Local Marine killed
in combat in Iraq
By MARY REEVES
— Mary Reeves, 278-5157
"It's the house with all the yellow ribbons."
That's how Mary Hirlston gives directions to her Murfreesboro home, but this time her voice breaks as she says it.
Soon, the yellow ribbons will come down.
Her grandson, Lance Cpl. James Daniel "J.D." Hirlston, 21, was killed in action in Iraq Wednesday.
"He called me Monday," Mary said. "I was taking another grandson to karate practice, and he left a message on the machine. He said he'd been patrolling.
"He said, 'This is my sleep time, but I wanted to talk to my granny.'
"He died the next morning."
J.D. was the second youngest of a large family, most of whom live in Rutherford County. His father and stepmother, James and Melvina Hirlston, live in Rockvale, and his mother, Judy Hirlston, lives in Nashville.
"The first thing people noticed about him was his eyes," said his grandmother at her home Thursday. "He had beautiful eyes. He was such a sweet, loving little child — always was to me."
She laughed a little.
"You can't really see them in that picture," she said, pointing to the large portrait of him in his Marine dress uniform. "He's supposed to look mean."
She has another picture she likes better — a computer-generated portrait of J.D. and his young cousin, Brandon, made at a local pizza place.
"Whenever he knew he was coming in, he'd write Brandon and say, 'We're going to Chuck E. Cheese's," said Dora Pope, Brandon's mother and J.D.'s aunt.
Family was important. The day before Hirlston was to ship out, the entire clan gathered at Mary's house.
"It was a real family reunion," said Pope. "Everybody was here, everybody played games — even Mom was out here playing tug-of-war."
"He had a big time," Mary agreed.
His life in recent years was a case of rededication.
"He had a hard childhood," said Mary, referring to his parents' divorce and other issues. She said J.D. attended Rockvale Elementary and Eagleville and Riverdale schools, where he wrestled and played baseball.
"Then he came to me one day and said 'Granny, I know what I want to do.'"
J.D. had been working at a fast-food restaurant, and he told his grandmother he knew he didn't want to do that for the rest of his life. Instead, he wanted to finish school and go into the Marine Corps.
"He said he wanted to be the best Marine he could be," she said.
That's exactly what he did.
"He didn't want a GED," said one of his sisters, Kim Porter. "He wanted a diploma, and he got it."
One brother, James Monroe, who just got out of the Army, came back from Iraq last year and talked to J.D. about what he could expect. His little brother seemed happier after joining the Marines, James said.
"He went back to school, joined the Marines; he started putting his life back together," said Kim.
Hirlston was part of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. He joined in June 2005 and was deployed to Iraq in December 2005. He died conducting combat operations in the Al Anbar province in Iraq, where he served as a rifleman.
"That's the Marine you usually see patrolling, providing security, overwatching other Marines," said First Lt. Barry Edwards, spokesman for the 2nd Marines Division out of Camp Lejuene, N.C. "A rifleman is also involved in training other forces, such as the Iraq security, as well as conducting day-to-day combat operations."
The Department of Defense did not release details of Hirlston's death.
"I do know they were in the area to work with the Iraqis and prevent insurgents from setting up strongholds," said Edwards. He added that Hirlston had already received three medals in the time he had been there.
"He won the Iraqi Campaign medal for 30 consecutive days in the Iraqi Theater conducting combat operations; the Global War on Terrorism Service medal because he was part of the unit that was ready to be deployed at any time for the fight on terrorism; and the National Defense Service medal — obviously for fighting in defense of our country, the United States," said Edwards.
Part of J.D.'s rededication involved his faith.
"He was saved and baptized, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church on Greenland," said Mary, "After he went into the Marines, he rededicated his life to Christ."
News of J.D.'s death spread quickly.
"There's been such an outpouring of love from everybody," said Dora. "People have already been bringing over food and flowers. They ask me what they can do.
"I said they should rededicate themselves to this country. It doesn't matter if you're for war or peace, there needs to be patriotism. If you honor our soldiers, those who have laid down their lives, you will have honored him."
Service information won't be complete until the family knows when J.D.'s body will be returned to the United States.
His aunt stood on the front porch of her mother's home Thursday evening and looked out over the many yellow ribbons that will remain there — for now.
"God only gives you so much time with them," she said quietly. "I feel rich for the time that I had with him. I feel very rich."
Originally published August 25, 2006