I've been in Iraq for three months and reported on a handful of memorial services. They never get any easier to cover, and I never want them to.
There's a misconception about Marines in mainstream media. They know we are trained to kill. They know our Marines die. Press agencies report the names, ages and hometowns. They clamor to the families' homes and get the quotes of the bereaved.
They make it in by deadline, and it's off to cover the next firefight.
What they miss is the humanity. That's what I've seen. That's what I've reportedů too many times.
After the fighting ceases and the adrenaline rush is over, the surviving Marines are left to mourn their losses and pick up the pieces. That means tending to wounds, cleaning weapons and refitting for combat. It's also the time to honor the fallen.
As a combat correspondent, it is my duty to tell the Marine Corps story - good and bad.
Many of my stories are less than hard-hitting news stories and border on "fluff." These stories are welcome breaks for deployed troops' family members and friends who spend much of their time watching civilian news networks' coverage of the killing that goes on here.
My stories help remind America that Marines are not the killing robots the media builds them up to be. They are human beings. They have names. They have friends. And they bleed and sometimes die.
Their names are printed and wire services up the body count. News agencies read their names, calling it "patriotic," reminding America of their sacrifices. It makes good headlines. It gives them a reason to sell their stories.
But what they don't see is the quiet dignity of their fellow Marines. They don't see how Marines honor their fallen, simply, without fanfare or chest thumping. These events are solemn, noble ceremonies for Marines who didn't die fighting for patriotism. They died fighting for each other.
First, the National Anthem is played followed by the chaplain's invocation. A close friend speaks about his relationship with the Marine. They are haunting words. Men this young shouldn't know these horrors, but they do. They know them without shame or pride, without boast or reservation. They know them so others may never understand.
Most of these Marines have seen Hell at an appallingly young age. Some were even there when their 19 and 20-year-old buddies were killed. Some might have held them as they died. Some might have known they couldn't help them in time.
These men don't try to hide their pain. No one does.
For that brief half-hour ceremony, no one is trying to prove anything.
Still, there are those few who look at my camera and me with contempt. They view these ceremonies as private affairs, something the outside world couldn't possibly understand. Anyone who hasn't lived through the horrors, who hasn't called their Marine "friend" and isn't silently honoring the sacrifice of their Marine is an outsider.
There's not much I can do to change their views of my fellow combat correspondents and me, so I go on about my business trying to go unnoticed.
All I can do for these Marines is make sure America knows the names of these Marines, so they are never forgotten.
They are quiet, somber and proud affairs, these memorials to Marines. The wounds are still raw. The emotions run high. Capturing it all takes a certain amount of connection and detachment all at the same time. Telling the world about the contribution of one Marine in a short news story is tough. Understanding that a life given for a cause greater than oneself is never easy.
I hope it never is.
© Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald
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