One, Rajaan Bennett, was a star of the Friday night gridiron. By all accounts a wonderful young man, he was tragically murdered before his promising adult life had begun.
We mourn his loss on the front pages, in the local news and in our schools, paying tribute and remembering his many contributions. And we offer condolences and support for his family and friends, shocked by a senseless act that hit so close to home.
At the same time, another young man, who played a different sport and contributed in a different way, should also be honored. As I write, his family and friends have just returned from meeting him at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, where the plane carrying him completed the last leg of a long journey home. The journey originated in Afghanistan, where he'd gone to serve his country, to serve us, in the name of freedom.
His name is Pfc. Jason "JJ" Estopinal, USMC. He was 21 years old, and a graduate of East Paulding High. He was killed by the Taliban last Monday in an IED blast, on the third day of the Marine's assault on the town of Marjah, in a NATO offensive being called the largest in the history of the nine-year war.
The cost has been high for the Marines.
Jason had lived in east Paulding, just over the Cobb-Paulding line, since he was about five years old. His family - mom Claire, dad Jason and younger brother Parker -had moved here with him from Louisiana. He played soccer and was a good boy, caring and considerate of others by all accounts.
One of his first coaches was the mother of his best friend, Mitchell. Karen Gard was emotional when I spoke with her yesterday, having been with Jason's family at their very difficult homecoming. Her son, also a Marine who had enlisted with Jason in late 2008 and had been with him through boot camp at Paris Island, had the honor and the duty of escorting his friend from the big air base at Dover to the funeral home near the national cemetery in Canton.
The mission was difficult, she said, but she's proud that he's holding up, despite the grief.
The boys grew up together and were best friends, she told me. Their personalities complimented each other. Jason was typically quiet with a lot of personal discipline. Mitchell was more outgoing. Together, they had each other's backs, in athletics and everything else.
"In sixteen years, I never heard Jason say one negative word," Karen said. "He never complained and there was never a conflict. And he pushed himself with a quiet determination that was amazing."
During high school and after, the boys worked with their friend Paul Sanders for the Cobb Parks and Recreation Department, mowing and maintaining ball fields and cleaning the facilities at Lost Mountain and Big Shanty parks.
"They loved the hard work," Karen told me. "But they always knew they wanted to be Marines," she said, repeating a line I've heard at least a dozen times by other mothers, all of whom were in awe of the exceptional men they had raised.
So when the time came, all three enlisted together.
Cobb Parks Operations Director Benjie Brumbeloe had nothing but praise for Jason and his friends. "This loss," he said, "broke all our hearts."
"Jason was the most honest, straightforward kid I've encountered," he told me. "An athlete, sort of quiet but always smiling with a great sense of humor. He and his friends initially worked part time for us, but we hired them on full time as soon as there were openings."
Jason did so well on the ASVAB test (which recruits take upon entering the Corps) that he could've had his choice of MOS, or job. He chose the infantry, and was deployed almost immediately to Afghanistan last October, the first of the three to see combat.
And yesterday afternoon, under the warming sun of an approaching spring, Jason came home.
If you were on the road, you might have seen what Jason's family saw, and what makes me proud to be a citizen of Cobb County.
It was a convoy for Jason, a motorcade for his family. From almost the moment the Estopinals left home on their sad ride, all the way down Dallas Highway and to Dobbins, the Patriot Guard Riders and other veteran's groups provided an unofficial honor escort, with dozens of American flags. On base, all service personnel lined the streets in honor of the fallen Marine and his loved ones.
Jaime Gard, Mitchell's sister, told me the outpouring of support by people they didn't even know gave the family strength.
"People stopped and got out of their cars," she marveled. "They didn't just stop - they got out and saluted." I-75 was closed for the ride north to Canton and the funeral home. People stood next to their cars on the interstate as the procession passed.
Americans can be so wonderful.
Meanwhile, the reality of the loss will continue to settle in. Funeral services are scheduled for Tuesday. Words heralding sacrifice, honor and duty - the solid, indisputable measure of a man, a Marine, will be abundant. But someone's son and brother and cousin and nephew and friend will be laid to rest. It hurts so much, I know from experience.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the Estopinal family, who have given so much.
Ronald Reagan once said, "Some people live their entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world. Marines don't have that problem."