MESA, AZ -- For some, Memorial Day will be a day of family picnics, barbecues and parades. But for Congressman Ruben Gallego, a freshman Democrat from Arizona who served as a Marine in Iraq, Memorial Day will be a time of remembrance.
“Memorial Day for me is the day that I remember all the men that I served with and lost in the Iraq war,” he said. Gallego plans to attend a special church ceremony for fallen soldiers as well as a breakfast with veterans in Phoenix on Monday.
It's also the day he remembers his best friend, fellow Marine Jonathan Grant, who was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device (IED) at the age of 23. They both served in the Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, a reserve unit from Ohio that Gallego said saw more combat and casualties than most units in a short period of time.
Twenty-two Marines and a Navy corpsman from the Lima Company lost their lives while serving in Iraq from February to September 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Most of them were killed in action by IEDs.
Gallego said he thinks about Grant “almost every day,” but more so on Memorial Day. The two of them met when Gallego was part of a reserve unit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He spent time working in the nearby town of Española, where Grant lived and grew up in.
“He would come visit me to make sure I was staying in shape and getting ready for activation,” Gallego said about Grant. “He was just a really nice guy—one of the nicest guys in the world—and he had a good sense of humor.”
Gallego also joked that Grant had one of the loudest snores he’d ever heard. “Some of the Marines would actually start throwing boots at him at night because his snoring was so loud,” he said. As a way to get Grant to stop snoring, Gallego said he used to tie a rope to his friend’s leg and tug it at night to wake him up whenever he snored.
This year marks the 10th year anniversary of the Lima Company’s tour in Iraq. At a reunion scheduled for August 15 in Ohio, Grant will be among the fallen Marines who will be honored.
Gallego said he plans to be there and looks forward to reuniting with his fellow Marines, some of whom he said are still in the military. Others work for the federal government and some are police officers, doctors and lawyers. But he also noted some committed suicide—a reminder of the perils of war.
Returning home after serving in Iraq was not easy. He recalled feeling frustrated for a number of reasons, including the service he received from the Department of Veterans Affairs when he tried to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“There are a lot of us who feel that way,” said Gallego. “You’re frustrated with the government. You’re frustrated with the VA. You’re frustrated with even society and just how superficial it is when there are men and women dying every day. That’s the kind of stuff that makes us very frustrated.”
Gallego was also frustrated with politicians when he returned from Iraq. He said that changed when he met Harry Mitchell, a former Democratic congressman from Arizona who “did really good things for us veterans,” according to Gallego and inspired him to pursue a career in politics to bring about change.
Gallego’s first elected position was as a member of the Arizona House of Representatives. He took office in January 2011 and eventually became assistant minority leader. Gallego said one of his greatest accomplishments as a state House member was getting his bill approved granting in-state tuition to veterans in Arizona, even to those who lived in the state for less than a year.
“I have met veterans since I passed that bill that have said that they would’ve never gone to school without my bill,” Gallego said.
He stepped down from his state House seat in March 2014 to run for Arizona’s 7th congressional district and was elected eight months later. Gallego said his top priorities include making sure the VA gets enough funding and that his office helps veterans receive the services they need.
On Memorial Day, though, Gallego will honor those like his best friend and fellow Marine Jonathan Grant, and make sure his sacrifice is not forgotten.