Our Nation’s Heroes

As we get set to elect a new President of the United States and with the 241st Marine Corps Birthday coming up on November 10th I have to tell you about a moving experience I had a couple weeks ago at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was in Fairfax, Virginia helping defend a veteran in a criminal case. He was looking at 20 plus years in prison. He was also a law enforcement officer falsely charged with a crime. The two main attorneys on the case did an outstanding job getting a not-guilty vertict from the jury.

The jury came back with their verdict early on Thursday afternoon. I was heading back to Minnesota the next morning so I wanted to get a little bit of sightseeing in. I had wanted to go to the National Mall and walk around the memorials and see the new African-American Museum (my wife had been there the week before) but there was a Washington Nationals playoff game that evening and the Metro was having some issues. Plan B was to go to Arlington National Cemetery but it closes at 5 pm. So I decided to head to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial). Ironically, of all the dozen or so times I have been to D.C. I had never made it over to it.

So I took an Uber from my hotel over to the Vienna Fairfax-GMU Metro stop. Had to take a free bus from there to the West Falls Church stop, though, because of mechanical issues on the line between those two points. The bus was still faster than DC area traffic, though. Once on the Metro I took it to the Rosslyn stop. From there it was about a 10 minute walk over to the memorial. This is D.C. area so everything is built up and busy.

As I was getting closer to the memorial I could start to see the National Mall off to my left with the Washington Monument prominently towering over everything else. And further off in the distance was the U.S. Capitol. Always a sight to see.

For Marines this memorial is hallowed ground. While it is based on an iconic image of the second flag-raising on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II, the US Marine Corps War Memorial is dedicated to “the Marine dead of all wars and their comrades of other services who fell fighting beside them.” This includes memorializing those Marines who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was there not only wanting to see the memorial for the first time but I wanted to honor all my Marine brothers and sisters who paid the ultimate sacrifice before, during and after my 22 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.

As I got closer to the memorial I could start to see the sculpture of the six Marines and the flag they are perpetually raising. Then I as I popped through the surrounding trees I got the full effect of the memorial. Wow, I was awe struck! I am finally here. It felt like I had finally paid homage.

Ever since I first stepped on those “Yellow Footprints” at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego over 35 years ago I was steeped in the history and culture of the U.S. Marine Corps. We learned all about the Marines who landed on Iwo Jima and fought the well entrenched Japanese. Those Marines are like gods to us. Back in the early 1990s I had the privilege of meeting one of the remaining Marines who was in the iconic picture. I also had the great honor of knowing Corporal Chuck Lindbergh, who was one of the original flag raisers – yes, there was a first flag that went up but it was determined that it was not big enough for the Japanese and the Marines down below Mount Suribachi to see it. So some officers decided that Marines had to expose themselves to enemy fire again to raise another flag, which was captured by Associated Press combat photographer Joe Rosenthal and has become the iconic image we know today. And recently, I had the opportunity to meet a Medal of Honor recipient at Iwo Jima – Woody Wilson.

When I first got to the Memorial it was surrounded by several hundred pre-teens running around taking group selfies. It was pretty chaotic but I sure hope those young kids would some day appreciate where there were.

I spent time slowly walking around the Memorial taking it all in and reading all the inscriptions. The most famous of those is the one spoken by Admiral Chester Nimitz describing the Americans who fought on Iwo island Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue“. Those words are part of Marine Corps lore and history and it is part of what we learn early on as Marine Recruits when we learn of the sacrifices of those Marines who came before us. The words on the Memorial spoke to me and evoked many memories.

Just as quickly as the several bus loads of pre-teens got back on their tour buses and left then several busloads of Japanese tourists descended upon the Memorial. Now, please know that the battle for Iwo Jima was during World War II and against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of War. So it was a little surreal to see the Memorial surrounded by Japanese tourists. But they acted like any other tourists – talking loudly, walking into everyone’s way and taking lots of pictures. Among the older ones, however, I did get a sense of reverence for what the Memorial depicted.

But just before the Japanese tourists descended upon the Memorial and as I was standing at the very front of it I watched as a fairly young man – probably mid-30s – walk up to the Memorial then drop to his knees and just started balling. He was burly with a full beard and was carrying a backpack with a First Marine Division pin on it so I knew he was a Marine. Marines always self-identify in some way. But, also, Marines just know when they are in the presence of another Marine. Sometimes it is in just the way we stand.

As I stood there looking at this young man so full of emotion that his body was heaving I soon realized that we were the only two Marines at the Memorial. So I walked over to him and simply placed my hand on his shoulder and kept it there. He looked over at me with tears streaming down his face and his body heaving from emotion – I was wearing a Marine Corps ball cap so I was easily identified as a Marine – and I just said to him “Hey brother, I’m here.” He was so choked up all he could do was nod his head. I kept my hand on his shoulder for several minutes before finally breaking away from him and just stood silently beside him. Meanwhile, the Japanese tourists continued to walk around the Memorial but gave us space. Somehow they knew that something was going on here.

After a few more minutes passed I again placed my hand on his shoulder and again said that I was here for him. His emotions continued to pour out of him. I asked him who he was with. He turned to me and said between gasps that he had never been here before and that he had been with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, or as we say in the Marine Corps, 2/1. That is all I could get out of him. I could tell that it was not that he did not want to talk with me but that he was just too choked up with emotion. So I continued to stand in silence with him. As a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant it was my job to take care of the troops. But there was not much I could do for this young Marine other than to stand there in solidarity with him.

What had he been through and how many brother Marines had he lost? His unit, 2/1, had been deployed to Kuwait in March of 2003 for the initial fight up into Baghdad. They came back to Iraq in early 2004 for the first Battle of Fallujah. They returned again in 2005 for continued operations in Iraq. The Battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and participated in operations in Helmand Province. Marines gave the ultimate sacrifice in all of those deployments. I can only assume that he had been on at least one of those deployments.

I lingered around the Memorial for about another half hour thinking about my time in the Marine Corps and the brothers and sisters that were lost during my time. In particular, I was remembering the 243 Marines who were lost at the bombing of the barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983. Of course I took the requisite pictures and “selfies.”  This young man stayed where he was wrapped in his emotional tribute to his fallen brothers.

As I left the Memorial I looked back several times to see the young man still there. Since that day I have often thought about this Marine.

During the last 14 or so years what have we asked our young men and women to go off to do? How do they deal with it for the rest of their lives? How do our Nation’s political leaders decide to put our nation’s young in harms way?

One of my jobs these days is to teach law enforcement how to deal with veterans in crisis. I have traveled the nation teaching a full day class on the various aspects of what it is like to serve, deploy and come home home from war. One video I play is about the experiences of another young Marine by the name of Scott Ostrom. Scott served as a Reconnaissance Marine in Iraq. He came back home and soon started to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Denver Post did a Pulitzer Prize winning story on his experiences (http://dptv.denverpost.com/2014/12/04/welcome-home-the-story-of-scott-ostrom-2/). In the video they did for the story the very first thing Scott says is that “I have to deal with the fact that I have already done the most important thing in my life. I have been to combat.” The video ends with Scott talking about another Marine he knew who he was in a HUMVEE that was hit by an IED. The vehicle was consumed by fire and all Scott and other Marines could do was watch and listen to the Marine scream as he died. As the video ends I ask the police officers in the room who is the hero in Scott’s mind? Is Scott a hero for having served and fought? No, it’s the Marine who died in that HUMVEE. Certainly Scott does not feel like a war hero. How does a young man like Scott deal with that for the rest of his life? Does society understand what he went through and what he is dealing with today.

But I still come back to this young Marine I encountered that day. What had he been through? How many Marine brothers and sisters had his unit lost. How does he react when he is thanked for his service or is called a hero? Do people understand what he has been through? All valid questions for many young men and women coming back from the longest wars we have sent them off to fight.

My only hope for this election is that whoever is elected that they use the “Tip of the Spear” only when absolutely necessary. We owe it to our young men and women serving today to ensure that they are properly used.

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GunnyLawyer John Baker at the Marine Corps War Memorial

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