Chapter 3 – Old Goats

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Mike pushed the Styrofoam box away. The half-eaten breakfast inside it had long since grown cold. Food was not his priority this morning. The package would probably have tasted better than the pancakes inside it.  Mike looked at the time on his phone once more. It was almost seven. Doing the math quickly in his head, he dialed the number in Washington, DC.

“Congresswoman Martin’s office,” answered a female voice on the third ring.

“May I speak with the Congresswoman, please?”

“I’m sorry, but the Congresswoman is on the House floor this morning. May I take a message?”

Mike cursed under his breath. He had been trying to reach the woman for the past week, and he felt his control slipping. He did not expect parades or confetti, but he was not going to tolerate the callous way this woman was avoiding his calls. His request was not that extraordinary. Hundreds of similar requests had been granted. It was the least that Manny deserved.

Mike felt the restraint that he had learned over the past twenty years disintegrating. The discipline that he had bragged about to Tia Manuela deserted him then. Gone was the trained Marine. In his place was the angry young man that he had once been.

“This is Master Sergeant Michael O’Malley, US Marine Corps retired. I’m trying to reach her regarding the posthumous granting of citizenship for a young Marine whose family lives in her district. I’ve called several times and sent emails.”

“I realize that the death of another Mexican soldier in Afghanistan might not rate that high in the Congresswoman’s legislative agenda, but the least the woman could do is return my god-damned calls. Perhaps my next call should be to a Spanish language television station?”

The phone was silent for several heartbeats. Then another voice came on the line. “Sergeant, this is Travis Mason. I’m Congresswoman Martin’s constituent officer. I am sorry for the delays getting back to you. Unfortunately, these things are not always quick. I can assure you that the matter is being handled, though.”

“That is Master Sergeant,” Mike replied a bit sharply. While he could tolerate it from civilians like the Hernandezes, it seemed disrespectful from a man in such a position. “Yeah, well today is Manny’s funeral. I had hoped to be able to give his family something more than just the flag of a foreign country.”

Mike fought his anger and barely remained civil to another ill-informed government official. “Mr. Mason, I don’t know if you have ever been in the military or seen what is happening in Afghanistan, but that young man spent almost a year battling the heat, the cold, a population that does not want us there, as well as the god-damned insurgents that blew his brains out. All for a country that he was not even a citizen of. This is the least that country can do to show its gratitude.”

“Hold on a minute, Master Sergeant,” the man emphasized his proper title as the line went dead. Classical music blared in his ears as he waited for he knew not what. The booming echoed in his head. He was so tired he was unable to think. His mind a complete blank. Which at the moment was probably a blessing.

Finally, the man came back on the line. “Master Sergeant, I truly am sorry, but these things take some time. Not even Congresswoman Martin can do much to speed the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.”

“But I have spoken with our Los Angeles office, and the Congresswoman will issue a Certificate of Recognition, honoring Corporal Manuel Hernandez’s service to the United States. We will have our local representative there by three today.”

Mike’s shoulders slumped. It was not the news that he had hoped to bring the grieving family, but it would have to do, he supposed. “Thank you, Sir.”

“The Congresswoman has a strong record of supporting our troops. We will keep you informed of any progress on the other matter, Master Sergeant,” came the terse reply.

Mike shook his head as he checked the notes on his phone. He still had to find a dry cleaner and have his dress uniform pressed, but there was plenty of time for that. The funeral was not until thirteen hundred. One o’clock, he corrected himself.

Mike had not slept well. The dreams had returned. Young faces were laughing and joking. The smell of smoke, bombs, and blood clung to his memory like a second skin. It was always the same, but they had been getting more frequent lately. These days, Mike had the dreams almost every night.

Logically, he knew he should talk to someone. Maybe even have the doctors at the Veterans Hospital here look him over. But the truth was, what could they do? Hell, what did they even know about what life was like out there? Let alone the death and pain that Mike could not seem to shake.

No. Mike felt that his plan offered as much promise as anything the doctors could offer. A few months, a couple of years, it did not matter how long it took or where he went. Mike was just going to wander the country that he had served since he was eighteen. Visit a few of the men and women he had served with. Check and see how they were doing. Help in any way he could. And in cases like Manny’s, offer what comfort he could to the families. Not that that was going too well right now.

Mike ran his fingers through his hair, what little there was of it anyway. Hell, he might even let it grow. Maybe not long like Luke’s, but it had been almost twenty-three years since it was longer than regulation. Of course, it was no longer the deep brown curls that he had watched disappear as a young man, joining the growing pile of locks on the shiny floor.

He had stared at the inches and inches of hair that collected around the barber’s chair at Parris Island. Straight blond from the surfer dude. The coarse, tight black curls from the guy that looked a bit like Michael Jackson. His own soft brown curls. Even the bright red of the farm boy from Oklahoma, who was to become his best friend during those long weeks of boot camp.

No, these days, there was more gray than brown in Mike’s hair. He supposed in the grand scheme of things, a few gray hairs were not that much to pay for a lifetime. Gray hair was not something that Manny Hernandez would have to worry about.

This was getting him nowhere. Any more than another sleepless night had. Reaching for his duffle bag, he took out a t-shirt and pulled it over his head. There was no need to change the loose sweat pants that he had slept in. Adding socks and his sneakers, Mike was ready for a run.

But where did you go running in a big city like Los Angeles? Grabbing his phone, Mike quickly had a plan. There was a bike and jogging trail along the cement river that served to drain stormwater from the city to the ocean. It might not be fancy, but it would do. A far sight better than some of the places that Mike had jogged over the years.

His first day of retirement began to take shape. Drop uniform at the dry cleaners. Take a run to clear head. Pick up uniform. Go to funeral. But that left another long evening and night ahead. He could not manage another sleepless night, so he added one final item to his schedule. Get so drunk I pass out.


The sun glared off Esther as Mike pulled into the Hernandez’s driveway. He was slightly refreshed from his run and shower. He had barely turned off the engine and lowered the kickstand when Lupe rushed through the door.

Her broad smile was a stark contrast to the somber occasion. “Sergeant Mike, we’ve been waiting for you.”

Mike nodded as he pulled the plastic bag that contained his dress uniform from a compartment on his bike. “Hola, Lupe.”

“Mama and Papa are in the living room. Mama Nona just arrived from Mexico with Tío Alberto,” the girl rattled on as if Mike knew everyone, although the names were vaguely familiar.

He searched his memories of familial stories that Manny had shared with the group. He and Tommy had always entertained the others with their stories. For someone without a family of his own, Mike had found their tales refreshing. He wondered who was entertaining the others now. 

“Mama Nona?” he finally asked.

“Si, she is Papa’s Abuela. My father’s grandmother. We would visit her near Hermosillo every summer. But she has never been to Los Estados Unidos, to America,” the girl was so excited that she switched back and forth between English and Spanish.

Mike smiled as his mind made the connection. Goats. His men had been shocked to discover that goats were the primary source of meat in Afghanistan. Coming from a country where beef, chicken, and pork were the limited selection, they had found the smell of the roasting delicacy particularly pungent. Manny had told everyone about the summer he spent with his great-grandmother. She raised goats, and there was always a big pot of goat stew on her stove.

“Yes. Mama Nona.” He nodded as the girl dragged him across the yard, up the steps, and through the front door. He squinted as his eyes attempted to adjust to the dim light inside.

Looking around, he spotted her immediately. She was a large woman. Her dark dress was simple, with a zipper running up the front. Her legs were covered in thick hose, and her feet overflowed the floral slippers that they were stuffed into. Her almost white hair curled about her face. Her bright red lips were distinctly out of place with the rest of her appearance.

“Mama Nona, les presento a Sergeant Mike. Él es el amigo de Manny,” the girl beamed.

The older woman studied him for a moment as if taking his measure. Then she smiled and nodded as if he had passed an inspection of some sort.

Mike crossed the room and knelt beside the chair. He knew that his Spanish was inadequate to express his feelings to the woman. Hell, his English was not that good either.  But he could try.

“Manny was a good man,” he began. “He told us all about you. About how much he loved spending summers with you. About your goats. There were lots of goats where we were, and they reminded him of his Mama Nona.”

The woman nodded her head as Lupe translated his words. When she was done, he could see the tears glistening in the elderly woman’s eyes. Mike was shocked to discover they were not brown like Manny’s or the rest of the family, but a hazy blue like his own. Then he remembered that Manny had explained that his grandmother was Castellan, a mix between high born Mexican ancestors and German settlers after the World War.

“Gracias,” the woman whispered.

Mike stood up. He was not sure what to say or do then. The woman’s stare reminded him of the great robed men that he had met when his mother dragged him to church as a boy. They seemed to look into your soul. And, as always, Mike felt his was somehow lacking.

Lupe stepped forward. “Do you need someplace to change?” she indicated the plastic bag.

“Yes, please.”

“Mama and Papa must be getting ready in their room. And Maria is probably hiding in ours. The bathroom always has someone in it. But you could change in Manny’s room, I suppose.”

Mike followed her down the corridor once more, stopping this time at one of the first doors. She opened it and stood back.

“They said that the cars would be here in a few minutes.”

“I won’t be long.” Mike had more than enough years of practice donning his uniform. Placing the insignia and medals did not take as long as people thought.

She nodded as she left him alone in the room. Mike was not certain what he expected, but this room showed no real sign of belonging to anyone. The neatly made-up bed was covered in a dark blue blanket. The walls were a drab grey and held only a couple of paintings. Saints, he supposed.

Only the dresser that sat against one wall held any personal mementos at all. On it was half a dozen frames. A collage of Manny’s life. His high school graduation with his parents and sisters beaming proudly. The official-looking photograph of him in his dress uniform. The one that would accompany any announcement of his death. The one that all Marines had.

But it was the one at the back that caught Mike’s eye. The young blonde girl in the hospital gown leaned against Manny’s shoulder as she smiled lovingly at the tiny red bundle in her arms. Rachel. Mike wondered if she would be here today.

She had not written or spoken to Manny since before he joined Mike’s troop in Afghanistan. Mike had only learned about her when he helped Manny fill out the paperwork for his next of kin and insurance. He knew that the girl would have been informed along with Manny’s parents. But that did not mean she would come, or bring Manny’s son. Mike put the gold frame back and began to change clothes. Like everything else in life, he supposed only time would tell.

As he had told Lupe, it took him less than five minutes to change. He stared at his reflection in the mirror, which hung over the dresser. The hair might be grayer. There were more lines around the eyes and mouth. But Mike could not help but recognize the man that stared back at him. The Marine. He brought up his hand in a salute. A final farewell to this part of himself. With one last pause, he turned and opened the door.

“Madre de Dios,” cried Manny’s mother as she saw him come from her son’s room. She made the sign of the cross as her husband joined her, wrapping his arms about her.

“I am sorry, Sergeant Mike. We did not know you were here yet,” explained the man.

Mike shook his head, “No, Señor Hernandez. It is I that am sorry. Lupe told me to change in there. I did not mean to cause your wife any alarm.”

“I suppose seeing you, the uniform, coming from Manny’s room. It was just not what Guadalupe expected.”

“Lo siento,” Mike addressed the woman, who just nodded as she twisted the tissue once more.

He followed the couple back into the living room. It was filled now with dozens of people. Lupe was standing with an older man in a black suit. His hair was combed back, not one strand out of place. Mike shivered at the sight of the mortician.

“Papa, Señor Flores says that the cars are ready now. We should get going if we are going to make it to the church on time.”

“Of course,” said the man as he drew his wife further into his arms. The mortician nodded and motioned for everyone to follow him. Mike stood to the side as everyone exited the door and down the steps.

Three long black limousines were sitting by the curb in front of the house. Eight or nine young men and women climbed into the last one. A half dozen older people folded themselves into the middle one. Only Mama Nona, the Hernandezes, Lupe, and another younger girl remained standing in the yard with Mike. He turned towards his bike, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. 

“Would you like to ride with us, Sergeant Mike?” asked Manny’s mother.

Mike froze at the quiet words. Though heavily accented, it was the first time the woman had spoken to him. He nodded and followed her to the vehicle. He helped Señor Hernandez get his grandmother inside first. Then Señora Hernandez and their daughters. Finally, the two men were alone.

“Thank you, Sergeant. I know that this cannot be easy for you. But you being here, it means a lot to my wife and me. It is good to know that Manny had friends over there. People that cared about him. Gracias.”

Mike put his hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezed softly. “No, sir. Thank you and your wife. You raised a fine young man. I just wish that we had met some other way. I wish…” Mike’s word hung unspoken.

The man nodded. Understanding precisely what Mike meant. Both men sighed as they turned back to the waiting car and a very long day that neither wanted to face.

The ride to the church seemed to take forever. Señora Hernandez clung to her husband and cried softly. Lupe sat on the other side of her mother and squeezed her hand. Mike was wedged between Mama Nona and Maria. Each stared out the window in silence.

Mike searched his memory for something to say. Something about Manny that would bring comfort to them.

“Maria, Manny told me that it is your birthday soon.”

Señora Hernandez sobbed. Her husband squeezed her hand harder. “Maria will be fifteen. It was to be her quinceañera on Friday. But now…”

It was the younger girl who sobbed then, turning away from the window to look at her father. “But Papa,” she began. “It is all planned. The hall is rented. The invitations were sent. My dress is almost done.”

“Si, Maria, but without Manny, who will be your escort? It just is not right. Perhaps in a few weeks.”

“It won’t be my birthday in a few weeks.” She pouted as she turned silently back to the window.

Mike felt worse than before. Clearly, he had stepped into a family dispute. But he knew this was not what Manny would have wanted.

“Señor Hernandez, I know things are hard right now, but Manny would not want Maria’s party canceled. Is there any way?”

“See, Papa. Sergeant Mike knows.” It was Lupe who spoke up on her sister’s behalf.

The car stopped. Mike looked out the window at the large stone and stained-glass edifice rising above them. A crowd of people was gathering on its steps already.

“We will talk about it later,” said the man as he wrapped his arms about his wife.

The door opened, and light streamed into the car. Mike got out first and helped the mortician to assist the women from the vehicle. It took both of them to manage Mama Nona’s bulk. Señor Hernandez insisted on helping his wife alone.

The mortician directed Mike to the long black hearse waiting in front of the car. A few young men stood around it, chatting softly. “You should join them.”

Mike nodded and walked over. He immediately recognized Hector, Manny’s young cousin, from the night before. The boy grabbed his hand and shook it. He started to introduce Mike to the others when the mortician came over. He opened the back of the black vehicle. Sunlight glittered off the silver casket.

Mike’s throat tightened to the point that he was not sure he could breathe. Manny was inside that thing. Manny, who had, along with Tommy, been comic relief for his whole company. Manny, whose laugh could be heard throughout the camp. Manny, who was seldom without a smile.

A thousand thoughts raced through Mike’s mind. But only one stuck. Why? Why not him? He was not like Manny, Tommy, or Billy. No one would miss him. No one would mourn his passing. No big funeral. No tears. The unfairness of war and life hit him like a sucker punch to his gut as the man slid the casket forward.

Hector elbowed him and motioned for them to step forward, taking the handles from the somber man. It felt heavier than any pack that Mike had ever carried. It weighed upon him. All of it. Over twenty years. All the friends. The lost lives. Unfulfilled dreams.

All of it centered in this shiny box that weighed far more than it should. A weight that Mike bore with honor, just as he had accepted the weight of his duty. Duty that had put Manny inside this cold, dark box. The decisions he made had cost lives…or saved them, but he did not remember those at that moment.

The man motioned for them to lift the box to their shoulders. Like the Marine he was, Mike followed the order. With the others, he put one foot in front of the other. Marching. He had spent a lifetime marching to the edicts of others. Leading men and women like Manny on patrols where marching could turn into something far more dangerous. Just as it had that night.

It had begun normal enough. Their platoon had patrols in the village where they were staying. It was something they were doing less and less often as they focused more on training the Afghan army these days. This night, it was one of their most holy times, Eid al-Adha. So, he and his men were taking a few more patrols.

There were few windows in the unadorned buildings, and most of the doors were shut. Light shone out from under only a couple of doorways. The barking of a dog tied up under a tree was the only sound to break the cool night air. Scalding hot days and desert nights that bordered on freezing were standard in this region of the country that sat at the foothills of the mountains.

Over the past weeks, Mike had asked himself over and over again, perhaps a million times, had he missed something? Was there some sign of what was to come? Was the dog barking, not out of hunger or howling at the moon, but because of the movement of men on the rooftops? Should he have known the difference somehow?

That night, it was not a single boom of another IED or smoke that filled the air. It was instead the rapid-fire of semi-automatic weapons. He and his men ducked into doorways. Hid behind a cart here or there. Found whatever cover they could.

It had taken them a couple of minutes to figure out where the fire was coming from. And a couple more to do a headcount. Someone was missing. Manny Hernandez was not accounted for. Mike went searching on his hands and knees for him. The others fired back at shadows that they could not see even with night vision goggles. Someone called for help, reinforcements were on the way, as was a medical team.

Mike found him. Found Manny slumped in a doorway of the last building where they were when the gunfire started. He was gone already. A bullet had shattered his face, taking much of his lower jaw with it. The smile that Mike had come to know as Manny was gone forever. Mike had stayed with him, commanding the others from where he was.

They managed to pin down the location of the gunmen on top of the house across the way. The SEAL extraction team was at least half an hour away. A half an hour, they did not have. Mike had ordered an assault on the house, a risky move if there were explosives inside, but it beat the hell out of sitting out here and being picked off one by one. Another of his men had been injured, taken a bullet to his thigh. Thanks to the first aid training that was now as standard as how to clean and load your weapon, he had made it.

The three young gunmen on the roof were not so lucky. When Mike stood over the bodies, he could only shake his head in sadness. If Manny had been young, these guys were little more than children. They did not even have a hint of the facial hair that was a sign of holiness for these people.

The sound of someone clearing their throat brought Mike out of his memory. Hector frowned at him and motioned for them to lower the shiny box onto the stand in front of the church. Mike shook his head to clear it as he followed the young man’s lead back down the aisle to a hard-wooden bench.

The priest stood and led the group in prayer. Mike felt every muscle in his body tighten. Prayers and gods were not at the top of his list. What help had god been to Manny? Or even to those boys that had killed him? How many wars, this one included, had been fought in the name of gods? But it was not the gods that suffered, but the fragile humans who fought in their names. Mike let out the breath he had been holding as the man, and all those around him said ‘Amen.’ 

This day was about honoring a young man who had served his country, and his fellow Marines, with dignity. And it was his country, no matter what a piece of paper might or might not say. Manuel Hernandez had been one of the finest Americans Mike had ever known. 

Mike sat stiffly as the man droned on and on about the will of god and the sacrifices of man. Mike fought back the urge to shout, “What do you know of sacrifice?” to the old man who spoke in a cracking voice.

Instead, Mike focused upon the flag-draped box. Its silver peeked beneath the sides of Old Glory. Mike knew that Manny was not really in there. Not the laughing, smiling, joking young man he had known anyway. What was in that box was the same empty flesh that Mike had found that night in the doorway. Cold. Still. A shell. Just like an empty conch shell that you saw upon a beach. Only the echo of life’s oceans could be heard.

Mike sat ramrod straight as the man continued. In his own way, he became a shell. His mind far away. Dry deserts. Green jungles. Misty mountains. Lands so far from this place that the people around him would probably not even be able to find them on a map. Iraq, Kenya, Kosovo, Afghanistan. They echoed like the six o’clock news, but few knew where or what they were. Hell, he had spent his lifetime in those places, and he barely understood the depths of poverty, injustice, and rage that erupted in war for each of them.

What he did know was that the people in this church and on the streets outside counted on him and Manny, and hundreds of thousands like them to keep those conflicts so distant that they could go on with their lives in peace. That’s what they did every single day. And looking around the room at the sea of faces: some light, some dark, all somber, Mike knew that it was worth it.

America was not perfect. There was poverty. People were losing their jobs while fat cat bankers made multi-million-dollar bonuses. Hector caught his eye. Mothers might even have to worry about stray bullets killing their babies. Gangs. He knew too the high price that racism, homophobia, and misogyny had exacted throughout its history. He had learned early that not all men were created equal, or at least not given the same opportunities.

But that was not just an American problem. It was a human one. Even his tours on embassy duty in places like England and Germany, he had never seen true ‘equality.’ Did such a thing even exist in this world?  

No, what made this country different was the American Spirit. While that was strained by politics, economic downturns, environmental issues, and protests that sometimes turned violent, it was alive and well in the faces of these people, even as they wept and mourned. It was at moments like this – when it seemed that all hope was lost, that spirit shone brightest.

It had nothing to do with political parties, politicians, or celebrities. It was about people like these, the common man and woman. It was the hope that tomorrow things would be better. That their children would have and be the things that they never could. And that was worth it all.

America might never have lived up to the words on that old piece of paper. The very fact that from the beginning ‘all men’ had meant only white men, but especially rich white men, did not mean that one day she still could not ‘hold those truths to be self-evident.’

Even if there was no ‘again.’ That did not tarnish ideals or the dream that one day, someday America might grow into them, might become more than she had ever been. Might live up to those incredibly high standards of justice and equality. That she might one become great.

That was the hope and dream that men like him, Manny, Tommy, Billy, and hundreds of thousands of others held onto during those long, dangerous patrols when they all knew that bullets with their names might ring out from rooftops and steal it all away. That was what they all fought to preserve, not some rich, white man’s oil robbed from the brown people in whose country it was found. And indeed, not some loud-mouthed idiot who had lied, cheated, and abused the constitution for his gain.

No politicians, governments, courts, and people may fail to live up to those ideals they professed, but that did not negate them. Their failings could never erase the dreams of millions like the Hernandezes or Tommy, who still believed that for all her faults, this country, America, had the potential to one day become that land of opportunity she was meant to be.   

Mike rose with the others, as their voices sang out as one. The song unfamiliar, but the sentiment was shared. When the song ended, they knelt once more.

Mike felt the twinge in his knees. He was getting too old for this shit. It was why he had decided to retire. When the lives of your friends rested upon your shoulders, when even a moment’s hesitation could cost someone their lives, there was no place for knees that hurt so badly you could hardly walk each morning. Or shoulders that ached from the weight of a pack. It had been time. Tommy and Manny were just reminders of that.

The man proclaimed ‘amen’ once more. Let it be. The end. Mike, that little boy, remembered that from all those decades ago when his mother had dragged him to a place just like this one.

With the others, Mike made it back to the front of the church. They lined up around that flag-draped box, and, on the man’s signal, they lifted it once more to their shoulders. Slowly they walked back the way that they had come.

But this time, Mike studied the faces around them. Manny’s family filled the first row. His mother’s eyes swollen and red as she fumbled with that tissue. Were Señor Hernandez’s shoulders stooped a bit more? A lifetime of mowing rich, white people’s lawns, cutting hedges, and now this. His greatest hope, his only son, was mowed down before he even had time to bloom. The girls flanked their parents. Even Lupe was quiet. And the bulk of Mama Nona. Her head bowed in prayer.

There were rows and rows of other faces too. A couple Mike recognized from photographs that Manny had hung in his tent. Young men that had been his friends in high school.

But she was not there. Rachel. The young woman who had been Manny’s first love. His only love. Neither was the little boy that was Manny’s legacy.

Mike slowed as he approached the back of the church. On the last row sat a tattered group, out of place with the rest of this congregation. Old men, much older than Mike even. To a man, they wore the freshly pressed and decorated uniform of the US Marine Corps. Some dated, of course. Half a dozen of them.

But one stood head and shoulders above the others. A great bear of a man. His grey hair and freshly shaved face looked vaguely familiar to Mike, but he could not place it as they marched out of the church into the bright Southern California sunshine.

The door to the hearse was open, and they slid the casket back inside. The slamming of that door echoed in Mike’s mind like an IED.

He stood off to the side and waited as people began to mill slowly out of the church. The Hernandez family came first and stood with the priest on the top step. Then the rest of the packed church came one by one to greet the family and offer what comfort they could.

The band of brothers that Mike had noticed was among the first out. They stopped and gripped Señor Hernandez’s hand firmly. They nodded to Señora Hernandez and the other women. Then they strode down the church steps.

The eldest of the group wore the distinct uniform of an officer. A Colonel. He leaned upon a walking stick, but still, he stood tall. A Marine to the core. Mike’s eyes again centered upon the larger man. He shuffled through over twenty years of memories trying in vain to place him. The group approached him. And the large man spoke.

“How’s Esther?”

Mike’s eyes grew wide with recognition. “She’s as perfect as her namesake.”

“Glad to hear it, Master Sergeant. This where you were off to in such a hurry yesterday?”

Mike nodded, “Manny was one of mine.”

“One of ours,” the oldest man said in a voice gruff from too many years and too many cigarettes.

“Yes, Sir,” Mike saluted. Turning back to what had been the long-haired biker who sold him his motorcycle, he asked, “So what brings you here?”

The man looked at the ground and blushed a bit. “We make a habit of it. The group of us attend all the Marine funerals around these parts. Show our respect.”

Mike nodded as he studied the group. Only one of them was anywhere near his age. A black man in a Corporal’s uniform. He looked to be a few years older than Mike’s forty-one, but not much.

Most of the group were in their sixties. Vietnam veterans, Mike guessed. Guys for whom returning home had brought more pain. Guys, whom this country had shown anything except the respect they deserved. Guys who were still suffering in the pain of that abandonment.

Of course, the Colonel was older still. A man clearly in his seventh decade upon this earth. Perhaps more. He represented another time. Some illusion that war was some honorable rite of passage through which most young men passed.

Mike smiled – a motley crew for sure. But one of which he was proud to count himself.

The bear spoke again. “We usually get together for a drink afterward. You’re welcome to join us.” He gave Mike the name and address of a bar before he led the others off to waiting cars.

The Hernandezes were coming down the steps now. Most of the other people were already in their vehicles, awaiting the drive to the cemetery. Mike followed behind them as they climbed into the limousine.

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