In Memory of Sgt. Joseph Garrison, Whom I Never Met, But I Owe

I hated someone once. The feeling was so deep and raw that it threatened to incinerate my heart and leave it in ashes just above my belly button. The feeling lasted for a moment, no longer, because it was so heavy and difficult to hang on to that if I’d surrendered to the pain, it would have left a scar so deep that plastic surgery couldn’t have fixed my heart to the way it was before.

The gift within that moment of burning clarity was the knowledge that the pain was my own damn fault.

Not God’s.

I never met Marine Sgt. Joseph Garrison, but on Thursday I stood outside the church in which his funeral was held, ready as best I could to make sure hate didn’t permeate the walls of the stone structure in which his family and friends mourned in the way we all deserve to mourn: in peace.

Garrison, 27, died June 6 when a road-side bomb went off near his vehicle in Helmend, Afghanistan. He was a local boy, the friend of a friend of my daughter’s, and the son of parents I knew remotely through this connection and that. Western Pennsylvania, like all the other parts of this county, raises up some mighty compassionate, dedicated children. The kind who wake us up to what’s really important.

The folks at Westboro Baptist Church threatened to bring their cardboard signs of hate to Joey Garrison’s funeral Thursday. They wanted to use his death to forward their message that God hates homosexuals and therefore kills those who serve in the military in defense of our homosexual-tolerating country…or at least that’s what I’ve been able to cull from their convoluted postings on their website.

I grew up Lutheran. Went to a Lutheran grade school, and graduated from a Lutheran college with a minor in theology. While I’m not a practicing Lutheran right now, I know Lutherans make the best church coffee ever AND they know the Bible. Individual Lutherans might not always interpret the scriptures the same, but we’re usually in the same theological boat. God’s cool, he’s mellowed with age, and while he created us in all our messiness, we still believe (yes, even me, despite my spiritual meandering the last 15 years) he loves us just the same.

There are many instances in the Bible in which God got mad. Really mad. He threw a LOT of tantrums. Flood, anyone? And while I’m pretty sure surging water wasn’t the best solution to his problem at that moment, God’s anger personifies real feelings we all experience at some point in our lives. God knows mad. But he also knows tolerance. That’s in the Bible, too.

There was an undercurrent of apprehension, volatility, anger, incomprehensiveness, sorrow, tolerance and genuine love at Joey Garrison’s funeral. The feelings were there in the counter protestors’ signs, in the flags held by the veterans – young and old – and in the hearts of the Patriot Guard Riders, who stood ready to defend against anyone who got in the way of Joey Garrison’s ride from church to cemetery.

I was at the funeral in Distant, PA, with friends; one who knew Joey and one whose son wants more than anything to be in the Air Force. Her niece was there, too. She stood quiet and alone much of the time, pondering, no doubt, the fact that her husband is in the military, training in California for what will most likely be a tour to a war zone.

We’ve not, as a nation, been asked to sacrifice much except our military personnel to the wars we’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not like World War II when citizens bought war bonds and planted victory gardens and collected steel and rubber and asked its women to work in factories dominated by a male work force but who were now fighting a war. We are disconnected in so many ways, living these wars through reports that we can ignore simply by muting the TV or turning the page of our newspapers and magazines.

But attending a military funeral – even if it’s to stand outside ready to deny access to someone who wants to disrupt mourning with hate – is something every American citizen should do. We should all listen to the bagpipes and watch as a soldier’s casket is lowered into the hearse by pall bearers dressed in their uniforms, knowing it could be them being buried that day. We should all feel the weight of the grief of the families and hear, through the looks in everyone’s eyes, the burning question, “Why?”

I’ve never felt as connected to my citizenship as I did last week. I didn’t realize how the gravity of the responsibility of our citizenship is so often lost in the very freedoms in which we move.

I am sorry for the folks at WBC who harbor, cling to and profess such hatred and anger. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with a yolk of cement tied to my heart every day.

But more than sorrow, I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. And I thank God – the very God who I’m sure still rolls his eyes and wonders what the heck this world is doing to itself – that there are folks like Joey Garrison who work every day to defend me and my sorry ass views.

Thank you, all of you, who serve and have served our country in the military and as civilians. We might not always have our crap together, but I refuse to believe we are forsaken by hate.

Peace. Namaste.

10 thoughts on “In Memory of Sgt. Joseph Garrison, Whom I Never Met, But I Owe

  1. Such an awesome post!

    Honestly, it's a struggle not to hate those Westboro people, and it's only by reminding myself that I'd be functioning at their level if I let my anger manifest to hatred. It's so much better to turn it to positive action. So far, they haven't come to this area for any of the funerals, but we're watching….

  2. Thank you Lynn for your touching and honest post. A beautiful message, spoken with compassion, feeling and understanding from the heart…………

  3. There is a lot to be said about fighting hate with love, and while it might not lead to immediately results, I HAVE to believe that it is what will prevail at the end of the day.

    Bravo for going, for posting, and for loving. If I could have, I would have been there too!

  4. I serve in the Army, and my husband and children also sacrifice in their support of me. I recently flew back from Ramstein Air Base with a fallen comrade. It was both sobering and an honor to make that final trip home with him. Thank you, Lynn, for standing up with Sgt. Garrison's family. You have honored him and them with your presence.

  5. As the lesbian daughter of a Marine veteran, I thank you for your presence at this funeral. You're a great writer, and I enjoy your blog.

  6. Good thoughts, Lynn. I once saw the WBC folks at a protest of an Arts dinner I attended. Complete surprise, or I'd have prepared a sign. (They were there because of all the gays in the arts, doncha know, and because the arts promote homosexuality. Sigh.)

    I like to think of Anne Lamott's quote, which I'll paraphrase, that hate is like trying to kill rats by swallowing the rat poison yourself. It doesn't do a damn thing to the rats, but it'll wreak havoc on you.

    It's best not to hate the WBC folks, but maybe it's okay to hope that their own hate will consume them like poison.

  7. Joey was very special to our family, and to many families in our community. He was such an amazing person with the cutest dimples when he smiled. Thank you for being there to show your support of our special hero. It really does mean so much to know and actually see how many people care.

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