ARLINGTON, Va. (June 25, 1998.) --
My name is Corporal Rudy Ibarra Jr. I am stationed at Henderson Hall and work at Headquarters Marine Corps.
I have seen a lot of things in my time and have been a part of many
interesting adventures in the Marine Corps. But nothing in my past could
have given me the pleasure of experiencing the Marine Corps as I did today.
I was asked to volunteer for a funeral for retired Sergeant Major
Herbert Sweet, fourth Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and a true Marine.
I knew very little about this man, just that he was a Marine. That's
all I needed to know. If his wife wanted a Marine present at his service,
then a Marine she would get. I did not feel that it was a painful service
and something that I had to go out of my way to do. I felt it was my great
honor to represent my father and all the men who served with the sergeant
major during World War II.
My father and Sgt. Maj. Sweet probably never met or even knew of each
other's existence, but they were Marines, and Marines are brothers for
life. He was on Iwo Jima during the time Sgt. Maj. Sweet was chewing the
same dirt as all the other great men who gave of themselves and there lives
on that island.
This funeral meant more to me then just another detail that I was
assigned to; it was a time to give back a little of what the Marine Corps
has given me and all others before me.
I arrived early at the funeral parlor. We had a sergeant, a lance
corporal, and one other corporal besides myself. We entered the room that
held the sergeant major's coffin. We set up the flags, and I walked half
way up to the coffin. I stopped. A flash of memories and future events
rolled through my mind. I saw my childhood friend, Ronnie, who died in a
car crash. I went to his funeral. He was a Marine and died just before he
was supposed to get out. He wanted to make a future for himself outside of
the Marine Corps.
I saw my Father -- this was the worst vision I saw -- my father in
that coffin with the draped American flag. I saw all of this in a matter of
seconds, but it seemed like hours. I wanted to leave, but I could not
because I could not disgrace my father or my Corps by leaving. My Father
told me once, "Don't ever disgrace my Corps or my country son, too many
Marines have died for you to mess it up." He loves the Corps, and to
imagine the feelings my father has for his Corps after all this time is
something that can only be experienced through serving in the Corps
People often ask me why I joined, and I tell them because of my
father. He never told me to do it, or even hinted at it. He is a great man
and a Marine, one who I would love to be like, one who is respected
wherever he goes and by whomever he talks to. He hardly mentions his time
in and what he has seen, but you know he was in because of his faded
tattoo, an eagle, globe and anchor on his right forearm. It is black and
white, faded, and not as sharp as it once was when it was young.
As time pressed on, we were told that Sgt. Maj. Sweet's family was
present and on deck. We placed our covers and headed to the door to meet a
woman I had never seen. She and her whole family were in the main entrance
waiting for us. We Marines, whom she had never met, wanted to see us, to
tell each of us "thank-you" for volunteering to come. She shook the hands
of two Marines before mine, but when she got to me she said, "Thank you for
coming and volunteering your time."
I said it was an honor to be here and represent my Corps to your
husband. I told her my father and her husband had chewed the same dirt on
Iwo Jima together, and that I represent not only myself but my father in
his absence. I shook with both my hands, surrounding her one, but after I
said that, she put her other hand on mine.
She was proud of her husband and what he stood for, so she was proud
of us. This is just what I have been trying to express to all Marines I
meet. It is incredible what love there is for you just because you're a
simple word -- Marine. To this woman it meant enough to embrace us and to
accept us into her family. She didn't care what we had done in the past or
if we were the best the Marine Corps had to offer. All she knew is that her
husband and we were equal in one way, a title that we all had to earn and
all must maintain throughout our career. Marine -- that word -- such a
simple word but so powerful. It is more than a title; it means that you are
now a part of a brotherhood that will never die, "because the Marine Corps
will live forever."
Many people came in to the funeral parlor, and the first few most were
civilians. I had the pleasure of meeting former Sergeants Majors of the
Marine Corps, World War II veterans, Korean War veterans, and Marines who
are still serving. All expressed love for their Corps and their fellow
brothers who have died and the ones who still serve our country.
A lot has changed since the days of World War II, but one thing
remains the same -- you never forget people you meet in the Marine Corps.
They will never forget Sgt. Maj. Sweet, a man who influenced them not
because he was the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, but because he was a
man who cared about Marines. You do not get four Purple Hearts for standing
by and watching other people work and carry your load. He earned one of his
Purple Hearts when he was a first sergeant. He wanted to fight and fight he
did. He put his life on the line for his Marines. He could not ask them to
put there lives at risk if he did not give of his own.
The local chapter of the Fleet Reserve Marine Force was there, a
chapter that the sergeant major was a member of. They had a little meeting
in a separate room away from the coffin. They had wanted to move the colors
in front of the coffin for a ceremony they conduct when one of their fellow
shipmates passes on. I had overheard them, so when they came out of the
room I went up to the leader of the chapter and asked if he wanted us to
move the colors. I figured he would just want us to move them in front of
the coffin and that would be it.
He asked if I and the sergeant would hold the flags on either side of
the coffin and stand at attention. We said yes, and proceeded to get the
colors. I took the Marine Corps flag and the sergeant took the American
The head of the chapter led the other members to the front of the
sergeant major's coffin after we had posted. One man called attention to
orders. He read words from a sheet of paper that seemed like poetry. "Here
we have today our shipmate who has fallen but will never be forgotten ...
"I really can't remember word for word but it started out so
beautifully. He continued, Sergeant Major Sweet has been given orders to
serve post at the side of God." That brought memories of our song, the
Marines' Hymn. We guard the gates of heaven, and now the sergeant major
guards the Commandant of Heaven.
After he read his message he called roll. All members were present
until he called "Sergeant Major Sweet ... Sergeant Major Sweet ... Sergeant
Major Sweet ... Sergeant Major Sweet." He said this four times, then one
man in the rear responded. "He is unable to answer his presence, for he is
now at a new post.
In those few moments when his name went unanswered, I felt my own
heart filled with the same emotion as all others who knew him. I have lost
a brother and a friend. As a child, I was told never to cry, and as I grew
up in the Marine Corps I was told never to show emotion. "Bearing" is what
we call it, a stone face and cold heart.
My eyes watered up and one tear was about to leave my trembling face.
Then the end of the names were read, and a man from the chapter standing
over a cassette player pressed a button and played Taps. All stood at
attention, and all stood proud. As I heard the sweet, sad song of the lone
bugler, my eyes began to shed its tears. My emotion was let loose because
this is what I will one day have to do for my Father, and my future family
will have to do for me. Stand at attention for a fallen brother, his coffin
draped in a flag for which he fought, a flag which he loved very much.
I did not care who saw my tears or if it was not manly to show them in
public. I cried with all the others who heard that song played that day, I
knew the men in the chapter saw, and most of them cried as well. I heard
their hearts as I heard my own.
We all lost a brother that day. In fact, we lose Marines every day,
most of them under preventable circumstances that could have been avoided.
All are important, and all -- no matter what they have done -- are still
Semper Fidelis is not just Always Faithful, but a code by which we all
live. No matter if you like the Corps or not, you will always be loved by
me and my fellow Marines who have shaped this Marine Corps as we know it
today. So if you ever think of this Corps in a negative way, just remember
what you are doing -- you are disgracing my Corps and the many Marines who
died to give us what we have today. You are disgracing a title that
everyone knows, a title that everyone has to earn and maintain, a title
Semper Fidelis, Sergeant Major Sweet. -USMC-