Marine's death a real reality check

His name was Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Anthony Wojciechowski -- "Tony Wojo," for short -- and he returned home to Ohio from the Al Anbar province of Iraq on Thursday afternoon in a flag-draped casket.

He was 25, only a year older than LeBron James and the same age as Aaron Rodgers, Dustin Pedroia and my youngest daughter, Taylor. According to the Department of Defense news release, he was killed in action "while supporting combat operations." It was his second tour of duty.

We share the same long last name, half a nickname (Wojo) and a military family background, but we're not related. A friend in Los Angeles saw a mention of Staff Sgt. Wojciechowski's death in the L.A. Times and called. And I've been thinking about Tony Wojo ever since.

Wojciechowski was assigned to the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif. Years ago, when I worked for the Times and drove down Interstate 5 to San Diego for assignments, I would pass the massive Camp Pendleton base. Jarheads everywhere.

I'm the son of a career Air Force officer who served in Korea and Vietnam. Staff Sgt. Wojciechowski's mother and father both served in the U.S. Army, and his grandfather spent 22 years in the Marines. Uniforms, bases and duty become a way of life.

What does Wojciechowski's death have to do with sports? Nothing and everything.

For me, it's about context, perspective and taking a personal timeout from the absurdities and banalities of the people and games that I often cover. In fact, I'm sure I've been guilty of adding to that absurdity.

So I'm trying to honor a 25-year-old soldier from Union Township, Ohio, instead of writing about point shaving at the University of Toledo, or Brett Favre's latest comeback saga, or Manny Ramirez's suspension. There are lots of those stories, but only one Tony Wojo.

A commercial 747 flew Wojciechowski's remains from Iraq to Germany and finally to Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, where "dignified transfer" of the case was performed by a Marine Corps carry team. A Falcon 20 twin-jet aircraft, carrying his casket and accompanied by a military escort, later flew to Cincinnati's Lunken Airport on Thursday afternoon.

If Clermont County commissioner Bob Proud did his part -- and he said he would when I talked to him Wednesday -- the entire procession route from the airport to the E.C. Nurre Funeral Home in nearby Amelia was lined with people paying their respects to Wojciechowski.

"I don't know if you know this, but we were dubbed 'the yellow-ribbon capital of the world,'" Proud said. "We have yellow ribbons everywhere in this county, all to show our support for the troops. Our support has stayed steadfast. Other places it's waned, and apathy has set in. Not here."

Wojciechowski wasn't a star athlete at Glen Este High School or at Live Oaks Vocational School. He was just a nice kid who was interested in becoming an auto mechanic.

People don't forget nice. And they don't forget sacrifice. When the procession drove past his old high school, there was a banner: GEHS Honors A Hero. Thank you, Wojo.

Wojciechowski was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He reported to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He later was stationed at a naval station in Bremerton, Wash.; then Camp Lejeune, N.C. (my family used to be stationed at an Air Force base in nearby Goldsboro); Eglin Air Force Base in Florida; Okinawa, Japan; a six-month deployment in Iraq; Camp Pendleton; and then a second deployment to Iraq three months ago.

He was killed in action on April 30.

Scuba diving was one of his great loves. When his second tour in Iraq was done, Wojciechowski planned to visit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. He played golf. He worked out. He shot pool. He made friends. Lots of them.

An online guest book features dozens of testimonials on Wojciechowski. A firefighter from Port Orchard, Wash., writes about Tony's dating his sister-in-law.

Read the entry: "From the first moment we met him, we loved him ... a squared-away young man that was very polite and respectful. He quickly became a part of our family ... a great man."

Fellow Marines stood guard over his casket at the funeral home Thursday and again for Friday's public visitation at Mt. Carmel Christian Church. A Marine band, as well as a bagpiper, will play at his funeral service Saturday morning. A 21-gun salute (seven personnel, three volleys each) will honor the fallen hero.

Two hundred buttons with Wojciechowski's photo have been distributed. Another banner has been prepared for the church: Marine Staff Sgt. Tony Wojciechowski. He stood his watch. He stood it well.

More than 4,200 U.S. service members have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tony Wojo returned Thursday. To tears, "Taps" and yellow ribbons. A grateful sports writer thanks him.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.