Once you experience loss, you'll never forget the real reason behind Memorial Day

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMay 23, 2013 

It's hard not to be excited about a three-day weekend and the subsequent four-day week that follows Memorial Day.

The holiday is typically viewed as the gateway to summer, the ringing-in to that most sweaty time of year and a reminder that we won't see a 60- or 70-degree day in the forecast until at least October.

Given that, it's easy to forget why we celebrate Memorial Day. It's easy to forget, though many are laid to rest behind a brick wall on Boundary Street, that the holiday was created to honor the sacrifices made by those who gave, what President Abraham Lincoln described as, "the last full measure of devotion."

Yet, at this time every year, I'm reminded not of summer or of cookouts or the impending heat, but instead of the first funeral I ever covered as a reporter and Marine Capt. Garrett Lawton.

I had been The Beaufort Gazette's military reporter for about five months when, on Aug. 6, 2008, I received a briefly worded press release from the Defense Department saying Lawton, then 31 and a Beaufort native, had been killed two days earlier "while supporting combat operations" in the western Afghan province of Herat. Lawton's family later revealed to The Washington Post that his vehicle hit a makeshift bomb.

Military officials soon notified us that Lawton's funeral would be held a week later at the chapel at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, a base where, in 2003, Lawton was stationed with the Bengals of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 244, deployed to Al Asad, Iraq, and received his final promotion in rank.

His would be the first funeral I ever covered as a reporter and only the second I'd ever attended in my life.

And so, on a steamy August afternoon, myself, a photographer and two other media members were lead into the base's chapel, a minimally decorated, Cracker Jack box of a building, where we stood along a wall and looked out over rows of pews filled with uniformed Marines, sailors and their spouses.

Lawton's flag-draped coffin sat upon a bier in the front of the church and, though they would occasionally look away, the eyes of those Marines and sailors often returned to it and then to Lawton's widow, Trisha. The looks on their faces were knowing. This was the life they had chosen for themselves and their families -- the life of a warrior.

That coffin could just as easily be theirs. Trisha and her two young children, then 4 and 6, could just as easily be their families. And they knew it.

The service soon began, and Lawton's friends and family eulogized this bright, curious, funny, humble man who took seriously his responsibilities to his friends, to his family and to his Marines and country.

The service ended and Lawton's coffin was brought outside where the flag once covering it was folded and handed to his widow by a two-star general. I choked back tears as "Taps" was played by a lone bugler off in the distance and his former squadron performed a flyover in his honor. Then it was over.

I returned to the office, took off my suit jacket, loosened the knot of my tie and got to work trying to describe the pain of losing a man who had clearly been a hero, not just to his country and the men who served under him but to his family and friends.

But I couldn't get there.

My editor later complained I hadn't done enough to take the reader to the scene or describe the feelings felt by those who knew this extraordinary person but, try as I might, I just couldn't put that pain to the page.

I've never forgotten that feeling and every Memorial Day, I remember Garrett and Trisha Lawton, their two children and the thousands of others who have died with the flag of our country stitched to their shoulder and the families they left behind.

This week, in honor of Memorial Day, a playlist comprising songs about honor, duty and heroes.

  • Angus and Julia Stone, "Soldier" -- A little precious for my taste but pretty enough.

  • Rise Against, "Hero of War" -- A little too Toby Keith-y but the message is there.

  • College & Electric Youth, "A Real Hero" -- One of my favorite songs from the grossly underrated "Drive" soundtrack.

  • Wilco, "War on war" -- One of those songs that reminds you why Wilco is so great and so beloved.

  • The Raconteurs, "Broken Boy Soldier" -- A song that makes me wish this band would make another record.

  • Regina Spektor, "Hero" -- Just a simple and gorgeous song.

  • Foo Fighters, "My Hero" -- Kind of an obligatory song on a playlist like this.

  • Tom Petty, "I Won't Back Down" -- A song that best seems to sum up the unbelievable spirit of our servicemen and women.

  • Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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