McALESTER, Okla. -- Paying homage to the Marine Corps motto of "Always Faithful" or Semper Fidelis, McAlester welcomed home a native son for its Armed Forces Day Luncheon at the Country Club here, May 1.
United States Marine Corps Col. Tray J. Ardese returned to southeast Oklahoma as the guest speaker for the McAlester Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon and served as the grand marshal for the 68th annual parade the following the day.
The luncheon honoring the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, was attended by more than 200 people, including U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), an Army veteran and senior member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
Inhofe said he was visiting and wanted to share a few thoughts.
"We have a lot of heroes around, but this guy we are honoring today, if you really read the background and the things he has done, it's really impressive," he said.
Inhofe also asked everyone to read an article he wrote in the March 25, 2015 issue of Time magazine, which included a photograph of him on the USS Carl Vinson with bombs manufactured at nearby McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
Ardese began by talking about the "giants" in his life -- his mother, Raylene; his wife, Tammi; and Jesus Christ.
Married nearly 22 years, the colonel acknowledged the support of his spouse during his career.
"She kept the home fires going through seven combat deployments," Ardese said. "I came back wounded and broken, she nursed me back to health, and right when I got healthy, I went again."
He also praised his football coaches, Allen Wadsworth at McAlester High School, and Morris Sloan at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, who pushed him.
"Those gentlemen taught me what it meant to be tough," he said.
He said times have changed since he left McAlester almost 30 years ago, first to attend Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and then to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.
"Funny thing is, when I left here, I couldn't afford to be a member of this country club, and now I get to come back and be the guest speaker," he said, drawing laughter.
Continuing to talk about giants, he began to share a story that USMC Gen. John F. Kelly shared with an audience in St. Louis in 2010 about two heroes, just days after his own son, a first lieutenant, was killed in combat.
It involved two young Marines, Cpl. Jonathan T. Yale, 21, and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 19, who displayed uncommon valor and heroism as they faced a suicide bomber in Ramadi, Iraq, April 22, 2008.
Then, in meticulous detail, he shared six points from his experiences in life that are relevant as they relate to the yet-unfinished story. They are: Never leave anything unsaid to family members and friends, laugh as much as you can, live your life so you have no regrets, do your best at your job every day, a good name is better than gold or silver, and leave it all on the field.
Returning to the story about the Marine heroes, Ardese asked the audience what they would do if they had five minutes left to live.
"Who would you call? What would you say?" he said.
He proceeded to paint a visual picture of the last six seconds of the Marines' lives as they stood their ground and rained fire down on the suicide bomber in a dump truck speeding toward their checkpoint with 2,000 pounds of explosives.
Ardese said Kelly, who was the commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces at the time, visited Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to each of the Iraqi policemen who were also at the checkpoint with the Marines. One, with tears in his eyes, said he expected them to run to save their lives as he and the others did.
"What he didn't know until then, and what he learned that very instant," Ardese said, "was that Marines are not normal."
Yale and Haerter sacrificed their lives, but they saved the lives of about 150 Iraqi and American brothers-in-arms. They were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second highest medal for valor.
"These are the types of men and women that I've served with the past 25 years," Ardese said. "They stood for America's greatest gift they can bestow on any person and that is freedom."
In closing, Ardese left the audience with one final thought about his career.
"I would never have wished it on anyone, but I wouldn't have traded it for the world," he said.