When I went to Iwo Jima in 2015 with my dad, it fulfilled a dream I'd had since I was 8 years old. It completely changed my life, and I was pretty sure that my first time there would also be my last time.
But next Monday, I will be helping escort 6 veterans (including one of my dearest of friends) back to Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. I'm still waiting for reality to hit. But I am deeply grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for this opportunity to re-live those childhood dreams all over again and in the company of such heroes.
Consequently, I have been studying like a madman in preparation. I feel like the word "excited" is an inadequate one to describe how I feel about returning to Iwo and making my first trip to Saipan and Tinian. The history of these islands is one that I feel so deeply connected to.
Iwo was my first introduction to WW2 when I was 6 or 7 years old. And some of the first stories of war I ever heard were from veterans of Saipan who described what it was like to watch the poor brainwashed natives take their own lives by jumping the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of what they had been told were "cannibal Americans."
Over breakfast one morning, a Marine (*see endnote) showed me a picture of the first Japanese he ever killed and the cave where he was wounded by a grenade. Another one showed me the volcanic ash that was still in his hands.
I have shared tears with hearty Marines who were making their first return to the battlefields; some of whom had left an arm, a leg, and hardest of all - their best friend.
But it wasn't just a rollercoaster of hardcore memories that makes my connection so deep. Along the way, I was a adopted by this special group of fighting men and given a second family. My Marine Corps family. All these extra uncles who declared I had to run any boyfriends by them for approval first, swore to protect me (in various forms of Marine Corps terminology), and were there to help me through some pretty rough times.
Going back to Iwo is pretty personal to me. More than the dress blues (which are gorgeous btw), more than the battle facts and statistics - because honestly, none of the adopted uncles are statistics to me - my Marines are living, breathing human beings who went through hell, but still managed to go on and live normal lives.
So what is the word I’m looking for to describe how I feel? Grateful? Heart-full? Thoughtful? Exuberant? I don't know. For now, just consider these words to be the placeholders until I do find the right one.
** Note: The story of that Marine and the photo is not a story of the glorification of death… rather it is part of a beautiful story of forgiveness. When the Marine showed me the photo (one his buddy had taken), he was still angry with the Japanese. He had 70 years angst and bitterness built up that was coming to a climax. By showing me the photos, he was trying to share his story and find clarity in the mental conflict he was still fighting. He needed answers. All week I spoke to him about this, and others did as well… tskaAnd incredibly, the day we went to Iwo Jima, he was able to go up to a Japanese veteran and shake his hand. It was the first Japanese man he'd been willing to talk to since the war. The rest of the trip following that, he was happy and light-hearted. A month later, he passed away. I think he had finally found the deep peace and forgiveness he needed.