Okay, this is it. The last chapter. Thanks very much for reading and reviewing and following.
Almost forgot. I probably put in too many O'Neill citation examples so I have tried to mark them with *** and that way you can skip past them without reading them if that's what you'd like to do. I'm good with whatever you decide.
Andy, Chuck, Hank and Jack held their salutes and swallowed hard when they saw Ron's grandsons saluting too. Aaron and David were great kids and Jack felt for the young boys. The white hearse pulled away at a slow pace as small gloved hands found their way to Jack's, gripping tightly. The two children didn't really want to be there and Jack didn't blame them. Memorial services and funerals were things people did because they had to, not because they wanted to. Families and friends close as family have two obligations when it comes down to it - marry 'em and bury 'em. He believed you might be estranged for years, but you had to attend weddings and especially funerals.
The two boys, still tired from the long plane flights the day before, were hanging in there. The last week and a half had been stressful for the family and Jack was glad they could finally get the service out of the way. He didn't mind that Aaron and David gravitated to him. He was a little older than Ron had been, but he had the military cut silver hair and the uniform. And he wasn't a stranger. They'd known him since they were babies. Their sisters, Mary Lee and Madison, had stuck close to Grandma Elizabeth, but the young boys seemed to need a Grandpa, since their own had died. Jack was certain if George Hammond had been there, they would have attached themselves to him... and he to them.
It was Friday and the one hour service at the small neighborhood church in Arlington had gone as well as it could. The bright sun shining through the many stained glass windows was beautiful. The music perfect. The flowers fragrant and lovely. The memorial service was solemn yet uplifting with moments of humor that brought smiles and soft laughter. It was a celebration of a life after all.
Nathan Wheeler eulogized his brother. General Chuck Ellison, Commandant of the Marine Corps, eulogized his fellow Marine. Jack eulogized his close friend. All three told of the husband, father, grandfather and friend who was a quiet hero to his family and a not-so-public hero to the women and men who served with him. His life was all about his love of God, family and country.
The homily was delivered by the Chaplain of the Marine Corps. Scriptures were read by daughters Denise and Lucy. Pallbearers were sons Andy and Marcus, brother Nathan, General Hank Landry, General Ellison and Jack. There could have been eight pallbearers, many military funerals have eight, but the six were willing and felt it was more honor than obligation. It was only from the hearse into the church and back to the hearse again. To someone who didn't know, they were two Airmen, two Marines and two civilians. To them they were sons, brother and three Generals who would miss their friend.
The hearse was taking Ron's body for cremation. His ashes would stay with Elizabeth until she moved back to Colorado where there would be a committal service. That would happen in about three months when she'd worn out her welcome after the new babies were born. Andy was secretly hoping Claudette would go into labor before he had to return to Iraq, but the due date was still three weeks away. He'd been thrilled to see little Kathleen who was at Elizabeth's home with a babysitter. No reason to bring a two-year old to a memorial service. Pam's doctor expected the twins two weeks to a month early, but she was just now at 33 weeks. Marcus was anxious, ready to be a new dad, but sad his own father wouldn't be there.
The 100 plus mourners were milling around, chatting a little before they walked to their cars. Many would make their way to Elizabeth's home for a small reception, but not all. Jack, along with Hank and Chuck, arrived early and greeted almost everyone as they went inside. And now they were outside first with the other pallbearers as friends and family got ready to leave.
It was a chilly day, but no wind so not terribly cold. The boys' ears were turning pink though so Jack began guiding them toward their families who would get them into warm cars. His attention was divided between a safe path for the kids and the other people around him, when he saw a familiar face. A face he didn't want to see and knew he shouldn't be seeing. With hugs and I'll see you in a little while, he deposited David and Aaron with their respective parents. Most everyone else was gone or leaving so Jack caught Landry's eye. Standing with him was Chuck Ellison so he walked over to explain what he was going to do.
The familiar man he'd seen hadn't left. He was next to the truck where Jack had spotted him, putting away his cell phone, so he walked over to have a chat.
"I didn't expect to see you, Special Agent Gibbs." He didn't say 'didn't expect to see you here' because he didn't expect to see him anywhere.
A small shrug and maybe a hint of guilt for being there was all Gibbs revealed.
Jack noticed Gibbs dressed in a nice suit with a tie.
"Were you inside for the service?"
"No, I shouldn't be here at all," he admitted.
"So why are you?"
Gibbs gazed out over the trees where the winding road leading up to the church took the cars back down. It wasn't a huge increase in elevation, but enough to make for a really nice view of the more rural countryside.
Jack waited and finally Gibbs told him, "Maybe I felt like apologizing."
Slipping on his sunglasses, Jack replied, "I take it you used to think apologies mean weakness?"
With a small nod, Gibbs looked right at him. "Yeah, used to."
After a glance to see where Hank and Chuck were, Jack decided to let Gibbs off the hook. In a weird way, a really weird way, Jack understood him and since learning more about him, felt for him, but only just a bit.
"Apology accepted, Gibbs. Now get out of here."
Gibbs shook his head. "General Ellison already saw me. He can't keep quiet."
"Neither should I."
Did Chuck know about Gibbs being suspended? Jack knew because SecDef told him. Chuck knew Gibbs had asked questions about Ron and about him and had tried to wave Gibbs off. So yeah, he knew Gibbs shouldn't be there for the service.
Jack channeled Teal'c and stared at Gibbs for several seconds. He wanted to get into the man's head, without saying anything, to convey to him that it was a unified combatant command established for reasons he didn't need to know. Then smack him upside his head not once but twice and scream at him to forget about it. Go home, forget about me, forget about Ron Wheeler, forget about it all. He had to appeal to the Marine lurking inside the NCIS special agent.
"Gibbs, the people I work with do their jobs with integrity and most importantly, they honor their oath."
Gibbs' eyes told Jack he understood, but would he leave well enough alone? He'd shown up at Ron's funeral when he was still suspended. Could Jack trust him? He wanted to trust him. Did he need to remind him about his own oath?
Gibbs was a Marine. He should get it. He had to get it. Jack hoped he would and was giving him one more chance. If something happened after this he would take the man to the planet where they found the crashed prison ship. It seemed uninhabited and would be a good place to keep him. Jack figured he'd even get The Hammond to remove the Stargate so there'd be no chance of him getting away. Or maybe he'd send him to a planet with the Unas. Send Gibbs' entire team there. Oh, yeah, Jack liked that idea.
"Forget you were here, Gibbs. Forget everything." He gave the man his best Colonel/General stare. Gibbs nodded so Jack said, "I'll talk to General Ellison."
"Thanks, General," and Gibbs offered his hand.
In different circumstances he would have said call me Jack, but this wasn't one of them. He accepted the handshake and walked away, back to where Hank and Chuck were waiting. They'd be okay with him letting Gibbs go this time, but would want to be there when Jack sent him off world.
Gibbs stopped for a cheeseburger and took the time to write a few things while he waited for the server to bring his take-out order. Ten minutes later he clomped down the steps to his basement after changing quickly from his suit to jeans and t-shirt covered by a sweatshirt. He went right to the cubby where he'd stashed Mike's box, lifting it up and carrying it to the work bench. After a long look at nothing in particular and a few bites of food, he pulled off the lid and started removing papers and files. About halfway through the familiar contents he came to a folder, newer than the others and set it down on the bench, separate from everything else. The box and lid went to the floor to give him more room since he already had a half-eaten burger and bottle of beer on the bench.
He looked at the photos and thought about O'Neill. On this day, the day of Ron Wheeler's memorial service, the General had worn all his ribbons. Maybe not all, now that he thought about it, but many more than he had when Gibbs saw him at the Pentagon. He opened the photo on his phone and pulled the paper from his pants pocket. The one he wrote on at the diner while he waited. The photo was from pretty far away, but with it, his knowledge of ribbons and medals, and his memory, which was still excellent, he knew he could come close to recreating O'Neill's ribbon rack. It never occurred to him that he shouldn't do it.
1 Air Force Cross w/ bronze oak leaf cluster (2nd award)
2 Defense Distinguished Service Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC (3rd award)
3 Air Force Distinguished Service Medal w/ 3 bronze OLC (4th award)
4 Silver Star with two bronze OLC (3rd award)
5 Defense Superior Service Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC (3rd award)
6 Airman's medal
7 Bronze Star Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC and V device (3rd award)
8 Purple Heart w/ silver OLC (6th award)
Gibbs ate some more burger and sipped his beer. He wasn't halfway yet and already he understood what Fornell said about O'Neill. He was the real deal. Gibbs sketched the rack, starting with six rows of four ribbons and ending with three rows of three. He counted again and was sure 33 was correct. O'Neill also wore the Master Parachutist and Command Space badges that Gibbs remembered. He started writing again, trying to remember if the oak leaves were bronze or silver. It was hard to tell on the small cell phone screen.
9 Defense Meritorious Service Medal
10 Meritorious Service medal w/ 3 bronze OLC (4th award)
11 Air Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC (3rd award)
12 Aerial Achievement Medal
13 Joint Service Commendation Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC (3rd award)
14 Air Force Commendation Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC and V device (3rd award)
15 Joint Service Achievement Medal w/ 3 bronze OLC (4th award)
16 Air Force Achievement Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC and V device (3rd award)
The burger was gone and only a couple swallows of beer remained. Gibbs stared at his list. He already knew O'Neill had enlisted and then earned his degree to become an officer. The man flourished in Special Ops, lots of black ops too, and in 1997 was picked for whatever it was in Colorado. Thirty-six plus years of service from airman basic to Lieutenant General with two retirements. He sketched in the ribbons and then kept writing, not even thinking about stopping or why he shouldn't be doing it.
17 Presidential Unit Citation w/ 2 bronze OLC
18 Joint Meritorious Unit Award w/ silver OLC
19 Air Force Outstanding Unit Award w/ 3 bronze OLC and V device (4th award)
20 Air Force Organizational Excellence Award w/ 2 bronze OLC and V device (3rd award)
21 Prisoner of War Medal w/ 2 bronze stars
22 Combat Readiness Medal w/ 3 bronze OLC (4th award)
23 Air Force Good Conduct Medal w/ 2 bronze OLC (3rd award)
24 National Defense Service Medal w/ bronze star (2nd award)
25 Vietnam Service Medal
26 Southwest Asia Service Medal w/ bronze star (2nd award)
27 Armed Forces Service Medal
28 Air Force Overseas Ribbon - Short Tour w/ 4 bronze OLC and A device (5th award)
29 Air Force Longevity Service w/ silver OLC and 3 bronze OLC
30 Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon w/ bronze star
31 Air Force Training Ribbon
32 Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
33 Kuwait Liberation Medal, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with palm
The man had a lot of unit awards, but a big surprise were two POW ribbon awards. Gibbs knew about O'Neill being wounded and left behind, but he wondered what the second award was for. Suddenly he remembered and went back to the folder. McGee had pulled a few of O'Neill's citations from a veterans' site on the internet.
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Senior Airman John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in connection with...
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Cross to Senior Airman John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing...
***The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Achievement Medal with Valor to Senior Airman John J. O'Neill , United States Air Force. Senior Airman O'Neill distinguished himself by heroism as...
***The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Second Award of the Air Force Achievement Medal with Valor to Staff Sergeant John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force. Sergeant O'Neill distinguished himself by heroism as...
Gibbs shook his head in wonder and read the citations again noting the one for the Air Force Cross had a Purple Heart medal award attached to it. O'Neill got the citations when he was in pararescue the first time. No wonder they wanted to keep him. No wonder the Air Force saw his potential and got him into college so he could get a degree and become an officer. In basic military training he'd been identified as a natural leader and in much of special operations you work as a team. McGee had found many citations, but it only made Gibbs wonder how many more were secret or the description hazy to cover up what really happened and where.
***The Secretary of the Air Force of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Commendation Medal with Combat "V" to Lieutenant John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for valorous actions during...
***The Secretary of the Air Force of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Second Award of the Air Force Commendation Medal with Combat "V" to First Lieutenant John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for valorous actions during...
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Executive Order 11046, takes pleasure in presenting the Bronze Star Medal with Combat "V" to Major John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for heroism in connection with military operations...
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Executive Order 11046, takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Second Award of the Bronze Star Medal with Combat "V" to Lieutenant Colonel John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for heroism in connection with military operations...
***Under the provisions of Department of Defense 1348.33-M, the Secretary of Defense has awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal to Lieutenant Colonel John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally superior service while serving as...
Gibbs read it again. Defense Superior Service Medals were usually only for Brigadiers and higher yet O'Neill had been a Lt. Colonel. There were always exceptions, and Gibbs didn't think O'Neill got it for anything less than a spectacular reason. The more he read, the more extraordinary he believed O'Neill to be. The next one got his attention too. Defense Distinguished Service Medals went to senior officers and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals usually went to Major Generals or above, yet O'Neill got one when he was a Light Colonel. Yep, the man was one H*** of a leader.
***The Secretary of Defense of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Colonel John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to the Government of the United States as...
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal to Lieutenant Colonel John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to the Government of…
General Chuck Ellison knew about O'Neill. Yeah, thought Gibbs, he was closer to Ron Wheeler and O'Neill than he'd let on when Gibbs went to speak to him. Tobias knew about O'Neill, though Gibbs guessed Ellison knew a lot more than Tobias did. Jack O'Neill was a hero when he was enlisted and a hero through his whole career. He didn't get his medals and sit back to let everybody else earn theirs. He had been in the thick of things from his first pararescue days all the way until whatever he was involved with now. Ellison called it a special project. SecDef called it a unified project. The last three citations McGee printed were from the last two or three years.
***The Secretary of Defense of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Third Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Lieutenant General John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to…
***Under the provisions of Department of Defense 1348.33-M, the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Third Award of the Defense Superior Service Medal to Lieutenant General John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally…
***The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Fourth Award of the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal to Lieutenant General John J. O'Neill, United States Air Force, for exceptionally meritorious…
Gibbs looked at the photos again. O'Neill as a Colonel with Hammond at the retirement of the Peterson base commander. O'Neill with two presidents at Hammond's funeral. He thought about O'Neill at Wheeler's home with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense. The same SecDef who three days ago slapped him and his team. Vance and Abby too. The unified project had been ongoing from 1997 until now, over 15 years. What could they be doing for that long and how had they managed to keep it secret? Where did they get their funding? Who knew about it? Somebody with government purse strings had to know. O'Neill was involved the entire time. He knew everything. A three star that very few people know anything about. Gibbs was more curious than ever about the top secret valor of the unified project.
Why couldn't he let it go? Something inside him said keep looking, keep asking, keep wondering about the unified project. Marines and Airmen working together on something very important. He stared at the photos and his drawing. O'Neill was the clue and the key to finding out. Glancing at his watch he saw that it was almost 1430 and Tony would be stopping by to talk. He hadn't said that he would, but Gibbs knew. Tony was still mad about the suspension and worried about Ziva. He needed to vent and Gibbs would let him.
The box and lid were still on the floor, so Gibbs lifted them up to the bench. He placed the photos back in the file folder along with the papers, both his and the ones McGee printed for him, and wrote the words MC/AF UNIFIED PROJECT on the front. He would keep the file with all the others Mike had given him because you just never knew when you'd need an ace. For now he figured to play the game by the rules, but keep his ears and eyes open.
Placing the box back in its hidden cubby, Gibbs imagined Mike standing there growling, "Careful, Probie! That critter you grabbed has got a big stinger."
Thanks for reading. Please review.
Note: In my world, Jack O'Neill is a hero like no other. He has more medals, ribbons, citations, etc, than anybody can count. Most he doesn't wear and many others have never been officially awarded because of the secrecy of the Stargate.
Note2: A cubby is just a word, short for cubby-hole. We grew up using the shortened version.