Today is Memorial Day. While most enjoy the long weekend, sales, family, BBQ I too enjoy those things, but I also think back to my time as a US Marine in service to the country. I often wonder about where some of my old military buddies are now in life and those that never came home.
You see when I was deployed in the early nineties during the first Gulf War and some other small tactical operations around the world protecting American assets in Liberia or Israel most of the men around me physically came home. Its just in some cases that their minds never did.
I had a buddy named Benjamin Antaran. Big Filipino and Samoan from San Francisco. Good guy good sense of humor. We both got out about the same time in 1993. We’d catch up on the phone every few months. His dad was a cop. Ben became a cop and worked in the courthouse. From time to time when talking to Ben on the phone he would ask me about things we saw “over there” and as Marines we’d talk about those things we saw or did which in general we never really could explain or open up to civilians. At the time I wouldn’t classify Ben as being troubled about what happened but the more I talked to him I knew he was going through his own battles reconciling things in his mind. At the time pretty normal I thought.
We all settle and come to terms with extreme things whether its scenes of combat, hurt buddies, highway car accident trauma in our own ways. My father was a Marine in Vietnam. I grew up periodically being woken up in the middle of the night by my father moaning or yelling in his sleep and my mother waking him from nightmares. The only time I ever knew what my father did in Vietnam was when I was a late teen when his buddy and best man at his wedding who he was in the Marines with him came to visit and they rehashed some old times. No one talked about combat stress, PTSD, etc. Shell-shock was just a grainy old picture of WWI soldiers with thousand mile stare eyes.
I lost touch with Ben. He stopped calling. A year turned to three. I finally decided to try and track him down. I knew he worked for the San Francisco Sheriffs department. I knew he was married. I started searching the internet. Shit.
He blew his brains out with his pistol in front of his wife and father in-law. Accusations of infidelity, shoved his wife to get away from her during an argument, she calls cops, boom. It’s not the worst.
Meet my priest. Father Dennis Rocheford. LCMDR USN
I first met Father Rocheford sometime around 1990 when I was with 3rd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment attached to the 26th MEU. He was the battalion chaplain. In order to become a chaplain in the USMC you have to be a naval officer. You see Father Rocheford back in the day was a Marine. He was with the 1st Marines during TET in 1968. Fought in Hue City, Hill 881 at Khe sanh, was a radio operator for the famous MajGen Ray “e-tool” Smith. Of one hundred men in Father Rocheford’s company in Vietnam he was one of six that survived. Father Rocheford during Vietnam promised God if he survived he would not waste his life. He made it home, joined the seminary and became a priest. Went back into the service around 1987 and for the most part preached the Catholic faith to Marines who need it the most.
Father Rocheford was a hell of a Marine. Even though he was actually a Navy LtCMDR as far as any Marine I ever knew that knew him he was a Marine. Whenever we needed to get dressed up and put on Alpha’s with ribbons and awards there wasn’t anyone the Battalion Commander included who had more awards or prouder then Father Rocheford. Numerous purple hearts, bronze stars, combat action, unit citations. I think he had a ziplock bag of the ones he couldn’t fit on the uniform in his pocket, so that at least he had them on his person as to not be considered out of uniform. Chesty Puller himself would have given Father Rocheford a pass.
I can barely tell you what I had for dinner Friday night. I can tell you however before going ashore around a rather hostile embassy in civil war torn Liberia, in a mass with Father Rockeford a quote in the homily was “Greater love hath no man than this, than a man that lays down his life for his friends”. That stays with me and will for the rest of my life.
Father Rocheford went with the Marines as a chaplain to Iraq in 2007 during some pretty fierce fighting around Ramadi. I can’t tell you how many Marines this guy may have brought comfort to during those times.
Unfortunately in 2009, it was too much for Father Rocheford. For the Marine priest who prayed for and gave comfort to thousands of Marines heading into combat for over 20 years, whom only he himself knew what real combat looked like, took his own life by jumping off a bridge in Rhode Island. Who would pray and give comfort for he who gave the rest of us peace?
I have stopped looking up old buddies I served with. I can’t take playing the what if and why games in my head for months at a time when I find out they couldn’t deal with life afterward.
I don’t recount these men, or tell you these stories to somehow illustrate that we should be doing something special for them on Memorial Day, or Veterans day. Pretty much everyone I went in to the service with would agree, we do and or did it so others we love could stay home in freedom and do the good things in life without seeing the “shit” of war. Partly that and boys of a certain age and immortal sense of romantic adventure choose it. I say enjoy your long weekends on these holidays with loved ones but know someone gave the ultimate price. Some mother or father paid the highest price with a son or daughter.
Those that make it home but suffer in private about what they saw or did, are just paying rent on the ultimate price. You’re not going to fix them and in most cases you’re not going to help them. More times then not they don’t ask for your pity or help, but you can respect them. A simple wave, handshake, a nod. Mostly enjoy your weekend with your family and loved ones. Eat, drink, be merry. Shop and get a good deal on a TV. Do it all. As long as you know in the back of your head what was given and someone went forward and didn’t come back, and now more then ever someone went forward, came back, but they may not really be back.
People may thank me or people like me for my service. I generally keep my mouth shut and attempt to be gracious. It aint me. I aint no fortunate son. Much bigger and much better men need to be thanked, but they’re not here now.
I’m in this picture can you guess where? Ben Antaran is too. This was how we rolled as Combat Engineers back in the day.
So enjoy the rest of your long holiday weekend. I know I will.
Let ‘er rip tater chips.