Looking back, there really wasn’t much doubt about what John D. O’Connell was going to be when he grew up. “I have a picture of him when he was 3,” said his mother, Debby O’Connell, a Realtor with Hampton Real Estate in Ocean Ridge. “He was saluting.”
Flash forward 21 years. The saluting toddler is now a 24-year-old Marine, a first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan.
“When he heard he was going to Afghanistan, he was thrilled,” Debby O’Connell said. “I was devastated. He loves his country. He’d say to me, ‘Mom, someone has to do this.’ ”
As for O’Connell, he’s not exactly sure how it all happened, but he’s glad it did. “I am still trying to figure out why I became a Marine,” he wrote in an e-mail from his undisclosed posting. “I do know that I love what I do.”
What he does is command a platoon of about 40 Marines who fire missiles —the setup is called HIMARS, for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — at Taliban positions. Each rocket carries a 196-pound payload of high explosives with a range of about 10 to 50 miles. Suffice it to say, they can make a lot of noise. Yet O’Connell has a quieter battle to fight: loneliness. He wrote that his greatest challenge is “the loneliness that comes with being a position commander.”
Lacking peers for casual banter, he said, “When I would see other lieutenants from the battery, it was awesome just to talk with them.”
Down time is spent working out in a “gym” he and his fellow Marines built. “Our pull bar is made out of poles from an old cot,” he wrote.
In the arid plains of woolly Afghanistan, (“When we first got here, it was 130 degrees. Now it gets into the low 30s during the night”) he misses the ocean. Brought up in Boynton Beach, O’Connell worked as a dive master in Fort Lauderdale.
A 2007 graduate with a degree in criminal justice from University of North Florida in Jacksonville, he had already attended officer candidate school.
Debby O’Connell misses her son fiercely. “I can’t even watch the news. I just want my son to come home. John and I are very, very close. Even in college, even (in basic training) in California, we’d talk three, four times a week.
“When he was sent overseas in July, the first month, I heard nothing from him. That’s the horror. Not knowing.”
She’s covered the front of her refrigerator with funny e-mails she receives from her son and counts the days until his return. She sends him care packages, which take more than a month to arrive. “We mailed his Christmas package the day after Thanksgiving, and it got there just in time,“ she said.
Her son’s only proviso: “Don’t send me anything that would embarrass me.”
What do the troops like to get from home? Don’t laugh: “The best things to send are baby wipes. You can’t run out.
“The packages are nice. When my fiancé would send me stuff, it was amazing because I could smell her perfume in the box. That helps with the loneliness.”
Reading materials? “The most popular magazines were US, People and Cosmo. The Cosmo because the perfume ads are amazing.”
O’Connell is proving his mettle in the war on terrorism. He is up for review at the next captain promotion board and could be made a captain sometime next year.
The family has a history of military service. Debby O’Connell recalled what John’s grandfather, a military engineer, told his father, who served in the Air Force: “I loved the Marines. They would go in and make it safe, and then we would go in there.”
If all goes according to plan, O’Connell will be home for a visit at the end of this month.
He said to tell his family: “I love you guys and I will see you soon.”
John O’Connell was nominated to be a Coastal Star by his mother, Debby O’Connell, and the staff at Hampton Real Estate.