Marines will be highly visible this week in Nashville, conducting massive demonstrations in a city that’s far removed from any of the Corps’ installations. And for a small number of families, the presence of so many uniformed service members will draw out more complicated emotions.
Three Nashville Marines have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of their mothers — Jenny Newsom and Tammy Bass — will play a role this week among the families that will place wreaths at a memorial.
“We’re going to meet lots of Marines, and it’s not going to be sad, because we’re going to meet part of our children’s family,” Jenny said.
“But the flip side is, then after you do that, it’s tough,” said Tammy.
These women are longtime friends and members of Gold Star Mothers, a service group comprised of parents who lost children in war and who now support other military families.
In preparation for Marine Week, they’ve been visiting with local Marines to share stories and photos of their sons. That hasn’t been easy.
On one recent morning, two Marines arrived to Jenny’s cul de sac in South Nashville in a familiar unmarked white van. It was the first such visit since they came bearing terrible news in 2011.
“This is the door they knocked on,” Jenny said.
The mothers found themselves relieved that the men arrived in plainclothes — while they love seeing Marines in their “dress blues,” the familiarity can be startling.
“We just have to weigh the joy and the sadness,” Jenny said. “Could we close ourselves off from Marines the rest of our life and not interact because it might make us sad the next day? I mean, to me, that would just be a tragedy that our sons would not want for us.”
On A Path To The Marines
For these women, the bond isn’t just the loss of their sons, five years apart. The families grew up together in the same church, with the same youth group and women’s group, at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ.
“It seems like we’ve just always been friends,” Tammy said.
With only each other as examples, the mothers guided their boys through enlistment. It was 2002 when Jenny’s son, Sgt. Kevin Balduf, signed up as a 17-year-old.
“There was really no one in our family that was in the military. And so, I just feel like in his core person he wanted to make a difference,” said Jenny, a social worker in the emergency room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Kevin had been talking about the Marines since middle school, and wearing his hair in a buzzcut. He even got made fun of for always sporting camouflage pants. Yet it was nothing but support from his mom.
“I believe that we should allow our children to do what they’re passionate about and that it would be wrong to try to change a child’s mind,” she said.
For Tammy, her son David became interested partly through his time with the Boy Scouts of America. As friends and classmates also recalled, he was a small teenager, which Tammy believes led him to want to prove himself.
David also responded strongly to the terror attack of 9/11. But he was too young to enlist at the time, and for that, Tammy was grateful.
In 2004, one of David’s former high school classmates, Marine Cpl. Patrick Nixon, was killed in Iraq. Tammy remembers her son rebuffing the questions of his friends, who now wondered whether David was still committed.
‘Where I Belong’
Like Kevin, Cpl. David Bass enlisted early.
He worked as a money disburser, aiding civilians with repayments in the wake of war.
“He had played [the danger] down to where I was concerned, but no, I was not expecting to get that knock on my door,” Tammy said.
David died on his first deployment, in a flash flood in Iraq on April 2, 2006, a month shy of his 21st birthday.
During the funeral at their church, Jenny came to Tammy’s side. She said she tamped down a feeling of survivor’s guilt that her son was on his way home, and safe.
It was five years later that the roles would reverse — in the same church.
“When I got a phone call that Marines had been to Jenny’s door, it just made me angry,” Tammy said. “And I can’t remember being that angry. …But immediately I just knew that I needed to be there with her. That I had no magic answers. That I didn’t have anything. But I need to be there with her, because I could understand things at a level that other people that were close to her … would not understand.”
Kevin, who had already earned a Bronze Star for bravery, was killed May 12, 2011, in an ambush by an Afghan police cadet. He was 27.
His funeral prompted a mass demonstration of support, with more than 2,000 people lining the road to the church, in part to block the efforts of Westboro Baptist Church protesters.
Both mothers said they hold to certain memories and mementos that reassure them of the path their boys took.
“I wish David had come home. But I’ve never wished he hadn’t gone in,” Tammy said. “I have phone conversations with him and I have his journal where he said, ‘I found where I belong.’ What mother would take that away from her son?”
Tammy has since become the center operations supervisor of the Nashville branch of the United Service Organizations, or USO, serving military families full-time. That’s in addition to her volunteer work with the Gold Star Mothers.
For Jenny, it’s the memory of a phone call four days before Kevin’s death. It was Mother’s Day when he told her he was relocating to a more dangerous base "but that he was good with God."
“He wasn’t afraid to die,” Jenny said. “How do you not have some peace even in our child’s death? That I can know Kevin wasn’t afraid, he already told me that.”
“I’m sad Kevin died early, but I’m not sorry at all he made the choice. I am very proud he made the choice.”
And as these mothers understand, the military spectacle that is Marine Week is largely about recruiting — and finding those people who will make the same commitment that their sons did.