MARYVILLE, Tenn. — Mikey Ferschke calls every Marine he sees “Daddy.”
They’re the closest he’ll ever come to knowing his father.
“He’s looking for his daddy right now,” said his grandmother, Robin Ferschke. “Someday he’ll realize. I don’t know if he’ll go through everything we went through — the questions, the anger. He’s not going to know his father, but he can know what his father did.”
Mikey wasn’t born when his father, Marine Sgt. Michael Ferschke Jr., died at age 22 while leading a house-to-house search near Tikrit, Iraq. His grandmother fought heaven, earth and both houses of Congress to try to bring Mikey and his Okinawan mother, Hotaru, to East Tennessee.
Mikey turned 4 years old in January, as American by birth as his fallen father but no closer than before to the mountains where his father grew up.
“They took too long,” Robin Ferschke said. “My son fought a war, and they made me fight my battle. I hope nobody else ever has to go through that.”
She’s resigned herself to watching her grandson grow up half a world away.
They see each other once a week on Skype, where they laugh and talk about the things she’s missing — what he sees, what he does, what makes him smile.
“He’s so much like Michael,” Ferschke said. “He talks like Michael. He’s American. He’ll tell you so. He also says he’s a Recon Marine.”
She hoped to watch him grow, to hear his first words and to watch his first steps in the places where his father walked before him. She settles for glimpses on a computer screen and the occasional visit.
Mikey and his mother last came to East Tennessee in December for Christmas. His grandparents, Robin and Michael Sr., have made the trip to Japan three times, the last time in August.
Somehow the visits never last long enough.
“We go when we can,” Robin Ferschke said. “The last time he visited at Christmas, we showed him videos and pictures of Michael. He said he wanted to be with his daddy. I tried to explain to him, Daddy’s an angel now. He couldn’t understand.
“He needs to be here. Mikey needs somebody to play ball with him. His mother was going to do what she could to make a life here. But it was too hard, and it took too long.”
‘The whole family’
Robin Ferschke believes her son’s last wish would have been for his son to grow up in the mountains he called home. She still has the Mother Day’s card he sent with flowers three months before his death.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom,” it read. “Can’t wait to come home and have the whole family together — including my two new additions, of course.”
Michael Ferschke Jr. graduated from Maryville High School in 2003 and turned 18 in a Marine Corps boot camp. He met Hotaru Nakama while stationed in Okinawa off the coast of Japan with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.
The pair dated for about a year before he deployed to Iraq in April 2008.
“He said, ‘Mom, she’s the one,’ ” his mother recalled. “I told him, ‘Be sure.’ Then he called from Iraq and said, ‘Mom, she’s pregnant.’ ”
The couple married by proxy that July, with a chaplain conducting the ceremony over a satellite phone. Ferschke told his mother he couldn’t wait to hold his newborn son.
He even kept a journal as a kind of running love letter to his new bride.
“He wrote to Hota that he couldn’t wait to hold her,” his mother said. “Michael wanted so much to be a daddy. He got to see the ultrasound. Mikey looks like he has a halo in the pictures. Michael was coming back in November. We had it all planned to do a big reception for them when they came in. He even said he’d go to church and be blessed for me.”
A 45-minute shoot-out in the Sunni Triangle cut those plans short. Ferschke was leading his Marines on a house-to-house search Aug. 10, 2008, when gunfire broke out.
“For whatever reason, Michael ended up going into the house first,” his mother said. “There were 14 people in the house. All of them started shooting. He drew the fire. The others all got out because of Michael.”
She still hears from Marines who knew her son. Members of the fallen sergeant’s platoon visited his widow in the hospital in Japan to celebrate Mikey’s birth.
“Another Marine contacted us last year,” Robin Ferschke said. “He told us because of what he learned from Michael, he is naming his son for him. He wants his son to know about Michael.”
A matter of law
U.S. immigration officials proved less grateful. Hotaru Ferschke had hoped to come to Tennessee for Mikey’s birth, but the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement turned her away.
Even though Mikey’s parentage made him an automatic U.S. citizen, that citizenship didn’t extend to his mother. U.S. immigration law doesn’t recognize proxy marriages that haven’t been consummated.
Michael Ferschke’s parents didn’t see his son born. Just obtaining a six-month visa for his widow to come stateside took the intervention of U.S. senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Permanent residency, the family learned, could come only with passage of a private bill by both houses of Congress.
Mikey and Hota Ferschke arrived in Maryville on Feb. 27, 2009, about a month after his birth. They headed back to Japan on Jan. 4, 2010, with the bill still stalled in committee.
Senators and congressmen said they wanted to make sure they didn’t set a dangerous precedent or undo any necessary safeguards in the immigration process. Hota Ferschke told her husband’s parent she couldn’t wait any longer.
“Her employer had agreed to hold her job for a year,” Robin Ferschke said. “The time was up.”
The Marine Sgt. Michael H. Ferschke Jr. Memorial Act passed Congress in December 2010 and crossed the president’s desk, nearly two years after Mikey’s birth.
“That Christmas they were here to visit,” Robin Ferschke recalled. “We were sitting down to Christmas dinner, and I got a call that Obama had finally signed it.”
The passage came too late. Hota Ferschke chose to go home to Okinawa to raise her son rather than risk the expense of moving 10,000 miles to an uncertain job market.
There she’s likely to stay for now, with the only walking, talking reminder of a father who lives only in memories.
“I don’t blame her,” Robin Ferschke said. “I didn’t want them to leave. I didn’t want Michael to go to war. But he did what he needed to do, and this is what she needs to do. I asked her, ‘Please don’t feel guilty. We love you, and we’re going to stand by you.’ When the time’s right, if it’s meant to be, it’s going to happen. We’re just going to have to wait for that.”
The years have taught her how to wait.