CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
“This was the best weekend of my life.”
That is not what you would normally hear from a Marine after a weekend spent honoring a fallen comrade.
But for the Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Company G, something special happened in Boston during St. Patrick’s Day weekend that proved a fitting ending to a long saga.
It began when 2/6 deployed to Iraq in 2007. The unit saw fighting almost immediately after entering the country and continued to see action from then on.
On March 9, 2007, Lance Cpl. Walter “Gator” O’Haire manned an overwatch position on the roof of a building in Fallujah, Iraq, when a sniper round took his life and took away a man loved by all who knew him.
O’Haire was the only Marine killed during 2/6’s deployment, and when the unit returned to Camp Lejeune, they held a memorial service for him. O’Haire’s family was invited to attend the service, but for his friends and family, the loss was too deep to be filled from a brief ceremony.
“In November, at the memorial; it wasn’t enough,” said Maureen O’Haire, Walter’s mother. “The guys didn’t get a chance to have closure.”
Lance Cpl. Jeremy L. Shepherd, a rifleman in G Company, agreed.
“We didn’t have a lot of time at the memorial service,” he said, adding they had to work and didn’t get to interact with the O’Haire family like they might have wanted to.
Often, that would have been the end of the story. In this case it was not.
Ms. O’Haire, a widowed mother of nine biological and adopted children, was about to absorb 22 more into her Boston brood.
She arranged to have the Marines who were in “Wally’s” platoon, as well as his closest buddies in other platoons, fly up to join her family in Boston for a weekend of remembrance, healing and celebration.
She did this not to make herself feel better, but for the Marines.
“I am really concerned about the survivor guilt,” she said. “I wanted them to know what they did was appreciated.”
Once the Marines arrived in Boston, they were escorted off the plane by policemen to waiting vehicles, which whisked them away to Rockland, Mass., a suburb of Boston.
Their first night was spent with the family and at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, where they shared food, drink and stories with retired and former servicemembers.
Their second night was spent at a special Catholic mass which celebrated Walter and Palm Sunday.
Sunday was the big day. The Marines started by attending the annual South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast as guests of honor, where they were received by U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch and were treated to a two-minute long standing ovation by the crowd.
After the breakfast, the Marines marched in the annual South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where they were showered with applause and cheers from the more than 1 million spectators at the parade.
“This was overwhelming to see how welcoming the people of Boston were to us and how pro-military they were,” said Staff Sgt. Brian P. Mullen, platoon sergeant for G Co., 1st platoon.
Mullen said the whole weekend really helped the Marines heal after the loss of O’Haire.
“We were able to represent him and the love he had for the Marine Corps, and it helps the Marines deal with the grieving process to see that she has no guilt or blame toward them,” he said.
Far from being a sad occasion, the weekend was spent enjoying each other’s company and remembering the good things about their fallen comrade and son.
“These are the people Wally spent his last hours with, they can tell me the stories about his last days, and I can tell them about his life before,” Ms. O’Haire said. “We can each heal imperfectly on our own, but together we can wholly heal.”
According to the Marines, the events made a definite impact.
“Seeing her and how she honors her son really helps with the whole grieving process by not mourning his death but celebrating his life,” said Mullen.
The response of the average Americans who surrounded the Marines also made a big impression.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, people made us proud of what we do and who we are,” said Shepherd. “It really helped us get a little bit of closure.”
Far from bitter, Ms. O’Haire said, “To the men and women who serve, I say thank you, and please don’t ever have regrets; no regrets.”
After the close of the long weekend, which was capped with a VIP tour of the USS Constitution, the Marines returned to Camp Lejeune, where they continued their preparation for the six month predeployment training period as the BLT for the 26th MEU.
Following that training period, the 26th MEU is scheduled to deploy during the fall with the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group.