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On first Memorial Day since his son's death, Navy father is still figuring out how to move forward

Darrold Martin's son Xavier died aboard the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a civilian ship last year. This will the first Memorial Day he will spend without his only son. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The safe was the last of his son’s things that Darrold Martin opened.

The Halethorpe man found Xavier Martin’s passport and credit card. And a copy of “There is Greatness Within You, My Son,” a well-thumbed book of poems his father bought him at a Cracker Barrel.

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Darrold Martin cried at the realization that the old book was one of his son’s prized possessions.

“Everything I gave him has come back to me,” he said.

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Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier Martin had risen quickly through the ranks. He was serving aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald last June when it collided with a container ship near Japan.

Martin was one of seven sailors killed. He was 24. The incident remains the subject of a contentious investigation and military prosecution.

Families who lost sons in a pair of collisions this year between Navy ships and commercial vessels are questioning the Navy's accounts of what happened

Monday is the first Memorial Day since Xavier’s death. Darrold Martin, himself a Navy veteran, plans to join family members of some of the five other service members with Maryland ties who were killed in the last year at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

That’s the most service members honored at the annual ceremony since 2013. They include two sailors killed in another collision, and a soldier killed during a bungled counter-terrorism mission in Niger.

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Martin, who works for a defense contractor, has long understood the meaning of Memorial Day. But this year he knows it’s going to be different.

“It’s coming,” he said, “the emotion. I’ll deal with it when it comes.”

In the months since his son’s death, Martin said, it’s as if he’s been seeing the world through glasses smudged with fingerprints. All the crispness is gone, and he’s still figuring out how to piece his own life back together.

When faced with adversity, U.S. Navy sailor Xavier Martin of Halethorpe didn't have to search far for words of encouragement — they were tattooed on his wrist:

Sometimes, Martin said, he gets up and gets ready for work only to pause and get back under the covers. Intense grief hits him unexpectedly, bringing on tears that pass almost as quickly as they arrive.

“Each day is a battle,” Martin said. “That’s what it is.”

While the sadness can be debilitating, Martin said he’s worried about losing the pain, because it might mean he’s forgetting his son.

And so Martin has inked the memory into his skin.

His son’s dog tag and the coordinates of the collision are tattooed on one arm. On the other is a representation of the soundwaves from the last voicemail Xavier sent him. He can scan that one with his phone to play the message. Xavier’s voice comes cheerily out of his phone speaker.

Solace also came early on from a friend Xavier made when he was based in Guam.

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers have now recovered the remains of all ten USS John S. McCain sailors who were killed last Monday, Navy officials said late Sunday.

Cristina Dunstan was one of a group of four older women who became like surrogate sisters to Xavier, an only child whom Martin raised by himself.

After the collision, Dunstan said, she combed desperately through Facebook to find Darrold Martin. She’d spoken to him briefly on the phone once. Eventually a high school friend of Xavier’s made the connection.

The first time they got on the phone, Dunstan said, she felt comforted: “We didn’t really talk. I just cried.”

Other calls followed, sometimes for hours late into the night, in the weeks after Xavier died.

“We relied on each other for that whole first month,” Martin said.

Dunstan visited Baltimore for Xavier’s funeral in July. He was buried the following month at Arlington National Cemetery.

A Baltimore native was among three soldiers killed Saturday in Afghanistan, the Army announced Monday.

Then in the fall Xavier’s effects began arriving, giving Martin a chance to see the man his son had become since joining the Navy as a teenager and heading overseas.

“His whole world fell into my lap,” Darrold Martin said.

First was a box of mail containing a speaker system Xavier wanted to install in the yellow right-hand drive Mazda sports car that now sits on his father’s driveway. Xavier’s records showed that at 24 he already had thousands of dollars in a savings acccount and thousands more set aside for retirement.

“I was just so impressed about how he turned out,” his father said.

Martin has formed a network with the families of the other sailors killed in the collision, and those of 10 sailors who died two months later on the USS John S. McCain. Two of them, Timothy Eckels Jr. and Kevin Bushell, were from Maryland.

Chaplain William Sean Lee will be the keynote speaker at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens 51st Memorial Day ceremony in Timonium, honoring six Maryland soldiers who lost their lives in 2017.

This month, Martin and some of the other families attended hearings at the Navy Yard in Washington, where criminal cases against four officers accused of wrongdoing in the crash — including the Fitzgerald’s captain — are being heard.

Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock has pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty. Martin said he approached her after the hearing and asked to talk. Martin said he stepped into an empty office with her lawyer, opened his arms, hugged her, kissed her forehead and put Xavier’s dog tag around her neck.

Martin said he doesn’t blame the sailors who have been charged by the Navy — he says they’ve been scapegoated for much wider failings by the military that led to several collisions the Pacific last year.

Martin, who once worked for a company that helped design the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers, is hoping to use his service and contracting experience to ensure the Navy makes changes and supports the sailors from the Fitzgerald who survived.

This Memorial Day arrives at a time when many American have tuned out the war in Afghanistan. Combat operations were declared over in 2014, and yet service members continue to die, including five in 2016 and 2017 who have ties to Maryland. Their relatives and a military history speak about what to many is a forgotten war.

“I know what I’m going through, I can’t imagine what these kids are going through,” he said. “I’ve become a real activist for the saliors that were left.”

Martin has woven a web to support himself as he continues to grieve, but it’s a web with a hole right through the middle.

The feeling of Xavier’s presence doesn’t come to Martin as often as he thought it would. In the two dreams he’s had about his son, he’s trying to reach him but can’t.

Twice a month Martin goes to his son’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetary. He struggles to get any rest at night. But at Xavier’s final resting place, he feels soothed and often drifts off to sleep.

Service members to be honored at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens on Monday:

  • Army Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood; died April 8, 2017, in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan
  • Army Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25, of Baltimore; died June 10, 2017, in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan
  • Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier A. Martin, 24, of Halethorpe; died June 17, 2017, aboard the USS Fitzgerald
  • Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin S. Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg; died August 21, 2017, aboard the USS John S. McCain
  • Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy T. Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester; died August 21, 2017, aboard the USS John S. McCain
  • Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of New Bern, N.C., died Oct. 4, 2017, in southwest Niger; served in Charlie Company, 22nd Chemical Battalion, Aberdeen Proving Grounds
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