Once a Marine, always a Marine
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 31, 2009 1:46 PM
For nearly 20 years, the Marine Corps League has been attempting to charter a Wayne County chapter -- one that would carry out the agenda set forth by the national organization.
And Monday night at the American Legion headquarters -- a simple building tucked just beyond the county fairgrounds -- a group of men who know all too well what it takes to earn the eagle, globe and anchor will fulfill that longtime desire.
But one of those responsible for the formation, at last, of a local chapter will not be among those gathered.
Dan Jenkins never made it home from the jungle.
But his legend, and those written by others who gave their lives for their country, will remain intact through the actions of those who turn out Monday -- Marines like Tom Harrison who said the group will focus on serving families who have faced the same hard realities as his close friends the Jenkinses.
"Our job is going to be to take care ... of the widows and orphans of Marines," said Harrison, a Vietnam veteran who will serve as the organization's first commandant. "In the Marines, we look after each other."
Deep down, Harrison always knew he would serve his country.
"I grew up watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry -- the cowboys, you know? And I always understood the good guys wore white hats," he said. "Well, I wanted to be a good guy."
So when he graduated from Goldsboro High School in 1967, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and join the Corps.
"I heard how rough (boot camp) was, but I said, 'You can't believe everything you hear,'" Harrison said. "I wanted to see it. Well, I found out it was rougher than I was."
But it would prepare him, mentally, for his next test: Vietnam.
"The thought of going to Vietnam, it didn't bother me. Not after boot camp. You see, they teach you a lot in boot camp about your country and service to your country," Harrison said. "And they teach you why freedom is worth dying for."
Even so, he would come to find that knowledge did not make the reality of watching that sacrifice unfold time and time again any more bearable.
Less than a month after he joined the war effort, Harrison was among those at Landing Zone Margo in the Cam Lo River Valley when constant bombardment from the enemy killed dozens of Marines.
"We had dead and wounded on the LZ that we couldn't get off for three days," he said, choking up. "You listen to a man scream all night and it'll rag your mind."
And a few months later, he received more bad news.
Jenkins, his friend from Goldsboro and boot camp, had been killed when a booby trap was tripped along the Batangan Peninsula.
"I wasn't available to be here when he was buried," Harrison said, pausing again to collect himself. "I kept thinking about his parents. You know, it's got to be kind of rough losing a child 10,000 miles away."
And perhaps that is why Harrison finally agreed to lead a newly chartered chapter of the Marine Corps League.
He wants to be there for families like the Jenkinses in a way he could not while still stationed in the jungle.
It will take 20 members to make the local chapter a reality.
So Harrison and other local Marines are doing some recruiting.
And they won't stop until they reach their magic number.
The words "give up" just don't sit well with a Marine, Harrison said -- particularly when there is a mission to accomplish.
"In the Marines, they also teach you that we're the first ones in the fight," he said. "And we're Marines until we're dead."