Seven-year-old Jake Mason stepped forward in front a large group gathered at Grass Valley’s Brighton Street Overpass in late March and, with the help of his mother, unveiled three memorial plaques for three western Nevada County Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country during the war in Iraq.
One of those men was Jake’s big brother …
… Lance Cpl. John “JT” Lucente was killed Nov. 16, 2005, while serving with four fellow Marines as they performed a sweep for enemy combatants in Iraq’s al-Abar province near the Syrian border. He was 19 years old.
Little brother Jake had been born just seven weeks earlier.
“He never got to hold his baby brother, but he did get to see him,” said Kristine Webb-Mason, the mother of both boys. “In fact, the last email I got from him said, ‘I can’t wait to see him again.’ And when I got his belongings back, I saw that he had taken a picture with his camera of his laptop screen so that he could keep a picture of Jake with him. So I knew he got to see him, but he never got to hold him.”
But thanks to their mother, and the rest of their family, Jake has gotten to know John.
“Jakey gets kind of nostalgic about him. He knows John like any other brother or sibling,” said Webb-Mason. “I have four children, and one of them is just not here walking with us. (Jake) loves talking about him and doing anything he can to let people know that his brother is a hero.”
So it was a proud day when Jake got to unveil a bronze plaque bearing his brother’s name and those of fellow Marines Sean Stokes and Adam Strain on the newly dedicated “Gold Star Memorial Bridge,” a ceremony that came about thanks largely to the efforts of the Sierra Nevada Blue Star Mothers of America. Along with Kristine and Jake, Lucente’s family was represented by his great-grandmother, Helen Pederson, of Iowa; his grandparents, Jim and JoAnn Webb; his brother, Cristopher, and fiancee Amber; and his sister, Cassandra.
The memorial celebration was a momentous occasion for all involved, but the newly named overpass that bridges Brighton Street traffic across Highway 20 is a twice-daily source of pride for Webb-Mason, who lives at Lake of the Pines in South County and drives up to work at Lifetime Adoption in Penn Valley.
“It makes me smile when I pass it every day to and from work,” she said. “I say, ‘That’s Johnny’s bridge!’ or ‘There’s your bridge, babe!’ It’s so heart-warming to see it dedicated to our boys in such a manner.”
Lucente, who enlisted in the Marine Corps as a junior at Bear River High School, was determined to serve God and his country. In a tribute she wrote, Webb-Mason said her son was a “quiet, hardworking young man, who enjoyed spending time with his family and grew to know his brother, Cris, as his best friend, and sister Cassie as his princess.”
And she said John was the one who came up with his baby brother’s name.
“He had come up to Fresno from Camp Pendleton for his birthday weekend, and I remember my sister and I were talking across the table, and he didn’t seem to be paying attention to us at all,” Webb-Mason said, noting a few young women walking by seemed to have more of her son’s attention than his mother and aunt. “We knew it was a boy and we were talking about what we should name him. And then, all the sudden and out of the blue, John turns and says, ‘Just call him Jake.’ That’s all he said, and then he went back to checking out the chicks.”
Webb-Mason said the connection between John and Jake remains because their family keeps his name in regular conversation.
“Jakey will be pulling books from our personal library and say, ‘What’s John’s favorite page? Or what’s John’s favorite book?’… It’s just that in day-to-day life, Johnny’s always mentioned one way or another.”
Webb-Mason said she has gotten to meet some of the men with whom her son served, including a Marine from Modesto who now works as a corrections officer.
“He’s a nice young boy,” she said. “I’ve met corporals and sergeants, and I’ve been kept in the loop. I get emails from back East from Arlington National (Cemetery) with photos of his gravesite.”
Such connections keep her son’s memory alive not just with his family but also his community, which was one of the reasons she was touched by the dedication of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.
“John walked that bridge when he was alive,” she said. “At the ceremony, there was a group of young men, who were his friends back in high school there. To see them now — I mean he would be 27 years old — they were now men, and they’ve got kids. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And these kids took time out of their Sunday to be there.
“That’s the thing — the people he touched. Our lives are completely different from where they were. When a soldier dies and you might see a picture on TV with a little blurb about it, and then it’s on to the next thing and it’s forgotten. But that picture and that story just set a huge, new life in course for so many people.”
And that’s why she says her family has made such a commitment to keeping her son’s memory alive each day and not just as an annual recognition of his service each Memorial Day.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Keep them alive. Just because they are no longer with us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. How are other generations going to know them unless we share their stories?”
Contact Managing Editor Brian Hamilton via email at email@example.com or by phone at 530-477-4249.