Letter to a Former AP Colleague — Now a Marine Captain in Iraq

By: Dennis Anderson

To: Capt. Jeffrey T. Wong, USMCR. RE: American Holiday Weekend

Dear Jeff,

As I write this early in the p.m. on July 4, 2008, in Southern California, for you in Baghdad, it is already July 5, and if it’s the middle of the night, it may have cooled down into the 90s, if memory serves.

Since you are executive officer “X.O.” of a Marine infantry company, I imagine radios amd laptop computers are squawking, humming and clicking. I smell canvas, sweat-stained cammie utilities, and imagine warm sodas and cold, stale coffee. Since it is July, even with air conditioning, there is also everpresent 120-degrees heat come daylight.

Jeff, this is your third tour. You have gone where the orders sent you. As is the motto of your unique organization, you have not parrotted “Semper Fidelis,” you have lived it. You might have kept the nice job at IBM or done something with that postgraduate degree, but here you are.

This morning, for the 4th of July, Marie and I went to the second annual 4th of July pancake breakfast at Lancaster Cemetery. You’ve been to a couple of events out in the Antelope Valley, a Jethawks baseball game, and Elks Lodge roast. You know how we do it here. Old-fashioned and real American. It’s a fundraiser for a veteran’s memorial.

We have veterans all the way back to the Civil War, resting beneath our shady trees. We have live ones, too.
The cemetery pancake breakfast in a beautiful park-like setting was presided over by former Lancaster Mayor Barbara Little who gathered children from the Antelope Valley Church Children’s Choir to sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and also “God Bless America,” and somehow, just as significant, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Cemetery trustee Dave Owens read the “Declaration of Independence.” As he put it, “It’s still a radical document.”

The cemetery pancake feed was peppered with honored guests, “Greatest Generation” veterans like Pearl Harbor survivor Remo Cuniberti and POW-MIA Jim Hildreth. Navy man Hildreth survived 1,220 days, or 29,228 hours before he emerged from a Japanese POW camp outside Tokyo, with B-29s flying over, wagging wings and dropping meals.
Hildreth handed over what he wrote: “Over the years after World War II I was asked many times, ‘What kept you going?’ “My answer was, ‘I didn’t want to hurt my mother and father,’ and there was always that dream of that girl back home.”

Jeff, I know how much your father and mother would rather that you had chosen an easier, less dangerous path. They represent authentic American immigrant success and citizenship. With the USC “Trojan” education, and a running start at The Associated Press, by now, instead of executive officer, you would have been somebody’s top executive, or congressional staffer.

Instead, you chose the Marine Corps, receiving your commission less a year after 9/11. What did that OCS commandant ask you? Something like, “You were in the Associated Press? Why did you join the Marines?”
Your answer, I recall, was, “Sir, this Marine would rather make history than write about it!”

And in the seven years since Sept. 11, 2001, that is exactly what you and all your comrades in all of our armed services have been doing. Like Jim Hildreth, I bet you dream about that girl back home.

Ten years ago we worked in what we called “the AP trenches,” and that was a metaphor. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan are not fought in trenches, but for anyone who has been there, serving “in the trenches” is not a metaphor.

Our time that we shared at AP, we phoned, chased and edited stories all night long. Sometimes big ones. Riot, earthquake and O.J. Sometimes, my then-little boy Garrett, waited in the AP research library, watching “Xena: Warrior Princess.” You were like his big brother then. You were my brother then, and you are my brother now.

That is the distant past. Since then you are three tours in, Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion phase; Afghanistan, and now, Iraq again.

The little boy became your brother-in-arms. You’ve both sucked in a lot of desert, dodged fire, bullets and bombs, both hiked the high pass in Afghanistan with your infantry brothers, both gained and lost friends you will never forget.

For any of us who went to the desert, for all the reasons we believed that we had to go, I know we think about it. Anyone with injuries from these wars, external or internal, thinks about it. And thinks about it all the time.

At our cemetery picnic Friday, there was a Gold Star mother, Nancy Walker, mother of Staff Sgt. Allan Kendall Walker, killed in April 2004 in the first round of pitched fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah. Nancy has hated the war, and loved the warriors. Allan Walker, the first killed in action from our community, was the oldest Marine killed in the ambush of Echo 2/4 in the Ramadi marketplace. He was 28. Hard to believe it was four years ago.

Antelope Valley has the honor of being home to Army armor cavalry trooper Jerral Hancock. He lost his left arm above the shoulder and is paralyzed, with small use of his surviving hand. He was cut to pieces and burned in his M-1 Abrams tank on Memorial Day 2007 in Baghdad.

Explosively formed penetrator. That was his 21st birthday. He is 22 now, and tough as a two-dollar steak.

As his mother, Stacie Tscherny relates, some places in town — like Juanito’s restaurant — provide excellent service when Jerral shows up in a wheelchair the size of a dune buggy. His companion often is his stepdad, Dirrick Tscherny.

But last week, at an athletic shoe store, with wheelchair batteries run down, the store kid clerk-and-jerk refused this disabled veteran an electrical outlet to get his chair recharged. It’s an outrage, and yes, there ought to be a law.

When Jerral moves around in town, my suggestion is they get him a shirt with a Purple Heart the size of the big red “S” on Superman’s shirt. Except then you would have to educate all the clerks and jerks of the world on the Jeopardy question: “What is a Purple Heart?” Believe it or not, plenty of the clueless have no idea. We have too many clueless.

An Independence Day “Christmas in July” present would be for Congress and the White House to meet all obligations to returning veterans, and for the American people to insist those obligations be honored over time.
All in all, with your Marine brother Garrett off for fireworks and a barbecue with his sister, Grace, with the blessings of liberty, we have to say this is a pretty good 4th of July in America. The problems of economy and politics are here. If we get it right, the problems of economy and politics will be here for a long while.

Here is hope that the 4th of July in Baghdad was decent enough ,and that your losses do not mount any more than they already have. Because of you and yours in the long line of service that has sustained itself since July 4, 1776, we have this holiday, and the time and liberty to enjoy it.

Thank you, each and every one. Simple thanks aren’t enough, but it’s all that can be stuffed into a letter.

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