Thank you for your service

Kaho Akau, Staff writer

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He sat in a booth at a local Denny’s in San Clemente, California. A platoon mate joined him as he devoured his Lumberjack Slam, each bite of bacon, eggs and pancakes more delicious than those that preceded.

Then their waitress walked over to the table with a smile. She pointed across the diner.

“That man over there would like to pay for your meals today,” she said.

Cason Cunningham’s friends often tell him, “Thank you for your service,” as they see him walking around the Linfield College campus. They say it playfully, almost as if to annoy him. But to Cunningham, it holds greater meaning.

Now a junior at Linfield, Cunningham was a U.S. Marine at the time. To this day, he recalls the incident.

“It feels good to know people respect the military,” he said.

During his tour, Cunningham was assigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in San Diego. After sailing to Hawaii, the Philippines, Singapore, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti, the unit was posted for six months in Darwin, Australia.

“Singapore was fun,” he said. “And the Philippines was interesting, because we got to go through jungle warfare training with the Philippine military.”

Cunningham learned to appreciate life in the U.S. a lot more through his travels. He reminds himself every day not to take for granted the simple pleasures in life, such as hot meals and the opportunity to see family on a regular basis.

That really hit home for him when he got to spend a few days at Disneyland with his two sisters, in celebration of his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.

Patriotism can hold a different meaning for each individual, Cunningham noted. He defines it as doing, or at least wanting, what is best for one’s country, which requires acknowledging no country is perfect.

“Instead of bad-mouthing, people need to attempt to fix things,” he said.

Cunningham landed at Linfield almost by accident.

Hoping to some day return to Sheldon High School in Eugene as a history teacher and baseball coach, he made the decision to attend college at age 23. He figured his playing days were over, so had shifted his focus from pitching to coaching.

But Cunningham’s high school coach, Stan Manley, had become an assistant at Linfield. And he extended Cunningham an invitation to consider playing at Linfield while working toward his degree.

“I got an email from Coach Manley while I was in Australia, and he offered me a tryout at Linfield,” Cunningham recalled. He took to the school immediately, saying, “The atmosphere and school spirit make Linfield special. I feel like I know most of the students and faculty, and everyone is always friendly.”

Since promoted to head coach, Manley is delighted to have Cunningham on board.

“I think the world of him,” Manley said. “He’s a good player, but an even better person. His head doesn’t get big when he’s successful, and I think he’s a good guy to look up to.”

Cunningham has rewarded Manley by emerging as the ace of the Wildcat pitching staff.

He earned All-American honorable mention and Northwest Conference Pitcher of the Year honors last year, and led Linfield to a conference championship.

“Dog-piling with the team felt like all of the team’s hard work had finally paid off,” he said.

Cunningham attributes his success, both on and off the field, to the faith others around him have placed in him. They have come to count on him, and he’s determined not to let them down.

“As a leader on the team, Cason is a guy we are confident in every time he takes the mound,” said fellow pitcher Carter Buuck.

Best friends, they sport friendship necklaces proclaiming, “Catch partners for life.”

While people often look to him as a mentor or role model, Cunningham keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground. He said he has as many quirks as anyone.

His collection of more than 4,000 baseball cards is his pride and joy, but he doesn’t just collect cards.

“I hoard pens and pencils, if I go somewhere that offers them for free,” he acknowledged. “It could be a bank, store or pretty much anywhere. I just take one.”

“Oh, and I can wiggle my ears,” he said while simultaneously doing so.

Saturday marked Veterans Day. When asked about what the holiday meant to him, Cunningham said, “It’s a chance to look back and reflect on everyone who came before, as well as give me a reason to call up old buddies and see how they’re doing.”

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Thank you for your service