On the road south from Los Angeles, two-thirds of the way to San Diego, one will drive past Camp Pendleton. Each time I pass it, I can’t help but think of my dad and brother who both went through boot camp and training at Pendleton. In my father’s case, as a combat Marine, he later witnessed many of his mates die in combat. My brother, serving as a corpsman, held the hand of many a Marine as they took their last breath. My family members returned. Too many did not.
Before one passes Pendleton, you’ll see a road at the north end of the base called “Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway.” It’s named after a WWII Marine who earned the Medal of Honor for bravery on Guadalcanal. After Guadalcanal, the Marines pulled him out of combat to raise money for the war effort. Basilone could not shake a deep feeling of guilt that his mates were still fighting a war while he was not. He begged to be returned to active duty. The Marine Corps acquiesced. On 19, February 1945, Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for heroism, being the only enlisted man to earn both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Last year, I repeated a story that my father wrote in his war memoir about how death affected him. Here it is:
“Over the side, down the Life Net and into the landing craft. Once full, our boat headed to the rally point. Signal given, then to Engibi. The landing craft hit the sand at the south end of the island. The ramp went down and we ran for whatever cover we could find. Rounds were zipping past us. I hit the sand, looked for where the fire was coming from and got up and moved for cover. I was running for a better spot when a Marine in my company, who was in my landing craft took a round in the chest. Thump. The bullet seemed to hit him dead center. He went down like a sack of potatoes. I stopped and yelled for a Corpsman. Eventually a corpsman took over, and I headed for a hole or something to get behind. I rolled into a shell hole.
“The grim reaper was about to say hello again. Although it seemed like an eternity, we had been on the beach for just moments. Guys were hopping shell hole to shell hole. Our company captain, Captain Blood (yes, his real name) was next to me, when we were raked by machine gun fire. Captain Blood took a direct hit, and was killed instantly.
“Later, when the battle was over and the graves detail was preparing Captain Blood’s body to be taken back to the ship or buried I asked the Marine removing his personal effects if I could look at his wallet. Captain Blood took his last breath right next to me, and I wanted to know more about him. In his wallet was a photograph. Staring back at me was his beautiful wife and two children. I was crushed. What was running through my mind was – A wife would never see her husband again. Children would never again feel their father’s touch. That photograph was burned into my memory. It remains there still.”
Each man or woman lost in combat had a family. Each Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman had a loved one who never saw them return. Over a million Americans have given the last full measure and each one had a story.
As I write this, I am reminded of the tragic deaths of 13 American heroes in Afghanistan who, served well and honorably and died tragically at Kabul Airport. Like passing Pendleton and thinking of my dad and brother, and John Basilone — each time I think of our final month in Afghanistan, I think of something specific. I think of Sergeant Nicole Gee, USMC. I see her holding a baby in her arms while wearing her combat kit. A week before she died she wrote:
“I love my job”.
Today, honor our fallen heroes. They were, and are, the best of us.
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