Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to the understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.
Rich Higgins bounded up the escalator a couple steps at a time, running to meet me. He pumped my hand so hard I thought my shoulder might pop; we were long lost friends. His wide grin melted my fear, the fear of being called to the Secretary of Defense’s office on short notice.
“Roger,” he said, “I need a favor. Can you help the Secretary with the Annual Report to Congress?”
“Major Higgins, Rich” I replied, “Mr. Weinberger can do anything he wants, anytime, he’s the big boss, after all.”
Over the next three months Rich and I worked hard. Never an angry word, always good-natured banter, the job got done. He became a good friend. He stood in the back row as Casper Weinberger shook my hand, gave me an award Rich also deserved but did not want. Only after everyone else left the room did he come forward, stand at attention and give me a crisp United States Marine Corps salute.
‘Well done,” he said softly, “well done.”
We spent a lot more time together. We solved the world’s problems together, he’d say. Rich was calm, I tried to be. He told me of his time in other assignments, twice in Vietnam, four years at the Marines NCO Academy. He was proud of those years, molding men who might one day follow him into battle.
Rich left for the National War College, he came back a Colonel, he was now the real Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, not just a “flunky” as he called it. That much is true. We ran past each other on the 14th Street Bridge, or spoke quickly in the locker room at the athletic center. I saw him at parties, get-togethers. I told him I was off to Monterey in December 1986. He shook my hand hard as if it was the first time we met.
His wife was also an officer in the Marine Corps. She worked in Public Affairs at the Pentagon, came to work every day, hoping Rich would be found alive. Never missed a day, she was dealing with the press, keeping her end of the bargain. I found out when a friend from back east called, telling me to turn on the TV. They showed a picture of Rich, wearing his blue United Nations Beret, sitting on an ancient Egyptian rock stairway, smiling, looking casual, professional, every inch a Marine.
Half a year later he got a United Nations Assignment in the Middle East, Egypt then Lebanon. Pro-Iranian terrorists captured him in 1989. He was tortured, and died sometime during the summer of 1990. They recovered his body in 1991, brought him back to Arlington. He's there now.
Today I hold that picture up; adjust my reading glasses to see it more clearly. I think of him, but the truth is I will never understand why he had to die.