Three kids walked the back hill of Hillcrest Memorial Park two sundowns ago, in search of a hero worth remembering this weekend.
There he is, their dad said, after pacing two lots and 30 green aisles of headstones. Fourth to the last row, buried beneath a collection of American flags, camouflage patches and solar-powered hula dancers.
“Who’s that, Dad?”
Brett W. Land.
One of the best little wrestlers your old man ever covered. Son of a sawmill worker, the pride of Porterville, a posthumous corporal in the U.S. Army, and a hero to us all.
We came here to remember that a star athlete such as Brett Land saved his real heroics until after his athletic eligibility expired.
Cpl. Land was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Oct. 30, 2010, two weeks before he was to come home on leave to see his wife and meet their month-old baby girl.
We’re standing here because graveyards like this are where we find our heroes on Memorial Day weekend, and not at the 3-point line of the NBA Finals, or in an elimination game at a college baseball tournament.
We came here to remember that a star athlete such as Land saved his real heroics until after his athletic eligibility expired, when he walked away from college wrestling and a potential career in mixed martial arts to stand a post in our stead on a sun-blasted dirt road half a globe away.
“Did you know him?”
Met him once. Cpl. Land was real little when he was little, this 50-pound bundle of back-flipping savagery at a state wrestling tournament in Selland Arena way back when. Nine-year-olds are the worst quote this side of Bill Belichick, but know what that crew cut of a kid told this Bee reporter when asked why all the prematch circus?
“To get warmed up and make the other people afraid of me.”
No wonder those insurgents didn’t have the fortitude to fight Cpl. Land face-to-face like men. They wouldn’t have stood a fighting chance against the toughest 5-foot-5 kid you’ll ever meet. They should have been afraid.
Cpl. Land became a hero the minute he walked into the recruiter’s office, signing away his freedom to make sure no one could take ours away.
Cpl. Land was big enough to win three Central Section wrestling titles, and gifted enough to win two state wrestling medals.
To be clear, he didn’t become a hero that day in southern Afghanistan. Cpl. Land became a hero the minute he walked into the recruiter’s office, signing away his freedom to make sure no one could take ours away.
We need to put down our barbecue hot dogs and turn down the pool music this weekend long enough to chew on that for a moment. Next time you drop the phrase “late-game heroics,” ask yourself if the game was played while leading the troops up San Juan Hill.
Our heroes don’t win trophies in Omaha. They die storming beaches nicknamed Omaha.
He died a corporal with a Purple Heart and enough medals of honor to outshine anyone’s sports trophy case.
“What does that eagle stand for?”
Someone from his 101st Airborne Division must have cut that patch off his jacket and placed it there at the marker. Cpl. Land served in the Screaming Eagles just like your Uncle Danny did in the first Persian Gulf War. We’ll give him a holler on Veterans Day, because it’s just as honorable to fight for your country as it is to die for her.
The record tells us Cpl. Land was an infantryman who obtained the rank of specialist. He died a corporal with a Purple Heart and enough medals of honor to outshine anyone’s sports trophy case.
The name of his final mission? Operation Enduring Freedom, because, of course.
We don’t care that he never won a high school state wrestling title, or became an MMA star. We understand most of you never heard of him the way you have former NFL star Pat Tillman, another California native and Army corporal killed while serving in Afghanistan.
What Brett Land did in service to our nation is memorable just the same. That’s a lesson my children will not be afforded the liberty to forget any time soon.