Veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps and veterans of the Army’s Airborne Corps tend to bond easily. It’s because people call us crazy. Crazy to take on the “Full Metal Jacket” miseries of Marine boot camp, and crazy to want to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Crazy from boot camp, and crazy from jump school.
We are, by the way, mindful (the polite ones, anyway) that we exit Air Force aircraft and Navy transports for airborne and amphibious operations. We are all brothers and sisters in service.
My friend, Jerry Lawrence, a Marine, was always kidding me. “Airborne, I think you lace your boots too tight!”
I had no idea what that meant. But it didn’t matter. It was meant with love. With love comes loss. We lost Jerry a few days ago.
Traveling with Jerry Lawrence was always a pleasure and a privilege. Jerry recruited me as a sometime-volunteer in his veterans’ hospice visiting program, “You Are Not Forgotten.” Along the way, he brought in an Air Force general, Marine, Navy and Army NCOs, a couple of chaplains and some social workers.
That was the parade Jerry Lawrence led with his self-started “You Are Not Forgotten” project.
The first time I met Jerry Lawrence was about 15 years ago, at the William J. “Pete” Knight American Heroes Dinner, an event in support of Boy Scouts. A key award was named for Justin Wotasik, the Eagle Scout from Palmdale who gave his life in the line of duty in 1998 as an Air Force “PJ” pararescue commando.
Jerry was among veterans recognized, along with Lew Shoemaker, who waded ashore with the “Big Red One” on D-Day. Honoring veterans was Scout mom Julie Norris Wotasik’s project. The Norris-Wotasik family whelped five Eagle Scouts in their brood, including their hero son.
Jerry, a Marine during the earliest stage of our Southeast Asia involvement, was closemouthed about his service. Years later, I found out why, and it was harrowing. His service actually preceded America’s official Vietnam War involvement.
We lost Jerry, sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning [March 21 and 22]. He was 80, and had been in failing health for months. He refused to go to the emergency room, not out of fear, but because he would not leave his beloved while she was also vulnerable. He died peacefully, in his sleep, but never having given up the fight for life, or to do what is right.
Jerry innovated the “You Are Not Forgotten” hospice program for veterans in end-of-life. Working with hospice pro Lori Carlton Mowry, a licensed clinical social worker, Jerry sought out veterans of military service to find them before they died, to let them known their service was appreciated, respected, and recognized. He had no patience for phonies. He researched the vet’s DD-214 to ensure it was legit.
He coordinated ceremonies, including the veteran’s family. In addition to a formal certificate honoring their service, in whatever branch or era, he brought in military regulars, non-commissioned officers and officers, career people. The veterans’ service and awards would be noted. Respect by hand salute was given, and sometimes refreshments were served.
We teamed together on a quest to honor vanishing World War II veterans, with some success.
Among those honored were Charles “Charley” Rader, a top turret gunner awarded the Silver Star for helping to save his stricken B-17 Flying Fortress, and the entire crew. The recent commander at Edwards AFB, Brig. Gen. E. John “Dragon” Teichert attended that one, and he cut the Army Air Corps cake, and served it to Sgt. 1st Class Rader.
Also recognized by Jerry’s “You Are Not Forgotten” project were two more D-Day veterans, paratroopers John Humphrey of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Henry Ochsner, of the 101st Airborne Division. Each time we met, these venerable warriors were wearing their World War II-issue “Ike”-style jackets. See the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks epic “Band of Brothers” and you will see what these soldiers did.
At each of those get-togethers for World War II Airborne troopers, Jerry brought in Staff Sergeants Chase Berry and Eugenio Eufragio — both 82nd Airborne Division veterans of Afghanistan. Troopers Humphrey and Ochsner partied and imparted generational knowledge to troopers young enough to be their grandchildren.
Now, Jerry has joined their long, gray line. In addition to those history-makers, he honored dozens of other veterans facing the undiscovered country, and now he has gone there himself.
We are in “Safe At Home” mode because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jerry left us so quickly that we never had the chance to honor him in the way he honored so many others. This is love and death in the time of the Coronavirus. Fortunately, he was recognized by a raft of veterans support groups, and also former Rep. Steve Knight, House Armed Services, a Cold War veteran, and state Sen. Scott Wilk, Assemblyman Tom Lackey, Supervisor Kathryn Barger and more.
Hundreds of his brothers and sisters in the veterans’ community are sad about this, amid all the pandemic’s sadness and anxiety. We are social creatures, and it is difficult to not be able to reach out and touch each other.
One night, when a group of us were assisting at a veterans fundraiser hosted by Dr. Ric Garrison at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, we got word a brother Marine was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Jerry stayed by the local Marine’s bedside at hospital until he was released.
I spoke on the phone with his son, Matt, who Jerry was unabashedly proud of. His son is an assistant attorney general in Maryland. When the cloud of the coronavirus lifts, as it inevitably will, a memorial tribute is planned for Jerry Lawrence.
Brothers and sisters in service, and also community volunteers and healthcare workers who knew Jerry called in, distraught, in tears.
“He was like a grandfather to me,” said Katherine Letterman, with Bombshell Betty’s Calendar for Veterans.
Jerry served as a Vice Commander with Marine Corps League Detachment 930, and was a regular and steadying presence are the Antelope Valley College Veterans Resource Center where student vets knew and loved him as “Grandpa.” He volunteered with Vets4Veterans, Point Man Antelope Valley, Coffee4Vets, AV Wall, and Bombshell Betty’s Calendar for Vets. Jerry always gave more than he got. This pandemic will lift and we will memorialize Jerry appropriately. Semper Fi, Brother.
Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. As an Antelope Valley journalist he deployed to Iraq with a local National Guard unit. He specializes in veterans and community mental health issues.