The first sign was an unrecognized van sitting in the driveway of my sister's house. She wondered who would be visiting her without a call first. As she got closer she saw the government license plates and her worst fears begin to flood her mind.
When she saw two Marine officers waiting on her porch she knew what news they were bringing. The little boy she loved so much and had poured her life into raising, now grown and a U.S. Marine, had been killed in Iraq.
All they could do is tell her details and try to provide support, which is of little help from strangers. They told her not to call her husband, who was running errands, but to wait until he returned to give him the news. The military has apparently learned that distraught parents do not make good drivers.
The news of Jeff being killed came to the rest of the family with a phone call that started simply with these words: "We lost Jeff." I suspect most of us now do not recall much of the rest of that conversation.
It was Memorial Day, 2005. The irony of the change in plans from block barbecues to having to deal with the loss of a family member on Memorial Day was lost in grief.
If ever there was a young man who would make a perfect Marine it was Jeffrey Brian Starr. Raised in the countryside just out of Snohomish, Wash., and for the most part, home-schooled, Jeff's life was full of traditional American values: independence, individual responsibility, adventure, caring about others and so many more that most Americans readily understand.
Jeff was above average in height and, at least in the opinion of his family, way better looking than the average teenager. What he lacked in education — no college — he made up with in energy and enthusiasm. He blossomed in boot camp — a stand-out recruit.
Jeff and his fellow Marines were destined to go to Iraq; 9/11 happened while they were in boot camp.
On his third tour in Iraq — just a few days after turning 22, two weeks before he was scheduled to return to Camp Pendleton and just four months from ending his enlistment — Jeff was on patrol in Ramadi when a bullet somehow missed his protective body armor and pierced his heart. He died without suffering.
Unknown to his parents and the rest of the family, Jeff was prophetic about his chances of surviving his third tour. While at Camp Pendleton after his second tour, he wrote a prescient letter on his laptop with the title "Last Letter Home." Eloquently written by a then-21-year-old, he described how he felt about being a Marine, being in Iraq and — written in part in the past tense — how he felt about dying for others.
"It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq; it's not to me. I'm here helping these people, so that they can live the way we live. Not have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. To do what they want with their lives. To me, that is why I died. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark."
Serving in combat during the Iraq War found our young men and women facing an unholy trinity of oppressive weather, an indifferent or hostile populace and a determined enemy.
But the American Marines in Iraq were, like generations of Marines before them, first and foremost Marines. They believe in God, country and the Corps. They treasure duty, honor and sacrifice. They will die for their buddies and, as Jeff wrote, they are willing to die to help those who need help.
Jeffrey Starr, like so many with whom he served, shows that America still produces the finest young people in the world. They have shown themselves to be selfless in their commitment to helping those they do not even know.
Like the firefighters and police officers who rushed into the burning buildings at the World Trade Center in New York, our military men and women have shown courage, commitment and caring, in spite of known grave dangers.
Jeffrey Starr, USMC, would not approve of this article unless it made clear that he was only one of many who gave so much. He was part of a team and each of them would have given their life to save one of their buddies. That is just the way combat is.
Yes, the mission is important, but the time comes for anyone who has served in combat that you realize it is all about your buddies. Today, we each in our own way must deal with the loss of so many of our finest.
Perhaps Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player, said it best with these words: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
On Memorial Day, we, who have the good fortune to live in this remarkable country, will find that sense of purpose to serve and sacrifice, just as those we honor during this season have exhibited.
Let Lee Greenwood’s exhilarating lyrics be our thought today:
“And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.”
Lickness served as an Infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. He is an adjunct professor of law at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana.