15 July 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 16 July 2010

               "You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once."
                                                                                                                                                       Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)

Lucien B. Smith who hailed from Kent, Ohio--considered the inventor of barbed wire--secured the first United States patent for the nasty devil's rope in 1867. He likely could not have imagined all the uses--good and evil--for his cleverness. Modified through the years into sundry forms (e.g. concertina, razor) and sometimes electrified, it's been used to cordon off space, restrain livestock, complicate battlefields--protecting defenders and entangling attackers, and imprison people. And it's also been used in art--from the real stuff in sculpture to tattoo renderings. These days ink strands of barbed wire encircling upper arms, wrists, and ankles is popular body decoration. Why? I've no idea. To each his own.

From the deck the top row of painted barbed wire is at about the four feet mark. There are five or six strands of painted barbed wire—that is painting of wire; not actual wire that’s been painted. Centered between the top two strands is a trompe l'oeil painting of a crude prison cell window quartered by three unevenly spaced pieces of vertically set rebar; again a painting of rebar not actual rebar. Beyond the rebar—cobalt blue sky with clouds; freedom. Centered below the window between the 2nd and 3rd strands of barbed wire is a crudely painted version of our colors--the Stars and Stripes. And surrounding the window and flag and extending downward are dozens and dozens and dozens of the symbols, as if scratched on a cell wall, used to mark the passage of time. The counting by fives—four vertical marks with a diagonal slash. The symbolism clear—days in captivity. Just below the days in captivity markings...

“Missing F-18 Pilot LCDR Michael Scott Speicher U.S.N. Shot Down, First Day of War 17 Jan, 1991.”

Last Saturday afternoon that bolded sentence, about two and half feet off the deck and centered on the starboard side mural approximately 12 feet high with palladium top and 9 feet across, caught my eye. The white lettering against a black background was hand-painted and it spanned some 18 inches following the contour of a painting representing a piece of broken, twisting barbed wire.

I did not know "Spike." But my brother, "Duke," did. They were friends and squadron mates at Cecil Field in the Gunslingers of VA-105--an A-7 attack squadron, and in the Gladiators of VFA-106--an FA-18 fighter attack Fleet Replacement Squadron. At the time he was shot down during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Lieutenant Commander Speicher was flying with the Sunliners of VFA-81.

It took well over a decade to finally settle the whereabouts of "Spike." Though now finally at rest on our soil, with the rank of Captain and inked in the history books as one of our country's heroes, there was a time when he was believed alive and being held prisoner; in a cell, maybe with a rebarred window and behind barbed wire.

Thinking about "Spike" and scanning the mural wall more and more names, all written by different hands, resting between the strands of the painted barbed wire came into focus.

They were downed airmen who had been captured and held as prisoners of war in Germany, Japan, North Korea, Philippines, Austria, North Vietnam (Hanoi Hilton), and elsewhere. The legible names included: Martin McGowan, John J. McCann, Al McGrew, Larry Strickland, George Pappas, Charles T. Brushe, Bob Moore, Harvey Greenfield, Carl Helmaster, Ralph Kling, Jay Harrelson, Arlon J. Puckett, Bill Underwood, Rosser Sohn, Robert Winslow Noll, Robert C. Slyder, John Cross, Keith Turnnam, Virgil Clark, Richard Winter, Leo E. Wines, Marc Millot, Peter Ternasky, Tom ‘Speir’ Crosby, and Eric Sherman.

Those names, and dozens of others, along with unit designators, locations and dates of captivity are, too, hand-written in permanent black marker between the rows of barbed wire. A docent said the men themselves or family members wrote their names.

Another name above and to the left of "Spike's" caught my attention.

“Carl Heimaster Stalag Luft IV June 23, 1944 – May 02, 1945 “Time lost but not wasted.””

"Time lost but not wasted"--seasoned and deep sentiments, scribbled a half-century later, by a warrior (rank and branch of service unknown) who had come to grips with his ordeal and concluded the best from an awful experience. Remarkable.

Just to the left of the mural, and as if on guard, stands a bronze mural by Don Schloat titled, “Palawan: U. S. POW Martyr”. The bronze--of a distorted, emaciated figure juxtaposed against barbed wire--represents the 147 American POWs burned to death on 14 December 1944 at Puerto Princesa, Palawan Island (Philippines) during WWII. Schloat had been a POW at Puerto Princesa and knew many who perished in the fire. And Schloat's piece one example of an artist incorporating barbed wire into their work.

All the above and much more can be experienced firsthand in the ‘Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center,’ founded in 1989, now housed in the former San Diego Naval Hospital Chapel. The chapel, resting at Inspiration Point in Balboa Park, was originally built in 1945. It was renovated in 2002 and their brochure reads “…living memorial to our national treasures--the men and women who served in the U. S. Armed Forces, Coast Guard, and Wartime Merchant Marine.”

Until last Saturday, I was not familiar with the museum. It just so happens I was there to witness the retirement of two Sailors--Commander Charles R. “Bob” King and Senior Chief Petty Officer Eric Saretsky --their combined service to country surpassed six decades. At one time Bob King had been a Chief Petty Officer. So had the Navy Captain that was the ceremony's retiring officer.

Family and friends gathered in the main exhibition room of the chapel to pay respects. Two Navy captains—one soon to pin on the star of rear admiral (the retiring officer)—were among the speakers and sat on the stage among the honorees.

The intimate museum oozes a feeling of reverence honoring great sacrifice--original stained glass windows; maps showing campaigns and macro strategy with big red and blue arrows as to movement of forces; equipment used by the individual combatant; and the personal stories of individuals who fought--some who survived and some who did not. It's one of those places designed to remind us all that our freedom comes at great sacrifice and enormous cost. A more fitting venue for a military retirement there's not.

The wall with "Spike's" name and all the others was just beyond my saluting arm’s reach. As if magnetic, I could not help but occasionally glance at the wall during the ceremony.

As I watched the retirees, and their families, deservedly bask in the limelight—receiving only a mere token of what they truly merit for their selfless service to country, and while looking at the sobering mural to my right, it was impossible not to think about their brave brethren (to include some Sailors from their unit), at that very moment, engaged in combat in Afghanistan. And then my thoughts jumped to the many who walk amongst us completely oblivious to the fact we are a nation at war and how insulated they are from it all. And instead of complaining about warm coffee, standing in a line, their iPhone not working, or how hot and humid the weather, they the ones who should spend some time in the ‘Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center’ or someplace like it; for perspective--a reality check.

Then the conclusion crossed my mind that many in our country are clueless yet enjoy the protection volunteered by the fearless. Then the words of George Orwell came to mind, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Followed by the question, should those peaceably sleeping in their beds care about the rough men (and women)? Yes. Of course. It's unconscionable to think otherwise.

After remarks by senior officers, fellow officers and chiefs, the retirees, and an inspiring flag ceremony, a sharp-looking Chief Petty Officer rose and took the podium. He proffered traditional words heard at nearly all Navy retirement ceremonies. In more eloquent language than I can remember or muster he advised the retirees they stood relieved. And that he and his shipmates had the watch.

And so the cycle of duty goes on; the watch changed but not weakened by the loss of two who have done their fair share and then some.

I spoke to the Chief after the ceremony and noticed he was wearing the distinctive ribbon adorned with the Marine Corps emblem--denoting service with Marines. He had completed a stint with II MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force--"Two MEF") in Iraq. And he was expecting a tap on the shoulder to go to Afghanistan. He said he was ready. He looked it.

After the reception--congratulating the retirees and visiting with folks--and while driving back to Naval Air Station, North Island,  Coronado, and listening to the comforting sounds of beating helicopter blades and  thundering jet engines, my mind wandered back to the earlier self-paced tour of the museum and retirement ceremony. And thoughts of how fortunate we are to have men and women willing to step forward and serve their country; especially during times of war.

And then, oddly, some of the televised testimony of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan before the Senate Judiciary Committee a couple of weeks back came to mind.

Then Dean of the Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan, based on some sort of illogical reasoning, banned the presence of military recruiters. She contemptuously skirted the letter of the law and purposively snubbed her nose at the intent and spirit.

During testimony before the committee, Senator Jeff Sessions (R, AL) called Kagan on her antics.  She was evasive, cautious with words and, shall we say, less than honest. In essence, she didn't just catch her britches on barbed wire she entangled herself in it--figuratively caught in multiple strands and dangling above ground so much as a contorted, helpless heap. As to her pathetic defense, Senator Sessions, a southern gentleman indeed, was direct but refrained from using the more common words for talebearer and untaught. He didn't have to; it was clear she was both. And he made his point with a touch of class in a compelling manner.

A more complete and pointed but civil diatribe on Elena Kagan is not worth my time. A simple “Shame on her” will suffice. And despite her opining support for the military--noting her father was a veteran, her actions bespeak her true sentiments. Count her among the clueless. Her lack of in-depth understanding and appreciation for the military's role ensuring her freedom and nutty thinking are enough to disqualify her from sitting on the Supreme Court. But it likely won't. And certainly there is a more qualified citizen of higher character for the bench to serve us all. But it doesn't matter. Stomach-turning partisan politics--the Senate is not void of the clueless--will probably see to it she is robed. If that happens, "Shame on them," too.

And so, thank god for the fearless; like Captain Speicher and Carl Heimaster. And Commander King. And Senior Chief Petty Officer Saretsky. And a new generation--my nephew who recently completed an enlistment including two deployments to Iraq with 1st Battalion 3rd Marines (1/3) and his younger sister; being tested unlike anything she has ever faced in life at U. S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, as I wrote this Commentary. And there are more in our extended family on active duty. And many of yours, too. Yes, thank god for men, and women, such as these and the likes of them. Barbed wire may scare, and understandably so, but will not deter them. And with them rests the survival, despite disturbing and challenging times, of this grand experiment known as America. And that, folks, is irrefutable fact.

Yes, pity the clueless. Thank god for the fearless.

Post Script

There were a lot of Sailors at the retirement ceremony. Though I did not see any decorations, I'd wager at least one had a strand of barbed wire inked somewhere on them.

If ever visiting Balboa Park, San Diego, make it a point to see the ‘Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center’. It's one of those places that presents the absolute best of the United States of America. And reminds all that this grand land is no fluke--it's the by-product of people tougher than barbed wire who through sacrifice, courage, bravery, and something the Navy/Marine Corps team refers to as core values; Honor, Courage, Commitment handed us a gift. A gift realized from sweat, pain, heartache, tears, and blood. Now it's ours to protect. And it won't be cheap nor come easy. http://www.veteranmuseum.org/

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