AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, --
It seems like every hero, real or fictional, has his or her own rough background that gives them a call to duty and forges the steely resolve to save the world, or at least a piece of it. Superman’s family, his whole world, was destroyed. Batman watched, helpless, as his parents were gunned down. Spiderman will always blame himself for his uncle’s death; and a Marine serving in Iraq was raised, along with four brothers, by a single mother who worked dual shifts until the day she collapsed, and was told she could no longer work.
Though his story isn’t quite as ‘fairy-tale’ tragic as the fictional characters who live in the comic book world, Cpl. William G. Sheppard, a technical engineering specialist with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 2, has seen his fair share of tough times.
Sheppard marvels at some of the memories he has from growing up in the small rural town of Quinton, Okla.
“Mom did her best to raise five boys, you know, all by herself until I was about 11, then she married my stepfather,” explained Sheppard. “Far as I’m concerned, she did a pretty good job, three of us joined the military and one is still in college. She worked while we were at school during the day, then she would come home to cook us dinner and help with homework, then go back to work after she put us to bed. She was always home by morning to make us breakfast, then back to work and start all over again, up until the day she collapsed.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows wrinkled while trying to recall when his mother slept.
“I guess she found time to sleep somewhere, somehow,” he said, “up until the doctor said she couldn’t work no more.”
“Being a single mom was definitely an interesting endeavor,” said Julie Young, Sheppard’s mother. “Running from football game to baseball game and from teacher to teacher, trying to keep them all in line and see who was in trouble, it was busy.”
Mrs. Young collapsed at work one day and was later diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that affects the nervous system and can impair mobility and cause severe pain.
Sheppard worked various odd jobs throughout school to try to supplement his mother’s wages. He worked as a janitor at Quinton Public High School during his junior and senior years, but laughs about the rough time his schoolmates gave him for it.
“We had some rough times, but mom always seemed to pull through, and we all tried our best to help out,” he said.
After high school, Sheppard and the other 16 members of his graduating class faced a decision; where to go from here. Like thousands of young men and women who have faced that crossroad before him, Sheppard stepped onto the yellow footprints.
“Honestly, I didn’t see much else for myself. The Marine Corps represented a chance to get out and see the world, maybe improve myself,” he said. “I grew up in small town U.S.A., you know, there wasn’t a lot of options. The only way to get out was to join the military or get a scholarship somewhere.”
Sheppard’s two older brothers both joined the Army, his father, stepfather, and grandfather had also served in the Army, but for some reason it just didn’t seem like the right fit for him.
“Billy was born a Marine,” his mother laughed. “When he was little, he had a rowdy streak in him, and we used to joke and tell him when he got older he would have to join because only the Marine Corps could handle him.”
Sheppard said the Corps always seemed shrouded in mystery, an elite group few people knew much about, but everyone respected.
“I was once told ‘America doesn’t need the Marine Corps, she wants the Marine Corps.’ I wanted to be a part of that, part of something America wants,” he said.
Last year, disaster struck the military family, and a mother whose children are in the military had one of her worst nightmares become a reality.
“I was in Japan when I got the phone call. My second oldest brother, Josh, had died overseas,” he recalled through misty eyes. “Mom took it pretty hard, we all did I guess. But the Corps stood by me and everybody was really supportive. The company I was in sent flowers to the funeral and my first sergeant called my mom.”
The loss strengthened Sheppard’s commitment to the Corps, and he soon decided to volunteer to come to Iraq and serve an overseas tour before his contract was up.
“Obviously, I’m scared to death,” said Mrs. Young, “But this is his decision, and I respect that.”
“It was something I just needed to do,” said Sheppard. “I feel like after I come back I’ll be a better person for it.”
After his time in the Marine Corps is up, Sheppard hopes to join the Los Angeles Police Department and eventually become a highway patrolman.
Although he can’t fly, doesn’t have laser eyes, a sixth sense or a hidden cave of gadgets, Sheppard feels it is his duty to continue serving his country, whether it is in Iraq or on the highways of California. Like other heroes, there is something within him that calls him to service and sacrifice, something that calls him to be one of the few, one of the proud.