My husband and I just got home from visiting our hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Often, on federal holidays, Camp Lejeune gives Marines and sailors a 96 — four days off. We went home, and Matt finally got to have his coming home party with all of his old friends, and our friends and family also finally got to meet our baby, newly arrived the day after Matt returned home from Afghanistan two months ago. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that on Memorial Day, we would have literally no time to do anything to honor the fallen today.
I hear Marines often quip that they are at war, and America is at the mall. And every Memorial Day, I’m reminded that in large part, it’s true. Memorial Day is supposed to be a solem, somber day. It’s supposed to be a day to honor and remember the sacrifices of our fallen heroes, the men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion to their country in the name of freedom.
Instead, it’s become just a holiday that gives us a day off of work. It’s a day for BBQing, for beer; a day to go to the beach or to the pool. Maybe there will be a parade with some veterans or servicemembers. But remembering the fallen? Honoring their sacrifice? For far too many Americans, it simply doesn’t happen.
I remember Matt’s last deployment to Iraq. He had called me when two of his buddies had been killed; I believe it was the first time anyone he had known had been killed. I couldn’t see him, but I could picture him. He was yelling into the phone, practically incomprehensible with grief and rage. He repeated, over and over again, that he wanted to find the [expletives] who did this and [expletive] kill them. On the other end of the line, I felt completely helpless. My heart was breaking for him, and I didn’t know what to do or say. There are no words comforting enough for that kind of situation.
Two months ago, he returned home from Afghanistan, and we lost more Marines. Not too long after my husband had left last August, I got a phone call from one of our friends. Her husband is Matt’s best friend, and is with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. He had deployed about a month before Matt did. She was crying into the phone, and for one sinking moment, I thought her husband had died. Instead, she was passing on some bad news: a mutual friend, Sergeant Jesse Balthaser, had been killed in Afghanistan. His girlfriend was pregnant with their child.
I would have to pass the news on to Matt when he called home next. I was sick with the thought of it; he called that same day and I almost immediately started crying — probably not the best way to break the news, but I hated what I had to tell him. He was upset, but took it well and spent most of the phone call reminiscing about Balthaser and telling me about him. Balthaser had wanted to join the Marines in high school, so much so that his parents had to sign paperwork to let him enlist while he was still in high school. This was his third deployment. He stepped on a roadside bomb, which killed him instantly. Matt told me about his sense of humor and how he played guitar. He told me that he liked being the center of attention and always made people laugh. He said that whenever you were around him, you couldn’t help but be in a good mood. He lifted everyone around him up.
I didn’t know what to think about the fact that he took the news so much better than before. But eventually, as a Marine, you start to adjust. And Matt’s unit, 1st Battalion 8th Marines, didn’t escape their share of casualties. Considering they were deployed to Helmand Province, a major hot zone, it wasn’t surprising. But it didn’t make it any better.
The first was Lance Corporal Joshua Ose.
He was killed by small arms fire while on patrol in Afghanistan. He had only been there for about two weeks. Like Balthaser, he enlisted while still in high school. His parents described him as an adventurer, an outdoorsman who loved to hunt with his dad and was always taking risks — like jumping off of a bridge in his hometown into a river swollen by recent rainfall. He was a gun enthusiast, and would play paintball on a local farm with his friends. He played for two days before he left. His family has a history of military service going all the way back to the Civil War, and Josh felt strongly that serving his country was something he needed to go. He believed in the Marine Corps and he believed in the mission in Afghanistan.
Next, we lost Hospital Corpsman Edwin Gonzalez.
He died after a roadside bomb exploded during combat operations. Doc Gonzo, a newlywed, was nicknamed Superman and had a huge “S” tattooed on his chest. His friends gave him the nickname after he was in two car accidents, and both times came out without a scratch. He served with his high school’s JROTC. His friends plan on meeting the sixth of every month to remember him (his birthday was February 6th), and to honor his life — not his death. He became a corpsman with the dream of eventually becoming a doctor.
We then lost Lance Corporal Raymon Johnson.
Lance Corporal Johnson died after he stepped on an IED. Being a Marine was his dream. His family did everything they could to convince him not to enlist — even taking him to Walter Reed to see the wounded soldiers there — but he could not be dissuaded. His twin brother, Ramon (a soldier in the Army), described him as someone that always lit up the room whenever he came home. One of his friends named her new son after him. Marines with 1/8 saw him as someone they could trust and open up to, someone who would look out for them. He was described as motivated and an inspiration to the Marines around him.
Next to fall was Staff Sergeant Javier Ortiz-Rivera.
Staff Sergeant Ortiz was married with three children. His wife said that he was dedicated to his Marines and was proud of them. He had started a Bible study in Afghanistan and said that he was blessed to be deployed with the men he was serving with. He was a devout Catholic and had been an altar server. He had talked of serving his country since he was a child. One of his friends reported that he had proclaimed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for his salvation; he would die for his country to keep his family safe.
Staff Sergeant Stacy Green was the next to give his life.
Staff Sergeant Green had been serving in the Marine Corps for ten years. This was his fourth deployment. In high school, he played football and helped lead the team to win their state championship game. He was the life of the party, someone who was outspoken and always made everyone around him laugh. His brother said that he loved being a Marine, and that it changed his life. He was described as someone with courage and character. He was engaged to be married.
Finally, we lost Lance Corporal Jose Hernandez.
Lance Corporal Hernandez loved being a Marine. He followed his younger brother into the Corps after graduating high school. He died after stepping on a land mine. His childhood dream was to join the Marine Corps. He had a way of making people laugh, even when they were sad, angry, or scared. He had a big heart, and was someone who knew what he wanted in life and went for it. He wanted to serve his country. Hernandez would have turned 20 the week after he died.
These are just seven of the countless servicemembers who have given their lives for their country. These are just our fallen. Today, I hope that you’ll see their names, look at their faces, and read what is just a small fraction of the lives they led. So often, we turn the fallen into nothing more than a man in a uniform who became a hero. We need to remember not just the sacrifices they made, but the lives they lived and the people they were. Take the time to remember the 6 men we lost from 1/8, to remember Balthaser, and everyone who gave their lives so that we could be free.
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