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Navy nurse bids farewell to Marine son in Iraq, for now

23 Sep 2004 | Sgt. Luis R. Agostini

The last person Navy Lt. Cdr. John M. Hernandez wanted to see was his son.

The senior Hernandez, 45, who was an operating room nurse for 1st Force Service Support Group's Surgical/Shock Trauma Platoon here, saw more young Marines come and go through his operating room than he would have liked. 

Yet, the possibility of his son's admission into his operating room haunted him, especially considering that his boy is not the only Cpl. Hernandez in the Marine Corps now serving in Iraq.

A registered nurse from San Antonio's University of Texas Health Science Center, he has assisted in countless operations on land and sea, including more than 300 severely injured patients from some of the fiercest months of fighting during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"There was this one time that we had admitted a Cpl. Hernandez here, and nobody, including me, knew if it was my son or not," said Hernandez. "Luckily it wasn't him, and the injuries weren't too bad, but I was still worried.  I'm proud that he's a Marine and serving his country, yet I worry about his well-being and that of all the troops."

At Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq, the junior Hernandez, 23, a member of the 1st Marine Division security team, dodges mortar rounds and surveys his boss's location for any sign of anti-Iraqi forces, slightly different from his regular job as a light armored vehicle crewman from 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at 29 Palms, Calif.

Four years after Cpl. Hernandez graduated boot camp, both men find themselves intersecting each other in western Iraq.  One is on his way out.  The other just arrived. 

The 16-year Navy veteran officer departed Iraq Sept. 19, 2004.  He returned to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he serves as an operating room nurse at the Naval Hospital there.  Martha, his wife of 27 years, and his 13-year-old son, Moses, waited patiently for his return.

Meanwhile, Cpl. Hernandez, 23, kissed his wife, Natalie, and two toddlers, Alyza, 3, and Isiah, 2, goodbye just more than a month ago to deploy to Iraq.

Following a proud Mexican-American family heritage of U.S. military service that includes three Marines, two sailors and a soldier, the life of a military man was not always the clear path for the junior Hernandez.

At age 18, Joshua, then a groom and father-to-be, was unclear of his future and in need of direction, his father said.

"He lacked direction and had a family to raise. I suggested he joined the service. I was looking into pushing him into the Coast Guard. He came back and said, 'Dad, I want to join the Marine Corps,'" said Hernandez.

As a military man with a family of his own, Cpl. Hernandez appreciates the years of sacrifice his parents made during his childhood.

"I believe it is a bit easier to help my wife cope with the stress and heartache because I have been through it as well," said the junior Hernandez.

Unable to resist the urge to look after his son, Hernandez, a San Antonio, Texas, native, has made it a frequent habit to offer his boy survival tips.

"I told him before he came out here that I wanted him to understand the importance of the body armor, because I've seen the plates stop bullets," said Lt. Cdr. Hernandez. "I also told him about some of the tactics that the insurgents use, such as placing improvised explosive devices on trees and light posts."

For the Hernandez family, faith is equally as important as wearing bullet-proof vests and Kevlar helmets. All three of Hernandez's sons were named after biblical characters - John, Joshua and Moses.

"Just like he puts on his body armor, he needs to armor himself with the lord and learn Psalm 91 from the New Testament," said Lt. Cdr. Hernandez, referring to the Psalm which describes the Lord's protection from the enemy.

Joshua provided his father with inspiration as well.  Before Lt. Cdr. Hernandez departed for his four-month deployment to Iraq, Cpl. Hernandez, a certified black belt Marine Corps martial arts instructor, handed his prized belt over to his father, vowing to reclaim it when he got to Iraq. Dad had other plans.

"I'm going to wait until he comes home to give it back," said Lt. Cdr. Hernandez.

Lt. Cdr. Hernandez has plans for his family at Camp Pendleton. A camping and fishing trip seems ideal for him. He's also made a few promises to Joshua, to be fulfilled upon his son's return next spring. 

For starters, he promised to give his son his 2002 Harley Davidson Sportster motorcycle.

"Before he came out here I told him, 'it's yours, you can have it. You just have to make it back.'  I'll just buy another one so we can both go riding," he said.

Both avid guitarists, a makeshift garage band is in the blueprint stages as well. 

"He's a more accomplished guitarist than I am," the father admitted.

Lt. Cdr. Hernandez attempted to convoy north toward 1st Marine Division's headquarters, where his son was acclimatizing to the 100-degree plus dry heat of Iraq. Due to the risks involved of traveling to and from the U.S. military camps in Iraq, as well as his approaching departure date, Lt. Cdr. Hernandez was not able to see his son before he left.

"Maybe it was better off that way," Hernandez conceded, on the evening of his flight.

"I'm very happy that my father made it out of here safely," said Cpl. Hernandez. "I just hope that when my time comes, I can leave here safe and sound as well."

If the Marine Corps stays on track with its planned seven-month rotations, both men can look forward to guitar jamming and "Hog" riding in southern California next spring.

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