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Every Memorial Day, for the last nine years, I dig up an old copy of a story I wrote on Memorial Day in 2009. It involves a young man I had never met, and who would forever be a total stranger to me.
He was a hero. A husband. A Dad. And a big fan of the Washington Capitals. If he were alive today, he’d be 35 years old and probably doing what the rest of us will be doing tonight: glued to a television set, wearing an Ovechkin jersey, and cheering on the Caps along with his two kids, who by now should be teenagers.
Here’s the story:
On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking of a Marine I never met. And never will.
His name was James. R. McIlvaine. He grew up in Olney, Md., and his mother lives in Purcellville. He was killed in Iraq on April 30 while saving the life of another. He was 26 years old, and the father of two children.
Unfortunately, most of us see news like this every day in the newspaper. We pause, read the details, feel for the family, then turn the page and move on. We don’t dwell on it for too long, because it is inevitable that another face, another name, and another set of circumstances regarding a battlefield casualty will be in the paper in a few more days.
This one was different, because not long afterward my phone rang. McIlvaine had a rather large immediate family, including three sets of grandparents, and the local VFW wanted to make the trip from Purcellville to Arlington Cemetery as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Four SUVs had been secured (two donated for the day by Ray Glembot at Star Pontiac GMC in Leesburg) and a police escort would be provided.
What they needed was one more driver. Could I spare the day, I was asked, to drive one of the vehicles?
The answer, obviously, was “of course.”
My SUV included McIlvaine’s grandmother, uncle and sister. During the drive to Arlington, I learned McIlvaine was a huge hockey fan and a big Redskins follower. He loved being a Marine. He had lost his own father at a young age, and as his uncles, aunts and grandparents reached out to fill that void when he was young, he had taken a similar leadership role in the lives of younger members of his extended family.
As we drove to Arlington, you couldn’t help but notice as people stopped and saluted. Passengers in other cars made similar gestures of support. They didn’t know who had lost their life, but they knew that person died serving this country. In their own way, they wanted the family to know they appreciated it.
Once there, the ceremony for McIlvaine began as all do at Arlington, starting at the visitor’s center. A Marine band led the procession for well over a mile past thousands of other graves on the way to Section 60, where most killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. At one point, the road snakes around a hill overlooking the Pentagon and its memorial to the events of 9/11, ironically referencing what started the journey that for some ended at Section 60.
I stayed with the vehicle as the family walked to the grave site for the service. The sunny afternoon’s respectful silence was first broken by the popping sounds from seven rifles, fired three times in a 21-gun salute. The Marine Band then played as friends and family paid their respects. The service itself seemed to take only a few minutes, ending as a single horn pierced the atmosphere with the somber notes of “Taps”. They are notes, I believe, I won’t ever forget.
The drive home brought more stories of McIlvaine’s rich but short life, as the conversation alternated between great pride and great grief. An hour later, we were back in Purcellville, where I walked the grandmother back to the house, expressed my sorrow for their loss, and said goodbye. “Thank you for all you did today,” the grandmother told me.
No ma’am, I wanted to say, it is I, as well as everyone else who should be thanking you and your family.
So on this Memorial Day, I’ll raise a glass to a Marine from Olney that I never met. Jim, the world’s a lesser place without you.
Rest in peace.