From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Answering His Country’s Call

. . .Gold is good in its place, but living, brave patriotic men are better than gold.

Abraham Lincoln

The Nebe family and friends are gathered in the kitchen, holding plates laden with Mexican food, their heads bowed in prayer.

They have come on this recent Saturday evening to celebrate Justin Nebe’s brief homecoming. Eleanor and Bill Nebe’s baby boy, Nicole’s kid brother, Beatrice Gomez’s feisty grandson, is a U.S. Marine, stopping at home in Texas for a week before reporting to a California base.

Being the first Marine in his family makes him proud. His parents say it makes them proud, too. But since September 11, Justin’s recent enlistment has stirred other emotions in his family. They want, of course, for him to serve his country. But now they are fearful, too.

When Justin decided to join the Marines nearly eleven months ago, America stood at peace. He and his parents knew that he might be called on to defend his country. For his parents, the possibility seemed remote. Besides, the military seemed the perfect choice for Justin. The Marines, in particular, appealed to him. He liked the discipline. The honor. The challenge.

Last December, he finished his high-school course work. In February, he attended boot camp. In May, he graduated from boot camp and attended his high-school graduation in his Marine uniform. Since then, he has been training at bases in Florida and North Carolina. And now Justin, who will celebrate his nineteenth birthday while home, is on his way to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, near San Diego, where he will work as a helicopter mechanic.

All of this is ordinary—the experience of thousands of new enlistees each year. Except these are extraordinary times.

Outside the family home, the American and the Marine Corps flags are hoisted up the huge silver flagpole, flapping in the breeze. They once waved alone, the only flags on the block, flying to celebrate Justin’s May graduation. But there are flags everywhere now, waving proudly in front of the neighbors’ houses, marking the day America abruptly changed.

Justin’s homecoming—and his leaving—is particularly bittersweet. Each time, in the last year, when Justin has come home or the family has gone to visit, he, too, has changed. Nicole, his sister, says he walks differently. His mother can no longer see the little boy who once broke all the pencils in confirmation class at church. The teenager who once cared more about his friends than his family has evolved into a young man who says that family is what matters most.

When Justin leaves this time, he and his family do not know when they will see each other again. When Justin arrives on base, he will be given a flak jacket, a canteen and other equipment needed if he is sent to war. Though it’s unlikely he will be sent to the front lines soon, the possibility exists. And so does the uncertainty.

“I’m just worrying more and more,” says Mrs. Nebe.

“I have mixed emotions, obviously,” says Mr. Nebe.

“I want to fight for my country,” says Justin, a refrain he repeats often.

At the dining room table, Justin, who weighs 207 pounds and stands over six feet tall, is eating a tamale.

Mrs. Nebe stands behind him, her hand stroking his crew cut. She suddenly smothers him with kisses.

On Sunday, Justin stands before the mirror in his mother’s bathroom, trying to button up the collar of his dress uniform. The cloth is straining against the width of his neck. The material is stretched across his shoulders. The weight training has thickened his physique.

Once he has buttoned the jacket, he asks his mother to make his eagle buttons parallel with the deck. Mrs. Nebe carefully turns each button so that the eagle embossed on them has its feet parallel with the ground and its head pointed skyward. She tucks in a stray string. Justin pulls on white gloves. They are ready.

Dressed in his uniform, Justin moves differently. He stands straight and moves crisply. He says he has a different attitude.

“I walk more proud, you know?” he says.

In the parking lot of Trietsch Memorial United Methodist Church, Justin offers an arm to his mother and one to his girlfriend, and they begin to stride toward the church, past the small white crosses that the congregation has pushed into the grass to mark each of the nearly six thousand victims of September 11. Justin stops. He motions to the women to start with their right foot. They stride again, this time in step.

The Reverend Jim Ozier has known Justin for years. The pastor has him stand before the congregation, which Justin does, his shoulders squared, his feet slightly apart.

“It seems just like yesterday when I scolded him for breaking all those pencils in confirmation class,” Reverend Ozier says. “What a little twerp.” There is laughter. “But look at him now.” There is applause.

At the end of the service, the Nebes all stand in the pulpit with Reverend Ozier, their arms locked around each other as the minister gives the final benediction.

The week goes by quickly, and suddenly it is Saturday and Justin must leave.

On the closet door, fatigues hang from a knob. His bedroom is cluttered with half-packed suitcases. He has already said good-bye to his father and his sister, since they had to leave the house early.

His mother tells him over and over again to pack. But Justin is sprawled across the couch with his girlfriend Amanda, whispering in her ear, wiping away her tears. The pair have been dating for more than a year and have even discussed marriage, although both agree they have no immediate plans. On his bed, Amanda has placed a shoebox she has covered with colored paper. “My heart belongs to you,” say the words on the lid.

He can’t wait much longer to pack. Soon, his Marine buddy, Jason, will arrive from Plano; they will load up his truck and start the long drive to the base in California. Justin tears himself away and begins to throw clothes into open suitcases in his room.

An assembly line soon forms, and his mother, grandmother, and friend, Taylor, take the bags as they are packed and place them in the foyer.

In minutes, Jason arrives. The young men wedge suitcases into the flatbed of the truck.

“I need to leave,” Justin says. He sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself.

Mrs. Nebe keeps going back to his room and coming out with stray items—his white hat, a pillow and a surge protector.

He hugs his mother and his grandmother. Mrs. Gomez walks silently away, her hand brushing away the tears. Justin sees her.

“Come here, Grandma,” he says, and he stoops down and engulfs the petite woman in a hug.

Mrs. Nebe isn’t quite ready to let go. Tears are slipping down her cheeks. “Do you have your wallet? All your money? Did you leave your toothbrush?”

Justin doesn’t answer. He hugs her again. Then Amanda. Then Taylor. It’s time.

Justin finally gets into the truck and Jason backs out of the driveway.

He leans out the passenger window. “Bye. Love you guys,” he says. And the truck roars away.

Karen A. Thomas

Acts of courage shape human history. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.

Robert F. Kennedy

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