DG MARTIN COLUMN: Old memories, new challenges

The news last week came as a surprise to me:

“Gov. Cooper’s office announced on Thursday that Walter Gaskin, a retired three-star Marine Corps general who became secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in 2021, is retiring from state government.

D.G. Martin

“Succeeding him effective Monday (April 1) will be Grier Martin, who is currently the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. Martin, a former soldier, served two stints in the state House as a Wake County Democrat going back to 2005 before resigning in 2022 to work in Washington.”
Grier’s new service reminded me of when he made an important commitment more than 20 years ago while he was preparing to go to Afghanistan.

As I wrote back then, he “was gathering his military gear and packing his duffel bags before making a final visit to the hospital in Raleigh for a last look at his first child, his new baby daughter, Sara Louise Martin.

“The next morning about 2:00 a.m., I picked him up at his Raleigh home, helped carry his heavy gear to my car, waited while he ran upstairs to tell his wife goodbye, and then began our drive to Ft. Bragg for the beginning of his long journey to the other side of the world.

“We drove quietly, the rain, closing in and around us, neither of us knowing quite what to say. I thought about him a little more than 30 years ago when he was the size of his baby Sara, and I was as happy about him as he is about her. And my father, still alive, was the proud grandfather, just as I am now.

“It was still raining as we approached Fayetteville, turning off Business I-95, and then on to Bragg Boulevard., passing the house where I lived as a young Army officer, and then passing by the shopping centers, pawnshops, night spots, mobile home lots, car dealerships and the other strong marks of a military town.

“Still under the heaviness of the rain, we came on the base, passing through security where my son returned the salute of the guard, a signal that we would soon arrive at the point of formation, where my son and his traveling companions would gather this early morning to begin their trip to Afghanistan for an anticipated six months tour of duty.

“How life conspires to bring us together, make us families, and then always somehow, someday, always pull us apart, sometimes for a little while, but ultimately forever.

“What do we call these things that separate us from those we love? Accident, luck, tragedy, duty? Or is it just the working out of God’s unseen plan for us?

“My son fell in formation with his colleagues. I took my last photos of him and then watched the group board the bus to the airplane that would take them towards Afghanistan.

“Trying to measure my own feelings, I thought how much Grier’s wife, mother, and sister will worry until he is home again. As I waved good-bye, I waved for them, for my father, too.”

Today I wave again, knowing that he is going into a different kind of danger area, but just as I was back then, I am full of pride.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”