Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Upon Freedom's Altar

"The Bixby Letter"

Three weeks ago, tomorrow, twelve members of the United States Marine Corps were killed when two CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters collided during a training exercise off of the coast of Oahu.  The accident happened in the course of training - as opposed to combat, it happened late at night, and it happened in the westernmost time zone of these United States.  For all of those reasons, you might have missed the story.  Perhaps it was not covered as extensively as other "deigned to be newsworthy" stories such as Powerball, the NFL playoffs, the Academy Awards, and the ongoing tragi-comedy that is the 2016 Presidential Campaign.  Perhaps it should have been.  

Now, it matters not.  

I knew from a very early age that I did not possess the stuff of which soldiers are made.  Never had it. Never will.  The willingness to sacrifice one's self for another, whether a comrade in arms with whom you have shared common experiences or a stranger who you and your comrades have been directed to protect, is simply not encoded in my DNA.  I am the proud parent of two adult offspring, one of whom is a "wrong direction runner" too.  It is a trait the origin of which is unknown to me.  What is known to me is that it is not a trait he acquired from me.  

An old friend of mine from high school, Al Schnur, is the proud Dad of a United States Marine. Apropos of nothing, Al is also the guy who saved my life when he transferred into W-H from Rutgers Prep for our sophomore year.  He and I wrestled at the same weight class and he beat me like a drum every time we wrestled against one another as freshman.  His arrival at W-H heralded the end of my interscholastic wrestling career, a departure so well-appreciated in the annals of amateur wrestling that again this year I received a birthday card from Dan Gable, which contained as it always does a handwritten note of thanks.  

When, in the early morning hours of Friday the 15th, I received the story of the crash via one of the news feeds I have set up on my iPhone, I immediately thought of Al and of his son.  While it pleased me to learn that Al's Marine was not one of the dozen who died, I appreciate the fact that for my old friend and for his family, a loss borne by any single Marine is a loss borne by all of them.  Whatever wholly appropriate reaction of relief Al felt that his son was not among the twelve was tempered by the realization that one dozen families had been deprived of that feeling.  It shall likely always be so tempered. 

I cannot even begin to fathom how impossibly difficult it was for the Marine Corps and for the Coast Guard to have had to make the decision to suspend the search for the dozen Marines, which search was suspended on Tuesday, January 19.  "No man left behind" is neither a slogan nor a bumper sticker.  It is a life choice, made by those who appreciate and embody the intent behind those four words.  

Two weeks ago, one week after the crash, the status of the twelve Marines who had been aboard the two CH-53, heavy-lift helicopters was officially updated from "Missing" to "Deceased".  Twelve men, ranging in age from twenty-one to forty-one, all of whom were members of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 based out of Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii: 

Major Shawn M. Campbell, 41, College Station, Texas; 
Captain Matthew R. Drown, 23, Spring, Texas;
Lance Corporal Ty L. Hart, 21, Aumsville, Oregon; 
Captain Thomas J. Jardas, 22, Fort Myers, Florida;
Captain Brian T. Kennedy, 31, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
Corporal Christopher J. Orlando, 23, Hingham, Massachusetts;
Captain Kevin T. Roche, 30, St. Louis, Missouri; 
Sergeant Adam C. Schoeller, 25, Gardner, Pennsylvania;
Sergeant Dillon J. Semolina, 24, Chaska, Minnesota;
Sergeant Jeffrey A. Sempler, 22, Woodruff, South Carolina; 
Captain Steven R. Torbert, 29, Florence, Alabama; and 
Sergeant William J. Turner, 25, Florala, Alabama. 

Gina Harkins of The Marine Corps Times wrote a piece that provides some biographical information about the twelve men, who arrived in a common place for a common purpose from every corner and part of the United States.  From the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, from the Northeast to the Southwest, and from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, they were a diverse, yet unified group.  

Now, they are something even more than that, something greater than the sum of their parts.  They are a tragically costly sacrifice on the altar of freedom.  May they be long remembered not simply by those who loved them and those they loved but, also, by those of us whose names and identities were not known to them yet on whose behalf they willingly headed towards Hell to protect and to ensure that we did not have to do likewise.  


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