By Mike Sullivan
Herald Sunday, Sunday, August 20, 2006
[The following article is courtesy of Portsmouth Herald and Seacoast Online.]
Most high school students don't have a clear vision of where their lives are headed after doing the graduation march. After wrapping up at Winnacunnet High School in 2000, Shawn Mercer fell into that category.
The Hampton native was a standout goalie for the Warriors hockey team, and he used those skills to land a job playing junior hockey in Connecticut, but he hung up the skates after one season when he realized it wouldn't take him far or pay his bills. He worked as a bar back and bartender at the late Jack Quigley's -- karaoke in the Port City will never be the same -- installed car stereos at M&C Audio Systems on Route 1 in Portsmouth, and did a variety of other things.
Mercer was working hard, but without any real sense of purpose beyond paying the rent. He didn't want to make a career out of bar tending or car stereo installation, but had some interest in law enforcement. The more he thought about things, the more joining the armed forces made sense. Specifically, Mercer liked the sound of becoming a Marine.
His mom, Hampton resident Donna Mercer, will never forget the day her son finally figured out his career path. The Iraq war had begun and she was, like many of us, glued to the television watching the horror, yet hoping for some resolution. Suddenly, Donna's phone rang. It was Shawn on the other line and he sounded more excited than he had in a long time.
"He said, 'I think I'm going to join the Marines,' Donna recalls. "I stopped listening and everything got all fuzzy." His words are still fresh in Donna's mind. And while they still make her heart race, she couldn't be prouder -— but not just because he's a Marine.
"Everyone says, 'Oh, your son's a Marine and he's in Iraq, you must be so proud,' but I was proud of him before he joined the Marines," Donna said.
It has been a quick transformation from Shawn Mercer, Hampton teenager cruising around with a loud car stereo pumping, to Sgt. Shawn Mercer of the 9th Communication Battalion out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Their headquarters in Iraq is at Camp Fallujah.
On June 1 of 2003, he departed for boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. Two months later and nearly 50 pounds lighter — not that -- he needed to lose that much weight -— Mercer was, as the saying goes, a lean, mean fighting machine at 5 feet 10 inches and 160 pounds. He was a U.S. Marine.
Now 24 years old, he deployed to Iraq just more than six months ago as part of a force protection detachment under the First Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group. As a force protection Marine, Mercer was leader of a squad of four Marines and nine soldiers. He was the patrol leader and planned all routes for patrols outside of the.camp in surrounding areas. While he once had only himself to worry about, he suddenly was in charge of the well-being of his entire squad.
'Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.'
Needless to say, Mercer was often in harm's way but is now in a safer environment —- that's a relative statement considering he's in the middle of a war zone -— working with the communications battalion.
"The communications job has been much more low key compared to the force protection job and has been a welcome change," Mercer wrote recently via e-mail from Camp Fallujah. Of his force protection work, he wrote, "I had a great group of junior non-commissioned officers who made my job very easy, though, and for the most part I just had to issue the orders and plans to them and pretty much watch them do the jobs they had trained to do."
According to Donna, Shawn has a way of sugarcoating things to not worry anyone. Prime example: Donna never knew Shawn was really in harm's way until some photos he had sent to family members made their way to her. There was Shawn, holding a machine gun. And there was Shawn, riding in an armored Humvee. Reality set in.
"He's a good son —- he's always trying to protect me because he knows I get upset," she said.
Shawn's dad and Donna's ex-husband, Glenn Mercer, also of Hampton, is quite the opposite when thinking of Shawn's plight.
"Shawn and I look at it the same way," he said. 'That's his job, he'll do it well and then he'll be done."
True enough: Mercer feels good about what he and his fellow Marines have accomplished during their deployment.
"I am proud to be part of something that my grand kids will read about in history books," he wrote. "I would go anywhere that my commander asks of me without question, (and) I have confidence in the ability of my leaders from my staff sergeants all the way up to the president."
Much to the guarded optimism and joy of his family and friends, Sgt. Mercer is due back stateside in the next few weeks. He will be back at Camp Pendleton, but he plans on a vacation to the Seacoast before long. He has a list of things to do while he's here, including a trip to the Old Salt for escargot and cheese tortellini, which is one of his personal favorites. And in case you are wondering, war has not drained this man's sense of humor.
"If the owners are reading this, can I get a 10-percent discount?" he wrote in an e-mail.
It says here that Sgt. Mercer has earned more than that.
Mercer also plans on making several trips to the Hampton Airfield, as he has his pilot's license. It's a passion he shares with his dad, who for the record Shawn says is "one of Hampton's most eligible bachelors." But aside from the old haunts he wants to visit, Shawn's perfect day back will be spent with his wife, Sarah, perhaps the most important piece of the complicated puzzle that is a Marine's life.
The pair met while Shawn was still living on the Seacoast and Sarah was attending the University of New Hampshire (Class of 2004). She is in Donna's words, "so driven and so motivated. I couldn't have picked a better girl for Shawn." Truth be told, there isn't enough space on this page to print all the nice things Donna said about Sarah, who is a registered nurse. She is back in California with the couple's toy fox terrier, Bob, awaiting Shawn's return.
"I want to get off the bus and find my wife and give her a hug and kiss, worthy of making up for seven months of separation" Shawn wrote of his return.
He wrote he wants to thank his wife "for doing all that she did and singlehandedly running a house on her own while working a full-time job for seven months. She had it harder than I did..."
Glenn looks forward to his son's return, but isn't thinking too much about it at this point.
"I kind of think the way Shawn does," said Glenn, the owner of Tri-State Concrete Pumping in Hampton. "It's the Marine Corps, so you never know. You can't count on it until he's on the plane with his seat belt fastened."
Donna also tries not to think too much about Shawn's return to the U.S., because in her words, "I can't handle the disappointment." Just recently, about 300 Army soldiers who had just returned from a year in Iraq were unexpectedly called back. News like this is devastating not only for many of the soldiers, but their families.
So Donna goes day to day, staying busy selling real estate for Carey & Giampa and moonlighting as a bar-tender at McGuirk's on Hampton Beach. Make no mistake, though; she hopes one day soon to get another excited phone call from her son. Then, and only then, will the celebration begin.