Patriot Profiles: He served honorably and he died, and we were there to bury him.


This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

In Miramar National Cemetery, each white tombstone has a priceless story. For their country, their families, their passion for liberty, service men and women slumber, far from calls to action and shielded from evil threats. Under a cloudless sky, an American flag waves over the meticulously manicured lawn; its stars and stripes a stark reminder of the price paid by those bonded briefly in war, and now timelessly in peace.

Two Army Honor Guardsmen in crisp dress blues were there an hour early, practicing as they do before every funeral. A car ceremoniously made its way to Shelter B, carrying a deceased 2nd Lieutenant who served in World War II. With solemnity, Cpl. John Gabino and Officer Candidate Eduard Cruz carried the remains from the car, to be placed before a small gathering of family and friends. Cpl. Gabino raised the bugle and the familiar sound of “Taps” pierced the reverent aura. Cpl. Gabino and OC Cruz then folded the flag with precise movements to be presented to the white-haired widow in a wheelchair. She leaned over, kissing it gently, as gratitude was expressed verbally.

In three-and-a-half years, Cpl. Gabino has repeated simple and elaborate funeral details nearly 1,100 times as an active-duty Army National Guardsman belonging to the Honor Guard. He travels constantly, along with arranging, scheduling and following up with cemeteries, mortuaries and families to give due honor and respect to all military members who have earned an honorable discharge.

For this 23-year-old with Mexican-American heritage, who has lived his whole life in San Diego, a desire to serve began in high school.

“To me, it’s a moral obligation as a male to join the military once you turn 18 — something you have to do to serve your country for a little bit,” Gabino said. He had a brother who joined before him. “I didn’t want to be that older person that says, ‘Oh, I was going to join, but this happened and that happened and I didn’t.

“I joined the Army National Guard, thinking I was joining the army,” laughs Gabino. No regrets as Gabino tackled regular Army basic training and schooling to be a combat engineer. “I’m an expert on demolition and blowing things up. I can do route clearance, mine sweeping … I look for Improvised Explosive Devices and bombs.”

Gabino is with Detachment 1 Bravo Company of the 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion based in National City. “We train for going overseas, natural disasters, fires, earthquakes, riots — for everything that can happen in California and [foreign] wars,” Gabino said. Readiness is every day 24/7, being prepared for any call.

“I can’t deny whatever my superiors ask of me because I’m on active orders. You go in like a regular job; you come out like a regular job. You just wear the uniform.”

As one of 10 California Honor Guard teams, Gabino’s Team Five does several services a day. There are two National Cemeteries in San Diego, but the Army Honor Guard does service anywhere. “We’ve done it on a beach, in a house, in a backyard.”

At any time or day they jump through hoops to accommodate. He emphasizes, “Honors are free of charge — they [the families] don’t have to pay anything.” They just have to call, send a picture, dog tags, a DD214 active-duty release form or something to identify that person served. From there, Gabino promises, “We’ll handle everything.”*

Battalion training and unit preparedness is one side of Gabino’s life, but his main job is assuring that veterans receive thanks.

“To be able to do this is an honor. We don’t know his story, we don’t know if his buddy died next to him. They know — all I can do is my best to provide the best funeral I can, even if I don’t know this guy. The family is going to be there — we’re going to be the last ones they see in uniform honoring their deceased,” Gabino said. “Us giving them flags show their grandfather, father, dad, uncle did a great thing for his country. He served honorably and he died and we were there to bury him.”

Services for Active-Duty KIAs (killed in action) are intense, according to Gabino. “The family is with us while we go pick up the body at the airport and that’s the first time the family sees them. As soon as they [the plane] comes down, we bring it out, put it in the church truck for the family to have a couple minutes with them. The family bitterly cries, in a lot of pain. That’s when it really hits you.”

Services for KIAs include an eight-man rifle firing party and six soldiers folding the flag, still as a post, using hands only.

“The Honor Guard is not for everybody,” Gabino said. “We have a lot of people that volunteer for it, but they come and go. Some people — they do them, but eventually it starts getting to them and they get out. You have to learn to put aside your emotions for a bit.”

Emotions took a front seat when a member of his unit died in a motorcycle accident. “All my fellow soldiers were there and I was in charge of that service, so I did the best I could. We’re all family, so we took it pretty hard when he died.”

Describing military life so far, “Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it can be dirty and sometimes it’s clean. You make the best of it.”

Gabino did more than make the best of it, earning first place at the Battalion level two years in a row in the Army’s Best Warrior Competition. This year a grueling hike up the infamous “Stairway to Heaven” in Mission Trails wearing full battle rattle was on the table. Representing his Battalion in the Brigade competition, he was also tested on weapon skills, policies, regulations, current events, land navigation — all under the scrutiny of his “Superiors’ Superiors.”

Lugging a heavy rucksack, wearing a helmet, bullet-proof vest, boots, carrying a weapon in 115-degree desert heat while racing the clock, or hiking up a 45-degree, mile-high slope with the same gear is easier than managing life.

“I want to be good at my job, but I want to be prepared for the future, so I keep studying, which is draining.” (Gabino attends school full time.) He strives to be fit, which also taps reserves. Then there’s family, relationships … ”Trying to be good at everything — it gets very hard,” Gabino said.

“To me, it’s worth it. It’s worth being there at attention for an hour or 30 minutes, not moving a muscle — standing there in the sun or wherever to be able to provide [what] I can do for that person for all their service — to be able to be there for them no matter what day it is or what time.”

Cpl. Gabino dubs the Army National Guard as “that kick that helped me start my life — ‘Hey you know what — you better get your stuff straight.’ You’re in the military now. Better work hard for what you want. It helps you think of what you want to accomplish and it helps you get there,” over 1,100 times and growing.