For Love of Country
by Jay Barishefsky
Those words come to me when I think of Shawn P. Hefner, a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corp, who laid down his life for love of country. My relationship to Shawn is that of Uncle–to-Nephew via marriage. I did not have the pleasure of meeting Shawn, as he entered the Marines while I was dating his aunt, and then was sent for training, and onward to deployment in Afghanistan. But his death illustrated to me in many ways how we love our country. From all the stories I’ve heard of this young man, he was fearless and full of life. He loved jokes, pranks, and laughs with his friends. Yet when things turned serious, when a friend’s life was on the line, he went into action. He did what was necessary to keep his buddies out of harm’s way.
From the beginning of Shawn’s journey home to Hico, TX, a small town of 1,350 citizens, you sensed the sorrow of his loss mixed with the patriotic spirit of his sacrifice. The trip began as several family members drove to Waco to escort Shawn’s remains home to Hico. What awaited the original group of 6 cars at the Waco regional airport was a Texas State Trooper escort at the head of a long procession, with a line of 40-50 bikers from the Patriot Guard riding with us. Motorcycle Clubs, such as the Patriotic Guard, Freedom Riders, etc; - have accepted as one of their missions to lend their assistance to bereaving families of veterans. They make the ceremonies the families will endure easier, by deterring political groups from protesting too close to the funeral. They help in hundreds of other ways, but most of all just by being there for the family. The bikers, many, veterans themselves, stand up for all those that stood for us. They were exceptional to all of us start-to-finish. They do what they do for love of their country.
As the small charter plane with Shawn aboard landed and taxied along the sun-drenched tarmac, I looked at the group of motorcycles and State Troopers all lined up. I saw the Marine detail standing erectly at attention waiting to stand guard over their fallen brother. I noticed the cluster of family, friends, and neighbors that stood huddled in the bright sun, and cool breeze as we watched Shawn placed before us. He was loaded in the hearse for the ride home to Hico and I felt the mixture of emotions, - Pride, Loss, Sorrow, Courage. The ceremony at the airport, while brief was a tribute to a fallen Marine. And after a short time Shawn was ready to go home.
As we drove along the road the flashing lights of the State Troopers and the loud revving of the Patriot Guard’s Motorcycles gave everyone coming towards us a clear idea what was coming. A hero - A fallen hero – A hero who fell for us. Shawn’s Hearse drove behind the motorcycles and led 20 cars that were bringing him home. As we continued on our journey it was soon made evident that we were not alone in making sure he was welcomed home. The drive from Waco to Hico is around 90 miles and crosses through many small Texas towns. As we drove down the road we encountered initially small groups of people that stood near the side of the road; some with signs thanking Shawn for his sacrifice, some in support of our troops and country. Others waved the flag, and a few stood saluting. On the opposite side of the road people in their cars stopped and waited for the procession to pass. Many got out of their cars and stood, with hands over their hearts, and a few even saluted. We were witnessing the act of citizens showing their love of country by showing respect for one of their own, who had made the ultimate sacrifice for them.
As we continued the drive we passed a number of towns where the turnout of support for Shawn would choke up the even most stoic amongst us. Towns such as Clifton, Meridian, and Iredell where throngs of people standing 2-3 deep with the single focus of showing their support to Shawn and his family were breath-taking, and so powerful of sentiment, words are difficult to describe the level of pride in their love of country.
There are quite a few of our countrymen that deserve special recognition. Along the route, we passed several older gentlemen, not always together, in fact, often standing alone by the side of the road. These men looked like they were members of our Greatest Generation, Who years before had saluted many times, and were willing to salute again for one of their own. Whatever their health that day, they stood tall, erect, and strong. Their salute was crisp and held as the lengthy procession passed.
Of all the sights we saw that day none match what we witnessed when we arrived in Hico. Hico – the town of 1,350. – The town that Shawn called home had come out to welcome one of their favorite sons home. The main streets appeared to have the entire town’s population 5 or 6 people deep along the streets. Many were waving flags and signs of support for Shawn, his family, the troops, and our country. The children in school were bused to the main street so they could join in showing their support to Shawn and his family. They came for love of country, and to appreciate Shawn’s love of country. Norman Rockwell’s Americana paintings could never do justice to the images we saw, and the emotions we felt.
As the procession pulled up to the funeral home we walked from our cars towards Shawn’s hearse. The crowds in the streets surged with us. We all wanted to be present as Shawn continued his journey, and would be placed in the funeral home for visitation. The Marine Honor Guard escorted their fallen brother into the funeral home and stood watch over him for the remainder of the day, through the night, and into the following day until he was ready to take his final ride. While looking at this group of Marines, you can’t help but realize that they, like Shawn, enlisted in the service to protect our nation because of love of country. They carried out the rituals honoring Shawn in a manner that bestowed the respect they had for him. They never left Shawn from the time he arrived in Waco until the moment he was buried.
On the following day we gathered at the church to pay final homage to Shawn. While the previous day the sun was shining bright, today the skies were overcast and cooler. The rain had come and gone but left the ground soggy. As we walked into the church joining his family, friends, and neighbors were the Patriot Guard, and a group of veterans from the Greatest Generation who were there to honor Shawn when he arrived.
As the hearse pulled under the driveway roof the Patriot Guard bikers formed one line, while the older veterans stood at attention across from them. The Marine detail had taken their prescribed places to escort Shawn from the hearse into the church. In crisp fashion these active duty patriots carried out their duties and Shawn was brought into the church. He was there for his love of God and Country.
Before the funeral the pews started filling with those that wanted to pay their respects to Shawn. As the service began we could see a collage of pictures of Shawn presented on a large screen on the wall behind the pulpit. The pictures showed Shawn in his years as a Marine, and before. Almost all had him smiling or with a sly grin on his face. Some of them showed him with his buddies, others with his family. But in the end the pictures showed a young man whose life ended too soon.
We heard several stories about this young man from some that knew him well. Quite a few of these tales made everyone laugh. However, one story was told of his heroism to pull a buddy out of a military transport that was blown up. After his friend was trapped, Shawn pulled him to safety and made us all the more aware of how special Shawn was. The words that came out of their mouths to describe Shawn included fearless, dependable, smart, proud, funny, and hard-working. Exactly the words would you expect to describe a Marine. A man who had a love of Country.
As the service concluded the next step on Shawn’s journey was his final one. Shawn was placed in the hearse and we got in our cars to join the long procession to the cemetery. The procession traveled through the streets of Hico, where it seemed that nearly everyone in town was driving to the cemetery, and the very few who weren’t, were standing along the streets. Most with flags in their hands as we passed.
As I drove in the procession, I glanced in my rear view mirror and could see an endless line of car lights glaring back at me. I looked harder and could not see the end of the procession. As we parked along the narrow road ways and got out of the cars we could feel the soft ground beneath our feet. The slight hint of mud resulting from the rain earlier made us careful as we walked over to the tent and where Shawn would be buried. As we gathered under the tent, the family, friends, neighbors, and those who wanted to pay respect to a hero came close together. Some of those that came didn’t personally know Shawn, but were parents of those who served with him.
The preacher was waiting for the last few to arrive from the fields where they parked before starting the service. The Marine Honor Guard stood ready to carry out their final duties. The Marine detail carried Shawn to his final resting place under the tent and stood over him as the preacher began the service and led us in prayer. The Marine Honor Guard ceremoniously and in exacting fashion folded the national colors in the detailed manner so that the field of blue is shown on all three sides. The flag was then presented by the Honor Guard to Shawn’s Battalion commander, who was present at the funeral. He in turn presented the national colors to Shawn’s mother Robin, and extended his sympathies on behalf of the President of the United States, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. A line of seven Marines with rifles ready bestowed their honor to their fallen brother with a 21 gun salute. Taps was played. The crowd was hushed as the sounds of the bugle rang out. The only other sound was the weeping of those present as we realized that the man lain before us who had a love of country would not be among us anymore.
My final thoughts rest with Shawn’s parents, Pat and Robin. I could never know what they were feeling or thinking as the last few days passed. But their strength and courage to deal with the events helped others find strength themselves, and not crumble and collapse beneath their grief. They raised a great son. He was a strong young man who had a love of country, and showed me more reasons why I love mine.