A friend from our time at Texas A&M, Smitty had the excellent sense to marry my stunning college roommate Nagelle. In the intervening twenty years our families have grown up together, sometimes separated by hundreds of miles, sometimes - for a few sweet years - only by blocks. Our friendship has been a rich one of shared time, shared affection, shared faith. I remember Smitty calling me in the hospital the day my daughter Mary Kate was born to tell me that their son Cullen had arrived that same morning. Of course, we planned their wedding on the spot. Our son Matt idolizes Smitty. I love and hate this – grateful that Matt recognizes an honorable man, fretful that Matt might decide to go into the military, still selfishly wanting that burden to be borne by other women’s children.
It was no surprise to Smitty’s family that he would enter the military - his father and two brothers all served as well. Nagelle knew what she was getting into, having grown up as the daughter of a Marine. She has shepherded their three sons with strength and dignity through long months of single-parenting during Smitty’s absences, deepening our family’s understanding that military service is an obligation the entire family bears. We kept the hand-written letters from Smitty’s first deployment to Somalia. Future deployments found us scouring our inboxes for email updates and photos. When he deployed to Iraq and asked that we send decent coffee, our friends and relatives responded with such enthusiasm that his office was clogged with boxes of java for weeks.
When Smitty deployed to Afghanistan this past October, he did so knowing that his father would most likely lose his battle with cancer before his return. On Christmas Eve as our family was headed to church we got a call - Smitty was at DFW airport, home after thirty six hours of travel to lay his dad to rest. Could we come get him? We turned the car around. He took only half of his allowed bereavement leave, hugging his wife and kids and returning to his post, knowing that to be absent longer might mean other families would grieve. His adeptness at making the selfless choice in the midst of personal trial bore evidence to the years he has spent living in the tension between duty to family and duty to country.
So this Memorial Day weekend we celebrate Marine Lt Col J.C. Smitherman, regardless of his objections, because it marks the day of his homecoming from Afghanistan. He returns to his family whole and hale, alive and well, and even higher in our regard than before. He has made the Lord his dwelling place, no matter where he dwells. Thanks be to God, it is time for him to dwell at home again.