One of the first people I met with my new unit was E-5 Sergeant Jeremiah Marsh. Sgt. Marsh was a local boy who’d grown up in nearby Olympia, and at the time he was living in neighboring Grayland. He was a volunteer fireman in Grayland, and he would later serve as their fire chief.
The first thing that struck me about Sgt. Marsh was his incessant smile. He’d been wearing it from the moment I’d been introduced to him. I’d at first wondered if his mouth was stuck like that, but I’d soon learn that, no, it wasn’t, because Sgt. Marsh may well have been the most talkative person I’d ever met in my life.
As he showed me around the armory and introduced me to more of the guys, he told me quite a bit about himself. He was a corrections officer at nearby Stafford Creek Prison, he’d already deployed once in the war on terror, to Kuwait, and he was excited to get back to the Middle East and serve in Iraq.
And he loved to blow things up!
Sgt. Marsh was the most excitable Field Artilleryman I’d ever known. He’d sit for hours it seemed, talking about blowing things up; the beauty in it- like it was a fine art- and to him, I believe that it was.
Before we deployed, our unit had a family picnic at which I met Sgt. Marsh’s wife and three daughters. His wife, Jill, was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I spoke with her briefly, and she was not only beautiful, but classy. And I noticed that in her presence, Sgt. Marsh watched his P’s and Q’s. He didn’t ramble. He was tame. And his three daughters, Naomi, Alivia, and Evalyn, who were just as beautiful as their mother, were stuck to him like Velcro.
This all led me to believe that there was much more to Sgt. Marsh than an incessant smile, a gift for gab, and the desire to blow things up. I decided to watch for it, and while we were in Iraq, I found it.
I walked into Sgt. Marsh’s CHU (company housing unit) one day in Iraq, and his entire room was stacked with U.S. priority mail boxes, from the floor to the ceiling. I asked him what he was mailing and to whom, and he told me that his wife had mailed all of the boxes to him.
Sgt. Marsh, through his wife Jill back home, had been running a toy drive. It was his strongest desire to organize a humanitarian mission and take all of the toys he’d been receiving out into a secluded desert village in Iraq and distribute them to local children.
“Every kid deserves a Christmas,” he told me when I asked him why he was doing this. “Could you imagine the smiles?”
It took months- many months- for Sgt. Marsh to get our higher ups to sign off on his request. It appeared as if the deployment might end before he would get his wish and dozens of little Iraqi children would receive their gifts, but everything worked out in the nick of time.
“Man! You should’ve seen the smiles on their faces!” Sgt. Marsh remarked regularly and consistently for the rest of the deployment. Often out of the blue and at the most irrelevant times, “Man! You should’ve seen the smiles on their faces!”
Though the ‘smiles on their faces’ seemed to replace blowing things up as Sgt. Marsh’s main topic of impromptu conversation, it didn’t replace the smile on his face. If anything, his experience made it even brighter, and the world around him was a brighter place for it.
We eventually made it home from deployment, and fortunately, without having lost any soldiers from our unit. Most of us went our separate ways, as is the case for Guardsmen and Reservists, but many of us stayed in touch.
I’d lost touch with Sergeant Marsh as I had with many of the battle buddies from my unit after I moved overseas and began living abroad. I got the disheartening news from my old squad leader, however, shortly after the morning of 18 February, 2012, on which Sgt. Jeremiah Marsh was killed in an automobile accident on SR 105 near his home in Washington.
Sgt. Marsh left behind a beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters and more friends than any one man could imagine befriending in a lifetime, though he was only 31 years old at the time of his death. And he left behind some amazing memories for hundreds of village children in Iraq whom he visited during our deployment, bearing gifts, in a manner they’d never seen and perhaps never will again. Due to obvious religious reasons, the majority of those children will never know a Christmas. But they do know that yes, at one time, Santa Clause was real. And his name was Sergeant Marsh.
*Kevin E Lake is an Iraq War Veteran and author of the book “Off Switch,” which was written to raise awareness of the suicide epidemic in the U.S. among our veterans. It is available on Amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Off-Switch-ebook/dp/B009Q3MSK2