By Nan Royce
COKATO, MN Although he was exactly on time, Cokato’s Bob Holly apologized for almost being late for his interview.
Holly is a Marine, and for a Marine, everything must be just right. Holly was a little behind his own schedule due to a young guest stopping at his door. More on that later.
Once seated with a fresh cup of coffee, Holly wanted to make one thing crystal-clear immediately.
This article was not to be about him. It was to be about the Marines. His “brothers.” And it should be, in particular, about Master Sergeant E8 Matt Lehto, a Dassel native who has risen almost as high as one can in the Marine Corps.
When he was younger, Lehto used to frequently discuss the Marines with Holly.
The gift of a lifetime
Lehto, the son of Ed and Harriet Lehto of Dassel, was recently, and briefly, home. He had two weeks state-side before he was due to return to Afghanistan.
As Holly told it, he got a phone call from Lehto, who asked Holly if he was going to be home for a bit. “He said, ‘I have something for you,’” Holly stated.
At noon that day, Lehto arrived at Holly’s home, and gave him a hug. Lehto also handed Holly a brown box.
Lehto has served several tours of duty; earned a Purple Heart, and risen to Master Sergeant E8 status (the highest one can earn is E9); and, as Holly said, “reports to generals.”
The younger Marine could not stay long; he was headed back to the airport for Afghanistan.
Holly reached for the box and opened it. Inside was a perfectly folded American flag, and an accompanying certificate.
Lehto explained that the flag Holly was holding was the one which had flown over the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan Nov. 10. This flag, Lehto said, was specifically flown in Holly’s honor.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Holly remembered. “It meant so much to me. The flag was special, but the fact it was flown on the birthday of the Marine Corps was even more special.”
Holly plans to have the flag and the certificate framed, so he and family and friends may enjoy it.
“Matt’s a good Marine,” Holly said firmly. “His parents should be very proud of him.”
The few, the proud, the Holly family
Holly grew up in Oregon and had family in Alaska. Three of his uncles were Marines, and so was one of his sons, Buck.
Holly’s father was an Army man, but was always jealous of the Marines, Holly said with a smile.
He grew somber quickly, however, when he talked about his Uncle Harland.
His father’s oldest brother, Harland, served with the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, or Carlson Raiders.
He received six Purple Hearts fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific Islands from the Makin Islands, island of Tinian, Bougainvillea, the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima in the mid-1940s. He was identified by name in the World War II book “Flags of Our Fathers.”
When Harland’s wife, Dolly, called in February of 2007 to tell him that Harland was hospitalized, almost comatose, and near death, Holly left immediately to be with his uncle.
He entered Harland’s hospital room, where Dolly and four Marines stood watch. Dolly reported Harland was no longer opening his eyes or responsive. Despite, that, she turned and told her husband that Holly had arrived for a visit.
“Harland put up his hand,” Holly recalled. “I grabbed it, and we talked for a few moments, and then I left.”
As Holly was exiting the hospital doors after the visit, he received a text telling him Harland had just died. It was as if he had been waiting for his nephew, a fellow Marine, to get there.
Homer Holly, his father’s next youngest brother, was also a Marine, and was wounded during the battle on Guadalcanal in the early 1940s during World War II.
Homer passed away on the Maine Corps birthday, Nov. 10, 1979.
Once a Marine, always a Marine
Holly grew up knowing he wanted to be a Marine. From time spent with his uncles, he learned the Marine Corps was all about self-respect, confidence, and respect for others. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1967.
His boot camp experience was tough. “They break you down lower than whale [expletive], and then lift you up,” he said.
His graduation from basic training was “one of the proudest days of his life.”
Holly’s father and sister attended the graduation. The speaker for the ceremony began by asking all Marines in the audience to stand.
Holly witnessed more than two-thirds of those in attendance rise to their feet. “The Marines are a family,” the speaker said. Holly still agrees with, and lives by that statement.
Close to the chest . . . and the heart
Holly served for one and one-half years during the Vietnam conflict.
“I had some good times in Vietnam,” he said, “but we did our jobs in some bad areas.”
One of his favorite Christmases occurred while he was in Vietnam. “They flew in a chaplain,” Holly remembered, getting a little misty-eyed. “There was a cease-fire for the night, and we all just sang some Christmas songs.”
As his time in-country came to an end, Holly said he didn’t want to return stateside. “I was used to life in Vietnam.”
For his service, Holly earned medals in order of merit: Combat Action; Marine Corps Good Conduct with star; National Defense Service; Vietnam Service with star; the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm and Frame; and the Vietnam Campaign medal.
Holly spoke primarily of the good times he experienced in Vietnam. That’s an intentional choice he made after some trips to the VA in 2011 caused a little too much introspection, and brought back vivid memories he didn’t want. They haunted him.
Holly said he has just recently begun to sleep through the night again. “Suck it in,” he said. “That’s life. You can’t un-ring a bell.”
Back home, still serving
Upon his return to the US, Holly opened an insulation business, learned to be a pilot, and became a deep-sea diver in the early ‘90s. “I’ve tried to excel at whatever I’ve gotten into,” he said.
Holly has also volunteered and led a sizeable number of Marine or military-related organizations.
He has served as the Grand Lodge Officer for the Masonic Grand Lodge of Minnesota, and can trace his family’s participation with the organization back to 1701.
Holly is now Senior Vice Commandant (acting Commandant) of Litchfield’s Marine Corps League, Chevron Detachment #985. Holly wanted to wear his original-size dress blues when he marched in area parades. To do so, the always-disciplined Marine lost 51 pounds.
Today, those original-sized blues fit perfectly only getting a tad more snug when Holly dons the uniform for winter parades. “I have to watch my diet a week ahead of those,” he joked.
Switching back to serious mode, Holly said the Marine Corps League typically leads any parade they attend. He said he marches “to give back, to honor our country. That’s huge.”
Holly has also volunteered with the Cokato Business Development organization, served on the local golf club board for 15 years, and is a past Commander of the Cokato American Legion, and also is a proud member of an airport/flying club.
Holly admitted he might be a bit of a “spark plug.”
One of his favorite service projects is the Masonic Lodge’s Kids ID program. Holly was in charge of the state of Minnesota’s efforts for the project for several years.
Kids ID allows parents to bring their children to locally-hosted events during which Lodge members take childrens’ fingerprints, video, and audio samples, and a DNA sample.
The Lodge uses specially- made computers with no memory for the Kids ID program, and puts each child’s personal information in an electronic format that only the child’s parent may have.
No database is kept of the children’s information, but parents have valuable information at their fingertips to provide to law enforcement if their child ever goes missing.
Holly has led the Kids ID project at county and state fairs, fire departments, and businesses. The program is offered to parents free of charge.
Why he was only ‘exactly on time’
Holly was on time for his interview, and not early, as he would have liked. It was for the same reason he puts on his dress blues. “I want more Marines,” he smiled.
As he was leaving home, new Marine Chase Swenson stopped to visit with Holly for a moment. Swenson wanted to tell Holly how well he was doing in the Marine Corps. The younger Marine said leadership keeps him and his young colleagues “doing their A-Game all the time.”
As soon as Holly explained leadership does that so they will always have Marines fully prepared for deployment, he said saw the whole idea click for Swenson.
Making the most of life
Holly is looking forward to celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife, Barbara, by taking a month-long cruise to Tahiti. Of course, he plans to spend time diving during the trip.
He and Barbara share 26 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, the group of which ranges in age from 2 to 49 years.
“My wife keeps them all straight,” he laughed. “I don’t keep track.”
Holly stated his favorite holidays are Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the birthday of the Marine Corps He said he has frequently been asked to speak at observances for these occasions, but has always declined.
“I don’t know what I’d say,” he remarked. “We should honor all servicemen for their sacrifices.”
Of course, Holly is very proud of younger Marines currently serving. As he finished his coffee, he placed his hand on top of the box holding Lehto’s gift. “Lehto is my brother,” Holly said. “All Marines are. I will be until I die.”