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“Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history.”- Mary Roach

I don’t really know how to breathe right now, because I know someone whom I once cared about so deeply is no longer breathing. I stopped the moment that I saw the post… “Two NC-based Marines killed in Iraq.” How quickly that sentence plunged a knife into my chest, as I gasped for air, staring into that pair of serious dark eyes that I had gotten to know so well. His eyes smiled when he smiled. I knew that from the first time I met him. I was at the boarding door of the Airbus 321, greeting each passenger as they arrived, when the most handsome man I had ever seen, with those smiling brown eyes, filled the doorway. “Hello, welcome on board this flight to Phoenix.”

As I did all my safety checks, I took a slight mental notice to where the tall, dark and handsome stranger was sitting, and I headed back to the back to tell the girls. It was a really young crew, of all single ladies, and the sharks were prowling. One girl, we will call her Madison, was really on the hunt. She turned to me and said, “Well, why don’t we both just give him our numbers… and we will see which one he chooses,” with a well-placed smirk. I declined, politely. I am not one to compete for men. It makes me uncomfortable, and I had just broken up with my boyfriend, so I knew my heart wasn’t in the position to put itself out there again. I just decided it would be the easiest path to just let her have him.

This guy kept getting up to use the restroom, and we all got the chance to talk to him a little. “So where are you headed today?” “Are you in the services?” “What are your plans for the summer?” He ended up talking to us for a good portion of the flight, and Madison slipped him her number with her perfectly manicured fingers. I don’t remember the reasoning behind it, but we were delayed coming into Phoenix, so much so that almost all the passengers were going to miss their connecting flights. Diego, our tall dark, and handsome stranger was one of them. From our conversations, he knew we were all having a layover in Pheonix, so he switched his flight to the next day so he could come out with us that night. We all were staying at the same airport hotel, so it made it easy for us to meet up.

I knew chances were, we were all going out to the bar, so when I got to the room I frantically searched my suitcase for something that I could magically turn into a “clubbing outfit”. I had workout clothes, a floral matching pajama set, and a blue polka-dot dress that I often wear to church in the Summertime. The polka dot dress was the only viable option – so I pulled it on, shrugged in the mirror and threw on some lip gloss. I looked like I was going to pick up Easter eggs after the Sunday service… not go out and hit the town, but it would have to do.

The girls were already downstairs when I got there, sipping on some cocktails and wearing their perfectly fitted halter tops and black spiked heels. I pulled at the hem of my blue dress, and pushed my long straight hair back, wondering how they had known that they should bring going out clothes on a short overnight in Phoenix, Arizona. Diego came down, handsome as ever, and we all took an Uber to Tempe, AZ.  The plan was we were all going to meet up with Diego’s cousin at El Hefe, the best Margarita spot in the cactus country, known for its hot pepper margaritas and craft tacos.

Everywhere we went, to El Hefe and beyond, Madison was really putting on the charm, but it didn’t really matter. Everywhere we went, Diego always sat next to me. We went to three different bars that night, and he always somehow ended up in the empty chair next to my seat. I went to the bathroom at the piano bar, our last stop of the night, and Diego later told me that as soon as I left, one of the girls said to him, “You have to choose. Do you want mild?” She nodded towards the bathroom. “Or do you want wild?” pointing to Madison. “The choice is yours… but Madison will give you a good time.”

We all Ubered together back to the hotel room singing at the top of our lungs to Post Malone and laughing far too hard for comfort. I felt a twinge in my heart as I said goodnight to everyone in the elevator, and left the loudness to embrace the peaceful quiet of my floor. The night had brought up some weird feelings for me. Feelings that made me realize that I was capable of liking someone else, even though I was sure if he had a choice he would choose Madison. I knew in my heart though, I wasn’t ready to be chosen, because the sadness of my ex’s infidelity was still hanging over me like a constant dark cloud. I shut the door to my hotel room, thankful to be alone, and I let the tears stream down my cheeks. I changed from my church dress into my matching floral pajama set, and I sat on the big white hotel bed and I finally let myself feel all of the feelings that had been building over the past month.

“Knock knock knock.” I looked up startled, from my crumpled, broken position on the bed and I jumped up to see who was at the door. As I pushed the peephole back I was even more surprised to see Diego there. Number one, I hadn’t told him my room number. And number two, I HADN’T told him my room number! I cracked the door a tiny bit and I said, “What are you doing here?” As soon as he saw my face, including my shiny red Rudolph nose, and my eyes that were swollen from crying, he pushed that door right open like it was no heavier than a pop tart. I am not sure which one of us was more startled as he swung me up into his arms like a sack of flour, and walked me over to the couch in the room, where he sat down and plopped me right in his lap, “I never liked her at all.” “You really shouldn’t be crying.” “I like you, Megan.” He wiped my tears away with his big thumbs and looked deeply into my makeup stained face, then he leaned down and kissed my cheek. Still recovering from the shock of what had happened, I coughed out, “What in the heck. I just met you today.” “I am not crying for you. I am crying because of my ex.”  He then plopped a kiss right on my mouth, and I am not going to lie, it made me dizzy in the head. I put both of my hands on his chest and I pushed. “No, no, no. First off. I am not ready to date again. I am heartbroken and worn out.” “Second of all, YOU are supposed to be kissing Madison right now. She thinks you like her, and you are here. And third, how in the heck did you get my room number? That desk crew should be fired. You need to go NOW. Right now.” He grinned with his perfect white teeth and said, “Well, you are pretty short. I looked at the number on your key card as you got off the elevator.” “I will leave, but not before I give you my number.” He scrawled out his phone number on a sheet of hotel paper and walked over to my nightstand. He put it down and walked to the door. “Goodnight, Megan,” he said with that shockingly perfect smile. He was gone an instant later, leaving me sitting on the couch, still shell-shocked by what had just occurred. I walked over and rubbed my finger over the ink-stained paper, contemplating. Then I threw it in the trash.

I never thought I would hear from him again, until a couple months later, life surprised me yet again. I was doing freelance work as a travel agent, and I got a call from a man named “Matt,” wanting to book a whole trip to Peru. “Hello Megan, my name is umm Matt, and I am interested in booking travel through you. I got your number from your blog.” I was so ecstatic! It was my first real client, and I had found him through my writing, no less! I immediately patched him through so we could have a conference call with my boss, but as he was talking, something seemed off. I recognized this man’s voice. I thought to myself, “No… no, it can’t be,” but the voice stuck with me, and as soon as I got off the call I found Diego on Facebook. The message that I sent was short and to the point. “Hey Diego, you are going to think this is crazy, but I was wondering if you happened to call me earlier posing as a man named Matt. He wanted to book a month-long trip to Peru?” The reply came quickly, but in the form of a call, from Matt. His deep baritone voice echoed through the receiver, “Hey Megan. Umm, you were right. This is me. I figured you threw my number away, and I didn’t know how to talk to you. At first, I was going to tell you right away, but then you patched your boss in and it became a big thing. I didn’t really know what to do. So I just went with it” And that was how it began…

We dated on and off for a bit for about a year until we called it quits because of the distance, but we always stayed friends. He was a man of many talents. He was a Sniper for the Marine corps, a member of the special forces called the Marine Raiders, one of the select few chosen to be in the small elite force that is at the front lines, protecting this country. He was one of the bravest people I have ever known. He was a Dad to a little girl that he loved more than anything in the whole world. He was the kind of Dad that dresses up on Halloween EVERY year. The kind of dad every little girl dreams about. And he was the best sushi date a girl could ask for. I remember on one of our dates we went to get Sushi at Cowfish and the waiter flirted shamefully with him the whole time! And he knew we were on a date. We laughed and laughed all night about that. It’s no wonder the waiter liked him though, with his infectious personality, toothy grin and broad strong shoulders. He was a real live Superman, and everyone knew it.

He died yesterday, doing what he did best, protecting this country, being the face of bravery that we all need, and I can’t wrap my head around it. I can’t wrap my head around it because Superman can’t be defeated. I can’t wrap my head around it because I am never going to get to show him around Charlotte like I had always promised. I can’t wrap my head around it because his daughter is never going to get to dress up with him again. He was Superman, and now he is gone, and it makes no sense.

I talked to him before this tour and I ended our conversation as I always did, “Stay safe,” the weight of those words sinking in, because I have always known that his version of “safe” and mine have always been very different. “I will,” he said.

His version of “safe” allowed for me to have mine.

We don’t think about the price of freedom nearly enough. We don’t think about all the Superheroes that protect us every single day. Far away from our cozy beds and vegetable gardens. Far away from this country, that we lovingly call home, where our biggest problem is what we are going to cook for dinner and how big our next paycheck is going to be. They are out there: the dads, the moms, brothers, and sons… best friends, and boyfriends, fighting every day so that we can have our “safe.”

I have been writing to keep from crying because I know in my heart that the world has lost something very priceless, and of that, I am acutely aware. Years ago, I would have never in a million years knew, that when that man got on the plane, that he would have such an impact on my life, but he did. He always made me feel, “more than just mild.” He was a great friend, an excellent father, a precise and dedicated Marine: he made the world a better place. He was Superman.

Megan Marie

In honor and loving memory of Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, killed in action on March 8, 2020, Iraq

As long as I am breathing you will be remembered and kept safe in my heart. You are my hero and that of many others. Rest easy Diego. I am counting on the fact that I will see your sweet smile again in heaven. Te echo de menos.

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