Imagine making the phone call to the parents of a 22-year-old U.S. Marine in your command who died only hours before? It’s dreadful. Something I had to do as a commander in Ramadi, Iraq, more than once – it ripped me from the inside-out and no class teaches you how to do it right. You just hope that you do.
Being the parents who receive those calls is even worse – but that is something I can only imagine. Something few have to experience. Something I wish no one had to endure.
During this Memorial Day weekend, I think back to the middle of February when I sat in the theater of the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, Calif. It seemed small to me. A venue that sat over 300 people, but not ordinary people – people I can only describe as extraordinary. Our Gold Star Families.
JANE HORTON, JOE KENT: CONGRESS, IT'S TIME FOR A LASTING MEMORIAL TO THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR
The first time I sat in that hall it seemed huge. I sat quietly, my mind drifting as it usually does during events that I have been a part of so many times, trying to numb myself to the emotion that overwhelms me. My way of coping, I suppose. Funerals of fallen Marines. Memorial services of our nation’s heroes. I’ve always tried to tune out the reality of those days to get through them without breaking into a thousand pieces.
The theater was dimly lit and warm and I thought back to when I was a child. How everything around me seemed bigger than it was. If you’ve ever gone back to visit your childhood home or school, you know what I’m talking about. Thirty years later, they seem small – nothing like you remember. The castle you grew up in is now a cottage.
I felt like that kid when first invited to attend the California Fallen Heroes Gold Star Honor and Remembrance.
Why? Why did a room was filled with moms and dads, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, and friends seem tiny to me?
Moms like Dianne Layfield, who I have come to know well. Her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Layfield, served in my battalion. He was killed in Ramadi on April 6, 2014.
Dads like Kevin Graves, whose son, Army Specialist Joey Graves, 21, died in combat in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 25, 2006.
Their kids, along with the other 96 fallen service members were remembered this year.
The service has been held for 15 years at the Marines’ Memorial Club. It’s organized by the East Bay Blue Star Mom’s Chapter and always goes above and beyond what it takes to remember and honor the sacrifice of hundreds.
“I hope there is a day that we never have to do Gold Star events.” Lt. Gen. Jan C. Huly said to me later that day. I knew he meant it but could see the apprehension in his face. Huly, a retired Marine commander who led thousands of troops during his 37-year career, knew it was only wishful thinking. He serves as the president and CEO of the Marines' Memorial Association & Foundation.
War and loss and sacrifice have become a part of American culture. We are a nation that accepts that everything we enjoy in life has been fought for, and at times, those freedoms mean sending young men and women – our finest, who sacrifice themselves willingly – to war.
As warriors, we take an oath and serve, and fight, and kill. But our families do not sign up for this – they remain the ones who have to swim in the violent wake of war and endure the personal loss of those whom we fought beside.
Thankfully, recognition and commemoration have also become embedded into our culture, thanks, in part, to organizations like the Marines’ Memorial Club, so we have a place in which everyone’s sacrifice is remembered.
During the ceremony, a U.S. Marine staff sergeant in full dress blue uniform walked solemnly lighting white candles in glass hurricanes. One candle for each service member honored that day. As each one is lit, the chaplain leads the attendees in a low chorus, saying in unison, “A grateful nation acknowledges your sacrifice and prays for your peace.”
Each time a name is read, the chorus repeats. It is repeated 98 times that morning. The sad, reverent tone heard in the timbre of the voices of each parent.
Dianne, or “Momma D,” as we lovingly refer to our surrogate mother, rose from her seat when Travis’ name was called. I instinctively placed my hand on her back for support. It was then I knew why the room had become smaller.
Being a part of something like that made me feel small – but also loved. Something that warriors who no longer have the fog of war to distract them from everyday life are unexpectedly surrounded by – our amazing Gold Star Families. These people were no longer strangers to me, and they had allowed me to become a part of their families. People who have lost so much yet continue to love us so much despite living their lives without their own sons or daughters.
I drove home, eight hours in silence, and thought about the previous days. Americans can never be reminded enough that although thousands have died in service to their country, the families that raised them to be heroes remain.
Our ethos of honor, courage and commitment are not reserved only for those who wear the uniform, but for our Gold Star Families as well. They give honor to those who sacrificed, they remain courageous to continue moving forward and they demonstrate a commitment to each other to stay connected and strong.
This is what Memorial Day means to me – the connection to those who continue to live their lives while, at the same time, honoring the sacrifices and spirits of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our way of life as Americans. For those who know this type of loss – every day, is Memorial Day.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE BY SCOTT HUESING
Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith! (The Cow 19 )