Veteran's view: Being 'Marine green' leads to an unexpected journey
The Marine Corps is a funny breed, all its own. I first realized that when I arrived at boot camp in San Diego before my service in the Vietnam War. Our drill instructor pounded it into our heads that we were no longer white, black or Latino; we were Marine green. That was the only color we should care about, he said.
Approaching Veterans Day this year, I realized being "Marine green" was what led me on an unexpected journey to California, where I attended the funeral of a Marine who was a member of my unit, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. I'm here in the Golden State even though I had met Luis Palacios only a couple of times.
When my good friend Richard Camacho called me and told me that fragments of Luis' body had been found in Vietnam at the site of a horrific battle more than 40 years ago, in June 1968, and that his family and the Marine Corps were going to have a funeral, and would I like to come and stay at Richard's home in Camarillo, Calif., so we and others from the 1st Battalion could say goodbye not only to Luis but to all our brothers, I had to think about it a while.
After all, when Luis and 41 of our brothers were killed during those three days in June 1968, I had already been wounded and was at Great Lakes Hospital near Chicago. I certainly didn't know him the way I knew Richard, but Richard was one of Luis' closest friends.
The more I thought about whether to go, the more my drill instructor's words came back to me: "You are now all members of the mean, green fighting machine of Marines. A brotherhood. No one will care for you but each other."
So off I went to California, where I remained for yesterday's Marine Corps birthday and today's Veterans Day holiday. All after honoring one of our own.
Why was it so important to do so after 40 years? I think it's because I got to come home from my war. I got to have sons. And I got to have grandkids. I got to see them all grow. But guys like Luis Palacios didn't, and when I was at his funeral and met his family last week, I found out how much they missed those things in his life.
I also found out how much it meant to them that someone like me would spend the money and come so far to honor someone I barely knew. When they broke down and cried and held us Marines like we were members of their family, I knew I had done the right thing. I realized we really were members of a "big green family" -- and members of Luis' family.
At the visitation the night before the funeral, Luis' sister told one of the Marines accompanying the casket that she wanted it opened. The young Marine told her gently he couldn't do that because, "Ma'am, there are just remains in there." But she insisted, saying that after 40 years she wanted to make sure an empty casket hadn't been sent.
"OK, ma'am," the young Marine consented, opening the cover. Inside was a full Marine dress uniform with Luis' rank on the sleeve, a photo of Luis in his Marine uniform from 1967 and, tucked into the breast of the jacket, a large plastic bag with a hip bone, a couple of ribs, and a lower jaw bone with teeth. The military was able to use DNA from those remains to make a positive identification.
It was all Luis' sister needed to see. She was assured Luis was home.
At the reception after the funeral, I met the three sisters of another Marine, Felix Flores, who also died during that battle in 1968. They came hoping to meet someone who had known their brother. When they met me and five of my fellow Marines, we all had a good cry and a long talk.
I think we all left knowing we were family -- members of the big green family my drill instructor spoke about all those years ago.
BRAD BENNETT is a veteran of the Vietnam War and a native of West Duluth.