Living One Marine’s Legacy

Frigid wind blew overtop iced grave markers at Cathedral Cemetery Sunday when Joe Silvestri and Brad Varney pulled Joe’s red Subaru to the side of the historic graveyard road. Stepping from the car graced with a Purple Heart license plate they shook hands with old friends who arrived early.

To commemorate the 57th anniversary of Jimmy Reddington’s death in Vietnam, the two Marines (not former, not current, but always Marines) had driven that bitter cold morning from near Philadelphia to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to salute their compatriot and walk sacred land he took great pride in calling home.

Scranton meant the world to Jimmy.

Severely wounded by bullet and bomb in the same March 23, 1967 North Vietnamese attack that killed Jimmy, Joe stood strong and steady after all these years, repeating the same sentiment he has shared during previous visits.

“Jimmy will always be 19,” Joe said.

Brad nodded.

Personable with a knifelike build, a longtime martial arts teacher and community leader, Brad has always inspired people who needed him during the toughest times. When Joe awoke in his military hospital bed after almost dying, Brad stood by his side.

Joe said, “When Brad and Smitty, another member of my squad, were told to go to Danang to catch their flight to go on R & R they decided to make a detour to visit me at the hospital. They got there a short time after I came out of the drowsiness of being operated on. Seeing Brad and Smitty standing next to my recovery bed gave me a little comfort until I learned that many of my friends were also there in the hospital being operated on. Not to mention the loss of Jimmy, John King and Lt. John Fuller from our platoon. The other two platoons also sustained many casualties.”

Joe Silvestri never forgets his friends.

“Brad and I participated in many search and destroy missions and operations,” Joe said. “We coped with monsoon rain, extreme heat, jungles with 100% humidity. A few years after the war I started searching for Brad and eventually found him in Bucks County in the late 1970s.”

Both 77, Joe and Brad persist in their yearly mission to the Scranton holy land where Jimmy is buried to help share with the living the lasting impact of Jimmy’s death. Both men offer honor and loyalty to anyone willing to abide by values too many Americans nowadays ignore. Standing beside Jimmy’s grave Sunday, Joe said his friend had only served in Vietnam for about four months before he died.

“A lifetime in combat,” he said.

That terrible Thursday so long ago a mortar explosion blew Joe off his feet and knocked him out. When Jimmy discovered Joe had been hit, thinking Joe had died Jimmy rushed a hidden enemy firing from the tree line. A single bullet ended his life.

For a moment Sunday, as two robins bounced near a bent silver chain link cemetery fence near the perimeter of Jimmy’s grave, Joe and Brad paused as if the clock had stopped ticking, as if youth and hope and Jimmy’s future still existed. Back then they forged their bond and got to know each other more than most people ever know themselves.

Today they remember.

“We talked about our dreams,” Joe said.

“A little house, a white picket fence,” Brad said.

Joe, Brad, Jimmy and the rest of their fire team wanted what most young men in those deadly jungles wanted: a home, a family, a steady job and the peace of mind that hopefully comes after surviving the horrors of combat. Joe and Brad fulfilled those dreams. Each man joyfully shares photographs of smiling family members, vacations and other happy moments in their lives.

There’s no telling what Jimmy might have accomplished or become had he lived, Joe said. Jimmy loved Scranton and wanted so much to come home and bring Joe and others with him. In turn, Joe would take Jimmy to Sicily to visit his birthplace where he grew up until moving to the United States with his immigrant parents. Joe became a United States citizen only after returning home from serving in Vietnam where more than 58,000 American military men and women died.

Joe made it to Scranton after the war.

Jimmy did not.

Listening closely to Joe and Brad reflect on life and death, a dozen or so men, mostly Vietnam veterans, huddled near Jimmy’s grave. Enduring the effects of aging, they stared solemnly at Jimmy’s cold plot in the ground and the blood red Marine Corps flag that flapped and snapped beside his headstone. Jimmy’s final resting place burns as powerful symbolic testimony, a timeless message of duty.

Nowhere in sight were the opportunistic politicians and fair-weather media gadflies who once swarmed to this annual gathering. No White House letter arrived from one scrappy kid from Scranton to another. No cocky pro-war congressman or dull flag-waving senator bowed his head. No celebrity county commissioner or superstar city mayor offered prayer or promise.

By respecting the heartfelt heritage of this tough, young Marine raised by a loving single mother in the nearby Weston Field neighborhood, those who did make the  pilgrimage embody the still beating pulse of Jimmy Reddington’s legacy they do their best to live up to every day.

Jimmy’s birthright has the best of Scranton written all over it. But unless dedicated leaders carry out their sworn duty to point the way, to serve as unselfishly as Jimmy did, Scranton’s best days might be over.

Government officials and media who passed on paying their respects benefit from Jimmy’s sacrifice. Yet they ignore their societal debt to uphold the same respect for the city he embraced until he died a star-spangled dreamer from a hard coal country town.

Standing by Jimmy’s grave I couldn’t help but wonder what Jimmy would think of his city today.

Living comfortable lives in the shadow of Scranton’s increasing urban neglect, 21st Century young people posture and flock to the city’s new upscale bars, foodie restaurants and expensive apartments in landmark buildings remodeled with sweet tax breaks for real estate developers.

So-called young professional tenants live in a former cigar factory located not far from the cemetery, a manufacturing plant that years ago offered blue-collar men and women hard, steady work. Advantaged building residents now sleep tucked into fluffy down quilts, reveling in the good life Jimmy never got a chance to pursue. None of these poseurs likely even know his name.

Remaining faithful to Jimmy Reddington’s legacy means making Scranton’s quality of life better, not worse, than when he left his beloved city to enlist in the Marines. Remaining faithful means defending people in Scranton’s timeworn neighborhoods, the battered poor and the working poor trying to survive on traditional streets on old-fashioned blocks and not just the privileged living in a glitzy gentrified downtown.

Living Jimmy Reddington’s legacy requires mature commitment best expressed in the Marine Corps motto: “Semper Fidelis,” or “Semper Fi,” Latin for “Always Faithful.” The official Marine Corps website makes clear the warrior’s promise of remaining faithful “to those in our communities for which we fight” and from which the military draft and the urge to serve drew countless other men and women whose lives were very much like Jimmy’s.

Scranton’s future generations will only succeed if they help everyone in need and face complex community issues of race, class, gender and other cultural minefields that lie ahead.

Living Jimmy Reddington’s legacy means continuing that fight today, tomorrow and forever with every ounce of courage we possess.