Thank you to the parents and siblings and spouses and children who sacrificed their own for the benefit of this country and all those that live in it.
The Littlest Marine
The following comes from the book Swift, Silent and Surrounded, a compilation of stories about the Corps, written and collected by Andy Bufalo, a former Force Recon Marine.
On a spring day in 1983, Marine Staff Sergeant Robert Menke was waiting for a hot enlistment prospect he had talked to on the phone. Hunched over paperwork in the Corps' Huntington Beach California recruiting station, Menke heard the front door open and looked up. In came a boy in a motorized wheelchair, followed by his father. Menke noted the boy's frail body and thin arms. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"Yes," the boy answered firmly. "My name is John Zimmerman."
It took the startled Marine a moment to realize that this was indeed his prospect. "I'm Staff Sergeant Menke," he said, shaking his visitor's small hand. "Come on in."
Menke, a shy man, uncomfortable with recruiting, quickly found himself captured by the articulate thirteen year old youth with an easy, gap-toothed grin. For more than an hour they spoke -- of training and overseas assignments and facing danger. The kid loved the Marine Corps. Not a word was exchanged about the younger Zimmerman's condition or the wheelchair.
There was one basic reason behind the visit to the Marine Corps recruiting office that day. From the moment Richard and Sandra Zimmerman learned their fourteen-month-old son had Werdnig-Hoffman syndrome, a rare neurological disease, they vowed to treat him like a normal child. Told that John probably would not live past age two, they refused to believe he would die.
Despite tremendous weakness in his legs and back and susceptibility to colds, John simply looked well. They had him fitted with a rigid body jacket to help him sit upright and took him on vacation trips all over the country. They didn't get a wheelchair for him until he was three. Even then, Richard Zimmerman often carried his son, who weighed around thirty pounds, lugging him through amusement parks, into restaurants and to movies.
Werdnig-Hoffman syndrome victims have difficulty fighting off upper of respiratory problems. Before the age of five John was hospitalized three times with pneumonia, with each bout putting him on the edge of death. Richard Zimmerman believed Chicago's cold winter climate was partly to blame, and in 1975 he arranged a job transfer so the family could move to Southern California. There, the boy suffered fewer bouts with respiratory illness.
John, then six, was enrolled in classes for orthopedically handicapped children at the Plavan School in Fountain Valley. About this time he became aware of the Marine Corps at a week-long summer camp for disabled children. Many of his counselors at the camp in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park near San Diego were Marine volunteers. Each summer John would get to know another Marine through the camp's one-to-one counseling program. This sparked an interest that evolved into a passion.
While other children worshipped athletic heroes and rock stars, John gathered every bit of material about the Marines he could find. He plastered his room with Corps recruiting posters, his wheelchair with Marine stickers. His hero was John Wayne. He even dressed like a Marine and, much to his mother's consternation, got a Corps "burr" haircut.
After his initial visit to the Huntington Beach recruiting center, John kept in contact with Menke and Menke's boss, 31-year old Gunnery Sergeant John Gorsuch. Occasionally he dropped by with his father; more often, he phoned to ask questions or just to talk. He frequently devoted his school reports to Marine tactics, campaigns or equipment.
When new recruiting posters arrived, Menke or Gorsuch would mail or personally deliver one to John. In turn John built model airplanes, trucks and tanks for his Marine buddies. Though delicate and intricate chores were difficult -- and even painful -- for him, John would work night after night on the models.
While Marines inspired John, he gave back as much as he got. One afternoon Gorsuch had scheduled seven appointments for potential recruits. Five hadn't shown up, and the other two had to be disqualified. John called to ask questions for a school report.
"What's wrong, Gunny," John asked. "You don't sound right."
"Ah, come on Gunny," John said. "Look, you're a smooth operator, and for every one you lose you'll get two more." Gorsuch began to laugh. "You're right Johnny," he said. "You know...you're right."
An attempt to move John into a standard fourth-grade class at Plavan failed; because he could not write quickly, he could not keep up. But he made it in the sixth grade after his teachers allowed him to dictate some of his work.
John's family also benefited from his forceful personality. When told something couldn't be done, he would respond, "But did you ask?" Although he realized he probably never could hold a regular job he had no fear of talking with strangers, and figured one day he could help his father, a commercial real estate broker, by making the "cold" call the elder Zimmerman dreaded. As close as he was to his Marine friends, he was even closer to his father. Richard Zimmerman helped his son dress in the morning, helped him with baths and put him to bed each evening.
John rarely talked about the consequences of his disease, but he understood. On a trip to Hawaii in 1982, as the family visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the famed "Punchbowl," John whispered to his father, "I want to be buried here when I die. Can we do it?" Richard Zimmerman was taken aback. "I don't know if it's possible. But sure, John. Sure."
In the spring of 1984, not long before John was to graduate from the eighth grade, his condition began to worsen. His twisted spine was pressing into his internal organs, pinching nerves that sent searing pain through his back and legs. He had difficulty digesting food, and he began to lose weight. But he was determined to attend graduation.
On the night of the ceremony John was weak and nauseated, but to his surprise a Marine sergeant was there to escort him. He and the sergeant led the procession of students into the auditorium. John, thin and twisted, had to use the armrest of his wheelchair to prop himself up. His head, normal size, looked much too large for a body that was deserting an able mind. But to a rousing ovation, he flashed his biggest smile. Then another surprise: it was announced that John was a co-recipient of Plavan's Sergio Duran award, given annually to the handicapped graduate who best overcomes his limitations.
That summer John's condition improved slightly, and he entered Fountain Valley High School in the fall of 1984. During the first semester, however, his condition began to decline again, and his weight dropped to less than forty pounds. While he would have preferred to stay home and sleep, he attended school, confiding to his sister that he went "mainly because it makes Mom and Dad happy."
On New Year's Eve John went into respiratory failure and was rushed to the hospital. Gorsuch and Menke visited daily. Realizing their fifteen-year old friend's remaining days would be few, they set out to make him a Marine. Menke secured permission to name John an honorary member of the Corps. Then one of Menke's friends penned a one-of-a- kind proclamation. On January 15, in a hospital room crowded with family and Marines, Major Robert Robichaud, area-recruiting director, read the document. "By reposing special trust and confidence in the fidelity and abilities of John Zimmerman, I do hereby appoint him an Honorary Marine."
Two days later John looked at Sandra and said, "I'm a fighter, Mom. A helluva fighter." That night, he spoke to his nurses about dying, saying that his only fear was how his parents and sister would fare without him. In the early hours of January 18, John Zimmerman, U.S. Marine, passed on.
In a eulogy at John's memorial service Gorsuch, his voice cracking, said, "Marines learn never to give up, and John definitely had that quality. We have a motto in the Marines, the Latin words for always faithful. This is for Johnny Zimmerman," he concluded. "Semper Fi."
After the service the two Marines approached John's casket. Slowly, Menke and Gorsuch unpinned the Marine emblems from their coat collars and gently placed these symbols of fidelity into the casket with their friend.
During the final week of his life, no longer able to talk, John had scrawled a note to his father, reminding him of a promise made nearly three years before. "Punch bowl -- will you visit me?" His father nodded. "If that's what you want, we'll do it," he said. In reality, Richard had no idea if it would even be possible. Yet his son's favorite phrase kept coming back to him: "But Dad, did you ask?" Richard looked into the matter and discovered that such cemeteries are reserved for military personnel and their families. Even though Menke had volunteered to give up his cemetery plot, the Veterans Administration would not permit it, or grant John's wish. Richard decided to try again. This time he wrote to California Senator Pete Wilson and learned that to circumvent the rules he would need authorization from the President. The Senator, a former Marine, was willing to help.
"He never had the opportunity to serve his country in the Marine Corps as he so wished he could have," Wilson wrote to President Reagan. "However, his dedication and courage no doubt had very positive effects on many young Marines and civilians..." The President granted the request, and the Marine Corps went into action. At Camp Smith on Oahu, about thirty Marines volunteered for the funeral detail. And on a windy day in the Punch bowl, with the cemetery's flag at half-staff, John Zimmerman was put to rest with full military honors. Prior to a 21-gun salute, U.S. Navy Chaplain Jack Graham spoke. "Courage isn't limited to battlefields," he said. "The Marines have a saying: 'The Marines need a few good men.' They found one in John Zimmerman.