From the tidbits I had heard about Mike Gerwig from his wife, Maureen, it's clear that they were both determined to squeeze out every ounce of adventure life had to offer. During his memorial service today at the Riverside National Cemetery, a heavily-laden Air Force C-17 transport jet circled over again and again from March Air Reserve Base, just across the freeway, as young pilots practiced touch-and-go landings.
It reminded Maureen that they had first met, some four decades ago, while skydiving out of nearby Perris Valley Airport. It's ironic that, back then, they could have looked down and seen the very spot where she would say "goodbye" to him for the last time. When they fell out of the sky alongside each other, you see, they also fell for each other.
They would travel the world together -- and not in any conventional way. Again, they thirsted for adventure.
She told a couple of Mike's skydiving buddies today about how she and Mike had biked through the Soviet mountains, had hiked across northern England and had fallen asleep gazing at the aurora borealis during a month-long camping trip -- a trip that required a four-hour dog sled journey (not by snowmobile as I incorrectly reported) through the wilderness just to get to the secluded lake in the northern Yukons.
Mike had fought in Vietnam. Maureen helped him fight at home -- fight to get him the treatment he needed for the damage that combat and Agent Orange had done to his body and his mind.
She fought -- for him and beside him -- right up to the end.
When time had run out for Mike -- when it was clear that he wouldn't get the transplant he so needed, Maureen drove him to the V.A. facility in La Jolla, near San Diego, so he could say goodbye to his dying brother. It was Memorial Day weekend.
When they got back to their Woodland Hills home, Mike asked Maureen to take him to the emergency hospital. He was too weak to return home. He spent his final hours in a Veterans Administration hospice at the Sepulveda facility. When Maureen got the call that he had died, she drove there expecting to find a depressing place that smelled of urine and looked like a rest-home warehouse nightmare.
But she was wrong. Instead, she entered what seemed like a paradise of love and care. They had made up Mike's bed and draped him in an American flag. They encouraged her to spend as much time as she wanted with him. Afterwards, staff members and fellow veterans conducted a bedside ceremony for Mike. They even played Taps.
Today's memorial ceremony was equally beautiful. Mike's long-time skydiving buddies, John Bull and Tom Brown came to honor him, along with Tom's daughter, Elisa. She remembered admiring the deep friendship between her father and Mike. John and Tom talked about Mike's generosity and the encouragement he would give to beginning and experienced skydivers.
The Army Honor Guard members were the picture of respect and precision. They marched in with Mike's wicker urn and the American Flag that they later would unfold, ceremoniously refold and hand to Maureen. They fired volley of three rifle shots and then stood at "present arms" while the bugler played Taps.
It turns out that I had the privilege of representing Vietnam veterans at Mike's ceremony. I was hoping there would be others there, but knowing the life of being a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, I could only figure that, like me, Mike preferred to spend his time with his wife.
Solitude and isolation easily can become a way of life for combat veterans.
I meant to go straight home when I left, but something called out to me from across the 215 freeway. It had been more than 10 years since I last visited the War Dog Memorial at the March Air Force Base Museum. I had been there when they first unveiled the statue of an alert German shepherd and his handler. I hadn't noticed before that both of them are looking out in the direction of the Riverside National Cemetery -- and they were in direct view of Mike's final resting place. They'll be watching over him the way my dog Fritz watched over me in Vietnam.
Then I realized that, in all likelihood, the dog and his handler be watching over me one day as well.
The trip to Riverside today took on even more meaning than I had anticipated. When I was driving home, I was regretting that Xiao Mei hadn't been able to come along. The day will come when she'll be coming to visit me there -- without me being able to give her directions.
Maureen Gerwig's response email: