This is the story of one young American who served and died during our war on terrorism -- years before we officially declared it.
Jesse Nathaniel Aliganga ("Nathan" to his loved ones) was a member of the elite Marine Security Guard detachment stationed in Nairobi, Kenya. He was 21 and a long way from home, but he loved his job.
Nathan grew up in Tallahassee, Fla. As his mother, Clara, recalled earlier this year in a Manhattan courtroom: "He was a very, very happy child. He always smiled. He had a big heart." Nathan played the saxophone and worked at an animal shelter. "I'm going to go to Africa, Momma, and I'm going to go on a safari," he vowed as a boy.
After high school, Nathan entered the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C. When he enlisted in 1994, he was out of shape. Though small in stature, he weighed 200 pounds. He was determined to survive boot camp. At graduation, he was so physically fit his mom barely recognized him. Nathan's sister affectionately called him "Sergeant Shortstop."
Nathan trained further at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. He then served with the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Japan, and the 1st Force Service Support Group at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before training in Quantico, Va., as a Marine security guard (MSG).
The MSGs are unsung guardians against terrorism abroad. They provide security at 123 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide, in war-torn capitals and anti-American hot spots. In February 1995, Marine Sgt. Aliganga reported for duty at the American embassy in Nairobi. Three years later, he extended his enlistment by 30 months. His mother worried about the dangers, but supported him fully: "It was his life, and that's what he wanted to do."
Sgt. Aliganga did not live long enough to serve out his term -- or fulfill his childhood dream of going on a safari. On the morning of Aug. 8, 1998, he walked into the embassy on his day off to cash a check. As he headed for the bank, past the familiar post he guarded for a living, a massive explosion rocked the building.
Sgt. Aliganga's fellow Marines rushed to secure the embassy perimeter. They rescued survivors, guarded classified materials, fended off looters, and searched for their brother in arms.
Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Sabal, the MSG company commander, recounted his young team's effort in a post-attack dispatch: "After 27 hours and 50 minutes of relentless digging with their bare hands, the body of Sergeant Aliganga was recovered" from a mountain of rubble. The Marines "gently wrapped Sergeant Aliganga in the American flag" and marched him silently through the ruins. Sabal noted that bystanders "stood erect with tears running down their faces as the body of another United States Marine, who gave his life in defense of his country, was ushered away."
On this Veterans Day, Clara Aliganga's grief speaks for all Americans who have lost someone in wartime. At the New York trial of her son's murderers in May, she testified: "More than anything else I wish that I could hold my son in my arms and to have him lay his head on my shoulder as he did so many times when he was home, and he would tenderly give me a kiss on my neck or how he would just come up from behind me and wrap his arms around me and hold me so tight, and tell me: 'Momma, I love you.' "
A total of 224 people, including 12 Americans, died in the African embassy bombings. Immediately afterward, Osama bin Laden's terrorist umbrella group crowed that "America will face a black fate ... strikes will continue from everywhere, and Islamic groups will appear one after the other to fight American interests." From Lebanon to Kenya to Yemen, Americans in uniform have died overseas and out of sight at the hands of these evil forces while we enjoyed peace and freedom at home.
To these heroes and their families we owe eternal thanks. They are casualties of an invisible war which, until Sept. 11, too many of us were too complacently blind to see.