By Bob Hamer
Earlier this month I stood with a gathering of heroes under a cloudless Southern California sky. It was a typical Chamber of Commerce-type day in Oceanside, a few miles from the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. The sun was creeping toward its noon peak and a cool ocean breeze made for a comfortable morning. More than sixty Marines in their dress blue uniforms stood in formation off to the side of a flag pole; the family seated to the front. As much as the Navy chaplain tried to call this a celebration of life, it was a memorial service for a fallen hero; far too many tears for a celebration. A thirty-year-old Marine staff sergeant, on his third combat deployment, died two weeks earlier in Afghanistan, the victim of the terrorist’s weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device, an IED. He left a wife, parents, friends, and fellow Marines.
As I viewed the crowd and the many Marines in attendance I couldn’t help but notice how young most of them were. Many were years younger than our son, a Marine on active duty. I watched the wives of these Marines dab their eyes, joining the widow in her sorrow but I wondered how many were silently thanking God and questioning if their husband was next. Each had been to too many memorial services honoring those killed in service to our nation. I stood with Marines I knew, double and triple amputees, who survived previous IED blasts but will live with their battle scars forever. I saw lots of medals and ribbons and far too many Purple Hearts. These men and their families knew what too few truly understood; freedom isn’t free.
As we neared the end of the service, seven Marines executing military precision aimed their rifles to the sky and fired three volleys, a twenty-one gun salute. The volley of shots adhered to a European custom when the warring sides ceased fighting long enough to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. Back then the volleys signaled the bodies had been properly cared for allowing the battle to resume. For the family of this Marine, his body was no longer on the battlefield. It was home and he was resting in glory for eternity but the fight in a distant land continues.
Following taps, two Marine non-commissioned officers sharply folded the flag draping the coffin. When complete, the now tri-corned package, with only the blue field and stars showing, symbolized the hat worn by American patriots during the Revolution. I heard a soft whimper as the widow was presented the flag, tears streaming down her cheeks. Following the final salute as she was being ushered to a black hearse, she succumbed to her emotions collapsing into the arms of her Marine escort; her sacrifice, in the name of freedom, more than most have paid.
Political commentator Dennis Prager believes the greatest crisis facing this nation is the fact we no longer understand what it means to be an American. I don’t believe the men and women I saw at the hilltop memorial service have that problem. They understand honor, courage, and commitment. They understand tradition, duty, faith, sacrifice, and individual responsibility. They understand what it means to be an American.
Last year I met a young Marine at Balboa Naval Hospital and we have since become friends. He came to this country in 2000 when he was twelve years old not speaking a word of English. He joined his mother and brother in fleeing the Ukraine. Now he speaks perfect English with no hint of an accent. Less than a year ago he lost both legs above the knee to an IED blast in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. When I asked him why he joined the Marine Corps, he looked me in the eye and without wavering said, “To pay back this nation for all it has given my mother and me.” He understands what it means to be an American.
Less than one percent of the nation’s population has served in the military since 9/11. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines define their patriotism by more than a bumper sticker or an American flag refrigerator magnet. They knew when they signed the enlistment papers they were offering up life and limb for this nation. They understood an irrational ideology wants to destroy the liberties we too often take for granted. Unlike most political pundits, these men and women have been in the arena, not in the grandstands hurling epithets. They have watched friends and loved ones bleed and die in the name of freedom. They looked beyond self-interest and committed to a cause greater than themselves. We live free today because of those individuals, past, present, and in the future, willing to lay it all on the line. This Memorial Day honor those who served and sacrificed; those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Semper Fi.
Bob Hamer spent four years on active duty in the Marine Corps and twenty-six years in the FBI as a special agent. In retirement he has written three award-winning books: THE LAST UNDERCOVER, ENEMIESS AMONG US, and TARGETS DOWN. He has written and consulted for television.