Paula Salky: Now I understand

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My stepsister gave this speech on Veterans Day shortly after my stepbrother was killed in 2006. The words written here still resonate today. I’m always amazed at the number of people who don’t understand what Memorial Day is all about. Perhaps after reading this, you will understand. And maybe next time, you will know not to say, “Happy Memorial Day.”

“When my brother was 14, he told our parents that he wanted to go to a military school — he wanted more discipline in his life. Wanting discipline? I didn’t understand. When he left for boot camp the day after his high school graduation, I didn’t understand how or why he would choose such a life. I thought he could aspire to be so much more. When he came back from boot camp, he stood a little taller, appeared a little stronger — but he put this thing, this thing called the Marine Corps, above all else, including his family, and I didn’t understand.

“He trained in the mountains, he trained in the desert, he trained at night, in the cold, in the rain and in the searing heat — how much training can one person need? I didn’t understand. He was stationed in Washington, D.C., as part of a special detail assigned to protect the president of the United States and the White House. Impressive, yes — but why choose him? I just didn’t understand.

“He completed his duty as an enlisted Marine, returned to Memphis to pursue a college degree from the University of Memphis and chose to do it through the ROTC (reserve officer training corps) program so that upon graduation, he would be commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps. Why more military? I didn’t understand.

“He moved to Camp Pendleton near San Diego. More training. He went on his first mission: a Marine Expeditionary Force sailing from Camp Pendleton to Australia. Three ships and an aircraft carrier. They would be at sea for six months stopping for several humanitarian missions and more training along the way. Then came Sept. 11, 2001 — the ships changed course and headed straight for the Persian Gulf. Robert helped secure an airstrip in Pakistan. He was there when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. 

“He returned to the States early in 2002 and was given orders to go to Quantico, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. — the Marine Corps headquarters. He was an instructor who trained Marines how to be officers. He didn’t like it much. The job was admirable enough, but he wasn’t seeing any ‘action.’ He wasn’t in a combat zone. In short, he had a desk job. ‘He’s safe,’ I thought, ‘what’s wrong with him —doesn’t he see that?’ I just didn’t understand. 

“In 2005, we learned he would be moving to the island of Okinawa, Japan, for one year. Far away, yes, but at least he was still going to be safe. Approximately six weeks after he arrived in Okinawa — in December of 2005 — he was told there was going to be a group of specially trained officers sent to Iraq to train soldiers for the Iraqi army. They would live with the Iraqi army on an Iraqi military base. This was his chance to test his skills in a combat situation. He volunteered. And boy — that I did not understand. But Robert understood. Robert knew the risks. He also knew he couldn’t come home before his deployment to Iraq, so he flew me and our mother to Sydney, Australia, and we spent five incredible days together. On Jan. 23, 2006, he and the nine other Marines with whom he would train the Iraqi army left for Iraq. We sent packages, we wrote letters, we emailed. The conditions sounded deplorable, the job insurmountable — I still just did not understand.

“On Sept. 6, 2006, he came home on two weeks' leave (‘A vacation from the war!’ I said). He was thin, he was tired, but believe it or not, he was happy. He was putting his skills to the test. It was hard, it was frustrating. It was his calling, he said.  

“Suddenly, I understood. This job, this career, this lifestyle. It was his calling. He never wanted to do anything else. The Marines, this was it for him. 

“On Oct. 8, 2006, upon our family’s return from a religious celebration at our synagogue, there was a white government van parked in front of my parents' house. We all walked in the back door while the Marines waited for us to let them in from the front door. Oh, I understood then. I understood all too well.

“‘We regret to inform you that Cpt. Robert Michael Secher was killed in action by a sniper’s bullet while on patrol mission in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.’ 

“The first words out of my father’s mouth were, ‘He loved you. He loved you all so much.’ And then he broke down in tears. He stood and hugged the Marine who stood so straight and tall in our den. The Marine hugged him back. 

“Following his funeral, my parents’ house was full of Marines in uniform. They came from all over the country and the world — as far away as Japan and England — to pay their respects. As I spoke to one of the Marines, he said to me, ‘You know, tonight I’ve met at least six men — and each one said Robert was their best friend.’ 

“I now understand that my brother died doing exactly what he had his whole life wanted to do: He was a Marine, and he was working to make the world a better place. Was my understanding too little, too late? Maybe for Robert. But not for the other soldiers who are still there. And not for the many soldiers who are still going to be sent to Iraq. I understand why they are in Iraq and so many other places around the world: to ensure that the things we do every day and take for granted — going to sleep, waking up, praying in the way we want, where we want, when we want, dressing the way we are comfortable, walking safely down the street — should not be compromised. 

“My brother, Cpt. Robert Michael Secher, was 33 years old and died just over four weeks ago. He was a United States Marine. Our mother is from Germany, our father is a Holocaust refugee from Austria. Robert was a first-generation American. He was his parents’ only son. He went on to do great things and died a hero’s death. 

“The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis, which means Always Faithful.

“Now, I understand.”

Paula Salky

Steamboat Springs

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