This morning I watched a video of the airport arrival of the remains of a United States Marine, Corporal Hunter Lopez. My eyes have dried enough to write this blog, but it will leave a little bit of my soul in California for the rest of my life.
I’d like to tell an abbreviated story of his life. I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Lopez in this life, but in the next I suspect we’ll run into each other. The picture above is from basic training. The weary recruits are marched to a photo studio where a set of Dress Blues are waiting for them, devoid of medals and rank, as befits a recruit. You stand in formation and peel off one-by-one to go into the studio where they put a partial uniform on you. It is usually a “break-away” uniform, with no back, just a couple of velcro straps that hold it together at the collar and chest so it looks right. Takes less time. You do not smile for the photo: you’re a warrior. They don’t smile. In less than a minute you’re back out in formation. The whole training group runs through the photo in under an hour. Way under an hour. But now you have a picture to send to mom and dad, and if you’re lucky to your girlfriend who’s waiting at home for you.
Basic training photos stick around your whole life. Mine is on my wife’s dresser. My mom has one. I probably have one as well. In Hunter’s case, his mom and dad are both Sheriff’s deputies, so they would admire their son in uniform and know that kinship that cops and the military share.
It is debatable which one is the most proud of the other in this photo. Dad’s a Captain in the department, Hunter is a Corporal. For those not in the military, being a Corporal in the Marine Corps is a big deal. You are finally a Non-Commissioned Officer. You are someone.
I love this photo. The exhausted young recruit is gone. This is a young man who knows exactly who he is. He’s ready for the world. I can’t tell from the photo what his rank or the location is, but he’s a handsome young fellow. The salt of the earth: he is America.
Here we see Corporal Lopez arriving home. Surrounded by his brothers in the Corps. He is already gone on to his destiny, but his remains are being moved around one last time. He’s already made the long trip from Kabul to Dover and then home to Southern California. Soon his travels will be complete and his body can be laid at rest.
In watching the arrival of his body at the local airport, I thought of how that might have played out if it was me and things were different. I tried to imagine my mother and father attending to the side of an aircraft, next to the hearse. I couldn’t imagine it. Perhaps, given the time in which I served and the missions we did, I would be forever where I fell. And that would be okay as well, for I’d be with my comrades in eternity.
The assemblage on the tarmac was quiet. A mix of military and law enforcement, as well as Hunter’s family. As the aircraft began preparing to surrender his body, the deputies presented a salute. A lone Highlands Piper played a tune to greet the warrior at the end of this leg of his travels. Pipers are significant to warriors, and I’ve had them at funerals and weddings alike. It is part of who we are, and the haunting skirl of the pipes is as much a part of that identity as the uniforms we wear.
When the remains were brought out of the aircraft, and put on the stand, the family came forward. The rending grief was palpable through the screen. His mother knew that a part of her was inside that casket, and yet her son was not really what was left. Just a body. His father and siblings were present as well, and they all leaned on each other, and the Marines, to steady them as the move to the hearse took place.
Now, with everyone presenting a salute, six Marines lifted the casket and solemnly carried it to the hearse. Not a cover (hat) tilted too much, every seam aligned, perfect uniforms in honor of a young man of their tribe.
Once the body was in the hearse, they backed up, aligned formation, and waited. Stock still. Not moving any more than their comrade in the back of the long-black vehicle.
His mother approached the hearse and leaned against the side window, looking at the flag wrapping her son in his final journey. She’s a lot stronger than me. I could see the toughness it took to do that. But she’s a cop, and a Marine mom: both rare birds.
And that may be the thing I will carry away for the rest of my life: the image of her leaning against the hearse.
You see, freedom isn’t free. Orders have consequences. And Corporal Hunter Lopez paid the piper for all of us.
Thank you, Corporal Lopez. I salute you and ’til Valhalla….