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Mothers Of Fallen Marines Proud Of The Choices Their Sons Made

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Marines are holding their annual celebration in Nashville, Tenn., for what they call Marine Week. The Corps is there showing off their equipment and recruiting in a place that is far from any of their bases. Nashville is home to a small number of families of fallen Marines, and that includes two mothers whose sons grew up as friends and who died five years apart. From our member station WPLN, Tony Gonzalez brings us their story.

TONY GONZALEZ, BYLINE: On this morning, Jenny Newsom and Tammy Bass are meeting with local Marines to share stories and photos of their sons.

JENNY NEWSOM: All right. See you soon. Nice to meet you.

TAMMY BASS: We'll see you on Thursday.

NEWSOM: We're making sure the USO is well-stocked for all the Marines flying in and out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, perfect.

GONZALEZ: They've been seeing officers more often in the run-up to Marine Week. And their knock at Jenny's door and the way they carry themselves is all so familiar for both of them.

NEWSOM: We're going to meet lots of Marines, and it's not going to be sad because we're going to meet part of our children's family.

BASS: But the flip side is then after you do that, it's tough. It's like, ugh.

NEWSOM: And to me, we just have to weigh the joy and the sadness. Could we close ourselves off from Marines the rest of our life and not interact because it wouldn't - it might make us sad the next day? I mean, to me, that would just be a tragedy that our sons would not want for us.

GONZALEZ: Tammy and Jenny will place wreaths at a Marine Week memorial as members of the Gold Star Mothers. That's a service group for families that have lost children in war. Yet, their bond isn't just one of loss.

BASS: Our boys were in the same youth group together at church. It seems like we've just always been friends.

NEWSOM: Yeah, that's true.

GONZALEZ: The mothers guided their boys through enlistment. It was 2002 when Jenny's son, Kevin Balduf, signed up as a 17-year-old. Even though no one in their family was in the military, Kevin had been talking about the Marines since middle school and wearing his hair in a buzzcut. He even got made fun of, yet it was nothing but support from his mom.

NEWSOM: I believe that we should allow our children to do what they're passionate about and that it would be wrong to try to change a child's mind.

GONZALEZ: For Tammy, her son also enlisted early, then tragedy struck quickly. Corporal David Bass was killed on his first deployment in a flash flood in Iraq a month shy of his 21st birthday. During his funeral at their church, Jenny came to Tammy's side. She tamped down a feeling of survivor's guilt that her son was safely on his way home. Five years later, the roles would reverse. Tammy got a phone call that Marines had been to Jenny's door.

BASS: It just made me angry, and I can't remember being that angry. I guess I was too numb at David's. But immediately, I just knew that I needed to be there with her, that I had no magic answers, that I didn't have anything but that I needed to be there with her.

GONZALEZ: Kevin, a sergeant, was killed in an ambush by an Afghan police cadet. Both mothers hold to certain mementos that reassure them of the path their boys took. Here's Tammy.

BASS: I wish David had come home, but I've never wished he hadn't gone in. I mean, I have phone conversations with him and I have his journal where he said I found where I belong. What mother would take that away from her son?

GONZALEZ: Jenny also got a phone call from her son just days before his death. It was Mother's Day when he told her he was relocating to a more dangerous base.

NEWSOM: But that he was good with God, and he wasn't afraid to die. How do you not have some peace even in our child's death? I'm sad Kevin died early, but I'm not sorry at all He made the choice. I am very proud he made the choice.

GONZALEZ: As these mothers understand, the military spectacle that is Marine Week is largely about recruiting and finding those people who will make the same commitment that their sons did. For NPR News, I'm Tony Gonzalez in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.