One daughter, two brothers, five coworkers, 59 immediate family members, 692 facebook friends. Everyday I interact with a number of people who impact my life in a variety of ways and on many different levels and depths. Throughout life we meet and intermingle with countless faces, never knowing whichinteraction will be a forgotten memory by tomorrow and who will still be sitting by our side in 30 years. The gift given to all people that enables us to form relationships and bonds is a complicated and truly beautiful gift from our creator. Sometimes the footprints that people leave on our hearts can last a lifetime.
I believe that sometimes a bond can form that is so strong that death itself cannot sever a relationship and keep it from growing.
My youngest brother entered his freshman year of high school the same year I left for college. While I was not around for his high school years on a day to day basis, I was home enough to meet many of his friends and attend his baseball and basketball games. They were all like little brothers to me. Sam was and is a social butterfly. He’s everyone’s best friend. A school mate of his began hanging out at our house. He was there so much, that at times I would come home, my family would be out and about and TJ would be the only one there. Thomas “TJ” Zapp met Sam while playing baseball at Elsik high school. They hung out all the time. Two peas in a pod. Over their 4 years of high school they shared many ups and downs, good days and bad, agreed and disagreed. They were so close they were like brothers. They learned much about life together and although we did not know at the time, TJ would teach us one of our biggest lessons about the human condition. During their senior year TJ began having trouble at home with family and moved into our house for awhile. It really wasn’t much of an issue since he was always there anyways. J His family troubles began to dissipate as graduation grew near and both TJ and Sam began planning future. Talk of graudation always seemed to ease tensions for everyone.
TJ decided to enlist in the United States Marines. He left for basic training and I didn’t hear much about him for awhile. Sam of course kept in close contact. Merely five weeks after TJ graduated basic training he was deployed to Iraq where his destiny and fate would collide with tragedy. On October 8, 2004, only five months after graduating high school, the 18 year old Marine lost his life defending our country during Operation Iraqi Freedom at the Battle of Fallujah. The news was numbing. I received the call from my brother around 3:00 am and he told me the news as he fought through his tears, anger and despair. His family was devastated. The whole world seemed to stand still for awhile.
After many weeks of heartache, life began to move on for everyone. Sam often talked about TJ and went to visit his mother. As the years passed by the scars left by TJ’s untimely death began to heal.
Six years later, during the summer 2010, my mother and her husband took a two week vacation to New England. Their itinerary spanned Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and many small towns in between. In true “Mom” fashion, she decided to take a tour of the US Mint in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While on the tour she saw a tattered American flag hung on the wall with a plaque. Coming from a family with a heavy military background, she was intrigued and began to read. The plaque tells the tale of a US Mint worker who was deployed and asked to take the flag with him on his tour of duty. The Mint operator agreed to let him take the flag as long as he agreed to return it. The Mint worker deployed with the flag and returned some times later in one piece with the flag. Years later he again deployed and again asked if he could take the flag and again he was permitted to as long as he would return the flag. It was on this tour; however, that the unit the Mint worker experienced an encounter like none he had ever had before. He was leading his unit under orders to attack the insurgent infested Iraqi City of Fallujah and the unit met resistance. The story told of the battle of Fallujah. It continued to recount the events of October 8, 2004 and the tale of two marines from this unit that lost their lives during this battle.
Frozen with disbelief my mother began to cry and her heart dropped. It couldn’t be TJ could it? She couldn’t remember the dates, but something in her gut told her this was the story of TJ’s last moments on Earth. She stood in the quiet hallway 1,000 miles away from the house where Sam and TJ spent hours upon hours laughing and playing. How was it possible that she unexpectedly happened upon a quiet reminder that he existed. His life was real. Though time had passed and life had moved on, TJ’s life was being remembered in that small quiet hallway of the US Mint.
To be sure she returned to her hotel room and looked up the date of TJ’s passing. Indeed this battle, this unit, and this story was about TJ. It was as if he opened the heavens himself and whispered down to Earth a gentle “Hello”. The following morning my mother returned to the Mint and told her story to the people who run the facility. While cameras were not allowed in the Mint they assured her that they would send her a copy of the plaque that was on the wall. She also uncovered the name of the second Marine that died that day, a young man named David Ries.
Through a little googleing and the magic of Facebook I was able to track down David Ries’ family in under an hour. They had no idea that the memorial inside the Mint existed and had been looking for Tj’s family. Tj’s family was amazed and grateful for the exhibit that honored their son and told the story of his final day. His life was not in vain and the world would now know it. The US mint replaced the plaque with one that identified the Marines by name and sent medals and a flag encased in a cherry wood box to each of the families. This cross country coincidence has brought peace and closure to our lives.
While TJ can never be replaced in our lives, his memory will live on. The bond that he had with my brother and my family was an example of those special bonds that happen only a few times in a lifetime. A bond that cannot be silenced by death. If you are even at the US Mint please take a moment to read the exhibits about the fallen soldiers and have a moment of silence. Thank you to all the veterans and servicemen who protect us all.