ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Last weekend my son, Chris and I, planted American flags next to the gravestones of our veterans buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Biddeford, Maine. This labor of love is a token of remembrance and respect. Many of those lucky veterans like myself made it back in one piece, others returned with broken minds or bodies to rebuild their lives as best they could. Memorial Day however is not about veterans, or sales or ball games or barbacues. It recognizes those that made the ultimate scarifice. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, they answered the call and like them paid a heavy price on behalf of their fellow citizens.
For many Americans, these men are nameless and unknown. We go about our daily lives fairly oblivious to what they endured in the hellish places we sent them to. Places that the average American can neither name or find on a map. As a Marine, I still see their bright young faces so full of life and dreams, faces that span a twenty two year career during war and a turbulent peace. As a father, I can only think about the inconsolable grief of parents for the many sons lost in the prime of their life. I remember the palpable gut-wrenching fear one feels in combat and the struggle to overcome that fear. To do your duty and above all not let down those by your side. I wonder about where they died and what their last moments were like. It is said that our souls leave our bodies when we die, setting out on the road to God, tarrying for awhile among the places and people we love. The words of the Orthodox funeral service come to mind: "O Lord give rest in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment where pain and sorrow and mourning have fled away." I pray that all of them have found such a place and live in the presence of their Maker.
Major John Macroglou was a Marine officer who was killed tragically in Beirut in 1983 when the building housing the battalion headquarters where he worked was blown up by a suicide bomber. He died along with over two hundred other Marines and sailors. I met John when we were junior officers stationed in Okinawa, years earlier. Although we were in different units I saw his name on a roster and noticed immediately his Greek family name. We hit it off right away. We were two wayward Greek-Americans far from home, sharing stories, food packages, and Greek music tapes. We would make jokes nobody could understand, teach our buddies choice Greek vocabulary words, and introduced them to the medicinal effects of ouzo. We were definitely a civilizing influence on our brother Marines. John was a consummate professional with a deep seated sense of duty who loved being a Marine. The last photo of him was taken on the rooftop of the Marine headquarters a few days before the Iranians destroyed it. His father Bill wrote to me recently and said: "John was a great son who loved his God and his country." A fitting epitaph.
Lance Corporal Dimitrios Gavriel joined the Corps after 9/11. The son of Greek immigrants, a champion high school wrestler and Brown University graduate, he walked away from a lucrative career on Wall Street to avenge friends killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Dimitrios volunteered to serve as an enlisted man, turning down a commission as an officer. He also volunteered to be a "grunt", an infantryman. He was wounded during the vicious fighting in the battle of Fallujah. Undeterred by his wounds he returned to his unit and was subsequently killed in an explosion a few days later. In the words of his father: "he put his life on the line when most of us would have run away. We lost a great kid."
Six feet tall, Nicholas Xiarhos was muscular and strong, but gentle at heart. After returning from service in Iraq, he changed battalions so he could deploy with his new unit to Afghanistan. “He didn’t feel comfortable living an easy life,” said his mother, Lisa. “He just wanted to fight.” Xiarhos, 21, of Yarmouth, Mass., was killed July 23 in a roadside bombing in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was a 2006 high school graduate and was assigned to Camp Lejeune. Paul Funk, Xiarhos’s high school football and baseball coach, remembered him as a motivated, selfless player. “I know he was doing something that he really believed in,” he said.
Tomorrow let us remember them and those still in harm's way. They are the only thing that stands between us and the evil that has always existed in our fallen world. A thin line of men, very much in the image of the Spartans at Thermopylae. These citizen-soldiers continue to defend us, to lay down there lives for us, in spite of ourselves. We owe them all so much, a debt we will never be able to repay.
Semper Fi, John, Nick and Dimitri, may the soil that covers your graves, rest lightly upon you.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."