boarding passes. After a long delay in one airport they arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and again faced an overbooked flight. A gate agent's first attempt to secure seats resulted in three volunteers--all women. But three seats were not enough; six the requirement. The gate agent having publicly explained the circumstances, frustrated and moved to tears by the family's predicament, and even with enticing travel vouchers on the table, had to plead for three more volunteers. All the while the family was patiently standing in the background with heavy hearts and minds. Finally, three others stepped forward. One of the initial three was Colleen Getz. A link to her story is posted at the end of this Commentary.
I don't often add comments to Facebook. But after reading Ken's post and Ms. Getz's story I was moved to add the following, "Thanks, Ken. Sad. I agree with Gen K and add ridiculous. Seems this one could and should have been easily resolved instantly to accommodate the family. By airline policy, three other passengers, by some random means, simply "voluntold" they would not be on that airplane. Done. The living's "inconvenience"--they would get over it--nothing compared to the family's--they will never get over it and will carry for life. I wonder if the Captain of the airplane knew of the dynamics? And I wonder how the CEO of the airline carrier would feel? If a leader, a policy change." And what a sad statement a policy change necessary to ensure common courtesy--that American spirit that should surge through everyone.
Who was Justin Wilson? I know he was a Marine and that speaks volumes as to his character. All else I've learned from reading sundry articles and comments about him. One noted he "duct-taped his cousin to the dryer and stuffed his brother into a washing machine." Clearly he had a sense of humor. An uncle commented that Justin's smile made everything better and that he'd never forget it. Another uncle noted that Justin had a penchant for graffiti art and at one time aspired to be a professional paintball player (I didn't know there was such a thing--only in America). A friend and Marine veteran of the Korean War who encouraged Justin to join the Corps said the young man changed significantly when he completed boot camp. "He had a whole different attitude. He was a good Marine." Well, of course. Arrival at a Recruit Depot in the middle of the night--where all chips on the shoulder are deposited in a pile after stepping off the bus--and twelve weeks under the leadership of Drill Instructors tends to make for change. Oh, and Lance Corporal Wilson left a new bride behind whom he'd married back in November just before deploying. He had a mere two months left in Afghanistan.
Sitting among the crowd during Monday's service I could not help but look around at all the patriots--young and aged alike and many wearing proof of military service--and think that any one of them would not have hesitated to surrender their boarding pass to help the Wilson family. Especially moving was the reading of the names of 142 Marines and Sailors, assigned to the Combat Center (my last duty station and when retiring the count was just over 50), that have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about it. One hundred and forty-two. And the thousands and thousands of lives that will never be the same; friends, parents, extended family, and spouses and children left behind--some children never met. And that's just from one Marine Corps base in the middle of the Mojave Desert. A reminder that war is not glamorous. It is ugly. And scars--permanently--physically and emotionally. And not just the combatants.
What was wrong with the 100 or more people in that airport terminal that a few had to be embarrassed and shamed into acting? What were they thinking? Undoubtedly Walt Whitman, whose quote opened today's Commentary, would be disappointed. And of all places--at the airport named in honor of President Reagan who once opined about Marines, "Some people wonder all their lives if they've made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem." Why not all of them rushing the ticket counter--fighting over who was going to give up their seat--to make a difference? The first thought that comes to mind, "How sorry" and to say to them, "Wake the hell up!" May those that could have easily delayed their travel but did nothing forever be haunted by their selfish, inconsiderate, and unpatriotic behavior. That those folks enjoy the protection of young warriors like Lance Corporal Justin Wilson is one of this great country's sad realities and ironies. Perhaps one day such will change. We can do better. Far better. We must.
To the first three patriots who "inconvenienced" themselves, "BRAVO! and Thank You. That's the spirit." To the three who later stepped forward, "Thanks." With any luck the actions of the six will be contagious.
In young Lance Corporal Wilson, America has lost another great one. Proud parents, family, spouse, and the Marine Corps will ensure he lives on.
Lance Corporal Justin Wilson, USMC, transported aboard a horse-drawn carriage, was laid to rest with full military honors in Forest Hills Cemetery, Palm City, Florida, on Wednesday, the 31st of March. Supporting a devastated and grieving family, hundreds, if not thousands, mourned and paid respects. Martin County government buildings were directed to half-staff flags for the day.
Sadly, there will be more Marines--and our countrymen from all branches and other government employees and civilians, too--to lay to rest. A friend on active duty who's been to war and now's in an assignment dealing with preparing for and handling the consequences of wrote me Monday afternoon, "It's incredible to me what we're not hearing/reading. Afghanistan appears to have become another version of Korea ~ a forgotten war. Hope I'm proven wrong. Have had ample time to reflect today ~ more than a few tears streaming down my cheeks as I read or listen to a gold-star mother's words. But I wouldn't trade days like this for anything ~ it's important that we recognize and appreciate ~ we reflect ~ and we learn."
Let's hope he is proven wrong. But maybe "forgotten war" explains the ordeal of securing six seats for the Wilsons. Or maybe the country, over eight years, has grown numb to war and become indifferent to those who sail and fly off to fight. Let's hope not. Regardless, may the families of those killed as war rages on not have to be burdened like the Wilson family. Quite the contrary. May they be smothered with gratitude and their sorrow eased by a selfless, caring populace that reaches out to help them through even the smallest act of kindness--like being unhesitant to relinquish a seat on an airplane.
Rest in peace, Marine. Taps.
The president's Memorial Day appearance at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Chicago did not go so well. Mother Nature's voice--pouring rain, thunder, lightning, and high winds--drowned him out interrupting the ceremony. Perhaps Heavenly commentary for passing on the Memorial Day wreath-laying service at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery? No more need be said about the Commander-in-Chief's bewildering decision while the country is engaged in two wars; one especially nasty and getting worse. Amen.
Ms. Getz story: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/may/28/seeing-a-fallen-soldier-home/
On a lighter note...
Follow-up to last week's MARINES, BRASS RECYCLED, AND MYSTERY--SOLVED...
I heard from my friend Rob Barrow who wrote, "Andy – That’s amazing. Just one slight degree of separation and we’d never know." Frankly, Rob's observation haunted me the entire time I was putting the story together. And I still find it absolutely remarkable when thinking of the innumerable little circumstances--over the course of 27 years--that could have prevented me from ever learning the rest of the story. Some things are just meant to be with time being one hell of an interesting variable.
I ran into Sergeant Major Wilburn the other day who was more than tickled with the Commentary. He commented, 'You just never know what may come out of an impromptu, casual conversation.' A truth--absolutely. It's always good to visit with the Sergeant Major and Irma.
I also heard from one of Colonel "Mac" Dube's twin sons (whom I've not met) who wrote, "...I was a bit younger when living on Pearl Harbor and there were many interesting and somewhat historic things going on that I wasn't aware of or just don't remember. Your story brought back memories of those evening parades and sneaking downstairs afterward during the receptions. I had never heard of the story concerning the brass casings and resulting pair of emblems. Very interesting and thanks for telling it..." If my math is right, the Dube boys had not yet hit their teens at the time. I bet they were exciting times for young boys whose Dad was Commanding Officer of the Barracks.
My friend, Colonel Dube, who did not know I was writing the story, called to say thanks and offer another memory or two stirred to the forefront of his brain-housing-group by the Commentary. He wanted to clarify that his Executive Officer, Sergeant Major (Kellogg), company gunnery sergeant and a number of other young Marines had a big hand in getting that emblem project/mission done. He did not want anyone thinking he was "solo" on it. As I told him, I opted to not write that level of granularity knowing any Marine reader would know that was the case. But to fulfill Mac's point and for the record, teamwork is the Marine way. So acknowledged for those readers unfamiliar with our culture. And he reflected a bit on the foundry--talking about the care that went into producing those emblems and the pride the foundry had in the project knowing they were for the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I bet so.
And finally, the first reader to reply to the "Author's Note" was Bruce E. from New York. I've not met Bruce but he's been a follower of this Commentary from nearly the beginning. He's a highly-decorated retired New York City police officer--25 years--with many a Marine friend. As he wrote me, "The closest I came [to becoming a Marine] was to pass the interviews and musicianship requirements for the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps - the Commandant's Own...As it happened, my appointment to the NYPD came before I completed the enlistment process for the Marines. I wish now that I had, but the old adage "if I knew then what I know now..." applies." So a copy of "MAKING MARINES"--numbered, signed, and duly inscribed--was shipped off post haste and should be in his hands. By the way, if dismayed by our country's direction, you may find his enlightening 'politically incorrect' website--"Curmudgeon's Corner"--interesting: http://brucesplace.net/Wordpress/
And thanks to all who took a moment to send me a note. Most appreciated, I assure you.