by Kelly E. Lee
When you pass by a person in a military uniform, what do you do? Are you filled with pride? Are you filled with anger? Do you even notice them or have a second thought? This is my story about how one young man from Jamestown changed me. A few short weeks ago, I was with my husband and son enjoying a Shakespeare’s pizza after church when we received a phone call informing us of the death of Leon Deraps. Nineteen year old Leon, a Lance Corporal in the Marines, had been deployed to Iraq only three short months ago. My connection to him was somewhat distant, yet it felt close at the same time. His older brother had dated my sister for a lengthy amount of time. Although I only met Leon once or twice, I had heard so many stories from my sister or his brother that I felt as if I knew him. My sister often spoke of what a great kid he was and how she loved to tease him because it drove him crazy. As I sat at the restaurant table finishing my lunch and attending to my young son, my heart began to sink. As I looked at my son, I could not imagine having him in my life for 19 years and then losing him so suddenly without even getting to say “good-bye.” As I drove back home after lunch, the sadness of the situation hit me and I began to cry. This was the first serviceman killed in our fight against terrorism that I had a personal tie to. Until then, each name I heard on the news was faceless and had passed over my ears with little reaction. This is not to say I was not saddened by the lost lives, I just had no connection that would cause me to dwell on them. Leon’s death was different. He was closer. I couldn’t stop thinking of his parents, his brothers, his sisters and everyone else that now had to deal with this harsh reality. I felt as though I wanted to do something to ease their pain although I knew there was little I could do. I sent a sympathy card with a heartfelt note but I wished I could do more. We waited for a few days until they received word of when Leon would be “coming home.” I followed the news reports in the papers and on TV. Some of my family members visited Leon’s family to bring food and show support. I was amazed and proud to see the outpouring of support in Jamestown and all of the surrounding communities. I waited for the day I could go and pay my respects.
We left work a little early on the day of the visitation. There had been some talk of possible protests at the service and I was quietly praying on the way over that those people would not disrupt this time of grieving and remembrance for Leon’s family and friends. I had read in the paper about the flag-lined streets in Jamestown but to drive down the road and see flag after flag was an awesome sight. Neighbors and businesses had painted signs in tribute to their fallen hometown hero. Friends had painted messages and put up American flags on their cars and trucks. We found a place to park a short walk away from the high school where the visitation was being held. As I approached, holding my son, I noticed a group of bikers that seemed to be “protecting” the area. Just the day before, my cousin had informed me about the Patriot Guard, a group of motorcycle riders who’s mission it is to render any protesters at military funerals ineffective by using legal means. I felt so relieved to know that someone was looking out for the Deraps family at this time. The line that had formed was already well outside of the school gymnasium where his family members were greeting the mourners and well-wishers. I met up with my other family members that had arrived earlier and we began our wait. I couldn’t honestly say exactly how long we waited??.I’d guess between one and half or two hours. I was so taken in by my surroundings; I did not watch the clock. The line was curving all over the foyer and gymnasium so as to get as many people in the building as possible. For a while, we looked at the Jamestown High School memorabilia and talked with some others in line. My dad took my son and went to sit down on the bleachers because it was apparent we still had awhile to go. As we neared the entrance to the gym, there was a video of Leon playing on a TV. It was looped so it would play over and over. I had learned earlier in the week that he had sent this video home to his family shortly before his death but to stand there and watch the video of this handsome young marine so full of life was heart wrenching. Because the line was moving slow we saw it several times. I remember him saying “I’m doing fine”, “I’ll send more”, and “I love you.” I was so happy that his family had received such a treasure at such a difficult time but I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as I thought of how there would be no more videos and no more “I love you’s.” It was almost more than I could bear, I wanted so badly for the line to move a little faster. As we entered the gym, we received a program of sorts. The paper had a write-up about Leon that his father had so beautifully penned and a poem of tribute that had been written by his older sister. After some more tears, I was overwhelmed with the need to hold my baby boy. Although he had no idea about what was happening, I knew being close to him would bring me some comfort. Truthfully, I was hoping that a smiling baby boy might do the same for Leon’s family too. The lined moved up a little closer. A thoughtful lady that was volunteering to help at the visitation gathered up some peppermints into a bag and started going all the way down the waiting line inside and out. I remembered being so struck by this awesome display of hospitality. The walls of the gym were lined with poster after poster made by the kids who attended the Jamestown school. Several had famous quotes but others had personal notes. The one I remember the most was “Leon, you are the only person I would shave my head for.” You see, several of Leon’s friends and family members were now donning Marine haircuts as a tribute to their fallen hero. I was so touched by that, I wanted a way to pay tribute to him also. As we neared the family with Kleenexes in hand, we came to a big screen TV that was playing a slide show of Leon’s life. There was music playing in the background. The song I remember was Jeremy Camp’s song “Right Here”. “Everywhere you go, I know you’re not far away, You’re right here” he sang over and over. The pictures I got to see were of his childhood. He was playing with his brothers and sisters, he was celebrating birthdays, smiling and having fun. The line started to move again, I found myself wishing I could stay and watch the rest of the “story.” We started down the line of family members. There were hugs and tears. Sometimes I felt as though they were comforting me more than I was comforting them. There were no words I could say to ease their pain. I could only say that I was sorry and that I had been and will be praying for them. I looked around at the setting. There were marines standing next to a closed casket. I wondered how difficult it must be to not even be able to see their precious loved one for a final time. There were beautiful flowers everywhere. Someone had framed some pictures of him when he was small and written some words about the courage he had that was unknown at that time. There were now dozens of people sitting on the bleachers waiting patiently to pay their respects to the family. Words do little to express the feelings of this moment.
The next morning we woke up and drove back to town for the funeral. I guess that normally, one might think that attending the visitation of someone you didn’t know was “enough.” In this case however, it was not. Leon gave his life for my freedom and the little I could give back to him was a few hours of my time. We had heard to follow the flags to the small country church where the funeral was being held. We drove past mile after mile after mile of thousands of American flags that lined the road on each side. We arrived nearly an hour early but there were already many people there. We took a seat outside to watch the services on one of the large TVs that had been set up in the yard due to the lack of seating inside the church. It was a beautiful sunny day. I looked up to see a large bird soaring overhead. Person after person arrived. A little after 10:00am, we heard the roaring of dozens of motorcycles escorting the funeral procession down the narrow gravel road to the church. The Patriot Guard parked and stood silently, many holding American flags, while the casket and Leon’s family filed into the church. The service was nice. The priest gave a profound and moving sermon. I remember thinking again, as I had so many times before, how does someone face such a tragedy without their Christian faith to turn to? When the service concluded we all sang “America the Beautiful” as some of Leon’s fellow Marines carried his casket to the burial site next to the church past the line-up of saluting boy scouts. His family took their seats next to the site and the burial service began. I don’t remember the exact order of events but I remember vividly several things which will be engrained into my memory forever. His parents received Leon’s purple heart, Apache helicopters flew over, there was a twenty-one gun salute and a marine knelt down on one knee as he handed the neatly folded American flag to Leon’s mother and father. During all this many of the mourners were overtaken by their grief. There was loud sobbing and there were quiet tears. Every person there will have that day etched in their memory for a very long time. As the service concluded and people began to disperse, I finally figured out what small thing I could do to honor Lance Corporal Leon Bertrand Deraps. I turned to my husband and said “makes you want to never let a serviceman or woman go by without saying ‘thank you.’.” So that’s it. It’s not earth-shattering or mind-blowing, but it is my small way of giving back for the one who gave his all for my freedom and the freedom of all Americans. I will fight past my shyness. I will fight past my insecurities. I will always say “Thank You.” I started last week at the Memorial Day parade, when will you?