Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Vacation

It started out as work/pleasure trip.
I had to fly from Singapore to Washington DC for a quarterly face to face meeting with my boss.
I had coupled that trip with a few, much deserved, days off before flying back over “the pond”. The idea of isolation, quiet, and “nothing to do” was something I was looking forward to.
A friend of mines’ family owns a beach house on the Carolina Outer Banks and assured me that we would have a great couple of days relaxing on the beach and soaking up the sun. The twelve bedroom, thirteen  bath house would be ours for the whole weekend.
Not only did the house have a private walkout onto the beach, but had a pool, hot tub (a rather useless thing in the Carolina hot, muggy days), and prior to his parents leaving, they stocked the place with food, beer, and liqueur. They knew the likes and dislikes of their Marine son, and wanted to leave the place perfect for him and his Marine buddies.
What started out as a few guys hang’n together ended up with a contingent of six active duty Marines, including myself, two Navy seals on medical leave, and another Marine pending a medical discharge.  
We left Washington on Friday afternoon, Rick picked me up from my last meeting near DuPont Circle. I figured we would be headed South on I 95, out of town. The rest of the guys were driving up from Camp Lejeune and were meeting us at the house. As we headed North on 355 I knew something was up.
We pulled up to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Rick explained to me that we were going to take a couple of guys who were convalescing along with us. Selfishly, I thought, “there goes my relaxing weekend”. Forty-five minutes later we were on our way to North Carolina with two wounded Navy Seals, John and Skip, and a Marine Special Forces GSgt,  Roger. John was on crutches and getting used to his new prosthetic leg from the knee down, Roger had both arms and hands bandaged up healing from burns and skin grafts, and Skip just needed time to heal from his fourth surgery to remove shrapnel from his back and abdomen. As the trip unfolded Rick and I heard the reasons for these guys being at Bethesda. Not to minimize their experiences, but Rick and I had heard or experienced ourselves similar stories from our several tours in Iraq.  Being all Special Forces types we bonded instantly and our friendship was cemented almost immediately. The mark we would leave on the beaches of Duck, North Carolina, and the impression that our fellow “tourists” left on us will last forever.

We pulled into the driveway at 12:15AM. The two other cars in the driveway told us that the guys from Lejeune were already there. They came out and helped us get the other guys and our luggage into the house. Cold beers were waiting for us and after a  few slaps on the back and a few handshakes we had all come together as the “unit”, as we came to name ourselves. We sat up till 5AM sharing stories and laughing our asses off and generally having a good time. The guys from Lejeune had all crashed and that left Rick and I to take care of the guys from Bethesda.
The nurses at the hospital gave us the bandages and medications, with detailed instructions, for dressing changes. Roger had trouble doing much of anything. Without the use of his hands I ended up lending him my hands for the most personal of tasks. Skip was having a hard time sleeping, he lost his closest friend in the action that landed him in the hospital, and still had nightmares. John was pretty much self-sufficient, but occasionally needed help getting around.
We ended up sleeping till two in the afternoon.

Communities like Duck are tourist enclaves. Every Saturday the houses are emptied out and a new batch of “city” dwellers descend upon the town. We were staying in a nice area...all the houses were multi-million dollar edifices designed for large extended families. Most had five to 15 bedrooms and the living quarters were on the third or fourth floor with the bedrooms below. Ricks’ parents had one of the nicer ones as they live there year round and their home is more that “income property”. We were “keeping an eye” on the place while they were visiting friends in New York City.

I took the car into town. Replenished our supply of beer. Bought a bushel basket of fresh seafood (raw oysters, blue crab, lobster, scallops and all the fixings). I also bought a large Marine Corps flag which we ended up hanging on the side of house. Upon my return, we settled down to a fantastic meal, washed down with large quantities of beer. After laying around for a bit, we decided to go to the beach. A couple of coolers of beer, a football, and, of course, our flag.
From the looks we got, I figured we made a pretty good first impression.... a Half-dozen plus studly well-built Marines in bathing suits and our recuperating warrior buddies. We set up a few chairs, planted the flag and horse-play and beer was the what followed. At some point we sat there watching the sunset from the wrong coast, but the Eastern sky still looks pretty as the sun sat over our backs. Then it started.

An older couple walking along the beach, probably in their 70’s approached us, he asked me about the flag...if we were Marines. Affirmative. He broke into a smile, gave us a OHHH RAAH and introduced himself, as a Vietnam Vet who served in the Marine Corps in 1966 thru 1969. Soon,  his wife gave us  a “good night” as her husband sat with us, had a few beers, and “talked shop”. He hung with us till the stars came out and said “he felt like he just came home” being around us. We all shared stories of our endeavors...some good, some bad... and we all grew a little closer as our “unit” seemed to grow by one.
Rick and I were the “caretakers” of the wounded. Rick took care of Skips bandages and helped John with his leg, I gave Roger his baths and got him dressed.

The next day we hit the beach early. Although Ricks’ parents had a beachfront home, the beaches are still public....we staked out a rather large spot....set up the chairs, blankets, coolers, and of course, our flag. By noon the beach was packed, Skip, John, and Roger, were having a good time...hell we all were. I actually spent a few hours working on my tan, reading and kicking back. We were attracting attention. Girls were hanging around. Rick had to take the guys aside, and give them “the talk”. Then the couple from the night before approached us, asked us if we had any plans for dinner. I responded that we really had no plans at all.....he and his wife invited us for dinner. They had a smaller place and thought it might be a good idea if they just brought all the food over to our place...Rick gave her the keys to the kitchen. We all had the best crab cakes any of us had ever had and settled into a nice relaxing evening.

The next day it was back to the beach.
All during the next few days people would approach us, ask us about our service, thank us for our service and some would tell us stories about their years in the service or their kid that was “over there”.
On the third day a guy about my own Dads’ age came up. asked us what we did, where we’d been...he talked with Roger and me for about 30 minutes before he mentioned that his son had died in Iraq. I asked him his son’s unit and where it happened. Turned out I was there about two days after his son’s death during my second tour to Iraq. . He had a few beers with us and we talked for about two hours. There were tears and laughter and something more....healing. That is when it struck me...that these people coming up to us, sharing their stories of their sons, brothers and in one case her husband, were bonding with their loved ones through us. And for Roger, Skip and  John it was a chance for these people to thank them for their was a chance for them to heal as well. and somehow, someway, attach meaning to the price they paid.

As the end of the week approached we bought no more beer and very little food. Our “neighbors” provided us our meals.
One day I watched a group of several mom’s and their daughters approach us. They carried plastic containers with a huge lunch for us...we had never talked to these people before...they just came out of the woodwork, marching up the beach with their offerings. They said they just wanted to do something nice and tears welled up in the Mom’s eyes as she gave  Roger a hug, laid  down the food, and walked away.
I was reminded of mass, when the gifts are brought up to the alter.
One of those nights, we went into town. ALL of us. A dance club with live music and a bunch of horny woman. Mostly cougar types. Most of the guys got lucky and from the sounds emanating from the house that night...I’m sure the neighbors got an earful...and so will Ricks’ parents. The part that really put a smile on my face was the gal I brought home that night. She was a cute 25 year old, down with a few friends from Maryland. After we finished our second romp, about 3AM she asked me about Roger. She was concerned that he didn't find anyone to bring home that night. That’s when I informed her that she could do me a really big favor.
An hour later she returned to bed and I showed her my gratitude once again for her gift to Roger.
The next day Roger was a new man, she could hardly walk, and everyone had a smile on their face.
Our last day was when I sorta looked back on my week of “relaxation”.
I had dutifully changed Rogers’ dressings twice a day, gave him a bath most days, and helped him get dressed and undressed everyday. One night I laid on the couch holding Skip like a baby while he tried to get through a tough nightmare and woke up all freaked out. I had listened to old vets tell their stories, and mom’s and sisters talk about their brothers and sons, and in one case hugged a father who cried at the memories of his boy lost in Iraq.
I had plenty of relaxation time as well. Hours in the baking sun, reading a novel under the shade of an umbrella, and “playing” with a bunch of the best guys I’ll ever know.
My week of relaxation turned into a week of reflection.
My quiet time turned into a time of bonding, camaraderie and caring
And I turned into a better Marine with a greater understanding of the human condition.

PS-We left the flag on Rick’s fathers’  house...hanging proudly as a marker.....”the US Marine Corps has been here”

Doc Spad