Middle school students in DuBois, Pa., line Liberty Boulevard to pay their respects to Lance Cpl. Joshua Martino on March 28. The sergeant major of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, writes that the experience was profoundly moving and changed his perceptions about civilian support for the military. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/Air Force)
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OVERWHELMED BY THANKS
Thank you for your service. How many times have we heard that? Usually, it’s from a civilian that we bump into while wearing our uniform in town. Sometimes, it’s a voice on the phone when we identify ourselves as a Marine. It’s a phrase that has become ubiquitous, like the “have a nice day” we get from a convenience store checkout clerk. Until recently, I thought civilians said “thank you for your service” more as an obligation than as a genuine thank-you. I probably would have gone on thinking that if not for a recent tragedy that affected my unit.
On March 18, while training in Hawthorne, Nev., as part of our winter mountain warfare training at Bridgeport, Calif., 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, lost seven Marines in a training accident. A week later, as the sergeant major, I began the heartbreaking task of attending my Marines’ funerals in their hometowns. Unfortunately, in my career — and especially during the past 12 years — I have lost several Marines in combat. However, I’ve never been able to attend a funeral for any one of them. In combat, we lose a Marine, have a memorial service and continue on with the mission. Under this circumstance, myself and many battalion members were able to go to each of our Marines’ funerals.
The first funeral was held in DuBois, Pa., for Lance Cpl. Joshua Martino. Upon arriving in the small town, I noticed that every business with a billboard or outdoor advertising sign had a personal message for Martino or his family. You literally could not travel 10 feet in DuBois without seeing his name — or understanding that the townspeople had lost one of their own. This was my first indicator that the pain of this loss was felt by more than just his immediate family and our unit.
Next, we were received by his family and friends at the funeral home. I don’t really know what I expected and would gladly have accepted and understood any anger or resentment that may have been directed my way as the senior representative of the organization. What I did not expect was the outpouring of compassion and support that I received. Every person who walked into that funeral home to pay their respects to Martino and his family also shook my hand and thanked me for my service. This was more than what I used to perceive as the casual “thank you for your service” I’ve heard thousands of times.
The next day, March 28, we attended the funeral in a church that was beyond full capacity, with people pouring out onto the sidewalk and street. As the service concluded, we got into our cars and began the procession through town to the cemetery.
As we rounded the first corner past the church, I was moved to see the families who lived close to the church standing on their lawns, holding American flags and homemade signs of support for the Martino family. As we traveled farther down the road, more and more people were standing alongside the road. Again, nearly every person had a flag or a sign. Those who did not were standing with their hand over their heart.
When we turned onto the main street of town, I was overwhelmed by the sight before me. Thousands of people lined both sides of the street as the procession drove past. Every person had an American flag, a sign, a Marine Corps flag, pillow, blanket or piece of memorabilia. Veterans, police and firemen were saluting. Children from the elementary, middle and high school were out on the street waving flags or standing solemnly with their hands over hearts or heads bowed. Traffic traveling in the opposite direction was stopped for miles because those people felt compelled to put the car in park and get out and stand at attention as the procession drove past.
This was by far the most overwhelming display of patriotism that I have seen in my 26 years of service in the Marine Corps. An old veteran approached me at the cemetery and, with tears in his eyes, said; “I’m an old man, and I’ve never seen anything like that.” When I responded that neither had I, he simply said, “That’s how much people love Marines around here. We know what you’ve done for our country.” Overcome with emotion, I couldn’t even formulate a response to that, so he just patted my back and said, “Thank you for your service.”
Later, at the reception sponsored by the VFW, one of Martino’s sisters-in-law asked me how Marines cope with the loss of one of their brothers. I explained to her that when it happens in combat, we always hold a memorial service to honor the sacrifice of the fallen, but that we have no choice other than to go back to work. She speculated that perhaps that’s why so many Marines have [mental health] issues when they come home. I told her that, having never attended a funeral for one of my fallen, I had no real perspective on the matter until having this conversation. She went on to tell me that Martino’s closest friends from the platoon seemed to be in a better emotional state now, post funeral, than they were when she met them three days earlier.
I had to admit that she was correct. The ability to grieve with, talk to, comfort and be comforted by Martino’s family did more for those Marines, and me, than any amount of counseling, classes or anything else that we normally set up within the post-deployment cycle. I know we can’t attend funerals while deployed, but it’s an interesting argument for those who work in the post-traumatic stress and Operational Stress Control and Readiness realm.
What really helps a Marine cope with a tragic loss?
The ability to be there with the family and receive their support, love and words of encouragement had an astounding effect on the Marines who were able to attend. One young Marine told me he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to be a Marine any longer until he went to DuBois. But, after seeing the outpouring of love and support and understanding of what his service as a Marine really means to the average American, he was recommitted to being the best Marine possible and honoring his friend’s sacrifice through his own service.
I hope no other Marines ever have to attend the funeral of a fallen brother, but I also realize that the nature of what we do makes this unlikely.
I also hope that when Marines hear someone tell them “thank you for your service,” they realize this is not lip service. This is a genuine and heartfelt thank you from people who appreciate the honor, courage and commitment of U.S. Marines.
Sgt. Maj. Patrick M. Tracy / Camp Lejeune, N.C.