'We almost had him back:' When celebrating the 4th, remember the Sailor who made plans to be with his family

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- The usually noisy tarmac at March Air Reserve Base was dead silent on Tuesday, June 24. It was easy to hear the wind flap the U.S. flag mounted above the right headlight of the Cadillac hearse facing us about 30 feet away. 

There were 50 or so of us: a Marine in dress blues, Sailors in "crackerjack" uniforms, civilians, local police, firemen and the close family of Navy corpsman Marc Retmier. 

Marc, 19, had been killed six days earlier after a Taliban rocket hit his Humvee while he was on patrol in the northern Paktia province of Afghanistan. For those who keep count, he was the 500th for California and the seventh from Hemet, just a few miles from base. 

We were all focused on the pilots of the small Kalita Charters Lear Jet who had just arrived long enough ago to be well underway to unloading their precious cargo. A Sailor stood at parade rest near the door of the plane - just like he might have if the president was onboard. 

The pilots placed a hydraulic lift beneath the door of the plane. Other than the U.S. flag on the hearse, nothing else seemed to move. 

At the first peek of Marc's flag-draped coffin, the returning Sailor's grandfather abruptly pressed his hand against his mouth to muffle the deep sobs pushing through his fingers. He leaned limp-like closer toward his wife at his left side. 

She locked her arm into his, caressed his cheek and softly guided it next to hers as they struggled to see through tears whether the pilots had given them their cue. They placed the coffin on the lift, lowered it to just below chest height, and stood in a "parade rest" position next to the Sailor. That was the family's cue to walk forward, escorted by Chaplain (Maj.) Rick Givens, to gather around Marc's coffin. 

"My poor baby," the grandmother said adoringly, as if her memories whisked her back to the day Marc was born. 

"He used to follow me around like a little shadow," granddad told a newspaper a day earlier. "I practically raised him. I took him everywhere. I took him camping and fishing. He was sort of in charge of the family." 

Marc's cousin brought her 2-year-old baby girl to his arrival at March. She held the sleeping baby, wrapped in a pink blanket, to her chest and whispered, "See sweetie, he kept his promise. He came to see you. He came to see you, sweetie - just like he promised." In an e-mail from Afghanistan a few days earlier, Marc told her he'd be coming home in about a week or so to see the new baby. He had been cleared for leave to celebrate the Fourth of July in Hemet. 

"We almost had him back," said Marc's father, Steve Retmier. 

Here, he was not a Sailor, or a hero, or a terror warrior but just the Marc they all knew before he joined the Navy: an adventurous teenager who liked to swim, motocross, surf, and talked about wanting to sky-dive someday. 

"It doesn't seem real, does it?" an uncle asked his wife. "I mean, I know it is, but it just doesn't seem real." 

That was what I was thinking. The scene, to me, was surreal - an awful lot to absorb. 

Right in front of my eyes was a young life honorably offered in a war that is so often talked about, written about, debated and politicized - as if it isn't real. Witnessing Marc's coming home and the tender grief of those who knew him best put the sacrifices of all our war dead, past and present, into perspective for me like nothing else ever had. 

In my 20 years as an active duty Marine, I had studied war, trained for it and even, at times, hoped for it. In 1994, I deployed to places like Corregidor, Bataan, and Iwo Jima, walking on some of the most hallowed soil in recorded history. But in all those years, I had never actually witnessed a fallen warrior coming home to be greeted by those who lost the most - until Marc. 

I was deeply moved, deeply saddened for the family, but most of all deeply grateful to be one of the first on American soil to welcome Marc home with honor. 

As Marc's entourage took the left turn onto Graeber from the flight line and slowly made its way toward the corner of Cactus and Elsworth, it was greeted by the civilians, Airmen, Sailors, Marines and retirees of March ARB, lined up along both sides of the street, who saluted him as he went by. Marc was not an Airman, nor was he ever attached to March, but he was no doubt a part of us. 

"When I saw those people lined up on the street for that young man, I got all choked up," recalled Linda McGee, a custodian here, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears. "I don't usually get emotional and stuff - I try not to - but when I saw how they honored that 19-year-old kid, my God, it just got to me." 

Marc had looked forward to being home on Friday to celebrate the Fourth with his family. On that day, as you celebrate the freedoms made possible by our Declaration of Independence, take a few minutes to remember Marc's sacrifice and all those who've fallen in war. 

Perhaps the most appropriate time to do that is during the finale of a fireworks display which, to me, represents the majesty of so great a sacrifice. 

As can be said in all our wars, without that sacrifice, freedom would just not be possible.