By Andy Weddington
Friday, 05 November 2010
"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend." J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
Thursday evening, 21 October 2010.
The ballroom was enormous. Guessing, there were sixty plus tables--round, linen-draped and elegantly decorated, and large enough to comfortably accommodate ten place settings for patriotic Americans. Some warriors--of recent times. Some warriors--of yesteryear; as pins, miniature devices and medals proudly affixed to jacket lapels revealed. Some families of warriors. Some simply humble, grateful friends of our country's military.
Assigned to Table 6: A couple of business executives (one a Marine no longer in a formal duty status) and their wives--representing one of the evening's key sponsors; a U. S. Air Force Academy alum now in the business world; a recently retired U. S. Air Force colonel and his Air Force Academy cadet daughter; a U. S. Navy captain and her retired U. S. Marine husband; and a retired Marine who, at the last minute, had to offer regrets.
As the group was sorting out seating arrangements, a fire team of young Marines--two sergeants, a corporal, and a lance corporal--bedecked in Dress Blues with large annodized medals approached the table. As is typical their presence was noticed by all in the vicinity and most likely the ballroom. Greetings were exchanged around the horn. More about these young men in a moment.
An event coordinator approached Table 6 and said a Marine captain would be joining the group--filling our vacant seat. Perfect. Reaching the table just as the evening's festivities began was a young, tall, thin gentleman dressed in a dark suit. He sat to my immediate right.
As the emcee was making opening remarks the captain and I leaned toward one another in order to hear and exchanged names and welcome pleasantries. During the next couple of hours we shared Marine Corps experiences. His remarkable. And sobering. So I mostly listened.
Commissioned in 1997, he'd completed his active duty obligation before 9/11 and had decided to move on. When the war began he was feeling guilty friends were going forward and he was not so he scrambled to find a deploying reserve unit. After a phone call or two he found a home with the 25th Marines (a Reserve infantry regiment). He was an infantry officer looking for a rifle or weapons platoon but jumped on the only billet available--he volunteered to take a battalion's Scout Sniper platoon to theatre.
In short, after his training and with only three weeks into deployment and a week in country, he was blown up by a suicide car bomber. He was evacuated--eventually to the U. S., "recovered" from his injuries, and within the last couple of years was finally placed on the medically retired list. Four of his snipers were killed during the deployment. The deaths of these Marines still troubled him. They will for life.
The captain was in attendance for a reason. So was the fire team of Marines. They, along with dozens of others--in and out of uniform representing most, if not all, of our armed forces--are "wounded warriors." They and their families were being saluted.
The captain did not wear so much as the appropriate miniature lapel pin to indicate he was a Purple Heart recipient. The young Marines in the fire team all wore the distinctive Purple Heart--the senior decoration for each. At least a couple of them wore personal decorations adorned with a "V" denoting valor in combat. The corporal, assigned to the 5th Marines, wore--looping his left shoulder--the French Fourragere--a decoration the French government bestowed upon the 5th and 6th regiments of the U. S. Marine Corps for heroic fighting during World War I. I wore one as a second lieutenant in 2nd Battalion 6th Marines. We talked about that bond.
I did not know these Marines. But it's a small Corps--turns out I knew their battalion or regimental commanders or both; something that surprised them. Not that that mattered--we were Marines and connected instantly. One of the sergeants is now assigned to the Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment and is the regional coordinator for wounded Marines and their families. His work critical with his experiences invaluable. He was sharp. As were the others. Their poise, carriage, confidence and maturity belied their youth. But those are traits expected of Marines; regardless of age. Maybe that's why, along with their uniforms, folks took notice.
In attendance as an honored guest and the post-dinner keynote speaker was a well-known Marine. He, too, a recipient of the Purple Heart and a highly decorated combat veteran. He spent some time with the Marines. Of course. More about him in a moment.
Locale for the evening's soiree was The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. The host, "The Home Front Cares--Support For Families Of Deployed Troops" led by President and CEO Major General Bentley Rayburn, U. S. Air Force (Retired). General Rayburn, a gentleman--with all the polish expected of a general officer. Shortly before a pre-dinner reception we met him. Turns out a friend of his--a general still on active duty--is one of my brother-in-law's closest friends (since age 17 and Air Force Academy classmates). And the general's sister and my wife share the same unusual first name. Small world.
After General Rayburn excused himself to continue coordination duties some remarks by Rear Admiral J. Stark, U. S. Navy delivered at the Naval War College in 1995 came to mind as relevant to the evening. The admiral's remarks were primarily about why he liked Marines but one part of his speech about relating the services to breeds of dogs came to mind. To quote him...
"The Air Force reminded me of a French Poodle. The poodle always looks perfect...sometimes a bit pampered and always travels first class. But don't ever forget that the poodle was bred as a hunting dog and in a fight it's very dangerous. The Army is kind of like a St. Bernard. It's big and heavy and sometimes seems a bit clumsy. But it's powerful and has lots of stamina. So you want it for the long haul. The Navy, God bless us, is a Golden Retriever. They're good natured and great around the house. The kids love' em. Sometimes their hair is a bit long...they go wandering off for long periods of time, and they love water. Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because Marines come in two varieties, big and mean or skinny and mean. They're aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They've got really short hair and they always go for the throat. That sounds like a Marine to me! So what I really like about Marines is that first to fight isn't just a motto, it's a way of life..."
Those thoughts stuck with me for the evening. The address by the keynote speaker reinforced them. He opened by offering his father and all of his uncles (the count required both hands) served in the military--World War II era. He remembered a day in America when every citizen, without hesitation, could cite, by name, someone they knew serving in uniform. That's not the case today--only about 1% of the country has taken the step forward to place themselves in harm's way. Such is the troubling consequence of an All-Volunteer Force. And a consequence that is causing alarm amongst our nation's leadership; particularly those--civilian and military--leading the Department of Defense. Something is going to have to change.
Our country, not a small segment of her, needs to bear the burden of defense. This a point of emphasis Defense Secretary Robert Gates makes regularly especially when addressing student bodies on college campuses--particularly the more elite ones; as he did at Duke a couple of months ago. In Durham, North Carolina, and elsewhere Mr. Gates appeals to love of country and duty to step forward. It's the right thing to do. The Secretary's approach laudable. But no matter how passionate and compelling words, certainly the day will come when a compulsory nudge (as in parenting) is necessary to teach youth what is best for them and vital to the health and survival of America. An acquaintence from years ago told me he guided his son toward enlisting in the Marine Corps assuring him the Corps would teach him things about himself and life he and his mother loved him too much to teach him. His assurances came true. Might we need more parents like that? Pardon the tangent but it's important.
So the guest speaker told his story, while showing a brief video clip, that only days before he'd accompanied a joint special ops team on a mission high in the mountains of Afghanistan. And there were a handful of slides and a tale from an assignment while embedded with our young warriors in Iraq a few years back he opted to share.
The images, sounds, and words about Afghanistan stirring feelings of danger and excitement. The admitted struggles of an older man trying to keep up with fit youth at high elevations amusing. Then there was the powerful image of a brave Navy Corpsman, amid hostile fire, shouldering a wounded Iraqi combatant (the Sailor's second or third trip during that particular fire fight) and running toward a U. S. medevac helicopter. The scene spoke volumes. And the speaker described witnessing the wherewithal of the Corpsman, even amid the chaos of the moment, schooling a ridiculing and condescending foreign film crew capturing the moment (who pointed out to the stupid Corpsman his patient was the enemy), by offering a " digital salute" and hollering a remark to the noncombatants along the lines of, "Can't you see this man is wounded...this is what we do...we're Americans." The crowd applauded. Which brought to mind the words of Karl von Clausewitz, "Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior."
The speaker was smooth. Cleverly mixing tempo, pitch, volume, and emphasis--he knew how to deliver words--sometimes without saying a word; a well-timed pause, gesture, or facial expression more powerful. He held the crowd's attention. No surprise--he has a little experience in public speaking. Besides being a decorated, retired Marine he's written eleven New York Times best sellers and, among other accomplishments, reports regularly from battlefields and is the host of "War Stories"--a popular and successful Fox News program. That Marine--Lieutenant Colonel Oliver "Ollie" North, USMC (Retired).
His closing words were "'The Home Front Cares' is the model program that should be going on throughout our country." He is absolutely right. Amen.
Back to Table 6. Just before departing to return home to his young children the Marine captain reached to shake my hand and told me his plan was to one day be President of the United States. I don't doubt it. And before departing I meandered over to say farewell to the Marine fire team. Seemed alot of folks wanted a moment of their time. Fine young men all. For the rest of the evening and days thereafter a haunting thought; men (and women) like these--where do we find them? Across America. And according to recruiters there's no shortage. Thank God!
A final memory of the evening worthy to pass along...
Shortly before Lieutenant Colonel North was introduced, a young Army sergeant, a beneficiary of "The Home Front Cares" programs, was invited to the stage by General Rayburn to share his story. He began by saying he was a little nervous and had forgotten his speech. The quiver in his voice confirmed his admission. Thankfully, he confessed, he'd thought to email his words to his cell phone--from which he delivered his remarks. Yes, the crowd laughed. And the moment reinforced the point of just how technologically savvy our youth--as Lieutenant Colonel North observed during his remarks. Anyway, the young man, no longer in uniform, fought in Iraq. He came home to his girlfriend to start a new life and they, unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time one day, were victims of a violent crime. How ironic. How tragic. How unfair. How sad. His injuries were serious requiring a month in the hospital. During his hospital stay he steadily recovered and then began to worry about expenses and how his rent etc. would be paid. He had a problem on top of a problem. Somehow he stumbled on "The Home Front Cares" website and in desperation sent an email detailing his dire situation. Unable to suppress his emotions, he choked up a bit, collected himself, and said that within an hour of sending his note he received a reply saying his priority was to focus on healing and that his rent would be taken care of. His demeanor changed to relief. He closed by thanking the program and all in attendance for making a difference in his life.
"The Home Front Cares"--indeed.
What else to say?
Thank you kindly for tuning in today and please, by all means, feel free to pass this Commentary along--our "homefront" stretches from coast to coast and reaches up to Alaska and west to Hawaii. We bear the title "The United States of America" for a reason.
Every dollar counts! A fact I've now seen and heard firsthand. How can you help? Glad you asked. Easy. For example, sacrifice a week or two visiting your favored designer java cafe (or whatever self-indulgent vice or rally the book, bridge, or golf club, coffee or gourmet group, or bowling league--you get the idea)--individually it's a pittance but hundreds, better yet thousands and even tens of thousands, of folks pooling contributions of $5.00, $10.00, or $20.00 is significant.
In last week's Commentary I made mention of the convenience and power of a piece of plastic with 16 digits embossed on it. Most of us carry at least one, and nonchalantly use it or them for far less important "purchases." That plastic will work supporting "The Home Front Cares."
At this writing, during this year alone there's been 416 U. S. combat-related deaths supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. The count of wounded far higher. Among the most recent deaths--Marine First Lieutenant James R. Zimmerman, 25, from Aroostook, Maine. He died Tuesday, 02 November, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was a member of a unit that hits close to home--2nd Battalion 6th Marines. He, too, wore the fourragere.
The impact of combat deaths and injuries on families devastating--always emotionally and oft times financially. Think about it. There are 56 days remaining in the calendar year. At the current pace that translates to more than 75 deaths and hundreds of casualties before year's end. And yet most Americans will go about daily life unaffected--other than to maybe pause for a moment if hearing the news of a fellow American's battlefield death and to think about him or her and their family.
This is not about politics. To the contrary, it's about engaged, responsible citizenship, gratitude, and generosity helping America's true heroes. Flying colors and displaying patriotic stickers in yards, on cars, and on Facebook profiles and posts is fine. Finer still--offering (sacrificing) a few dollars in support of courage and greater sacrifice. Help if you can. Consider it duty. Especially since we're quickly approaching 'tis the season.' Make a difference!
To learn more about "The Home Front Cares" and contribute to their noteworthy work visit: http://www.thehomefrontcares.org/
Thanks again, "Grappler"! At ease.
Disclaimer: Before invited to "The Home Front Cares" dinner I was not familiar with the organization. There was no solicitation for today's Commentary. "Compensation" is nothing more than personal satisfaction raising awareness about their efforts, knowing readers will pass along, and just maybe some will contribute to the bottom line.
Brought to my attention after the evening's events--a woman not all that familiar with the military commented to her husband something along the lines of 'there was a lot of people at the dinner but the only ones I noticed was the Marines--the Marines stand out.' Isn't that always the case?!
1. Regarding the photos and the author's tie color selection...curious readers--especially Marines--are referred to the Archive and the Commentary posted for Friday, 01 October 2010: "An Average Guy's Take on Saving 2nd Base."
2. In honor of the Corps 235th Birthday on 10 November, a numbered/signed limited edition copy of "MAKING MARINES" to the first reader who replies to my contact email address citing this Commentary and offer.