MIGHTY CULTURE

As a Marine in Afghanistan, I aspired to make my family’s legacy of heroes proud

My grandparents valued our nation's history, and they did everything they could to ensure they passed down their knowledge and understanding of that history to the next generation. So, each summer from 5th Grade through my freshman year of high school, they took my cousins and I on road trips across the United States. Every trip ranged from two weeks to a month, traveling everywhere from the old Civil War battlefields in North Carolina to the cobblestone roads of River Street in Savannah, Georgia.


Even though we were just kids, we soaked up every bit of information we could about our nation's convoluted and conflicted history. We learned to value our past, and the men and women who made our nation what it is today. For me, those trips laid a foundation I wouldn't come to fully appreciate until years later … riding shotgun through Afghanistan.

My Grandfather was born in September 1939, too young for World War II or Korea, and too old for Vietnam by the time it came around. Grandpa was a model American though, at least as far as I was concerned. He worked a 30-year career with the phone company, raised three beautiful children, and married his high school sweetheart. He was eventually diagnosed with throat cancer; within a few years of diagnosis they removed all the cancer cells as well as his voice box.

But that didn't stop him from doing what he thought was right.

Speaking with a mechanized voice box, he told his kids — including my mom — that he wanted to take the grandkids on a road trip to travel and explore our nation that summer. That led to many days and late nights in the passenger seat of my grandparents' motorhome holding a Rand McNally road atlas while listening to my grandpa speak about his family's legacy of military service with genuine admiration.

Grandpa told us about his oldest brother — they called him C.F. — who was an Infantryman that stormed Normandy's beaches on D-Day. His brother Byron drove a tank through Italy, France, and Germany before almost being sent to Okinawa after the war in Europe had ended.

Against all odds, they somehow stumbled across each other during the war. Bryon was sitting on his tank as C.F. walked by with his unit; they were shocked at the sight of each other and took a moment to shower each other with questions before saying their good-byes and good lucks. That story stayed with me for a long time.

And then there was grandpa's brother-in-law, Curtis. He rode on horseback behind enemy lines to establish communication lines in France during the war.

My grandpa spoke briefly but highly of his father-in-law — my great-grandfather, saying he served in World War I as an artilleryman. He struggled with shell shock; we call that PTSD these days. He's standing next to an artillery cannon in France in the only picture we have of him.

My mind was doused in imagination; these men … these giants were the igniter. I had known them as kind, old southern gentlemen my entire childhood; my grandfather's stories forced me to re-envision them as gigantic, unstoppable figures who changed the course of the world. These men were my heroes.

I still cherish every moment we spent together on the road discussing how our robust nation came to fruition, how our 16th President is revered as one of the best Presidents given the circumstances, and how FDR handled one of the greatest conflicts the world has ever experienced. My grandfather spent the waning years of his life passing down this historical knowledge to my cousins and me, and for that he will always be my hero.

From a very young age, I understood that our nation and livelihood was only attainable and sustained because of men like my relatives. Whether it was the moment Japan bombed Pearl Harbor or when Wilson brought us into WW1, these men answered the call willingly and selflessly. They understood what needed to be done to keep our nation's virtues safe and guarded.

I was born in 1989, so a world-changing event like Pearl Harbor wouldn't come into my life until a fall morning in 2001. I was in my 7th grade social studies class. Our teacher frantically rolled in the television and turned on the news. We sat as a class and watched one of the two towers burn in front of our eyes. A second plane came into frame, flying directly into the second tower. The gasps and cries in the room that day have never left my mind.

After about thirty minutes, the principal came over the intercom and cancelled classes for the day. I rushed to my bicycle, unlocked it, and pedaled home as fast as I could while images of the second plane crashing into the building devoured my thoughts. The front door of my house didn't stand a chance; I unlocked it faster than I unlocked my bike, turned on the news and didn't leave the living room until my mother got home from work.

She asked me if I'd been watching the tragic news all day. "Of course," I told her. "If whatever happens is still happening when I turn eighteen, then I'm going to go and fight." It was 2001 and 18 (the minimum age to go to war) was so far off in the distance that my mother didn't argue. She knew I had a passionate love for this nation and respected the military tradition that our nation, and our family had cultivated.

Time went by. Days became months, months became years, and 2001 became 2005. My grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the same time my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. On October 31, 2007, Julean Hatcher, my beloved grandmother who was the rock for all of us, passed away.

My life had not amounted to anything by that point. I wasn't actively trying to pursue college … or anything to better myself for that matter. I finally held myself accountable for the oath I made to my mother as a 7th grader in 2001 and signed a contract with the Marine Corps. On Mother's Day 2008, I left for Parris Island, South Carolina to begin my journey toward becoming a U.S. Marine.

Over the course of recruit training we were told numerous times we weren't going to go anywhere, that we would go to Iraq if we were lucky. Would I follow in Grandpa's footsteps and miss the war?

The war in Iraq was nearing its end (or so we thought), but what no one saw coming was President Obama taking office and ordering 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. That changed my life and the course of hundreds of thousands of lives. From my great-uncles to my great-grandfather, to every single man and woman that ever served this nation prior to this moment, I could feel our history was about to be written.

In January 2010, I was sent to Afghanistan as a combat replacement to Route Clearance Platoon 2. I spent the next four months operating in and out of Marjah, Afghanistan looking for and disposing of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Department of Defense

In April 2011, we deployed again to Helmand Province. But this time we were pushing into the now-infamous Sangin Valley, where we met heavy resistance. I spent so many days covered in a salt stained F.R.O.G. top wondering if my lineage would be proud of what we were doing, if they would be proud of the men and women who came after them to fight the good fight. I guess I'll never truly know, but I'm confident they would be proud of every single one of us who raised our hands, recited that oath, and waved goodbye to family members as we loaded busses headed for war — just like they did.

I spent many days and late nights in the vehicle commander's seat of a 4X4 MRAP truck building overlays on my map, marking the IED hits, SAF locations, and crater positions for hours on end. I sat there, navigating our platoon all throughout our area of operations, while reflecting on the times I spent with my grandfather learning about C.F. running through a curtain of steel while fighting his way up the Norman beaches. Thinking about Byron maneuvering his tank in just the right way to survive in the throes of battle. Imagining Curtis on horseback, evading the Nazis while setting up communications.

And my great-grandfather in France fighting against some of the worst evil the world had seen.

I couldn't help but draw inspiration, motivation, and reasoning from my family's history while fighting my generation's war. They pushed me to excel and pursue becoming the type of American that might be somewhere ... anywhere near the caliber of men they were.

I will always admire my grandfather for teaching me and captivating me with these stories of giant men and women who made a real impact on the world with their actions, all while leaving an impact that resonated to my core, shaped my thought process, and guided me to where I am today. We stand on the shoulders of giants, becoming giants for our children and their children to climb.