Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Tribute to MSgt Monica Gatucan, Her Daughter, Andrea Scott, and all Student Soldiers

Downloadable mp3 file / podcast.

Master Sergeant Monica Gacutan and First Sergeant Pedro Gacutan were husband and wife. Best friends. Confidantes. Team-players in a team called marriage. They challenged each other to bring out the best in each other. Despite deployment, transfers, life challenges, they managed to both complete their bachelor’s degrees at the same time. He was deployed to Kuwait. She had just been transferred to North Carolina. To show solidarity and support, she would attend graduation and accept the diploma for each. However, it didn’t quite happen that way. It couldn’t. Three days before the graduation ceremony, she and her 17-year-old daughter, Andrea Scott, (http://www.myspace.com/michaeljordanlover) were brutally murdered in their own home. The local papers and the Fayetteville Online recorded the events that took place http://www.fayettevillenc.com/article?id=235310 .

So, instead of accepting the college degree for her husband, Master Sergeant Monica Gacutan was represented by her husband, who, with dignity and grief, walked across the stage to honor her memory and her achievements as student, soldier, wife, and mother.

I’m at yet another Starbucks on the edge of a major military base. This one’s in Fayetteville, North Carolina, rather than in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where I was visiting my son, stationed at the Marine Base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Being here is not bad. North Carolina has its charm. However, it’s not Hawaii.

Tropical Storm Alberto is crossing the state. The air is cool. The humidity makes my skin open up and breathe, and I sit back and contemplate how the area received a few inches of much-needed rain.

This morning, in anticipation of the graduation ceremonies to take place at Fort Bragg, in which representatives of the dozen or so colleges and universities speak briefly and hand out diplomas and scrolls, I started to sketch out the words I would use in my brief address to the Excelsior College graduates. I like to focus on leadership and leadership theories. Ordinarily, it feels good to apply them to the task at hand: making your education work for you in the real world.

This morning, for some reason, my thoughts turned to the idea of sacrifice. I was struck by the fact that many of the soldiers who take courses online do so under the worst sort of circumstances. From Iraq to Afghanistan, and then to the DMZ of Korea, the soldier students may come back injured or the may not come back at all. It is getting to the point that many soldiers have been deployed to Iraq numerous times.

Ruth, who is the site representative, picked me up in driving Tropical Storm Alberto rain, which was coming down in silvery sheets. It was cool, yet steamy.

“Ruth!” I shouted. I didn’t want her to have to get out and get drenched. If she pulled up to the porte cochere, I’d be able to dash through the slashing rain and get in relatively unscathed.

Sacrifice.

Back in Starbucks. Two young guys in their twenties are studying the endocrine system. “What does the pancreas do?” I wonder if one or both will some day stabilize gravely wounded comrades in arms, as they wait for the medi-vac helicopters to come in. It is wonderful if you can do something to help. It is not so great if you can’t.

Jump-cut to impromptu robing area in the back of the Fort Bragg NCO Club. We are slated to start the processional to the stage where the new graduates will receive their diplomas.

“Dr. Nash, I need to talk to you.” Brenda, the Fort Bragg Education Officer, just back from Iraq, has an expression her face that is so serious that I wonder if I have unawares committed some heinous crime. She is wearing a very attractive navy blue dress with white collar. Her complexion is classic china doll. It is hard to imagine her in Kevlar and camo.

“We’d like you to say something about the tragedy and to recognize the mother and the daughter,” she says, after explaining the situation to me. My stomach lurches. I think of my 21-year-old son, recently returned from Afghanistan. A tall, slim man approaches me.

“I’d like you to meet First Sergeant Pedro Gacutan, Monica’s husband.” My stomach lurches again. The world is blurred by sudden tears.

“She was my best friend,” he says simply. I’m not sure what to say. But yet, I am. The voice that spoke to me so clearly this morning about sacrifice had compelled me to write words that now seem weirdly premonitory.

I blink my eyes and I’m on the stage behind the podium, a microphone picking up my voice and undoubtedly the sound of my heart beating, my hand shaking.

I inhale, exhale slowly, and begin.

“I would like to acknowledge and continue the theme of leadership that has been so eloquently addressed by the speakers before me.

In The Future of Leadership, author Warren Bennis states that becoming a hero often entails facing, surviving, and symbolically transcending fear and death. People going through difficult times often seek an individual who may have found a way through the darkness to the light, a way to reach deep within one’s heart and to find strength. People look to heroes as those who have responded to challenges – both anticipated and those which are unexpected – and then, transformation occurs.

Today, you stand at a juncture, where you may look back at the courses you have taken, the education across disciplines and you possess the ability to empower, inspire, and lead. You have the ability and the obligation to apply the knowledge you have gained.

These are the keys to transformation – having a vision and leading people – showing them how they can bring themselves to higher levels.

What turns the leader to a hero?

When Bennis wrote his defition, he left out one thing: SACRIFICE.

You know, within your heart of hearts, what you have sacrificed to make it to this point and what your loved ones have sacrificed.

You know what it means to be far away, in harm’s way.

Your fellow graduates may not be here today because of deployment. They are leaders and heroes, thanks to their sacrifice.

Today, I would like to recognize those graduates who are not able to attend due to the ultimate sacrifice.

And, in particular, to recognize an Excelsior graduate who is here, represented by her husband, 1st Sgt Pedro Gacutan.

Master Sgt Monica Lavetta Gacutan, and her daughter, Andrea Lavetta Scott, 17 years of age.

MSgt Gacutan served in Bosnia, was close to retirement.

As I understand it, she was killed as she reached out in peace to help a troubled soul.

I would like to recognize them, and other heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice, with a moment of silence.

(silence)

To all our heroes, thank you.”

It was a very difficult experience, but in retrospect, I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to honor the sacrifices made by people in pursuit of a dream, a higher purpose, an education. It is easy to take for granted what has become very costly and precious -- and the fact that we can have high-quality learning experiences using the technologies that people have - laptops, pdas, smartphones, iPods, mp3 players - is a part of equation.

The biggest part is valor.

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