In 26 years as a Marine, Sgt. Maj. Brian Taylor has lost several comrades. But he never forgot that "puny little squiggly kid" from West Baltimore who "just had all of this motivation and no direction."
Taylor had been a mentor to Sgt. Maurice Bease in the late 1990s, when they served together at a Marine Corps air station in San Diego. When he heard later that Bease died in the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he was devastated.
"He had so much left in him," Taylor, 47, who now works at a Marine recruiting station in Elkridge, remembers thinking at the time.
Taylor's sorrow turned to joy this month at a Marine installation in Beaufort, S.C., where he'd taken a group of Baltimore educators to introduce them to life in the Corps. Taylor was working his way down a line of Marines, thanking each for participating in the event, when Bease stepped forward.
This is a story about a brotherhood, about a young man from West Baltimore who sought lessons from leaders and became one himself, about a case of confusion that kept two Marines apart for a decade, about a friendship resumed.
"It was pretty emotional for the both of us," Bease, 34 and now a gunnery sergeant, says of the unexpected reunion three weeks ago. "It was really a special moment."
Growing up on Lafayette Avenue in West Baltimore, Bease says, he "really didn't see that bright of a future" — so he tried to make one for himself. He played lacrosse and ran track at Edmondson High School, and participated in the school's Junior ROTC program, rising to cadet colonel — the top student position — in his senior year.
On graduating, Bease joined the Marines. He was assigned to Fighter Attack Squadron 225 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego in 1999 when he became aware of then-Gunnery Sgt. Brian Taylor.
"He came into a large section and he had a lot of Marines under his charge and they were all kind of running wild," Bease says. "Getting in trouble, drinking and driving, doing all these crazy, stupid things.
"Just his presence seemed to transform all of the Marines in his section," Bease recalls. "We started noticing that all of the DUIs stopped, all of the craziness was gone. His Marines became the go-to guys in the unit."
Although Bease was assigned to an administrative job, he began hanging around with Taylor's team, which was responsible for repairing and inspecting the squadron's F/A-18D jet fighters.
Taylor's mechanics would joke that Bease was a paper-pusher; Bease told them they were "dirt divers." When one of them told Bease that he couldn't do their jobs, he asked Taylor if he could join them, after he finished his own work, and help work on the aircraft.
"It was like a Wall Street guy that wanted to get his hands dirty, that wanted to work from the bottom up," Taylor says.
Without realizing it, Bease says, he was looking for leadership.
"Really all I wanted was somebody to kind of look up to, to help me grow through my experiences."
Says Taylor, "He needed direction, so I just sort of kind of took him under my wing."
The relationship lasted until the end of 2000, when Bease left for the Pentagon. Taylor was soon deployed to Japan, and the two men lost touch.
Taylor was at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan in early 2002 when he received word from a fellow Marine that Bease had died when terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the western side of the Pentagon.
Taylor was shaken.
"He was young, he had a lot of friends, he was a pretty popular kid," he recalls thinking. "And I just felt like it was just such a devastating way to snuff out a life."
But he did not brood.
"In this business, you learn very quickly not to wear your emotions on your sleeve," he says. "Because it can definitely affect morale." He asked the Marine to pass his condolences on to Bease's family — "and like every Marine does, we pick up our heads and we continue to march."
Still, Taylor thought of Bease regularly.
"It was always something that was on my mind," he says. "One thing that really stuck out about him is the kid always had a smile on his face. Just always had a smile on his face. He was very easy to remember and very difficult to forget."
Bease had, in fact, been at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. He and his co-workers watched the news coverage from New York after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Like many, they assumed it was an accident — until the second plane hit.
An officer entered and told the Marines to stand by for a threat briefing. Bease asked if he could step outside for some air. He was standing on the east side of the Pentagon when he heard a buzzing sound.
"It was like a jet doing a flyover," he says. "I took a quick look, and I noticed a white aircraft coming in fast toward the ground, and it looked like it was coming directly toward us. It disappeared on the other side of the building, and I heard and felt a large crash. I looked up and I could see the orange fireball coming from the roof of the Pentagon, followed by the black smoke."
Bease ran back inside to tell his co-workers that a plane had crashed into the building. Once everyone was out and accounted for, he and other Marines worked their way toward the crash site to help pull out the wounded.
By day's end, he would be covered in blood and sweat — the beginnings, he believes, of the rumor that he had died.
"It's like the telephone game," he says. "You call somebody on the telephone and tell them one thing, and by the time that person tells somebody else, the whole story changes, and it just keeps spiraling."
Over the next decade, Taylor would be promoted to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank in the Marine Corps.
Bease would be promoted to gunnery sergeant, two grades behind. He would move from the Pentagon to Andrews Air Force Base, where he served as a crewman on a transport plane that deployed to Africa, Asia and the Middle East; and on to Hawaii, where he became an aerial gunner on the Sea Stallion helicopter.
Bease also married; he and his wife now have three children.
Taylor and Bease would both serve in Iraq, though in different places and at different times. Their paths did not cross.
Taylor was assigned to the recruiting station in Elkridge 18 months ago. As part of his work, he helps to organize what the Marines call Educators Workshops, in which they take high school principals and teachers to Parris Island, S.C., to show them the boot camp.
He helped put together such an experience for Baltimore-area educators this month. The itinerary included a visit to nearby Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Bease is a squadron gunnery sergeant at Beaufort, responsible for administration, quality of life and readiness of a unit of more than 800 Marines and sailors. When he heard that teachers from Baltimore were coming, he volunteered to go meet them.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to go and maybe get the chance to tell the educators about how I came up in Baltimore, and how I've done pretty well for myself, being a young guy from the inner city and joining the Marine Corps," he says.
As the event began, Taylor approached the gathered Marines to thank them for participating, and for their service.
Three weeks later, his voice breaks as he describes the moment he saw Bease.
"He was standing there," he says. "He was just right there, I mean, in front of me like it was a damned ghost. … I just froze."
As Taylor grew emotional, Bease grew confused.
"His reaction was like, 'Oh my gosh! Bease! Oh my gosh!' And I was thinking, 'What's going on?'
"My head got kind of big, because I'm like, 'Man, he missed me that much?'"
Taylor threw his arms around Bease. "I hugged him and I squeezed him and I just kept saying, 'I thought you got killed!'"
Says Bease: "We had an embrace, a brotherhood," he says. "We as Marines see each other as brothers, so to see a brother I hadn't seen in years, it was pretty emotional for the both of us."
Taylor describes it as "a really joyous reunion."
"I just could not stop staring at him," he says. That "puny little squiggly kid" had grown into "this tall, confident, astute, articulate, well-built, mature Marine."
Bease and Taylor were able to catch up at Beaufort, and have stayed in touch since then. They plan not to lose contact again.
"He's given me some new insight," Bease says. "Him being a sergeant major, and me, I aspire to one day become a sergeant major — that leadership that I was looking for as a young guy, I'm once again trying to go back and gain a little bit more."