CAMP DWYER, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
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.
“Brother, as 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.”
‘To share one more firefight’ was the phrase that stuck. To hear the hell of combat described so intimately – who was this Sgt. Garrison, and who are these Marines with whom he served?
I described Herrera to the quiet Marine, who dutifully led me to the closest bunker. There, the midday sun half-lit the Marine nearest the entrance, who was speaking at a fierce half-whisper to another Marine in the shadows. The half-lit Marine with the fierce whisper identified himself as Herrera and agreed to the interviews as the bunker’s other occupant left along with the quiet Marine.
In the gloom of the bunker, Herrera required little coaxing. I asked him to describe Garrison, and the description was forthcoming.
Garrison, explained Herrera, was one of the ‘Old Breed.’
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.”
Inside 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.
The 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.”
Yet 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 form.
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 immortal.
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 between brothers-at-arms.
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 Marjah.
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 fiancé, Brittney Stephens; his sisters, Judith Rupp and Kim Knoll; and his brother, Jacob Garrison.