By Lt. Steven G. Xiarhos
In honor of all of the fallen American Warriors from all over our great country with special recognition to our fallen Cape Cod hometown heroes:
In the spring of 2009, I joined 400 other runners on a 5 mile route in my hometown of Yarmouth, Massachusetts. I ran carrying the flags of the United States of America and the United States Marine Corps in support of our great country and our armed forces. A proud dad, I ran wearing a Marine Corps shirt in special recognition of my 21 year old son, Nicholas – a United States Marine Infantry Assaultman.
At the end of the race, I saw another runner wearing a United States Navy shirt. I walked over to him and thanked him for his service to our country. Another proud dad, he disclosed that he was not in the Navy; he was wearing the shirt to honor his son Gregory – a Navy Corpsman. He looked at my Marine Corps shirt and thanked me for my service. He smiled at my explanation. Proud dads both, Chip Hartford and I became instant friends.
Over post-race beers, we learned that our sons had more in common than their desire to serve. Both were from Yarmouth and both were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan – both with the historic Marine Expeditionary Brigade. It wasn’t unusual for a Marine Infantry Assaultman and a Navy Corpsman to be assigned to a Marine Brigade –the Marines never go anywhere without the Navy Corpsman, who have a long tradition of serving with, and saving the lives of, Marines. The majority of the Navy’s decorations for valor are awarded to Corpsmen, medics who will charge through the gates of Hell to assist a Marine injured in battle. Marines call their Corpsman “Doc” and declare that they don’t wonder if their “Doc” will save their lives; they only wonder when. Chip hoped that Corporal Nicholas Xiarhos would protect his son in the face of danger. I hoped that Corpsman Gregory “Doc” Hartford would keep Nick alive in the face of death. Two very proud dads. Two very brave sons.
Chip and I kept in touch, exchanging emails. We proudly displayed American flags at our homes. His was teamed with the Navy flag, mine with the Marine Corps flag. Two very proud dads, we flew them with the immense pride of all parents whose loved one was in harm’s way. He promised to tell his son to keep an eye out for Nick and his Marine brothers in the 2/8 Marine Regiment.
It was Greg’s first deployment. I knew his family was nervous. When Chip introduced me to his wife and daughter, I assured them that Greg would be fine, that he was serving with America’s best and would be safe. It was Nick’s second deployment. I had learned the cost of war when Nick escaped death in Iraq during his first deployment. Two young Marines – Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter – saved 50 lives when they stood in the path of a suicide truck filled with explosives. I accompanied Nick to the ceremony where Jonathan and Jordan were posthumously awarded the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross. They taught me that young men could die. I knew the Brigade that Nick and Greg were with would be fighting battles at the height of “the killing season” in Afghanistan. I knew young men would die. I never told the Hartford family. I always assured them that Greg would return home with Nick in time for Christmas.
Nick already shared a bond with another Yarmouth resident – and fellow Marine who was also deploying with the Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Corporal Andrew Coville. In fact, Nick was not supposed to be part of the Brigade’s Afghanistan mission. He had just returned from Iraq but decided to volunteer to fight alongside Andrew with the 2/8 Regiment.
We’d said goodbye to Nick and the other 200 members of 2/8 Weapons Company at Camp Lejeune on May 15, 2009. Nick gave me the most incredible hug. I swelled with pride at the strong man he had become. I told him that I loved him and that I was extremely proud of him. I said, “Please be careful.” I told him I hoped he’d always take care of his brother Marines, that they’d finish their mission and that they – he – would come home safe. As he walked away, I prayed that I would be able to see him again, to touch him again, and to tell him again what a proud dad I am.
A few months after Chip and I met – on July 23, 2009 – my family’s whole world collapsed when we experienced every military family’s nightmare. Our brave son Nicholas had been killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan. We were completely devastated and heartbroken. The next day, at Dover Air Force Base, we watched Nick come back to American soil, escorted home in honor, carried home by six of his brother Marines, welcomed home by his loving family.
Nick returned to Yarmouth a few days later and was remembered at the most amazing wake and funeral. Our whole town stopped during the prime of the busy tourist season. People lined the streets with American flags as a tribute to Nick. We were overwhelmed by the flood of support. We continue to struggle but we are sustained by intense pride.
I did not seek out “Doc” Hartford’s family after Nick died. I didn’t want to remind them of the tragedies that could occur. I didn’t want to increase their worry about Greg, who was still on the battleground. In December 2009, my wife Lisa, Nick’s brother Alex, their twin sisters Elizabeth and Ashlynne, and I attended the 2/8 Regiment Memorial Service at Camp Lejeune. The 2/8 had fought hard. They’d taken and held their battle space. They’d built the foundation for success before returning home. But their part of the mission had been accomplished at great cost. Fourteen young Marines were missing from the Regiment. Their portraits stood side by side on the stage with reverence. The memorial service was emotional and powerful.
As Christmas neared, many of the packages that we’d sent Nick were returned unopened. His personal belongings were compassionately hand-delivered by Marines. The holiday season without Nick was difficult so I decided to work on Christmas Day. I am a 30 year veteran and the Patrol Force Commander of the Yarmouth Police Department. I didn’t have to work on Christmas but I chose to relieve a young Sergeant who would be away from his small children. Around 1pm, a young man came into the lobby and asked to see me. He was dressed in civilian clothes topped with a classic Navy Pea coat. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Navy Corpsman Gregory Hartford. I felt humbled by his visit. I hugged him. He asked if we could speak in private.
We sat in my office surrounded by pictures of Nick and my family. I expected Greg to express sympathy, and he did, telling me that Nick had left his footprints in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, and earned his place in American history. What I didn’t expect was for Greg to tell me that he was with Nick when he died. He informed me that Nick was transported by helicopter after being severely wounded by a roadside bomb. Nick would not give up. He fought for his life for over three hours. The doctors were amazed by his strength and will to survive. Unfortunately, they were unable to save him. Greg had hoped to meet Nick after hearing how his dad had met me, but their paths hadn’t crossed until Nick was on his operating table. Greg called Nick a true hero right to the end. He assured me that Nick’s sacrifice was not in vain. Afghanistan is “hell on earth” but they’d made great strides in hopes of helping the many good people in need over there. He said there were many “very bad men” over there but mused that they had never met any United States Marines before. He vowed that we will win this war.
Fighting back the tears, I told Greg that I was proud of him and extremely grateful for his visit. He shared his hope to return to Afghanistan as a Navy Seal. I cautioned him to be safe, and asked him to keep in touch and say hello to his family. Just before we parted, Greg took a small, tattered package from his pocket. When the doctors learned that Greg and Nick were from the same town they entrusted him with a pocket knife they’d found in Nick’s pocket. He handed it to me. It was the knife that I’d given Nick at Camp Lejeune before he left for Afghanistan – a gift from a very proud dad to a very brave son. I embraced Greg – Navy Corpsman Gregory Hartford – tightly, and just for a second . . . he was Nick.
On a sunny spring afternoon in the safety of a small town in Massachusetts two family men met and bonded over their sons’ shared dreams, and shared peril.
On a dusty, bloody summer evening halfway around the world on the battlefields of Afghanistan, two young men from the same hometown met in a rustic hospital tent, sharing the burdens of duty, and grasping at life.
On a brisk, emotional Christmas afternoon, the son of a thankful dad sought out the grieving dad of the other to return a treasured gift – to a very proud dad from a very brave son.
Two very proud dads and two very brave sons . . .
Note – After returning from Afghanistan, Navy Corpsman Gregory Hartford spent some time at Camp Lejeune before volunteering for the Haiti humanitarian mission. He is currently in Port au Prince helping the many good people in need in that suffering nation. I’m certain that Nick is with him in spirit.
In memory of Nicholas G. Xiarhos on his 22nd birthday February 12, 2010. Happy Birthday Nick! Love always…Dad