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Living in the shadow of a hero

Marching in the color guard at the John Basilone Parade in Raritan, NJ (I am on the left with the rifle)

Earlier in the week, I posted the citations of Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Two weeks ago, I marched in a parade honoring this man’s heroism and the sacrifices he made for a greater cause than himself.
His story inspired me to become a United States Marine. I enlisted to find out for myself if I deserved to be a part of the same institution that bred warriors like “Manila John.”
Before committing to the Marine Corps, I consumed book after book on war and the effect it had on men. I found that war either brought out the best of humanity or the worst. Some men vanquished the enemy without losing their value for human life. They killed only because they had to. These men fought and died for their brothers-in-arms, sacrificing everything for their fellow human beings. Others lost their humanity. In the midst of the chaos and the brutality, they succumbed to the evil that exists within us all. War seemed to be the ultimate test of character.
On July 12, 2004 I set foot onto the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California to find out how much my soul could endure. After six years in the Marines and seven months in Iraq, I am still searching for an answer.

Today, I miss the Marine Corps. I miss living for a greater purpose than myself. I miss the shared struggle and the camaraderie with my Marines. I miss the simplicity of life. The parade brought back those feelings for me. Along with them, it brought back the guilt.
I marched in the color guard for the J.J. Gardner Detachment of the Marine Corps League. Within this small group of men and women, I stood as the only Iraq veteran. Every other member served in either WWII, Korea or Vietnam. Looking into their eyes revealed the depths of their life experience. One man lost his entire unit in Korea. Another received three purple hearts in Vietnam. Yet another was medevaced from the jungles of Vietnam.
Their stories reflected a harsher reality than any I could possibly fathom.
In my war, I barely even entered the gates of hell. I faced no such hardship, physical or mental. When I returned home from Iraq, I felt guilty for having suffered so little. So I volunteered for another war. But the Marines denied me my redemption. The unit leaving for Afghanistan said they did not want any more bodies.
Now I am no longer in the Marines. I am about to start a family and my war is over. Yet I chose to maintain my connection with the Marines, whether it be through parades or simply by reminiscing with other veterans. This usually just reinforces the triviality of my so-called sacrifice, but it also provides a source of comfort. Comfort in the history and the espirit de corps between those of us who have served in the armed forces. Comfort in the bond that forms from our collective experiences in war, as personal as they may be. Comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone with my guilt, for every Marine seems to experience it in their own way.
Perhaps the inevitable conclusion to the guilt is death on the battlefield. But no one wants that. Neither did Basilone. He had a wife waiting for him back home.
Nonetheless, even after doing more than his part for his country and for the war effort, he went back to his unit and to his men. Because for him, being a war hero back at home “was like being a museum piece,” he said. “I kept thinking how awful would it be if some Marines made a landing on Dewey Boulevard on the Manila waterfront, and Manila John Basilone wasn’t among them.”
Ironically, while the tragedy of his death is only reinforced by the measure of his character, it is that same spirit that resulted in his death in the first place. That is what makes him a hero worth remembering.
What then for those of us who survive our wars, what do we do?
All I can do is live on in the shadow of the heroes that came before me. Sheltered by that darkness, I continue to search for the strength that may lie within my soul.


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Fearvana inspires us to look beyond our own agonizing experiences
and find the positive side of our lives. ~ The Dalai Lama