MOBILE, ALA. -- On Thanksgiving Day 2004, in a large old home on a suburban Mobile, Ala., street lined with oak trees, the Faircloth household had set an extra place for a Marine in Iraq. Turkey and ham were served, along with pecan pie and mashed potatoes. Lance Cpl. Bradley Faircloth, whose empty seat at the table was the center of emotion, if not the center of attention, would die the following day from wounds suffered in the battle for Fallujah.
Ten months later, eight Marines from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines arrived at the same house which was battered anew by a force that, for all its destructive power, was no match for the shock wave that hit the Faircloth family last November. The very Marines who had touched down in Mobile to affect the repairs on the house had fought and bled beside the 20-year-old Faircloth, had called him friend, brother and fellow Marine. They were there to help restore the building, gray with white trim and black shutters, after the extensive structural damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. It was old hat for the Marines and Faircloth’s mother. The Alpha Co. Marines, particularly those from Faircloth’s squad, kept in close contact after his death with the woman they fondly call “Miss Kathleen.”
It began as a mostly somber affair. The Marines toured Faircloth’s room, packed with his old clothes, high school football memorabilia and numerous keepsakes from his time in the Corps, including his three Purple Hearts. There were more mundane items, like a Homer Simpson hula doll, and green and purple Mardi Gras beads hanging from the ceiling fan, but to the Marines who knew him well, each trinket was a reminder of just who Bradley Faircloth is.
When the battalion was told it would be spearheading the Corps’ recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast, Cpl. Robert Day, team leader, Weapons Platoon, Alpha Co., 1/8, suggested to his leadership a detour to help Miss Kathleen. During the relief and recovery efforts following in the wake of the devastating storm, Marines had been pouring sweat and blood into clearing the debris from the water-damaged buildings of Slidell, La., when word came down the plan had solidified.
Events came to a head, said Maj. Lewis D. Vogler, executive officer, 1/8, when Slidell resident Jan Stumpf donated the use of her private jet to the Marines so they could assist the family of their fallen comrade.
The Marines were given a 30-hour window to squeeze in all the repair work they could. After touching down in Mobile, they exchanged hugs with Kathleen and began their tour of the home.
Periods of reverent quiet were punctuated by outbursts of laughter as the Marines came upon photos recovered from Faircloth’s camera.
“This one is from Thanksgiving Day,” said Day, a 20-year-old Montrose,
Ala., native, holding a group shot of the platoon taken just before the pivotal battle to
rout insurgents out of Fallujah. “Look, Faircloth’s got the biggest smile out of all of us.”
A hush fell over the crowd of eight leathernecks as the significance of the photograph – the last photo taken of Faircloth before he died – sunk in.
The mood abruptly changed when Kathleen answered her cell phone.
“The Marines are here and we’re having a party in Fairhope!” she exclaimed to the caller, leaving out the part about the backbreaking and exhausting work ahead.
Kathleen Faircloth does not show much of the passage of time or the grief she had endured. She is attractive, the markers of her beauty her high cheekbones and tightly-curled black hair accentuated by a shock of gray above her right temple. Her easy, generous laughter and light Southern drawl make her immediately likeable.
She’s no pushover, though. When Pfc. Seth McCullom, a general contractor before he joined the Marine Corps, told Kathleen that removing the from the right side of her 100-year-old house isn’t as easy as simply taking it apart brick-by-brick, she wasn’t convinced.
“You just met Faircloth, man,” laughed Lance Cpl. Brad Cushing, a 21-year-old Boston native. “She’s exactly like Faircloth. When he wanted something done, no matter how ridiculous, it got done.”
And there was a lot to be done. There were limbs to be cut, grass to be trimmed, shutters to be hung and fences to be mended, all before dark. The Marines from Alpha Co. had only until the evening of September 11 to finish everything they could. After hearing Kathleen was concerned about leakage from the roof, Sgt. Billy Leo, platoon guide, 3rd Platoon, led a reconnaissance up to check things out.
“The roof is steep man, steeper than it looks from down here,” said Leo with the thick accent of his hometown, Bronx, N.Y. “It’s not so bad going up, but coming back down to the ladder, I almost just kept going right off the roof.”
Save for some wind damage to trees and shutters, the most significant and catastrophic damage was to the roof.
“A lot of the shingles were ripped up, and the drip edge in front is torn off. With the shingles being torn up the plywood got warped. She really needs a new roof,” said McCollum. “We’re just trying to patch up key areas that could become major problems.”
After a trip to the hardware store, the Marines made good, repairing temporarily most of the major issues with the roof – except that chimney.
“I’m still not convinced. I think they can fix it,” said Kathleen, shielding her eyes from the sun.
The work on the shingles finally done late in the afternoon, the Marines were scorched and sweaty from working on the 200-degree rooftop. Showers were had, uniforms stained black by pitch and asphalt were changed for cleaner ones, and preparations were made to roll out to Fairhope for steaks and baked potatoes. Kathleen prepared the meal as a sign of gratitude both for the repair work on her roof as well as for these Marines who made her a part of their lives, and they a part of hers.
Much like that Thanksgiving Day 2004, this dinner was prepared by family, for family. There was talk of the future, of the past and of moving on. There were smiles and tears, painful and joyful memories freely shared around the table. Most of the emotional wounds are still open, but healing – for both the Marines who lost a brother that day and the mother who lost her only son.
“I may have lost a son, but I gained a brotherhood. I have children all over the country,” she said. “The Marine Corps really is a family.”