By JASON CAMPBELL
LATHROP – Omar Khweiss stood proudly at attention before the flag as the “Marines’ Hymn” reverberated through the speakers.
“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”
It didn’t matter that he had the lyrics beat into him during basic training – Khweiss discharged at the rank of Gunnery Sergeant – or that he had heard it played thousands of times during his tenure in uniform. Because when he stood before the group of more than 100 people that gathered at the City of Lathrop’s Veteran’s Wall Memorial Monday morning, he was there to honor a man that not only served the Corps honorably but continued to give back to his fellow Marines long after he took off the dress blues.
John Serpa – one of Lathrop’s early pillars and a founding member of the Mayor’s Veterans Day Celebration committee – passed away back in March of this year. And while the event was intended to honor all local veterans, Khweiss’ words about the man he had come to cherish and respect seemed to carry special weight with the crowd.
He recounted how during a meeting with of the Marine Corps League, fellow Lathrop icon Bennie Gatto drew the ire of the crowd when he commended all of those in the room as “Ex-Marines.” When Khweiss got the chance to get up and speak, he said that Marines only had 25 letters in the alphabet – “X” wasn’t one of them.
“Mr. Serpa told me that he had never heard anybody handle a situation quite like that,” Khweiss said – noting that it would be the last time he would ever speak to him. “Your words served as the highest compliment that I’ve ever been bestowed by a fellow Marine – especially one of your stature.”
Monday’s event was the handiwork of a committee of only three people and a team of nearly two dozen volunteers.
Harris Griffin said he came out early to help set up chairs because he wanted to anything he could to help out in the community and honor the memory of his brothers that served in the armed forces and have since passed away.
“I think that it’s important for people to recognize the individuals that gave so much of themselves so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we have in this country,” he said. “It’s a chance to pay tribute and stand together in unity. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to be a part of this.”
And for some, getting involved with the event carries a special meaning.
Arinta Montiel watched her two brothers go off and fight in World War II and her nephew Brock Elliott lay down his life in the Vietnam War. Her late husband Jim was a United States Marine, as was her grandson.
So paying respects, for Montiel, literally hits home.
“Coming from a family of people who served in the military, Veteran’s Day is in my heart – it carries such a special meaning,” she said. “So many people have served to keep your nation free and allowed our children to grow up and become good citizens.
“It warms my heart that I can come out here today and see so many people that are willing to come out and support this event. It’s important that we remember.”