This article was orginally written Paul Bersebach by and appeared on The OC Register.
The Hogans were the kind of parents who didn’t let their three kids play with squirt guns, but that didn’t stop their middle son, Donald, from dreaming about the day he’d be shooting bad guys.
“He always wanted to be in the military in some form,” says his soft-spoken father, Jim.
Jim’s own father, a Marine sergeant and veteran of three wars, fed his grandson’s obsession by giving Donald old copies of Leatherneck Magazine. Donald poured over them. In fact, once, during a family visit to a ship on which his cousin was serving, young Donald went missing. When Carla, his mother, found him and was about to scold him for running off, a Marine came up to her.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t know what to tell you, but your son knows more about this operating system than I do.”
As years went on, Carla says she “tried, definitely, to turn him in some other direction.” No luck. “It was genetic with him,” she says now with a half smile.
They did manage to get Donald to attend Saddleback College – “for about an hour,” Jim jokes. “He came home one day and got in a fight with his mother. He told her we were just making his life miserable by telling him what to do, and he was going to join the Marine Corps. We were thinking to ourselves, for someone who doesn’t want anyone to tell him what to do, he might be a little unclear about the concept of the military.”
They chuckle about it now, how in November of 2007 Donald ran into a Marine recruiter on campus. “Apparently the recruiter asked him if he had ever thought about joining the military,” Carla said, rolling her eyes. “It was probably the easiest recruiting call he had ever made – Donald practically ran to him to sign the papers.”
But Jim and Carla came to realize they’d never seen Donald happier. He even liked boot camp (who likes boot camp?). “He had found his people, his tribe,” Carla says.
After a brief assignment at Camp Pendleton – “That really rubbed him raw, to be set on this big adventure then sent 10 minutes from home,” says Carla – Donald’s battalion was called up for duty in Afghanistan. By July 2009 he was on the front lines in the Helmand province near the Pakistan border, volunteering to run the mine sweeper – “which is not every parent’s dream,” notes Jim, obviously a master of understatement.
Then, one late August morning, little more than a month after Donald had arrived in Afghanistan, Jim and Carla heard a knock on their door. Three Marines stood there.
Jim grew up in a Marine family. He knew immediately what that meant. The only question was: How?
Jim and Carla pieced together the details from the official report and from Donald’s fellow Marines when they returned: He’d volunteered for patrol, checking on a reported improvised explosive device. “On the way out, Donald spotted this guy pull a kite string. The Taliban operate in very rudimentary ways to deceive our technology – the guy was just sitting in a hole with a kite string. He pulled it and it didn’t go off. When Donald saw the kite string go up, he pushed one Marine out of the way and got in between the IED and the rest of the guys,” Jim says.
The second time the man pulled the kite string, the bomb went off.
Because he had pushed the others out of the way, Donald was the only Marine killed that day. The Marine Corps awarded him the Navy Cross, the second-highest decoration for heroism in combat, posthumously. He was 20.
It would be easy to understand if Jim and Carla Hogan, agonizing in the grief and loss of their son, withdrew from the world. If they were wracked by pain. If they settled into bitterness and anger.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, they sought out the Marines that Donald had served with. At first to understand what had happened to him, then to feel some closeness to the world their son loved so much, and then to ask: What can we do for you?
The answer they got from Donald’s squad sounded too simple: Socks. They needed socks. It turns out to be a problem that’s existed as far back as World War I, when soldiers got “trench foot.” The military does not supply socks, so service men and women have to buy them. What’s more, troops on the front lines have no laundry facilities. A simple change of socks becomes a luxury.
Jim and Carla tried to get help from their district congressman. Nope. They approached a retail chain that shall remain nameless (but is headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., just saying) with a proposal to donate socks. Nope.
The date for the squad’s redeployment was nearing, and since they had promised the Marines they’d get them socks, Jim just took out his own credit card and got them 230 pairs so each Marine would have three pairs.
Then, says Jim, “somebody talked to somebody” and more requests from servicemen poured in. The “Socks for Heroes” project was born. They started a Facebook page and began a nonprofit called San Clemente Marine Corps Support Group; donations appeared and local businesses, like the Ritz-Carlton and Gregg Bouslog, owner of OnTarget Indoor Shooting Range in Laguna Niguel, got on board.
Since May 2011, the Hogans have shipped 230,000 pairs of socks to troops serving in harm’s way.
Carla, meanwhile, became involved in the Gold Star Mothers group for those whose children were killed in combat, and befriended many young Marine families, searching for ways to support them. San Clemente Mayor Bob Baker credits her with instigating a program to allow citizen status to all Marines at Camp Pendleton, providing grants so their kids can take dance, swimming and soccer parks and recreation classes.
“There is no way they can afford a recreation program, unless they go without food for a month,” notes Carla, adding that because of sequestration, family services have been eliminated on base. “They can’t eliminate ammunition and training, so what are they going to eliminate? The families need us worse now than they did before.”
The support group also offers breakfast on deployment days and pours coffee for Marines freezing on training days. The fact that their lives are now “driven” by contact with Marines is an irony not lost on the once-reluctant Hogans.
“You can tell in their heads sometimes these kids are thinking, what’s in it for them?’” says the once gun-shy Carla, who now has learned to be a crackerjack shot with a .45. “We get the opportunity to be around these wonderful people, and in a way they are filling that void for us. Because Donald’s history now is written, this is a way for us to see what his life would have been like with two little kids, with separation from the military after service – to just kind of participate in this life. To tell you the truth, I would never have known all that, but the Marine Corps made us a part of their family after Donald was killed.”
Who would have thought the sacrifice of one son would bring them generations of Marines? “The nicest thing about these kids,” Jim says with mock seriousness, “is they never call and ask for money.”