By now you may’ve seen the pictures going viral. Dozens of Marines hoisting wooden crosses on their shoulders and carrying them up the side of a mountain have been filling my Facebook timeline for days, and several news outlets, including the Marine Corps Times, have covered the event. The following images were provided to me by Sangin Valley Gun Club’s Facebook Fan Page
Marines follow their “guide”, the United States Flag, up 1st Sgt’s Hill.
At one point, several Marines need to help carry the crosses as the terrain gets difficult to scale.
So, what happened? During the massive fires that engulfed Southern California earlier this month, a small group of five Marines, and reportedly two Corpsmen, raced up the side of a treacherous hill known as 1st Sgt’s Hill, to save nearly two dozen memorial crosses from the furious flames. I’ve been told that, by the time the last cross was freed from the hill, the wall of flames was within thirty feet of the men.
Today, I had the opportunity to chat via text with one of the Marines who tore into the fires to save the crosses.
Lance Corporal Joshua Hayes, a Dark Horse Marine with the infamous Third Battalion Fifth Marines, sends me the first of several text messages.
“It was about noon. I was in the lounge. We could see the fire in the backyard. As soon as we got two trucks, five of us loaded up.”
I try to picture what that might’ve looked like had I been there. I imagine it’s hot, as weather reports at the time reported temps into the nineties. I also imagine, based on my own time in California during raging wild-fires, that the air is hazy, full of smoke and floating ash. I close my eyes and imagine trying to breathe, wearing cammies and heavy boots, as I jump into the bed of a pickup truck with four of my buddies. I imagine my heart is pounding with the adrenaline that possesses a Marine when he’s about to enter into a dangerous operation. My eyes focus on the top of 1st Sgt’s Hill, a not so favorite hill on the north side of Camp Pendleton that is notorious for providing a gruesome run and a painful hike. On the top of that hill sits a series of wooden crosses. Each memorializes a lost Marine from 5th Marine Regiment, and it is one of the only memorials we have that is our own. I turn my attention back to the Marine texting me.
“Myself, LCpl Fisher, Cpl Mazure, Cpl Cortez and Cpl Arnold. We drove up Jackson’s Pass. At this point, the fire was halfway up 1st Sgt’s Hill. When we got to the top, the trucks split up because the crosses were in different areas. We got out, flying around grabbing up crosses as fast as we could, and loaded them into the trucks and we regrouped at the last group of crosses. The fire was getting pretty close. They were down on this little path. I was afraid we weren’t going to get them in time, but we did and about halfway down the fire break a few more trucks had made it up and we spread loading them so we didn’t lose any on the way back.”
I ask LCpl Hayes why he did it.
“It was important to me because they meant something to a lot of people. Had they meant something to just one person that would have been enough reason.”
I stop reading for a moment. This is the future of our Marine Corps, talking to me right now. This Marine, who would push right into the fire, without a second thought, with his brothers beside him, to save what some might view as simply a few pieces of wood commemorating some men who no longer live… this Marine is the future of our Marine Corps. Because he knows these aren’t just sticks to remind people that some men once lived. He knows that these crosses are all those men have left of their brothers. Their brothers that he’s never even met. Their brothers who gave their lives on the battle field before this man was ever a Marine…. He is the epitome of a Marine. I’m filled with awe as I continue to read the messages.
“On my second day in the fleet, we ran up to the crosses and were told the stories of those Marines. That’s what I would strive to be like. Not only as a Marine, but as a man in general.”
I contemplate that as the conversation enters a lull. I ask him if he was nervous going up the hill. Was he worried that the command might frown on a bunch of rogue Marines rushing into an angry fire without permission first? His answer is so magnificently “Marine” that I chuckle a bit.
“I was in the mindset of ‘hurry up and get the crosses’. That was the mission. I couldn’t have cared less what the command thought.”
As it turns out, the command approved of their actions. At least, no one got into trouble. When I ask him what the command had to say about it all, he replies.
“Pat on the back, nothing negative.”
That’s about as good as it gets in the Marine Corps. The best praise is your senior enlisted guy, slapping your shoulder and nodding. If Sgt. Major didn’t kill you, you must’ve done something right. LCpl Hayes tells me about taking the crosses back up.
“Everyone who turned out for it, they were in pretty good spirits. It was almost like a reunion. While I was up there, it was like a bunch of Marines hanging out, smokin and jokin about the old days.”
I chuckle again. That sounds about right. Their own little Memorial Day as they literally and figuratively carry their fallen crosses back to the top of their personal “Golgotha”. The image is a piercing one as I remember the Bible verse on the bottom of one of the 3/5 Sangin memorial photos. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay his life down for his brother.” In my mind, I’ve always seen the 25 Marines from 3/5 carrying their Jesus-like crosses to victory. The religious connotations are not lost on me. Jesus gave His life so that others might live- these Marines gave their lives so that others might freely live. Jesus called His followers to take up His cross and follow Him- these Marines, fallen but not forgotten, compel their brothers to take up their crosses and climb to the top of the hill. Those who take up the cross will live eternally with Jesus- the Marines who took up the crosses of their fallen will live eternally with the memories…
The memories that they braved the flames to rescue.