By Andy Weddington
Friday, 26 August 2011
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear." Mark Twain
Early Monday evening my wife and I waited at Gate C-30 at DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth) for the third airplane ride of the day--the first in Stockholm--to board American Airlines 1121 to San Diego; almost home after some time abroad.
DFW was busy. The switchback queue at immigration absurdly long--insane. Customs better--the "Welcome Home" passport stamp only took a few minutes--the Air Force vet agent friendly and chatty. Transit routes congested, with people and people movers, but flowing. Noisy. Food courts packed. Restroom queues. Our gate's seating area crowded--overflowing. All typical symptoms of a major airport humming along during peak hours. It's quite an operation when you stop and watch.
The plane was going to be full.
Sitting on the floor and standing around a stanchion near the boarding lanes were several dozen youngsters--most clad in jeans and casual shirts--with short hair needing a trim. Though short, the raggedy hair a clue they were not military. Hair aside, they did not carry themselves like military. Only one or two appeared as if it was necessary to shave more than once every few weeks. And then probably needing nothing more than a spoon. Frankly, they looked like a mob though there were no indicators they were about to flash--breaking into song, skit, or stores.
Tired after a long day, I'd not paid much attention to the group. Walking by them to board, I noticed one wearing a JNROTC (Junior Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps) shirt and the school represented was George W. Bush. First thought was they're on an outing--maybe a field trip to a base before school starts.
Shortly after settling in our seats the youngsters began to board--groups of eight or nine at a time passed by. They did not have any carry-on bags. Each held a manila envelope. Then my wife and I put the clues together and realized who they were. Curious passengers seated near us asked the youths where they were heading. "MCRD, sir!" replied a few in unison. MCRD? That would be Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. Our conclusion confirmed.
Buckled in I was trying to steal some needed sleep as we still had a two and a half hour drive after landing in San Diego, but my wife quietly spoke with a few of the young men, wished them well, and as a closing 'oh by the way,' told them the "old man" to her left in the window seat was a Marine. One reached out to shake my hand. I obliged then wished those nearby few standing in the aisle well and, having heard a flight attendant and clueless passenger innocently refer to them as "Marines," gently reminded them they were not yet Marines, life was about to change--forever, and a tough road awaited them. A sobering reminder, as if necessary. It was.
The impromptu encounter with those young gents reminded me of days supervising recruit training at MCRD, Parris Island, now just a couple shy of thirty years ago. I remember the faces of youth--bewildered, anxious, apprehensive--stepping off the bus in the middle of the night scrambling for a pair of yellow footprints with their world turned upside down by loud, impatient drill instructors and many questioning why they were there. I was a few years older than them--they looked young but not that young.
The youngsters boarding flight 1121 looked young--really young. They hardly looked like high school graduates but had to be. They were not yet close enough to the depot to look bewildered, anxious, and apprehensive. But those looks would come--when stepping off the bus, anchoring yellow footprints, and greeted by drill instructors. And there'd be those scared, missing home, and wondering why they were there--concluding they'd made a huge mistake.
I remember speaking with Series after Series (250-300 recruits) in the early days of training--bluntly telling them what to expect and, more importantly, what, exactly, was expected of them. And assuring them that as fair and as impartial an opportunity at life was before them and performance, nothing else, all that mattered--a single standard for all. The Corps did not care who nor what they were before nor from where they hailed. All-Americans, lover boys, rednecks, greasers, geeks, and nerds were now equals on the same playing field. Beautiful. Really beautiful.
The faces eager to get started but full of uncertainty. And after every address, while leaving the squadbay, I remember thinking who amongst them will one day be a sergeant major, or a general, maybe commandant, or somehow distinguish themselves. In a sea of shaved heads and camouflage uniform clad bodies it's impossible to predict. And that by design and good.
Since Parris Island days, I've learned recruits I supervised (the drill instructors trained them) did make it to the rank of sergeant major. Some went on to become warrant officers and others earned commissions. And I know of one who's a colonel still on active duty. His success not so surprising--he was a platoon honorman. I clearly remember him, and the three others from that Series, sitting in my office the day before graduation. Who knows, he might make it to general. He is of credible stock--his father was a Marine. I know of one, who's been in touch, that retired a lieutenant colonel. He remembered my short address to his Series--some comments about hard work and doors opened by education resonated with him. He took them to heart and acted--after his enlistment went to college and was commissioned. Someone was listening after all--time and breath not wasted. And I know many of those recruits, during three years of duty, distinguished themselves in all sorts of ways--while in uniform and after returning to civilian life. On occasion I hear from one but it's been a while.
There was once a recruit from Louisiana Cajun country who conquered the challenges of MCRD, San Diego, and later earned a commission. He was promoted. And promoted. And promoted. He went on to earn the rank of general. He served as our Corps 27th Commandant. General Robert H. Barrow--from recruit to four-star general during more than 40 years in uniform. Count three wars among those four decades. During his retirement ceremony he told a story of asking graduating recruits at MCRD, Parris Island, what they'd learned during training. He felt the best response was, "Sir, the private will always do what has to be done."
And with that simple reply, a young soon-to-be new Marine validated for the old general that carefully considered rigorous, demanding training--time and battle tested--had accomplished exactly what it was designed to do. And, by the way, that objective is as applicable to Officer Candidates School as it is recruit training.
Every once in a while you read something that leaves you quiet and thinking. I read something last week that did just that, and left me thinking about that recruit who answered General Barrow's question.
An example of a Marine doing what had to be done...
"The President of the United States in the name of the Congress takes pleasure in presenting the
MEDAL OF HONOR
CORPORAL DAKOTA L. MEYER
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
For service as set forth in the following citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the repeated risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a member of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-7, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on 8 September 2009. When the forward element of his combat team began to be hit by intense fire from roughly 50 Taliban insurgents dug-in and concealed on the slopes above Ganjgal village, Corporal Meyer mounted a gun-truck, enlisted a fellow Marine to drive, and raced to attack the ambushers and aid the trapped Marines and Afghan soldiers. During a six hour fire fight, Corporal Meyer single-handedly turned the tide of the battle, saved 36 Marines and soldiers and recovered the bodies of his fallen brothers. Four separate times he fought the kilometer up into the heart of a deadly U-shaped ambush. During the fight he killed at least eight Taliban, personally evacuated 12 friendly wounded, and provided cover for another 24 Marines and soldiers to escape likely death at the hands of a numerically superior and determined foe. On his first foray his lone vehicle drew machine gun, mortar, rocket grenade and small arms fire while he rescued five wounded soldiers. His second attack disrupted the enemy’s ambush and he evacuated four more wounded Marines. Switching to another gun-truck because his was too damaged they again sped in for a third time, and, as turret gunner, killed several Taliban attackers at point blank range and suppressed enemy fire so 24 Marines and soldiers could break-out. Despite being wounded, he made a fourth attack with three others to search for missing team members. Nearly surrounded and under heavy fire he dismounted the vehicle and searched house to house to recover the bodies of his fallen team members. By his extraordinary heroism, presence of mind amidst chaos and death, and unselfish devotion to his comrades in the face of great danger, Corporal Meyer reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service."
Rumors, none about Corporal Meyer's actions, are floating about the long firefight. Some know the facts. Not me--and it doesn't matter. Regardless, all moot.
Some news reports note Corporal Meyer is a humble hero--that he remains troubled by the lives--a Marine lieutenant, two Marine Staff Non-Commissioned Officers, and a Navy Corpsman--he was not able to save that day. He says he'll be wearing the medal for them who, in his eyes, are the true heroes and the others who serve. I watched a short interview with him. Those reports are accurate. Humility clear. For he only did what needed to be done. He did what any Marine would have done. It just so happened he was the one who had to do it.
And what strikes me as interesting...
as Recruit Meyer sat amongst a sea of shaved heads and camouflage uniform clad bodies in the early days of recruit training at MCRD, Parris Island, not so many years ago, his drill instructors and Series officers could not possibly have predicted what he'd one day be called upon to do. That those same drill instructors and officers attested at the end of training he was Marine material levied responsibilities upon his shoulders he certainly appreciated and embraced but could not possibly fully fathom. I, and every other Marine who's had a hand in making Marines, know how those drill instructors and officers must feel about Corporal Meyer's bravery.
I've never met Corporal Meyer but know training, along with character and upbringing, compelled him to act without regard for his own life--to do what had to be done.
General Barrow (1922-2008), signs are he's paying attention, must be pleased.
Who's amongst the group of recruits from that Monday evening flight who reported to MCRD, San Diego, and what will they do? You just never know.
And that goes for those--people of a different breed--taking the courageous volunteer step forward, particularly during time of war, to serve in any branch of our armed forces. As long as America keeps producing them, we'll be okay. Surely, we'll be okay.
Sergeant Dakota L. Meyer, USMC--no longer on active duty--will be honored in a White House ceremony on Thursday, 15 September 2011.
I've been longtime friends with General Barrow's son. Rob, a retired Marine, and I served together for three years in 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, MCRD, Parris Island, as lieutenants and young captains. We are working a little project, with Parris Island (his father, when a major general, commanded the depot) ties, that is seemingly being guided by his restless father--ongoing spooky circumstances defy any other explanation. Right, Rob? Our battalion commander, regimental commander, and commanding general--fine Marines and exceptional leaders all--concur with our position and effort. If believing otherwise, no question, they'd be the first to "counsel" us.