When Shelly Roberge approached the fireworks stand with the U.S. Marine Corps flag flying above it and lifted her shirtsleeve, exposing her tattoo, David Ossian asked:
“Why aren't you on my roster?”
Roberge didn't know a roster existed.
And she didn't know joining the Cornhusker Marine Corps League Detachment 370 would mean finding her family again.
* * *
After nearly 20 years of service, Kevin Barret's injuries from his time in Kuwait snowballed and forced him to accept medical discharge from the Marine Corps months before his retirement.
He returned to his native Lincoln in 1999 and waited, restless.
Gone were the days of being a Marine: jumping out of helicopters, training on conventional warfare, migrating from country to country — he has been to more than 40 — challenging himself physically and running 24/7 on high energy.
Marines do what they're told and don't question it, Barret said.
“No one understands what we do,” he said.
Doctors diagnosed Barret with post-traumatic stress disorder. Group therapy with other branches of the military wasn't helping; they didn't speak his language.
Only a Marine understands a Marine.
The excess energy accumulated. Life was too slow. The now-53-year-old needed to find that extreme again. He chose motocross, and his doctors approved.
And then he attended a Marine Corps birthday party last fall. He saw David Ossian, who Barret recruited into the Marine Corps in 1985; and Ossian, commandant of the Cornhusker Marine Corps League Detachment, didn't hesitate to recruit him.
“It was like night and day,” Barret said. “I basically found my family again.”
* * *
“The greatest thing about being a Marine — at the end of the day you know what you did mattered," Ossian said. "Sometimes in the civilian world we don't feel that.”
Marines need the camaraderie, the purpose, the teamwork, he said. For those veterans on the league's roster, they have found that again.
The league is for any Marine veteran, whether they're returning from active duty or have been adjusting to civilian life for years. The oldest of the group, a 92-year-old veteran who fought in Iwo Jima, has plenty of stories to tell. The youngest, 29, was wounded in Iraq. And they have Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, reserves, infantry, aviation, Camp Pendleton and every experience in between.
The Marine Corps League is a national program with detachments across the country. Marines must apply and pay $35 annually. Representatives from different chapters meet for division and state meetings a few times each year.
Formally, the league in Lincoln meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Disabled American Veterans Club.
Informally, the group occasionally pushes a few tables together at Brewsky's and enjoys dinner, a few drinks and war stories. Every once in a while they throw in a movie night.
“We're an addictive group,” Ossian said.
And there are missions.
“That's when they really strive,” Ossian said, “when they're working together as a team.”
Most of the time he isn't finished explaining a community service project before the group says “yes,” Ossian said.
Roadies for the Veterans Freedom Music Festival. Volunteers to help obstacle course runners in the Quest for the Vets 5K or the Nebraska Sports Council Mud Run.
Recently, the league gave $4,000 to Shailee Bennett, a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who needs a new lift to help her move from bed to wheelchair. The money was collected in two months with the group dipping into some of its own funds because members didn't want to keep her waiting, Ossian said.
One hundred percent of the money donated to the nonprofit league goes directly to its members, Ossian said. The group votes on how its money will be used.
A car accident last year left one Marine injured and out of work for a few weeks. By unanimous vote, the group gave their fellow Marine some cash to pay rent.
“I've never had a non-unanimous vote for helping out a Marine veteran,” Ossian said.
Money from the league's main fundraiser, a parking lot fireworks stand July 3 and 4, is used to send members to training and regional meetings.
After suffering an injury, Barret fell in his home one afternoon and was unable to get up. He called his Marines. They were there in five minutes, he said.
“They are really incredibly dedicated to one another and the notion of ‘leave no one behind’ carries into their civilian life as well,” said Dr. Christie Emler, associate chief of medicine at the Lincoln Veterans Affairs Hospital. “They will not leave a fellow Marine behind whether it's physically, socially, mentally — they're there for each other.”
* * *
Roberge is glad she found the league's fireworks stand that day. And she's glad they found her.
“It kind of almost instantly felt like family,” she said. “It just makes me feel like I'm a part of something. They don't judge.”
Eager to leave behind a retail job leading nowhere, combined with a desire to serve her country, Roberge enlisted in the Marine Corps. She was stationed at Camp Pendleton and worked for the information bureau. After four years of service, she transitioned back into civilian life in 1995 to take care of her 1-year-old daughter.
A shy person, the Marine Corps and the league helped bring the 42-year-old out of her shell and out of the house.
“Shelly's a give-back person,” Ossian said. She's always asking how she can help others, he said, and motivated to pay it forward.
“That makes her perfect for the group.”
* * *
Trips to the grocery store sometimes take a little longer for Amy and David Ossian.
“It is very much like a family,” Amy said. “He can spot a Marine in a crowd.”
Ossian, 44, left active duty in 1993 and his life was “deplorable,” he said. The Marines who had been at his side seven days a week for five years were gone.
But life started to improve. He gained custody of his daughter — whose birth he learned about in a Western Union telegram while on the U.S.S. New Orleans. He took up martial arts, eventually earned a black belt and met Amy.
After a hip injury a few years ago, he was left at home with the same pent-up energy Barret dealt with. He looked online and found the league. He joined, eventually was elected commandant and made it his goal to increase numbers and involvement.
In the past two years, the group has doubled in size.
Ossian hopes someday to create a camp for returning Marines to help them cope with PTSD or anxiety through team-building exercises, work and by building confidence and skills.
Outside of his full-time job at Duncan Aviation, Ossian works about 50 volunteer hours per month as commandant, fielding close to 20 emails and phone calls on busy days.
“Dave pretty much goes 100 percent at whatever he's doing,” Amy said.
Sometimes that dedication to his Marine family takes away from his blood family: Amy, 22-year-old daughter Caitlin and 19-month-old son Liam. But a volunteer herself as a Lied Center for Performing Arts coordinator, Amy understands the importance of volunteerism.
“We're changing lives in the group,” David Ossian said, “and that's a great feeling.”
Ossian credits Barret with changing his life when he enlisted in the Marines. Barret helped him get into shape and stay out of trouble. Now, he has noticed a change in his old friend, who believed in him and guided his life when he needed it.
“More so than anyone he has really begun to flourish being around Marines,” Ossian said of Barret. “He seems re-energized.”
Barret sat in a chair at Brewsky's one Sunday evening at an informal league meeting. The laughter and voices of his fellow Marines filled the air around him.
“Marine Corps League saved me,” he said. “It saved me.”