Earn This… A Perspective on Independence Day in the USA
It’s a free country! How many times have you heard someone say that or have you said it to someone in casual conversation? It’s a comment usually made when a question arises about what you want or plan to do in a situation and is intended to mean that you can do whatever you want here in the United States of America because here we enjoy freedom unlike anywhere else on Earth. This and every Independence Day, we should individually and collectively reflect on the profound meaning of that colloquial phrase and pause to thank God, our Founding Fathers, and the many Patriots who dedicated their lives, and even lost their lives, over the last 246 years for the cause of your freedom and mine.
For me, that’s an easy thing to appreciate after 23 years & 8 months as an Active-Duty United States Marine who fought in multiple wars across the globe. I’ve personally seen the extreme cost of our freedom, most memorably in the eyes of the three different families I was privileged to meet when I delivered home the remains of their own beloved Marines and family members who had been killed in action in Iraq.
The first Marine I escorted home was Staff Sergeant Trevor Spink and I took him from the Dover Delaware Military Mortuary to his family in St. Louis. Trevor had been a well-known face in the Marine Corps as he had appeared on recruiting posters around the country. He was assigned to 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. On July 10, 2004, he was driving a vehicle on a nighttime mission along a canal in Al Anbar Province, Iraq and running without lights on to avoid detection by the enemy. In the dark, his vehicle accidentally veered off the narrow road and flipped over in the canal drowning him and several other Marines in the vehicle. The thing I remember most about that trip was the incredible crowd and reception that greeted us at the St. Louis airport. After disembarking from the aircraft, a team of local Marine Reservists removed the cardboard box holding his casket and draped a flag over it before loading it with much ceremony into the back of a hearse that had been waiting in the airline cargo building. I delivered his personal belongings to his family; they gave me a hug and we cried together. Local news reporters were there and interviewed me on what it was like escorting Trevor home. I was on the evening news that night in St. Louis. As the hearse left the building, I was blown away at the crowd there welcoming home this fallen Marine, and the Fire Department had ladder trucks stretched out as giant flagpoles flying the largest American Flag I have ever seen. We drove under that flag as the National Anthem played and I was awestruck at the patriotic imagery and the extent to which the community went to honor this fallen Marine.
Several months later I got another call to do a casualty escort. This time, I took home Staff Sergeant Russell Slay to his family in Dallas/Fort Worth. He was assigned to 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. On November 4, 2004, Russell was a Vehicle Commander of an Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV) during combat operations in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He was shot by an Iraqi sniper as he rode from an observation post on his vehicle. The thing I remember most about that trip was the pouring rain when we arrived. The rain was so hard, that the airline staff let his parents stand under the wing of the aircraft with me as a team of local Marine Reservists in Dress Blues unloaded the casket from the cargo hold. It was inspiring to watch a group of young Marines, who didn’t personally know Russell, get completely drenched in their dress uniform while expertly performing a ceremonious disembarkation of his casket. Those Marines didn’t flinch when it came time to do their job despite the pouring rain. They acted as if there was nothing more important they could be doing and the rain wasn’t even a factor. His parents noticed that too and were so thankful for the way their son was being honored. I was struck by how genuine they were as they thanked me over and over for bringing their son home. I told them their country thanked them for their son’s and their family’s sacrifice, and they hugged me despite my soaking wet uniform.
Again, I got the call to escort duty, but this time was different than the first two. This one was much more difficult for several reasons. Lance Corporal Grant B. Fraser was a Marine Reservist assigned to Marine Forces Reserve’s 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. On August 3, 2005, he was traveling in an amphibious, lightly armored transport vehicle during combat operations near Haditha, Iraq when a huge, roadside bomb exploded, flipping the 25-ton carrier and causing it to burst into flames. My escort mission was for “Subsequent Remains” this time, which meant that Grant’s remains had already been escorted home by another Marine, but then the forensic team at Quantico had identified several additional small pieces of human remains from the inside of the destroyed vehicle to be Grant’s by DNA match. This was more personal because I had to carry a wooden box with a brass handle through multiple airports and with me in the cabin of the plane. The box had pieces of Grant’s teeth, part of his femur bone, and some soft tissue amounting to about a golf ball size of remains as I was told at the mortuary. Walking through the airports in my Dress Blues carrying the box with a large envelope attached got people’s attention. Going through the security checkpoint was a bit of a challenge when I refused to put the box of Grant’s remains through the imaging machine. I had been taught as an escort that the human remains must always be transported by human hands and never by mechanical conveyance if it could be avoided. Eventually, the TSA agents allowed me to carry Grant through with me. Several times people in the airports paid for my meal as they knew what I was doing and thanked me for my service as a Casualty Escort.
The toughest part came at the Seattle Airport. I had been told at the Dover Mortuary that Grant’s reserve unit was coming home from Iraq the same day I was escorting his remains home and that there was a chance I might be on the same aircraft with them out of Seattle. I dreaded that because I didn’t know what to say to his friends if they saw me carrying what was left of him. As fate would have it, I was sitting there at the Seattle gate and saw Marines in camouflage uniforms coming down the hall. I prayed they would keep walking past my gate, but they came straight towards me. The first Marine to speak to me was a Captain and he asked me to be patient and tolerant if his young Marines returning from combat didn’t show me the proper respect a Master Sergeant would usually get as they were now riding home with the remains of their friend. Surprisingly, several of them came over and asked me if the box contained Grant’s remains, and when I said yes, they very respectfully thanked me for what I was doing. I was humbled and inspired by the character of these young heroes.
When we arrived in Anchorage, I was let off the plane first with Grant’s remains as is the customary practice by the airlines for fallen military members. Right behind me were all Grants fellow Marines coming home from combat. As we walked up the jetway, we started to hear cheers and applause from the crowd of Alaskan family members there to meet their returning loved ones. But, as I exited the jetway first in my Dress Blues and carrying that box, the entire crowd fell silent. They all at once realized what I was carrying. I stood there for what seemed like a long time looking at several hundred people not knowing who I should transfer Grant’s remains to, when a woman stepped out from the crowd with a local Marine Corps Casualty Officer, and the Governor of Alaska at the time, Frank Murkowski. She told me she was Grant’s Mom and thanked me for bringing the rest of him home. She then turned to the crowd and told them to celebrate the return of the other Marines.
I learned a lesson about Americans during those trips. It doesn’t matter where we are from, what our religion is, how much money we have, what political party we affiliate with, or what heritage we come from. When it comes to honoring those who have given their life in defense of our freedoms, we are united.
As I reflect on my experiences as a Casualty Escort, my mind goes to the scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan where Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he lay dying on the battlefield, says to Private Ryan (Matt Damon):
“Earn this. Earn it.”
What a poignant way to reflect on our daily lives as Americans! There are so many Americans who have given so much for the freedoms we enjoy, and on this Independence Day, let’s purpose in our hearts to earn their sacrifice by the way we continue to defend our country, our citizens, our way of life, and our Constitutional freedoms. God Bless the USA!!!