For the past few years I have posted this over Memorial Day Weekend. It’s the strongest memory I have from my newspaper life at the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina, the home of Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps installation on the East Coast. I’ll always remember. The vase is still with me.
The ground war in Iraq was just getting cranked up when President George W. Bush scheduled a trip to Camp Lejeune. He chose April 3, 2003. The invasion of Iraq was less than two weeks old.
Already, the toll was high, especially at Lejeune and the attached community in Jacksonville where the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast is located. Just 10 days before, in a little chunk of hell most Americans never heard of before, 18 Charlie Company Marines largely from Lejeune perished in smoke, gunfire and explosions. It happened in a place called An Nasiriyah. Marines called it “Ambush Alley.” Later, after the kind of interminable investigation for which the military is famous, it was determined that friendly fire was largely to blame.
The Jacksonville community was shaken to its foundation. Most can’t name many other places in America where 18 people who are part of the fabric of a place are suddenly taken so violently. And there along the coast, Camp Lejeune is the center of everything. It’s the leading employer and the economic engine that drives the county. Thousands live there and work there. It has its own schools, police force, fire department, legal system, prison and recreation facilities.
The men and women stationed there arrive from all parts of the nation but still share a bond with the civilians in Jacksonville. They are friends, neighbors, co-workers and volunteers for everything from food deliveries to youth league coaching. Every single person in Jacksonville knows somebody who’s a Marine, a sailor or married to one or the other.
So when an event like this one happens, the base and civilian communities hug and close ranks.
Even the newspaper.
THE NATIONAL MEDIA, of course, descended upon Jacksonville from everywhere to cover the tragic deaths of so many Marines so early in the war. They came to get stories, and some weren’t too particular about how they obtained them. They camped in neighborhoods, parking lots and driveways. They traveled en masse. Some local media outlets followed suit.
At the Daily News, we did what we always do. We refrained from lingering in yards in favor of contacting third parties and offering families the opportunity to meet with us for possible stories. A few people want to talk. Many do not. Our policy was to ask once and accept the answer without argument or complaint. There’s simply no valid reason to disrupt a family undergoing this type of crisis. And as part of the community, well, it’s the right thing to do.
The pending arrival of President Bush raised the stakes even more. Bush planned to make a short morale-boosting speech at Lejeune then visit with some of the families who had suffered an unspeakable loss. Any media outlet not in town already made plans to be there.
It was a big deal.
FROM THE START Sgt. Nicolas Hodson was different. Hodson, of Missouri, wasn’t killed at An Nasiriyah, but in a jeep accident not far from there and at almost the same time. And while he originally came to Camp Lejeune from somewhere else, he had since established roots in the Onslow County community. He married a young woman from Richlands — the former Michelon Williams — whose family was well known to the newspaper. Her brother, Mario Williams, was a football star who three years later would be the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft. They had a home there.
While memorials were held on base for the other Marines killed on March 23, Hodson would have a funeral in his new home town, where he had a wife, a young son and another on the way. His funeral would be at the House of Deliverance Church in Richlands.
The date: April 3, 2003. It was a media event waiting to happen.
As was our custom, we called a person in touch with the family to ask for their permission to attend the funeral and cover it. We were told very politely that it would be appreciated if we stayed away. The family wanted privacy.
“And you wouldn’t believe how much pressure is on this girl,” our contact told us. “Powerful people, powerful people.”
As we suspected, representatives for the president wanted to arrange for Bush to attend the funeral after his speech at Lejeune. It’s what commanders-in-chief have always done. They asked every possible way and got a “no” each and every time. Michelon Hodson didn’t budge, and wouldn’t.
But the national media didn’t know that.
What happened was predictable. There was a crush of TV reporters with big cameras and loud voices who tried to crash the funeral via the church entrance. Some unpleasantness ensued. The president did not attend, leaving after his visit on base.
I wrote a column afterward, noting the events and ended with this line: “. . . Sgt. Nicolas Hodson and the growing list of heroes in the war with Iraq are fighting for a multitude of issues. But the right to rest in peace should not be one of them.”
A FEW DAYS later on a rainy morning I was summoned to the reception desk at the Daily News. A young woman, notably pregnant, stood there. I had no idea who she might be. She was holding a green vase with one long cut flower in it. On top was a beautiful white bloom. It was obvious that both the vase and the flower came from home, not a florist.
I introduced myself and extended my hand. She extended the vase.
“I’m Michelon Hodson,” she said. “I wanted you to have this.”
I accepted it and stammered a thank you that in my mind would never be sufficient. A widow was delivering a home-grown flower to me in a downpour less than a week after burying her husband.
We chatted quietly for a minute or two. We shook hands and I once again expressed my condolences and my gratitude. She thanked me in return.
I took the vase and flower to my office. The flower is long gone.
But I still have the vase.