Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Houston stood at attention on Summerall Field on Saturday, underneath a picturesque blue sky with faint strokes of white. Assuming a place of honor for The Citadel's 11 a.m. corps of cadets parade, Houston, a 1996 graduate, led a visual inspection of the rows of officers dressed in blue and white, who stood with rigid respect and straightforward stares.
For him, the scene was dramatically different from what he experienced six months ago as he fought with the 2nd Tank Battalion through a fierce ambush in Iraq. Traveling on what seemed to be a deserted highway, elements of the battalion were attacked by a unit of black-clad men who appeared from behind mounds of dirt and fired rocket-propelled grenades.
Within the hour, three Marines were killed and five others, including Houston, were seriously wounded. A bullet hit Houston in his jaw and neck, breaking the left side of his jaw and destroying the bone on the right. His carotid artery and jugular vein were cut.
"It was surreal," said Houston, who received the Purple Heart medal from President Bush in April because of his wounds. "It's a medal I wish I didn't have."
Houston was simply glad to be alive Saturday and attending this weekend's Citadel homecoming, an event made more poignant for this military college by the conflict in Iraq. "It's a great honor for me to come back and do this," he said.
This year's homecoming honored four graduates who died in the war and alumni veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths made the annual gathering of alumni, staff, family and friends bittersweet.
"They were doing exactly what they were called to do," Citadel president Major Gen. John Grinalds said of Lt. Shane Childers, Capt. Ben Sammis, Lt. Peter Ober and Lt. Col. Charles "Chad" Buehring. Their names were read aloud at a memorial service Friday, along with names of other Citadel graduates who have died in the past year.
The Virginia Military Institute has had one casualty in the Iraq war, while the United States Military Academy at West Point has had five.
It's a sacrifice that keeps our country free, Grinalds said.
At any one time during the war, up to 440 alumni have been deployed, said Mike Rogers, alumni director. Currently, 2,400 alumni are on active duty. "We're very proud of the fact that we can serve," Rogers said.
Five of Peter Ober's friends stood in a circle, reminiscing about the hardest working guy they knew. Chad Brittingham, Ober's roommate for three years, was traveling on the interstate when he heard the news of his friend's death.
"It can't be true," Brittingham said he remembers thinking. This homecoming marked their class' fifth-year reunion.
"Pete was looking forward to it," said Dan Rayca, another of Ober's friends.
Joe Childers of Wyoming admitted he had mixed feelings about attending homecoming. He would be there only because his son Shane, another casualty of the war, couldn't be. "In a way, we weren't looking forward to it," Childers said. "I don't like the reason that I'm here."
Though his father and brother Sam were Navy men, Shane Childers wanted to be a Marine since he was 5 years old. Shane, they said, was energetic, driven and made a positive impression on a lot of people.
"He had five lives to live and only one to live it in," his father said. Buried at age 30, everything he wanted to do was not accomplished, although he did live a full life, his brother said.
Their losses have not made them oppose the United States' ongoing efforts in Iraq. "We need to stay with it until we've done it as well as we can do it," Joe Childers said.
"I expect that there will be action over there for a few years to come," said Maj. Edgar Howell, one of the many veterans in attendance. Howell was in Iraq from March until June, and in a few days, he expects to be deployed again for another six months.
A 1983 Citadel graduate, Howell said he was glad to have a break and attend his 20th-year homecoming, to look up old friends, to see the school again before returning to the war.
Houston is back on full duty and stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He said he is progressing in his recovery and recently aced a physical fitness test given to Marines twice a year.
Cpl. Billy Peixotto of McKinney, N.C., saved Houston's life by pulling him behind their tank and applying a compress to his neck, while holding off the Iraqis with gunfire. Houston, who was conscious the entire time, was taken to a field hospital in southern Iraq, where a surgeon mended his artery and used a ligature to repair his vein.
Today, Houston bears a long scar on the side of his neck, and his voice now has a higher than normal pitch. As he joined thousands of others on a postcard perfect Lowcountry fall afternoon, he knew he was fortunate to be alive, and he expressed a heartfelt thanks to those who fought in the war and didn't make it home.
"This nation's stronger because of their sacrifice," he said.
Deneshia Graham can be reached at 937-5744 or email@example.com.