Ah, Memorial Day weekend.
The first long weekend of spring, the promise of warmer days ahead, vacations and as I got older, it was a signal for bargain shopping time. All of those meanings throughout many years were all Memorial Day was for me.
I’ve been fortunate, my brother returned from his 14-month assignment in Iraq for the U.S. Army. Not everyone gets back, and I understand that now.
I didn’t always get it. I signed up for the military and still didn’t get it when I was putting that pen to paper. Of course I knew the potential ultimate sacrifice anyone may make during their time working for Uncle Sam, I had just not thought a whole lot about those who came before me.
Sure, I talked a good game as history high school student, yet reality shifts during those days I was learning what it was to earn the title of United States Marine. And yes, those drill instructors will call you everything else under the sun but you don’t get the honor until graduation day.
Boot camp is its own world. There are no days off to hang out in town like they showed in some older movies. There was no television during those three months. Sometimes newspapers could be read a few moments on Sunday mornings, but really the outside world vanished for most of my time there.
Except for one Sunday.
Up until that particular day, Sunday mornings were the one bit of respite we were allowed during training. We did laundry, got to read our mail and we got to go to church. It was presumably a choice, but our senior drill instructor strongly encouraged everyone to go, as there were plenty of options to choose from. Catholics, Protestants and those of the Jewish faith primarily, but they had one additional formation for ‘other’ and those guys got to hang with someone as close to their beliefs as possible.
For me, the youngest recruit in the platoon, I very much enjoyed marching to church each Sunday. I leaned very hard on my faith during that duration and in particular, the day we heard the news. Again, without much of a news source, we didn’t expect an update during the homily, but it did involve the Marine Corps.
I knew something was up when we got there, the clergy were generally upbeat, but they were somber. They told us 220 Marines had been killed the day before in Lebanon. It was October 23, 1983.
Understandably, there was an audible gasp from the recruits. As it should be, it was the most Marines lost in action in a day to that point since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
I couldn’t imagine what had to have happened for so many to fall. I didn’t have to wonder for very long.
The quiet march back to the squad bay ended with a strange sight – all three of our drill instructors were in full uniform, waiting for us. On Sundays, we never saw more than one D.I. And they were more than unhappy.
Our senior drill instructor, a man I think could conquer Russia in single combat, was wiping a tear away from his eye. There were nine names on the chalk board in what was called the ‘classroom’ part of the barracks. It was just some open floor space next to the ‘hut’ or office where the instructors would sleep. We were told to sit on the floor, as usual in a classroom gathering.
Sergeant Sheriff — even his name fit the job and the Corps — pointed at those names on the board.
“You think this shit ain’t real?” he began.
He then explained these were names of the kids that were here just a few weeks before us. They were recruits he trained, Marines he made.
They were dead.
They were among the Marines lost in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission during a time of civil war there. It was done in a way and by people we are all too familiar with in today’s world. It was a truck bomb that crashed the gate and killed Marines who were sleeping. The group that ultimately took credit was the Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran to fight for their interests in the region.
I for one always understood what I was signing up for, although that reminder served as excellent motivation for our entire platoon.
At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, everyday was Memorial Day. Well, every base I ever served as well. Taps is the old bugle song played every day at dusk to remind us of the fallen. An appreciation I respect now, more than ever before. All assume the same risk, but not all of us make it back.
Way more than a shopping day, it is just one more chance for me to be thankful of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Memorial Day has meant much more to me since that Sunday morning.
Absolutely celebrate our freedom with barbecue and fireworks whenever possible, but a thought or two for those who provide and maintain it is always a nice thing.