Hawkeye: “I know why I am crying, I watched my friend die and now I’m crying because he’s gone but I’ve watched hundreds of soldiers die before. Why didn’t I cry for any of them?”
Colonel Blake: “I don’t know. All I know is what they taught me at Command School and that is there are two rules of war. Rule number one is ‘young men die.’ And rule number two is ‘doctors can’t change rule number one.’”
–From the television series M*A*S*H which ran for eleven years (1972-1983) and depicted the day-to-day lives of doctors in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) stuck in the middle of the Korean war.
Twenty-year old Marine, Lance Corporal David A. Mendez Ruiz was laid to rest Friday, November 25, 2005 at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery having died in combat in Iraq. Hours before his burial, a service was held at Bethel Temple Assembly of God in Parma, Ohio where David had spent his elementary school days (Bethel Christian Academy) with my three daughters. I was there with my wife and children as were teachers, parents and students from the past. Though the event is more then six months past, the images are still heavy in my mind. The Fourth of July will forever now bring these thoughts forth for me. On that particular November day, I was reminded how fortunate we are as a nation that young men and women step forward to protect our country and the people that live and breathe under that flag each and every day.
Testimonies at the service from friends and family stirred many memories and I was caught up in so many ironies and observations that I was on “sensory overload” from the minute we entered the doors.
Maybe I’m looking to remind you how blessed and fortunate we all are. Maybe I’m trying to salve my own fears and sadness. Maybe I feel a duty to reflect my “take on things” because I feel it is the least I can do in gratitude for the sacrifices made by this boy for our country. In any event, indulge me for a moment as I share my thoughts. I hope you find a pearl or two to put in your pocket by the time you reach my biography.
Before the service began, two Marines stood at full attention at either end of the casket before the altar. There were roughly eight or 10 of them in the lobby and about every quarter-hour, they rotated the “watch” in a stirring ceremony that included a slow, deliberate salute and a synchronized routine. It delivered such a mixed bag of pride and sorrow to the onlookers that the room fell silent each time the rotation occurred. What an honor it is to be an American! What sacrifice our soldiers provide on our behalf! As these boys sat statue-still, shoulder to shoulder through the service, their precision and discipline was so impressive that I am sure many a young boy watching them was inspired about the future and many an adult felt more secure about the strength and safety of our nation. After the service I shook a few of their hands and simply said, “Thank you.” To the man, each nodded and said, “You’re welcome, sir.” They knew exactly what I meant and their eyes said, “Thank you for saying that.”
Sitting directly in front of me was David’s life long buddy, Brandon Joffre. Before the actual service began many of the attendees were reacquainting themselves after years of being apart. The din created by those greetings floated around Brandon like a hazy cloud but he seemed to inhale none of it. He simply stared straight ahead, his jaw locked, his eyes searching. When the service began this young man quietly sobbed from deep within in such heart rendering sincerity that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. His mother put a hand on his shoulder and he leaned softly to her with great dignity and then quietly excused himself from the room.
Brandon was scheduled to deliver a eulogy later in the program and it seemed he wanted some time to collect himself. About a half hour later when he did take to the podium, I was overwhelmingly impressed with his strength, endurance and sense of duty to David. It would have been easy to bail out and say the task was too daunting. Brandon held it together and delivered a message of true loss, painting a picture of a partner that could never be replaced and one that loved and was loved by everyone he encountered. As he spoke and choked back emotion, I watched tears streaming down the face of Brandon’s mother. Her sense of pride was apparent and her sense of pain was as well. Only David’s parents could have had heavier hearts than she at that moment as she watched her child take steps into manhood while suffering great pain. I’d never met Brandon before but I was so very proud of him.
David’s immediate family was possibly the classiest clan I have ever encountered. Truly this was a family in great sorrow suffering a great loss and his many siblings and cousins stood tall and strong as tears poured down their cheeks; his parents were stoic and resolved. I’ve never seen such dignity and pride in the face of great duress — hearts that were breaking. David was the kind of boy who filled the room. His personality and fun-loving ways were like the class rascal who always makes the teacher hide a smile as she is disciplining him. A few of David’s former teachers were there and said just that. We all know or have known such a character in our lives and recall their charm. The party always started when David arrived which means those that barely knew him were in some way, attached. Real personalities like David’s leave such a hole where they once stood. One of his friends mentioned that his eyes always disappeared when he smiled that huge smile of his. So graphic was this memory that a collective audible gasp could be heard throughout the church as that was said. A gasp made up of the simultaneous realization of how great the loss and how accurate such an observation of this boy’s transparent sincerity was.
My daughters and their circle of friends provided a quiet spectacle for me as well. It’s been almost eight years since I had seen some of them. I found it ironic how their looks had certainly changed but the children within were all the same. There were the dramatic ones, the analytical ones, the sensitive ones, the open ones, the closed ones; all collectively representing a time capsule for me. Their conversations sounded like the same ones that would float upstairs during the sleepovers in front of our fireplace so many years ago. Some things never change. Never.
The national anthem of Guatemala was played as David’s family had immigrated to the United States when he was six. The American National anthem was played as well and both were stirring renditions. The family held their hands over their hearts through both. David’s youth pastor spoke. His sister sang a song he loved. His uncles harmonized another song. There were more eulogies from friends. Each of these dramas was played out with an interpreter quietly making everything clear to the mixed crowd. His ability to be integral yet invisible was commendable as well. His sensitivity to the moment was born of pure respect.
There had been an interesting moment that even preceded all of these. When my family first got the call about the tragedy, I had been the one to answer the phone. The caller related the message and then added that if we attend any of the events, the family asked that we make no comment to any news people either for or against the war. The service is about David and not about politics. I said we would comply and shook my head as I hung up the phone. Even small town families suffering great loss have to worry about “spin control” these days. Incredible.
There were other significant moments. I saw teachers that were single and in their twenties before that are now in their thirties with families. I would guess they would probably be more sympathetic to me now if I lamented about how difficult it is to sell nine boxes of fund-raising candy for three daughters or if I asked them to consider letting the girls do one collective science fair project as opposed to three individual ones. But that’s all water under the bridge. This day was about the loss of a young man who meant a lot to a lot of people and all of the other earthly distractions seemed so very insignificant at the moment (which they really always are).
Two of the boys, Bryan and Chris that were also close to David spend a lot of time at my house as Bryan is engaged to my middle daughter and Chris is his best friend. On the Sunday following the service Chris happened by the house that morning for no particular reason. He poked around the kitchen and heard my wife and I say as many comforting things as we could muster. I began to realize he was looking for some safe harbor of comfort and our house has always been sort of a hub for that kind of thing. The problem was there is no good answer for the questions this kind of tragedy brings about. Chris seemed troubled by the fact that this was David’s second tour of duty and that he had expressed some apprehension about going back. It was not a pleasant place and he had told his friend and he was troubled by a sort of premonition that kept coming up negative. “And here I am doing nothing,” Chris said, survivor guilt gushing from his pores. I told him what I told my own son Nicco, who was also having trouble digesting this whole thing, the night before. Simply this.
David became a Marine voluntarily. He wanted to go and he made that choice. That took commitment. In the face of finding out how terrible it really was, he sucked it up, did his duty with pride and readied for his second tour. That took character. More character at 18 than many men ever muster by the time they are 80. Now, a parent like me could go to a funeral like this and come home and say to his kids, “don’t you ever consider going into the service,” but who are we to expect protection from other people’s children when we would prevent our own from making that choice? The bottom line is this. If you want a life in the armed forces, you better make darn sure you really want that. You may be asked to die for that decision. I would never prevent my kids from going and I don’t know that I would encourage them to go but if it is what they want they must be given the freedom to do that. Those are the very principles of freedom under which they were raised! Above all, they must know that the choice they have made carries the potential for severe consequences. Soldiering on in the face of all that is therefore the true measure of a man. Young servicemen like David take that step into manhood each and every day on our behalf. David left for the service a young boy but returned a respectable man of honor. Since we must assume he made his choice in light of those negative indications it is our duty to be sure he is always remembered as heroic. Honoring the choices he made holds his memory in high esteem; and he earned that. He gave his life for that. The fate of this country lies in the hands and hearts of these boys.
My wife had worked at the school in “after-care” for years and remembered that as a child, David always wanted to be in uniform. He was fascinated with policeman, firemen, and soldiers of any kind. As the motorcade made its way to the cemetery, I could only imagine that ever-present grin David must have had on his face looking down from heaven as every possible uniformed officer of every walk of service stood along the curb of the route in full salute. The brethren he’d always wanted to be a part of now stood united with him.
For many years as a child I stood along the curb at the parade on the Fourth of July and watched men beside me salute when the flag came by. Sometimes they would cry silently or bury their head in their wives shoulders. I’d see grandpa’s kneeling down explaining the importance of things to their grandkids and men in wheelchairs being pushed by other veterans as their group marched by. I always stood statue still at these moments knowing something about it held reverence. As I got older, the same observations saddened me. As a father now, and a newly educated observer I salute as a citizen with a whole new appreciation of sacrifice. Sacrifice from soldiers, parents, widows, orphans and all the like. On behalf of all that never understood dear soldiers, I apologize. From those of us who finally do understand, I thank you from the bottom of my freedom loving heart.
And to you dear David I say, “rest easy now; well done, soldier. Until we meet again, please accept my humble thanks on behalf of a safe and free nation.”
Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org