By Gerry Hutchinson
Sergeant James S. Lee “Jimmy Shawn” was one of the Marines who served with me in Afghanistan in 2004-05. Sgt. Lee was an ordnance man whose job was to load and download armaments on helicopters and/or jets. The most vulnerable time/place for a helicopter is when the “bird” is on the ground thus making the necessity for rearming and refueling to be done safely and swiftly.
Sergeant Lee was also a committed Christian. He was faithful in chapel services. He pursued daily devotion and he was a serious student of the Bible. He was eagerly looking forward to touring the Holy Land when he returned home and he had already paid a deposit for the trip.
We didn’t have much time together because Sgt. Lee was transferred to a remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) called Orgun-E. It was there he and his fellow Marines took care of the helicopters that landed at their LZ (landing zone).
Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773 deployed to Afghanistan in September 2004 and was scheduled to return home in 2005. In early April our preparations for retrograde and return were in full swing. We were loading up our gear and our personal belongings for the trip back to the United States. Our Marines at Orgun-E returned to Bagram Airfield where the bulk of our personnel were located with one exception – Sgt. Lee. He volunteered to stay behind and take the final inventory of the ordnance at the FOB before joining us in Bagram.
I will not forget the excitement in the air as we counted down the days and hours until we left for home. My Religious Program Specialist, RP1 Mark Benson, and I were in our workspace watching a DVD when someone tapped on the door and told me the Commander wanted to see me. I proceeded to his office and learned that we were going to “river city.” This is code language for a period of “restricted communication” when no one can use personal computers or place a call home. Our Commander informed me that Sgt. Lee had been killed in a helicopter crash on the flight that was to bring him to Bagram.
It is customary to go to “river city” when a service member dies so the news of their death doesn’t come inadvertently to the family but from a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer who makes personal contact at their home to give the death notification.
Our Commander told me he would call the troops together in our Hangar in a few minutes to inform them of Sgt. Lee’s demise. He wanted me to know so I could be present to attend to any troops overcome with grief. As we gathered in formation the Commander told the troops of Sgt. Lee’s death. One of our Marines crumpled to the deck in shock and grief. It was as if his knees just buckled and he fell down sobbing. I rushed to his side to be with him and comfort him.
Two days later when we held Sgt. Lee’s Memorial Service his fellow Marines had set up the customary battlefield cross in his honor. A battlefield cross is a display comprised of the deceased service member’s inverted weapon with a helmet placed upon the rifle stock and a pair of boots placed at a 45 degree angle. There was something unique about Sgt. Lee’s display. His fellow Marines placed his open study Bible between the boots. It was a testimony of his faith and his love of scripture. I have not seen a battlefield cross with a Bible by the boots before or since. It was a sad time for us all. We would return home minus one of our own who died just days before our departure.
No Memorial Day goes by without me thinking about Sergeant James S. Lee, USMC, and his faithful service. I encourage you to pause and reflect this Memorial Day on the 6,882 men and women who died serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as well as others who gave their all in our Nation’s service.
Capt. Gerry Hutchinson, CHC, USNR (Ret.) Endorser for Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors for the CBF