DWYER, Helmand province, Afghanistan (MCN - 6/23/2011) — I heard the
final rifle volley and saw the winding procession of somber Marines, yet
I'm sure Sgt. Joseph Garrison was there. Though I never shook his hand
or looked him in the eye, his presence was as obvious as the occasional
tear upon their stony faces.|
One by one, the Marines knelt in
front of the former Fox Company squad leader's meticulously arranged
memorial display. A Catholic bowed his head, crossed himself and clasped
dog tags that hung from Garrison's upright rifle. Later, Sgt. Maj. Bryan
Zickefoose, the Regimental Combat Team 1 sergeant major, saluted to a
slow, six-count silent cadence and carefully placed the RCT-1 challenge
coin inside one of the empty combat boots at the rifle's base. For about
an hour, a tide of Marines seemed to ceaselessly flow forward to pay
their final respects to the 27-year-old native of Clarion, Pa.
Garrison's squad was among the first to say goodbye. When I found them
afterward, they were huddled between a row of bunkers and domed brown
tents. Hardly anyone was speaking, and I immediately felt out of place
with two bulky industry-standard cameras strapped around my neck.
Few Marines acknowledged me when I arrived. One looked up – he bore
a sullen, pained expression – and I awkwardly asked if he'd be
interested in helping me get some information for a memorial story on
Garrison. Without a word, he shook his head no.
I began to feel
like an intruder and wasn't sure how to proceed until I remembered Cpl.
Jose Herrera, Garrison's assistant patrol leader. I didn't know his name
at the time; I think I just described him as the Hispanic Marine who
offered his personal reflections on Sgt. Garrison.
you watch over us, know this,” Herrera said during the ceremony. “The
hell ... and wars in life I have gone through, I would do over and over
again. To share one more firefight. To sit at your side and speak of all
the impossible actions we have accomplished. Your war is finally over.
Rest brother. I will see you one day in the far but near future.”
The term was popularized by E.B. Sledge, a mortarman during World War
II, who wrote a first-hand account of his experiences at the battles of
Peleliu and Okinawa during the Pacific campaign. The book, titled “With
the Old Breed,” is renowned for its blunt, often graphic accounts of
combat and the Marines who ‘charged toward the bullets' to win
hard-fought battles against a formidable foe. Sledge recalls a bygone
era of U.S. military history, when battles claimed tens of thousands of
lives, and the nation's very existence was directly threatened by
enemies with clear intentions to dominate the world.
“‘To live by
the gun, to die by the gun' was a lifestyle for him and the Marines he
led in combat,” said Herrera.
Throughout the interview, Herrera
spoke of Garrison's leadership and charisma without a trace of
hesitation, and I sensed that he was one step ahead of the rest of the
squad. Outside, the Marines seemed to be at the beginning of their
search for meaning, but in the solitude of the bunker, Herrera seemed to
be building a religion around Garrison's short yet significant life.
He summarized the meaning of Garrison's life during the ceremony.
“We celebrate [his] life today and forevermore,” eulogized Herrera,
“because we are a true testament to his selflessness so that we may take
one more breath of life to continue this epic journey.”
the bunker, Herrera's interview was brief but poignant, and when I
couldn't immediately think of a follow-up to my initial query, Herrera
asked, “Any more questions?” in a respectful yet matter-of-fact tone.
I sensed that the interview had unofficially ended, yet I managed to
elicit one more response.
‘Is there a memory you have that sums
up Garrison's character?' I asked.
Herrera didn't seem annoyed
that I had asked; instead, he nodded and replied that there are many.
Before proceeding, he hesitated for a split second like a young man
selecting a collared shirt from a well-stocked closet. Then he told me
the story about the sniper Garrison's squad brought down.
squad had been pinned down for hours. Reports about a sniper were
floating around, and the squad's morale was shaken. Effective insurgent
snipers are fairly uncommon, and the Marines knew their lives were in a
rare sort of danger.
Finally, Garrison, who had a reputation
around the battalion as a hell of a poker player, had enough. He stood
up from his covered position, baiting the sniper to take a shot. If the
sniper fired, the Marines could locate him.
The sniper folded
and was later neutralized by 2/8, but more significantly, the squad knew
their leader valued their lives more than his own, and they came to
believe he was impervious to death.
“Indeed, the world is a
lesser place without you,” Herrera said during the ceremony. “And
indeed, the world is a far better place because of you. [His] family and
friends ... all know this, but more than that, the Marines he fought,
sweated, bled and died with, past and present, know that.”
when I think of my brief encounter with Herrera and the Marines in
Garrison's squad, I'm sure that Garrison is still with them in some
In fact, as I pour over the messy cursive containing
Herrara's beautiful remembrance, I'm struck by something peculiar. The
first letters of the pronouns referring to Garrison are capitalized. The
quasi-Biblical phrases – “to live by the gun, to die by the gun” -- and
proper pronouns converge to create the subtle impression of someone
Herrera couldn't have known his letter would be used
for an article, which makes its content all the more striking. In the
purity of his private thoughts, he seems to regard Garrison as an
enduring spirit that continues to watch over the squad.
Now, as I
think about Herrera's longing – “To share another firefight” – there is
a small glimmer of understanding. Garrison, Herrera and their Marines
faced death together and developed a closeness that is only shared
For a brief moment, my eyes met
Herrera's, and I vicariously felt the allure of a far off battlefield.
The concept, at least, has cemented in my mind, for few places exist
where reality is colored so vividly. In the modern world, society's web
of safety nets and comfort insulate the individual from the direct
repercussions of his actions, but on the battlefield, cause and effect
is a simple function with dramatic outputs. Consequently, each man knows
his role and understands his value.
And Herrera's obvious
conviction convinces me that Garrison is still watching over his squad.
Although I never met Garrison, I see his spirit in Herrera's smoldering
eyes, and I can't help but feel that death has actually elevated the
fallen squad leader. He now lives within the hearts of those he once
led, making his courage and dedication their own.
Garrison made the final
sacrifice, June 6, 2011, while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in
Marjah District, Helmand province.
The memorial service took
place June 15, at Camp Hansen, the headquarters of 2/8, in Northern
Garrison's personal awards include the Purple Heart
Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Combat
Distinguishing Device, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, the
Combat Action Ribbon, and two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals.
Garrison is survived by his parents, Joseph Garrison and Natalie
Schoonover; his fianc�, Brittney Stephens; his sisters, Judith Rupp and
Kim Knoll; and his brother, Jacob Garrison.