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Honoring the fallen

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Those who know me will understand that I am not a "Star-Spangled Banner" kind of guy. My patriotism runs more toward the sentiments of Woody Guthrie than those of Francis Scott Key.

Thus, it was with some surprise that I found myself at the Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting on Dec. 5 standing, hand over heart, singing the national anthem. The occasion, one of the most moving I've attended in the halls of local government, was Carrboro's honoring the family and the memory of Army Staff Sgt. Misael Martinez, the first Latino soldier from Orange County to die in Iraq.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Martinez attended Carrboro Elementary School and Smith Middle School and, as a young man, could be seen on the late shift at the Carrboro Plaza Food Lion earning funds to help put his siblings through school.

Martinez' mother is a nurse's aid, his father the owner of a restaurant maintenance business. For them, and for the several dozen friends and family members assembled, the national anthem seemed to symbolize the hope placed in their adopted country as well as the pride felt for their fallen child, a pride that could not begin to obscure their profound grief.

For a town that has long been committed to welcoming its Hispanic immigrant community, this occasion was nonetheless a milestone event. Particularly notable was the initiative of Alderman John Herrera, whose deep sensitivity and moral leadership are embodied in the resolution he drafted in extensive consultation with the Martinez family.

Read in turns by Herrera and Mayor Mark Chilton, the resolution melded words of honor to the fallen soldier and sympathy to his family with a challenge that the U.S. government improve its treatment of immigrants, soldiers and veterans.

The event was a palpable statement of the commitment of immigrant families to living the American dream, the importance of military service as a path for immigrant youth to find economic opportunity, and the unfortunate fact that for so many that seems to be the only path, one that too often leads to a tragic outcome.

In hope of creating alternative paths, the Latino Community Credit Union of North Carolina has set up a scholarship in Sgt. Martinez' name. Misael's father, Juan Martinez, spoke to the promise it held out for families like his own.

"I hope this is like a door of opportunities for other people ... and that they stay safe at home," he said. "This is something I'm not happy about, and I cannot go back in time and change it. I cannot say, 'Stay with me.'"

Martinez' younger brother, 22-year-old Israel, is scheduled to deploy to Iraq next month.

Soon, he will be faced with "the bombs bursting in air" celebrated by Francis Scott Key. But on Dec. 5, the spirit in Carrboro Town Hall insisted that, as Woody Guthrie told us, "this land was made for you and me."

Contributions may be sent to LCCU, Attn: Misael Martinez Memorial Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 25360, Durham, N.C. 27702.

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