Flags at half-staff billowed in the bitter December wind, bells chimed when the clock struck ten, and a lone seagull flying towards the Palmer’s Island Lighthouse drew notice from onlookers standing at attention outside the First Congregational Church on Center Street.
Then, a hearse arrived behind a phalanx of motorcycle escorts.
This was Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on December 23 —two days before Christmas and twelve days after Lance Corporal Matthew R. Rodriguez of the United States Marine Corps had been killed while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, some 10,000 kilometers from his hometown.
Dead at nineteen.
“What were you doing at nineteen?” asked my friend, Bill Zeoli. “What were any of us doing?”
Zeoli is a South End resident who has a son currently serving on active duty in the Corps: Gregory William Zeoli is a Lance Corporal who just recently deployed overseas.
An honor detail of Marines in their dress blue uniforms carried the flag-draped coffin into the church. The wails from family and friends could be heard through small cracks in the wood of the pointed arched doors, perhaps the same ones installed when the community was organized in 1794.
The United States Marine Corps was founded in 1775—exactly nineteen years earlier.
I gazed at the church from a position across the street while standing behind the color guards of the Fairhaven Police Department, the Marine Corps League, and amid members of the Iron Order biker gang. A deluge commenced shortly after the service had begun and, soaking wet, I reminisced about my own years as a Leatherneck.
It was so brief and so inconsequential that at times I am embarrassed by the “cushy” nature of my assignments. Notwithstanding boot camp and officer candidate school, I had it easy.
But, the sky was crying on this day. There would be no glimmer of the sun’s rays through the clouds and no rainbow upon which to affix a wish. There was just sadness, darkness, and tears.
Only an occasional “Ooh rah!” in the distance broke the monotony of raindrops.
My journey to Fairhaven had been inspired by two distinct emotions. The first was to offer support to a fallen brother-in-arms and his family, something I had previously never done in person.
The second was to confront members of the Westboro Baptist Church who had threatened to protest at Lance Corporal Rodriguez’s funeral.
For those of you who may not know, this Kansas “church” and its less-than-charismatic leader, Fred Phelps, have concocted a causal connection between the deaths of our troops and America’s leniency on homosexuality. Their web address is godhatesfags.com and is, sadly, not a parody site one could easily imagine having been created by the satirists at The Onion or Saturday Night Live.
They are real. All too real. And they have created a name for themselves under the glare of instantaneous news and social media with outrageously worded, day-glo colored signs at their protests.
To wit, these choice examples: Pray For More Dead Soldiers, God Hates Jews, Fags Doom Nations, God Blew Up The Shuttle.
They are, like other cults and fringe sects, guilty of bastardizing scriptures by placing whatever bizarre spins upon obscure passages are necessary to promote a calculated agenda against homosexuals. Subsequently, their “Aha!” moment occurred when they figured out media shock value could best be obtained by inflicting grievous spiritual harm at the funerals of our Airmen, Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers.
Despicable, true, yet hysterically ironic that Westboro Baptist is carrying out its crusade against the very people responsible for sacrificing their lives to ensure the rights of dissent and protest! As Pee Wee Herman might opine, so hilarious I forgot to laugh.
Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, both geniuses, demonstrated the manner by which tyrants and bullies could best be taken down: comedy. As Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator, Chaplin lampooned Adolf Hitler and totalitarianism prior to the United States’ entry into the war. With The Producers and select scenes in Blazing Saddles, Brooks gave the world an opportunity to heal itself with humor after the treacherous facts of atrocity had long been discovered.
I went to Fairhaven for blood, not for a laugh or a cause célèbre. I was willing to get arrested for assault and, after posting my premeditated intentions as a status update on Facebook, was pleased to discover that so many of my friends had already volunteered bail money.
Among the tally of pledgers were several former Marines and several current homosexuals.
But, something changed for me as I stood near a blue-lipped shivering child clutching his parent’s pant leg for warmth with one hand and a miniature “Old Glory” with the other. Something was different after I witnessed bikers from rival gangs work together to hoist a wheelchair-bound veteran over a precariously puddled pothole. And, stranger still, was my sudden urge to smile as the goosebumps of bittersweet melancholy evolved to that of wonderment witnessing support for Rodriguez from a gay couple who had come, like I had as a straight former Marine with a ferry boat full of gay friends, to confront possible protestors.
The lunatics of Westboro Baptist Church failed to show and it did not matter to any of us (nor my rapscallion’s fists), for even if they had their presence would not be among even the most trivial of enduring memories from the day. Of course, the multitude of veterans and bikers—often one and the same—itching and yearning for a piece (or more) of them may have had something to do with their absence.
Amor vincit omnia!
Silently, together, we focused on the sacrifice of Lance Corporal Rodriguez and the sacrifices of so many others; he was the 2,102nd member of our armed forces to be killed in Afghanistan.
The honor detail returned the casket to the hearse after the funeral and I watched in awe as a Gunnery Sergeant saluted the fallen Marine. People nearby were sobbing. The rain continued, unabated, as if the heavens were sobbing, too.
All of the color guards responded to the order of “Present Arms!” The motorcycle engines revved again and, soon, the motorcade was a blur in the distance.
I made eye contact with a biker whose nickname patch on his vest was Dead Shot. We nodded at one another in the macho way that guys do - both straight and gay. Soon thereafter, I hugged Lee Bordas of Fairhaven. She is the mother of a dear friend, Hanna Bordas, and had sung in the choir. It was the first physical contact with another human being that I had experienced all day and my weathered knuckles had, thankfully, not been involved.
The procession route to the private burial at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne was lined with thousands of people. Oh, the lament again that we do not honor the living as much as we should!
During the return trip to Boston, I contemplated how members of the Westboro Baptist Church could be so driven by hatred and fear as to remain nonplussed by the emotions of this moment. What vitriol had spiraled so out of control in their minds that they remained unaffected by such a tragic loss?
In U2’s song Rejoice, there is a line that reads “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” Conceivably, this might be the best mantra by which to combat and marginalize those who try to marginalize others.
The impact of Lance Corporal Matthew R. Rodriguez, dead at nineteen, will never be marginalized.
Semper Fidelis, Marine.
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