Memorial Day a somber time of reflection for father of fallen Marine

TAMPA — All Marine Lance Cpl. Ronald D. Freeman wanted to talk about was his newborn son and how he loved his family.

The conversation, a rushed call from Afghanistan, was the last Brian Freeman had with his son.

Ten days later, Freeman got another call. His daughter-in-law, Katie Freeman, said that "Dougie," as he was known to family, had been killed in a bomb blast.

The couple's daughter, Katelyn, turned a year old the day her daddy died.

Their newborn, William Douglas, would never meet his father.

As many Americans line parade routes and fire up the grill to mark Memorial Day, Freeman will keep mostly to himself. Memorial Day, he says, is for remembrance.

He'll pray and likely attend an hourlong service at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell where his son is buried. He might hear from his girlfriend, Marsha Richardson, or his kids, Aaron, Jessica and Melissa Freeman. But the house will stay quiet.

"Memorial Day means a lot to me, to recognize the sacrifice and all the effort put into this country," Freeman, 55, said from his back yard in Tampa, a gold star affixed to the left lapel of his shirt, above his heart.

Mostly, he'll reflect on the times he and Dougie had horsing around and cracking jokes, or fishing on the Hillsborough River. And how he misses him.

"He always had a smile," he said. "He was always on my side."

The younger Freeman was a teenager living in the Plant City area when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. The attack inspired him to become a Marine. In 2008, he quit his job as a machinist at a valve and spring company to enlist. He worked out for a year, walking and jogging daily to shed 100 pounds.

"He was always like that. He was born with a determined look on his face," said Freeman, an Army veteran. "To be honest, he was born to be a Marine. There's something special about them."

On his way to basic training he met Katie and was smitten. Freeman and his daughter-in-law don't talk much now, and she declined to comment for this article. After the death of her husband, she moved to South Carolina to be closer to family, he said.

"I guess it's just too hard for her."

Brian Freeman's brother, Bobby Freeman, 59, of Plant City, remembered the times he and his nephew spent riding four-wheelers and fishing in the backyard pond.

"He was very well liked. Everywhere he went he was well liked," he said of the 6-foot-1 Plant City High graduate. "He was just a happy person. Very polite. Very respectful."

After training, Freeman served with the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

He was killed April 28, 2011, a month after arriving in Afghanistan. He was 25.

A Department of Defense statement said Freeman died during combat operations for Operation Enduring Freedom in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

A day later, a Marine officer showed up on Freeman's doorstep. Freeman was unable to fathom exactly what was happening.

"He was talking, but all I could think was, I had lost my son. I had lost my son. Nothing else he said mattered."

Freeman learned more in the weeks and months that followed. He visited Camp Pendleton in California and met Marines from Freeman's squad, including Israel Franco, who told him how his son saved his life while losing his own.

A minesweeper, Freeman climbed out of a truck to search for improvised explosive devices. Patrolling ahead of the truck, he stepped on a mine but pushed Franco out of the way. Freeman died on the road, in the arms of a fellow Marine and close friend, Eben Fisher.

"When my son was killed, the Marines all rallied to get him. They all circled around him," Freeman said.

Two years later, not a day goes by that Freeman doesn't think of his son. He expects Memorial Day to be especially difficult.

"You don't move on," he said. "You try to be happy. Dougie was always happy. But it's very, very hard. The best way to honor him is to live a good life."

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Memorial Day a somber time of reflection for father of fallen Marine 05/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 2:39pm]

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