NEW ORLEANS --
My alarm rings on a Saturday at 10:36 am. The weekend begins, which normally brings me excitement, happiness and that feeling of liberty knowing that for two days I don’t have to worry about work, the time or any professional responsibility in general. This weekend however, was not a regular one, I will not spend most of my day relaxing by the pool and I will not lie down on my couch watching countless hours of movies and TV shows. This weekend, I am flying to Atlanta where I will wear my dress blue uniform and witness one of my brothers-in-arms laying still in a wooden box.
It has been a little longer than a week since the first time I found out about the terrible tragedy which occurred in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I remember exactly where I was and what I doing; in the gym, during my rest break between my last two bench sets, my phone rings and a message popped up. My sister texted me a link to a CNN article, the description read “4 Marines killed, 1 Sailor injured during shooting.” It is a painful irony to think my response to her at the time was a simple and indifferent “Yep.” I put my phone away and finished my work out.
It wasn’t until a few hours later, when one of my friends posted a message full of rage and sadness on Facebook, mentioning that Skip was one of the Marines killed in the shooting. I froze for a few seconds, I couldn’t believe it. I continued to read the same short message over and over again telling myself that it couldn’t be him, it had to be a morbid joke. However, within minutes, that single, shocking message began to multiply in my news feed, with declarations of love and hopelessness coming from many of my hometown friends.
From that day on, I couldn’t get Skip out of my mind. Mostly at night while lying in bed, the thought of the shooting would fill my head with philosophical questions. How could such a thing happen? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop that lunatic before it was too late? What should I do? What could I do? My mind was immediately possessed by rage and fantasies of me finding the monster responsible for such a cowardly attack and delivering pay back with an M16 in my hands. An eye for an eye never seemed so right until now.
After the storm of fury subsided, peace would settle my mind and positive thoughts would negotiate with the horrid reality engraved in my head. At least he died with a uniform on his body, our precious Eagle, Globe and Anchor upon his chest. With the pride and honor of being a Marine also come the risks and dangers, which all of us know about before we even step on those yellow footprints.
Every single television, computer and radio I saw was a constant reminder of the fact Skip was dead, and each time a different memory of him would resurface in my mind. I can’t remember exactly when we met for the first time. I think the earliest memories I have of him was of my first semester at Sprayberry High School in 2011 during Physical Education class. On the very first day, the teachers told us which students would be in the weight-lifting class and who would not. I remember the look on Skip’s face after he realized his name wasn’t one of the many called for the weight-lifting class. He had an empty stare of disappointment, and I knew that look. I had the same expression on my face as my name was not called for the class either.
But Skip and I would not accept defeat so easily. After a few days of seeing the students come and go from the weight room to the locker room, we decided to go talk to the teacher and request to be transferred to the weight-lifting class. At first he said no, but roughly ten minutes arguing with him, Skip and I finally convinced him to let us work out too.
I also remember the talk Skip and I had when he graduated from boot camp. He told me how proud and excited he was to finally join the Marine Corps. I also remember how that same conversation ended, with what would be the last words I ever told him, “welcome to the gun club, boot!”
I have had that memory playing in my mind over and over again as I inspected the uniform I would wear for his funeral, making sure every device on it was perfectly placed. An eighth of an inch by an eighth of an inch, everything had to be perfect. After I finally had my uniform ready and packed, I headed to the airport.
As the plane slowly began to move, I had a strange feeling in my stomach. I couldn't tell if it was the fact I was about to take off in a giant tube of metal, or the realization that it was actually happening, I was really flying more than 450 miles to go see him, but this time he wouldn’t have a smile on his face. He won't be talking trash about another team or bragging about himself, he will be simply dead.
I immediately began to imagine what he would look like; would his hair be freshly cut? What about his beard? Suddenly I began to picture his uniform, and I realized how difficult it would be to see only two ribbons and lance corporal chevrons on his blouse. So much room holding the possibility for more ribbons which would tell his story, of where he once was, what he had done and accomplished, the battles he had fought. Instead, there will be only those two lonely ribbons showing nothing else but the cruelty of this world in taking one of our own so early, who had so much potential and so many dreams.
Once again my alarm goes off in the next morning indicating that the day had finally come. As soon as I arrived at the church, an overwhelming feeling of admiration, pride and patriotism blew my mind as I saw hundreds upon hundreds of people outside the entrance holding American flags, showing their support and paying their respects to Skip’s family, as we all waited for the body to arrive. From unknown civilians to hundreds of motorcyclists, and from privates first class to a lieutenant general, they were all there waiting for Skip to arrive.
Shortly after, I see dozens of police cars and motorcycles with their blue and red lights flashing, in a very long parade as they escorted the cars carrying Skip’s casket and family to the church. It was amazing.
As the funeral detail began to unload the casket, every single service member slowly brought their hands to their foreheads in a proud but painful salute, as all the civilians had their hands over their hearts. Suddenly I had tears rolling down my face, but I couldn’t tell if they were tears of joy and pride for what I was witnessing or because Skip’s casket was five feet in front of me, held by a group of Marines and covered by an American flag.
During the ceremony, I saw many of my friends from Sprayberry High School, who couldn’t hold their tears as they cried desperately. It wasn’t until one of my old football teammates, JarekQ Aloisio, started speaking on stage about his friendship with Skip, how they were always together as best friends for half of their lives, that I realized Skip and I never hung out much. We never went to each other’s house, we never went out to have a cold beer and we weren’t best friends. When I started to think about the pain I had inside of me, I realized how insignificant it was compared to the dark abyss in which his mom, family and close friends must find themselves in.
After the ceremony we all headed to the cemetery. I couldn’t believe my eyes as we drove across the highway. The police had stopped all traffic so we could have a clear pass. At the same time, thousands of people were standing along the highway with American flags of all sizes, and with their hands over their hearts. I was happy to witness such a movement of solidarity and respect for one of my brothers-in-arms.
We arrived at the cemetery and the grass field by Skip’s casket was taken over by a beautiful display of veterans and civilians shoulder to shoulder holding American flags. As tradition holds, Skip had a proper Marine funeral. Marines performed a 21-gun salute, aiming their rifles over the casket in perfect synchronization and pulling the trigger, as every Marine slowly raised their hands in a salute. Shortly after, the bugler started to play Taps. Almost as if the world had stopped and not another sound aside from that melancholic melody existed, my eyes looked to the sky and in my mind I told Skip, “rest easy, brother. I will see you in Valhalla!”