When I ask my son, “What do you do when you see a soldier?” he does a little four-year-old salute and says, “Thank you for your service.”
For him to do so is important to me on a personal level, because my grandfather, the blue-eyed gentleman he was named for, served his country for most of his life. Mac joined the Air Force in 1942. My grandmother wrote him every day that he was away for 2 ½ years. He wrote her almost as often. Mac never flew a plane during wartime, as he was debilitated by airsickness. This, I believe, was a gift to my family, but probably not to the war effort. Instead, he joined the Army and climbed the ranks to Colonel.
After World War II was over, Mac was stationed in Mainz, Germany, and Nana packed up her three girls, one 9, one 5, and my Mama, less than a year old, and went to live in a foreign country so her family could be together. She said her parents didn’t want her to go, and were terrified they would never see her again, but she never regretted her decision. After all, she understood sacrifice. She was the wife of a soldier.
Mac’s military service was largely over during my lifetime, but he still walked into our church each Sunday and straightened the flags that stood in the front of the sanctuary. He loved his God, his family, and his country. At his funeral, there was a 21 gun salute and a flag presented to his girls, but the service was largely attended by the people who knew him simply as “Mac,” who loved him inside and outside of his military career. His funeral didn’t make the news. It was a small affair, as simple and understated as he was in life. It was as it should have been. And as I was in life and upon his death, at that service I was so proud to be his granddaughter. The granddaughter of a soldier.
On April 7, 2011, a young man named Jason Rogers died. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corp., killed by an IED in Afghanistan. I did not know him, but I sure wish I had. He was a solider.
Jason was from Brandon, Mississippi, which is located about 30 miles from my home. Our respective towns are a part of what we in Central Mississippi refer to as “the tri-county area,” and we share news from one little pocket of the TCA to another. The story that one of our own died for our freedom was on the radio and in the local papers, but another story hit us even harder: Westboro Baptist “Church,” that despicable bunch of hate-mongers, posted on their website that they were headed our way.
Now, I don’t know if all of you reading this have ever been down South, but there are some attributes you hear about us that are highly fabricated and some that are the gospel truth. This is fact: We protect our own. Sadly, I probably would not have attended Jason’s funeral if not for the desire to protect a man who had died for my freedom from the crazy outsiders who wanted to mar his name and hurt his loved ones by casting a cloud over his homecoming. I would have watched the funeral procession on the news, and silently thanked God for Jason’s service. But instead, the more I thought about this abhorrent mockery of a pseudo-church traipsing on our soil, holding their disgusting signs, even breathing the air of my sweet state, the more I realized I did not want to just see it on t.v. I wanted to be one more body in that throng of humanity that would collectively protest their existence. I wanted to help, in the tiny way that I could, protect my own. And I was not alone.
In response to WBC’s announcement, we found out that the Patriot Guard Riders would be in attendance to accompany the hearse to the church, and they reached out to local members of the community for help. My little brother is a member of the Central Mississippi Jeep Association, a Jeep club which was contacted by someone in the organization to ask if they would use their enormous, steely, jacked-up, tricked-out monstrous Jeeps to provide a wall across from the church to shield the family from the lunatics. My brother and (most of) his friends aren’t the type to go looking for a fight, but when this one was brought to them, they were prepared. They were honored to be given the opportunity to actually do something for their fallen Marine, and deep down, like so many others, they secretly hoped the cretins would show, just to give them the Deep South welcome they richly deserved. Thankfully, the evil bunch of them had at least enough sense to stay far, far away from Rankin County, Mississippi on that day.
My brother, in typical “Leigh” form, spent most of the night before rigging the tallest pole he could find to his jeep and attaching the biggest flag that it would hold. He asked me to ride with him, and never in my life have I been so proud to sit alongside my baby brother in “Little Earl.”
What I saw that day was a hero’s homecoming as it should be, and I was completely unprepared. Secretly, I wish WBC would advertise that they would attend every single lost soldier’s funeral if it would incite this magnitude of participation in their funerals. It struck me as ironic that their proclamation of an intention to attend did exactly the opposite of what they hope to achieve (though, truthfully, I have no idea what their point actually is…and I’ve looked.) It made us come out in droves, bringing with us hundreds and hundreds of American flags, strengthening our already strong resolve that the men and women who serve in our military are modern day heroes, worthy of all of our gratitude, praise, and support. What I saw that day was a community risen, all with watchful eyes, ready at any given moment, at even the glimpse of a piece of cardboard that could bring more hurt to an already heart-broken family, to protect one of our own.
America lost a mighty brave soldier last April, but I’ve learned he was much more than that. In the words of his step-dad, Eddie Smith:
“Jason was a true Marine. He was an inspiration to his fellow Marines. Whenever he was being deployed moms and dads of other Marines would walk up to Jenny and I and tell us how their fellow son was so proud to be in his squad. And, as a young man Jason always insisted Jenny give the homeless and those less fortunate a little quarter or something. You see, Jenny was a single mom with two young sons. She had little to give but gave to help others because that is what Jason wanted.” She was the mother of a soldier-to-be.
Jason was a son, a brother, a husband, a friend. He was once a boy who grew to be a man, a man who became a soldier. He died for you, and for me, so that we can rear our children and choose a career and go to church (or not) and carry a gun (or not) and go to sleep at night knowing we will get up the next morning with a dozen choices to make, and we are allowed to make each and every one. He died so some heartless, depraved family can protest his own funeral.
Overwhelming, isn’t it? Reminds me an awful lot of a man who died on a cross, not for my earthly freedom, but for freedom eternal.
I don’t think Jason or any other soldier would like to be compared to Jesus, and I think every reader with any salt knows I do not equate the two. But Jesus’ actions on the cross and what a soldier does every time he or she straps on his boots and and picks up his gun are both the ultimate gifts of sacrifice. We don’t deserve it, but he does it anyway. He does it because he knows there are some things worth fighting for.
“All gave some, but some gave all.”
This is the story of two very different men of two different generations who served in two different wars and who lived two different lives. But in their differences, there was a common denominator. They were both soldiers.
My Mac gave some. He enlisted in the Air Force and then the Army. He spent years away from his very small children who missed him, and his wife who prayed for him and worried about him and wrote to him, no matter where he went. After active duty, he continued his service in the National Guard during the uncertainty and unrest of the Civil Rights Movement, standing on one side of a picket line and his father on the other. He didn’t talk much about what he saw during World War II, but he had nightmares for the rest of his life. He was able to retire a Brigadier General and watch his girls grow up and have children of their own. He got to work on his golf game and take trips with my grandmother and sit in the stands every Friday night and watch the Canton Academy Panthers on the football field. He lived to be 79 years old. My Mac gave some.
Jason Rogers gave all. He joined the Marines in response to the atrocity of 9/11, out of love for his country and a desire to serve. He did three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. On his final tour, he left his newly-wed bride at home to do as my grandmother did–to pray and worry and fill that void in her heart and home that only he could fill. In a local news article, we learned he was told to “ protect his fellow Marines like a pit bull.” Pit bull, he was. This young Marine’s fearlessness gave others, life. His courage gave us another peaceful sleep. His commitment to the order he was given made him a soldier. His life was cut short, and if his 28 years on Earth was an indicator as to all he would have accomplished had he lived as long as my grandfather did, well, I doubt there would be enough blog space in the world. Jason Rogers gave all.
I can’t adequately convey to you the entirety of what I saw that day. All I can offer is an attempt to describe the lessons and the emotion that came from simply being a number, just one in attendance, at the funeral of Jason Rogers. Below is something I wrote the evening I came home, sunburned and tired, intensely sad and incredibly proud–sad because America lost a great soldier, but proud because we had a great soldier–and there are many more out there that rise to his rank, who, like my grandfather, will give some, but not all.
Today, we honor all of you.
TODAY, I SAW THE HEART OF AMERICA
by Marsha Weems Stacey on Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 10:28pm (revised)
Today, I saw the heart of America.
It was in the hundreds of hands over hearts as we watched a funeral processional pass by.
It was in the faces of the children who stood with their mothers and fathers and learned what it means to be a real hero.
It was in the 21 gun salute and the sound of bagpipes.
It was in the roar of motorcycles which came from far and near, forming a river of chrome; men and women riding in solidarity, who wore their mission on their jackets and determination on their faces.
It was in the tear on the cheek of one of those same men who saw a cemetery full of flags held by tiny hands, withered hands, calloused hands, praying hands, and though he had done this many times, he recognized something extraordinary when he saw it.
It was in the line of jeeps, tall and wide, commissioned to provide a wall, just in case.
It was in the humble effort of a woman, riding in a car close to the hearse, window down, mouthing the words “Thank You” to those who stood on the roadside, and we did not need our ears to hear exactly what she meant.
It was in the posture of those in uniform, unwavering in the afternoon sun and the lengthy wait, faces stoic, eyes focused, hearts broken, resolve strong.
It was in the folds of the stars and bars being handed to a young wife.
It was in the strong and firm handshake of a man who spoke words of of humility and graciousness and selflessness, and the medals he wore on his chest were not what told us that we were in the presence of greatness.
It was in the reverence of the people who stood back, acknowledging they were not there to mourn, but to honor, and the space they left was full.
It was in the flags, big and small, waving and still, held by one, held by many, held by a crane, held by a friend, flapping atop a jeep, draped across a car, standing tall behind a bike, on a shirt, on a helmet, on a casket, at half mast, in a yard, on a mailbox, in a truck bed, on a lapel.
It was in the flags–even more in number than there were people to wave them–being held with pride, with love, with grief, with respect, with gratitude, with fortitude, with hope, with endurance, with tears, with smiles, with realization, with determination, with strength, with remembrance, with a solidarity of a common cause that no bullet could shatter and no protestor could take away.
It was in the flags–what had once been thread, spun to form a cloth that told us where we belonged.
It was in those same flags–in their crimson and white and deep, deep blue–that suddenly began to scream what we meant, what we wanted to say, who we were, where we could go, and who we could thank.
It was in that sea of flags that we felt so small and yet a part of something bigger than anything we could have imagined.
Today, I saw the heart of America.
And with ferocity, it beats.