Marines.Together We Served

Monday, January 29, 2007

Travel Travails

What a week! It all started wrong. There I stood in the pulpit last Sunday, January 21st, about to say something I knew was a mistake. This was not some theological conundrum or biblical turn of a word. Nothing so esoteric as all that. This proclamation that I was about to make, however, does rank up there with other “third rail” faux-pas such as attempting to explain the Trinity.

What was my egregious error? I predicted which two teams would move on to meet in the Super Bowl! What was I thinking?

Only moments before I spoke my prediction, I heard this little voice offer a word of caution: “Don’t do this!” Feeling supremely confident in my prognosticatory abilities, I plowed right ahead. “The two teams heading for the Super Bowl in Miami in two weeks are both New: the NEW England Patriots and the NEW Orleans Saints.” The Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colt fans in the congregation simply rolled their eyes, muttering something akin to, “There he goes again.” You see, I’ve done this before.

Truth be told, neither of the teams I picked survived the day. Were I a prophet of the Old Testament, I’d be taken out and stoned.

Oh, the ignominy of it all! Someone should have stopped me! I’ve read in the book of Daniel where God closed the mouths of the lions when Daniel was tossed in their den for lunch. Could He not have closed my mouth at that moment, simply striking me dumb?

Monday was my reprieve. I was leaving town for a church conference in Sacramento. It was a great conference, but as soon as it concluded on Thursday I drove to the Sacramento airport to catch a flight to Atlanta, Georgia. The main purpose of my trip was to conduct a wedding for the grandson of a couple in my church, Elwood and Patricia Cooper. Their grandson is currently in the Army. Both he and his now-wife are both on the Army’s rifle team. Ty shoots for the national team, while Nicole competes on the Army’s international shooting team. The wedding was held at Fort Benning, Georgia.

So, there I am walking into the airport in Sacramento to begin my trip. Being the seasoned traveler that I am, I confidently walk over to the computerized ticket check-in; slide my credit card into the slot; and await the printing of my boarding pass. The screen blinked something about not being able to process my request. This was ridiculous! I had personally made the reservations on line. I rechecked my itinerary to make sure I was at the correct airline. Everything checked out fine. Hmmmmm.

I approached the ticket agent only to be informed that the flight was delayed. No problem, I thought. I asked if I would still make my connection in Phoenix. The agent looked at her computer screen, shook her head “no” and rescheduled me for a later flight. So, instead of arriving in Atlanta at nine that evening, I would be arriving at one o’clock in the morning! I had intentionally planned to arrive early enough to get a good night’s sleep. Ah well.

By the time I arrived in Atlanta, successfully retrieved my suitcase from the carousel, picked up my rental car, and found the hotel, it was nearly three in the morning. I put in a wake-up call for seven. I was to meet one of my chaplains, CAPT Gerry Hutchison serving the Marines of MAG 42 at NAS Atlanta. We had a scheduled meeting at 1300 (1:00 pm for you non-military types) with the commanding officer and his staff. I needed to get to the base for a haircut in time to have lunch with Gerry at eleven. The hotel phone rang next to my bed for my wake-up. I fumbled for the receiver in time to hear the automated acknowledgement that it was time to get up. It seemed like I had only just closed my eyes. Just before sliding out from the sheets, I blearily glanced at the digital clock which read 4:45. Ugh! I realized that the person who had stayed in the room before me had had an even earlier wake-up than mine. I rolled back under the covers and went back to sleep. Ring! Time to get up. Thinking it was seven, I again prepared to get up. Not fully trusting the process at this point, I looked at the clock: 5:15. Egads! Back to sleep again. When the phone rang a third time it actually was seven o’clock. I laid there drifting in and out of sleep until about 8:30. After a shower and into uniform, and then a quick bowl of cereal at the hotel’s continental breakfast, I was out the door headed for the base.

After my meetings with chaplains and Marines, I began my drive south to Columbus, Georgia to have dinner with the bride and groom and their families. While driving down Interstate 185 I spotted one of the local signs that tells you you’re not in Kansas, Toto. It read, “Fresh Boiled Peanuts – Next Exit.” Never having tasted this particular dish, I asked several people what they thought of boiled peanuts. I was greeted with mirthful chuckles and a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Let’s just say that no one liked them that I spoke with.

The wedding was on Saturday at 1300 – if you were in Georgia, but 1200 if you were in Alabama. I make this distinction because the vast majority of Fort Benning is in Georgia. Uchee Creek Campground, however, is in Alabama just across the Chattahoochee River. (You’ve gotta love these names!)

I arrived back in Atlanta that evening. My flight wasn’t until 9:48, so I had planned to meet my boot camp buddy, Joe Harden and his wife, Susan, for dinner at the Longhorn Steakhouse. Their son, Dan, joined us.

After a great dinner with these friends I’m back in the Atlanta airport. Sitting patiently at the gate, I hear the announcement that the plane has mechanical problems and will be delayed. Not again! By the time the computer problem was fixed, I knew I’d miss my connecting flight from Las Vegas to Sacramento. So, I spent a few hours in a Vegas hotel, and then back to the airport for a 9:30 am flight to Sacramento. This being Sunday, I missed church. That’s the bad news. The good news is I’d planned for months to have someone speak that morning. Phew!

Well, now it’s Monday and tomorrow morning I fly out of Sacramento for the 4th MAW Commander’s Conference in Key West, Florida. Whoa! Hold the phone. What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m off on another trip! Quick! Someone stop me!

And I pick the Bears by seven.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Guy Disguise

Let’s test your knowledge of personalities in the Civil War. Ever heard of Frances Clayton? No? How about Henry Clark? Drawing a blank? I’ll bet Jim Smith doesn’t ring any bells either. I’ll give you one more chance – Lt. Harry T. Buford. Don’t know? That’s okay – all of these soldiers were women!

This morning my mother handed me an article she thought I might find interesting. It was from the Smithsonian Magazine from a few years back entitled, “Covert Force: Hundreds of women fought in the Civil War disguised as men.” Having an avid passion for all things Civil War, I was anxious to read what Robert F. Howe had to say in this article, which was a review of the book, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, by Lauren Cook and DeAnn Blanton.

In my research on the Civil War I remembered finding a number of stories about women serving as men on both sides of the conflict. We all know about women who served as nurses, cooks, laundresses and various other domestic type duties, but very little has been mentioned over the years about women who actually fought alongside of men disguised in men’s clothing. In addition, some took up smoking, swearing, gambling, and whatever was necessary in order to be “one of the guys.” They learned the use of the weapons of war and were involved in virtually all the battles of the Civil War.

You may be wondering why a woman would want to take up war fighting. It is a nasty business, to be sure. But here are some of the reasons: revenge for a family member killed by the enemy; a chance to get away from home; everyone else in the family had gone off to fight; the pay was better than what they had at home; rebellion against the stereo-typical role of women; to get away from a bad marriage; or they were motivated by a patriotic fervor. Some simply wanted to be near their husbands – such is the case of Jim Smith mentioned in the opening paragraph. In truth, Jim was Martha Parks Lindley. As the story goes she joined two days after her husband left to fight with the 6th U.S. Cavalry. “I was frightened half to death,” she told a newspaper. “But I was so anxious to be with my husband that I resolved to see the thing through if it killed me.” The rest of the troopers knew her as Jim.

How could women pass themselves off without being detected? It wasn’t easy. Many were found out, and depending on the commanding officer and the current need for soldiers, some were even allowed to stay and fight. Most were sent home. It was common place for soldiers to wear their uniforms even while sleeping. Bathing was a luxury few had the opportunity to indulge in. As for thorough medical exams – this was minimal at best. Women were frequently discovered to be of the fairer sex because of the need to dress wounds they received in battle. Imagine the doctor’s surprise!

Charlotte Hope is one lady I would just as soon have avoided. This woman was on a mission! Her fiancĂ© was killed in a raid in 1861. Lusting for revenge, sweet Charlotte joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry with one simple goal: Kill 21 Yankees – one for each year of her dead fiancĂ©’s life.

Remember I mentioned earlier a Lt. Harry T. Buford? The name was actually Loreta Velazquez. In her postwar memoirs, The Woman in Battle, she answered the question as to why she chose to fight alongside the men. “I plunged into adventure for the love of the thing,” she confessed.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was known as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman. For her it was all about the green. When she signed up as a private in the Union Army she received $152.00. “I can get all the money I want,” she exclaimed.

Mrs. Bridget “Irish Biddy” Divers was married to a man who served as a private in the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Not satisfied with staying at home, she stood picket duty day and night, and even would ride in raids against the Rebs. During one battle she took charge and rallied the demoralized troops, winning the engagement and the hearts of the soldiers.

Many women worked as spies, most notably in the use of their feminine mystique. For some reason Union officers were more beguiled by the Southern Belles than were their Confederate counterparts. Belle Boyd was just such a woman. In a number of instances, officers in blue not only gave critical information that was used against Federal Forces; they were so totally beset by love that they resigned their commissions in order to marry the Southern spy. Ain’t love grand?

In the American military of today, women are serving in most every position imaginable, and they are performing admirably. Unlike their Civil War ancestors, at least they no longer need to pretend to be what they are not.

Viva la difference!

Monday, January 15, 2007

And Heaven Too!

When my daughter, Laura, was nine the two of us were hanging around the kitchen one morning. We were stationed at the naval base in Agana, Guam. If you’re scratching your head asking yourself, “I should know where Guam is. Where’s Guam?” don’t worry. You’re not alone. From Los Angeles head west six thousand miles and that’ll pretty well do it.

But I digress. I was enjoying one of those rare times when the ship I was assigned to was actually in home port. On this morning Laura was looking at all the wonderful things in the “junk drawer.” You know the one. It’s the drawer in every kitchen that collects all the odds and ends that don’t have a home elsewhere in the house. Rummaging through the non-descript mess, Laura pulls up a small, round, clear-plastic box. With what can only be described as childhood curiosity and wonder she holds the prize as if it came out of a Cracker Jack box and says, “Daddy, what’s this?”

There are moments in your life that are unforgettable. This was one of those moments. I looked at the item clutched in her little hand and knew I had a teaching moment. Only in this case, I was the one who was to be taught.

The plastic box had a bed of cotton upon which sat an inch-and-a-half chunk of shrapnel. In answer to Laura’s question I said, ‘That’s a piece of shrapnel. It comes from a bomb.” In truth, it came from a North Vietnamese rocket that had probably been made by either the Chinese or Russians – but I was dealing with a nine-year-old. Keep it simple.

“Was this when you were in Vietnam, Daddy?” I answered that it was, only I was surprised that she would have assumed that simply because I could hardly ever remember mentioning this to her. I mean, it’s not like this would be a dinner-time topic of discussion!

I went on to explain how I came by this dirty piece of worthless metal. She listened intently while I told her of my first trip “in theater.” It was the start of the “Easter Offensive” in 1972. I was a maintenance controller for VMCJ-1, First Marine Aircraft Wing. The squadron had recently left ‘Nam for Iwakuni, Japan. Now we were coming back. The C-130 troop transport plane I was on touched down in DaNang about 12:30 in the morning. Our maintenance crew was there to prepare the inbound EA-6A Intruders that would need to be on station over the north later that morning. As the ramp on the back of the aircraft lowered, a Marine ran up to the plane announcing we were in “Condition Yellow.” I turned to my boss, a staff sergeant and seasoned veteran, and asked him what this meant. He casually said that it meant we should expect a rocket attack at any moment. I hadn’t even set foot on Vietnamese soil yet and I can expect a rocket attack! Home looked pretty good right about then.

As we stood around waiting until the planes arrived, we were jolted back to reality when a loud explosion occurred about a hundred yards from our position. Several more followed in quick succession. In the split-second of time it takes for the brain to grasp the situation and my feet could respond to my brain screaming “Run for cover!” I was acutely aware that debris was flying through the air as the ground convulsed beneath me. Something hit me in the chest. It was the shrapnel, still warm. I grabbed it and dove for cover.

Laura then asked me a question that still causes me to tear up today. “Daddy, did you know Jesus then?” I looked into her face and it all hit me at one time. As my throat was tightening with emotion (I hate it when that happens!), I managed to answer, “No, baby, I didn’t.” Oh, but God was not through with me yet! Laura then made a most profound observation. “Then you would have gone to hell, Daddy.” She was absolutely right.

It was about six months after this experience in DaNang that I came to know Jesus as my savior. It was four years after that when Isaura and I were married. Then two years later Laura was God’s gift to us, followed by a second blessing three years later with our youngest, Jenny.

I have kept this unsightly piece of my personal history because this bit of shrapnel is a reminder to me of all that I would have missed. I would have never known the love of a wife; the joy of witnessing my daughters’ births; and myriad other life experiences for which I am truly thankful.

Above all this, I realize how close I came to missing out on God’s love simply because of a little piece of shrapnel addressed: “To Whom It May Concern.” I would never have known the exhilaration of being forgiven of my sin, and of the new life available in Christ. In a word, I would have missed everything.

In God’s mercy and providence, for reasons too deep and mysterious for me, I have been blessed. It is my privilege to share God’s love with you.

You see, God wants to bless you. You can have all that and heaven too!

Monday, January 08, 2007

In Jesus' Name

There has been a story making the rounds in the media and on the Internet that has stirred up a lot of folks. It has to do with a lawsuit being brought against the Navy Chaplain Corps by a Navy Chaplain who believes he is being discriminated against because of his desire to always close every prayer with the words, “In Jesus’ Name.”

In my twenty-three years of service as a Navy Chaplain, I have never been told I could not pray in Jesus’ name. I remember hearing some chaplains complaining about this early in my career, but nothing more than that.

So, I wish to share with you my perspective on this hotly contested, clearly divisive issue that, at least from my perspective, is a non-issue. And I am not speaking for any other chaplains or for the Navy Chaplain Corps. These are my thoughts only.

First, the chaplain making such a fuss over this issue knew what the Navy required when he raised his right hand and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and to obey the orders of those senior to him.

Second, chaplains are allowed to pray in Jesus’ name all the time.

However, when they are in uniform and participating in a non-religious ceremony, such as a retirement ceremony, a promotion ceremony, or a change of command, they are praying before a very mixed group of people who are there to attend a ceremony for a friend or loved one – not a religious service. Thus, the chaplain who is invited to offer an Invocation and/or Benediction needs to be sensitive to the occasion. With sensitivities running so high on such things, we no longer live in a day when praying in Jesus’ name is generally accepted. But there are ways around this. I, along with many of my colleagues, will frequently conclude a prayer in such situations like this: ‘In that Name which is above all names. Amen.” Or “In the name of the One who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.” A Christian hearing this prayer will easily offer their own amen. If the person is not a Christian, it won’t matter to them.

Now listen - The important part is the prayer itself, something that is overlooked in all this hullabaloo in how we conclude the prayer. When I am invited to offer such a prayer, I work on the prayer, writing it out, so that I say exactly what I believe God wants me to say. If I am successful with the content of the prayer I am far more likely to have someone seek me out with questions, or for counsel. It is then that I have the best opportunity to share Christ with them. This has been my practice throughout my years of ministry going back to before I was a Navy chaplain.

Third, the chaplain bringing the lawsuit is not being truthful when he states that he is not allowed to pray in Jesus’ name in a military chapel service, or to quote scripture in a chapel service. This is patently false. A chaplain, regardless of their faith group, is expected to conduct worship services (or any other religious events) in the manner to which they are accustomed. As a Free Methodist coming from an Evangelical background, I hold services, prayer meetings, Bible studies, and the like just as I would in my church. Any time I am functioning in my role as worship leader I can say anything in accordance with my religious practice. Please note that for these other occasions the chaplain has been invited to participate. This is key. The chaplain is not required to be there. If this continues to be an issue it would not surprise me if chaplains are no longer invited to participate in such events. That would be a shame, particularly because it is at such times when we have the most exposure to folks who would otherwise not be in chapel services. Think about it: I have the opportunity to lead people in prayer, to help them think about God, even if just for a moment. Following these events there is always a social gathering to congratulate the person being promoted, retiring, or whatever. That’s when we get to rub elbows with them. I have often had people approach me and say how much they enjoyed my prayer, how it got them thinking, and then we’re off and running on a discussion of spiritual things. I’m not anxious to see us lose this opportunity.

I have shared Christ with Marines in the desert; soldiers in Babylon; airmen in Djibouti; and sailors at sea. Literally everywhere I have been as a chaplain. I am there to provide ministry to the folks who serve you and me, who are willing to go into harms way so we can live as a free people. My service is all about them, not me.

One final thing: My service in the Navy as a chaplain is a privilege, not a right. I am there at the pleasure of the President of the United States. I pray that it will ever be so. And when I pray, folks who know me know Who I’m praying to, and so does Jesus.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Update: Iraq

There’s a lot of stuff and nonsense that you and I are being subjected to when it comes to the Iraq War. Those who have been there will tell you a completely different story than the one typically found in America’s newsrooms.

I was listening to a talk-radio program a few days ago where I heard the host make a phone connection with a military spokesman for the Multi-National Force (MNF) in Iraq. Although the conversation did not tell me anything I didn’t already know, I became excited when I heard the spokesman, Major General William B. Caldwell IV, mention a web site that the MNF has put up. Since I was in the car on my way to an appointment, I made note of the web site so I could check it out later back in my office.

The web site is called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and is located at: http://www.mnf-iraq.com/. When you get to this site you will read a headline like this: “ISF Proves Eager to Help” (ISF – Iraqi Security Force). The first line of the story states: “Baghdad – The Iraqi Security Force and Iraqi Police are eager to help find solutions for the challenges facing their country, and they are becoming more capable of assuming increased responsibility for security, a senior U.S. military officer said Wednesday (Dec 27).”

Gosh! That sounds like good news to me. And this is coming from the people who are “boots on the ground.” They’re right there in the thick of it.

Let me share a few other items that might possibly interest you that I bet you haven’t read in the Main Stream Media. Take, for example, a video clip from TSgt Jessica Elias where she describes what she does as a medical flight technician. This is a brief sixty second clip. At the conclusion she gives the reasons why she is in Iraq with the Air Force. She wants her son and nieces and nephews to hopefully grow up in a more peaceful world. That pretty well sums up the feelings of all our men and women in uniform serving in harms way. They want a better world for future generations of Americans and all those who yearn to be free. Sort of sounds like the invitation on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

I don’t want you to think that this site is all peaches and cream. Hardly. “Press Releases” is on the front page. The first one says, “Insurgents kill woman, policeman, wound children, in attack in Ramadi.” But then there’s this one I like, “Eastern Baghdad operation concludes with capture of 13 suspected insurgents.” And then this one, “U.S. Army unit rescues kidnapped Iraqis from insurgents.” Yea Team!

There’s also a section on the page called “Freedom Facts.” Here’s the freedom fact posted the day I’m writing this article: “Today, the Iraqi Air Force consists of more than 800 members, and like all Iraqi forces, is being rebuilt as part of the overall program to build a new Iraqi defense force.” I like the sounds of that!

Here is a story that is not covered in our media, but should be continually. There’s a video news story produced by the military which highlights the work of the military Civil Affairs group. These are U.S. soldiers who are working with local Iraqi contractors to rebuild and refurbish the schools in this war-torn land. Watch the video clip and see the amazing transformation of one school, and then look at the eagerness of the Iraqi children who now attend this school.

There’s another section called “Daily Stories.” These stories change frequently as this web site is constantly being updated. One of the daily stories says, “Army Engineers Bring Joy to Iraqi Orphanage.” The opening sentence says, “Orphanages recently received numerous packages of stuffed animals delivered to promote goodwill between Iraqi and U.S. children.”

The men and women of the U.S. military are no different today than our fathers and grandfathers who have fought our nation’s wars. It has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve beside these patriots who love their families and country more than self, and they love you and me enough to place themselves in harms way so we can “breathe free.”

This freedom we enjoy comes at a price. It always has, and it always will. Just yesterday I attended the funeral for a Marine killed in combat in Iraq just before Christmas. Though I was not able to make it for the funeral service which was held in this young man’s church, I’m told there were nearly three thousand people in attendance. I was able to attend the grave-side service so I can tell you this much: At the San Joaquin National Cemetery there was a sea of automobiles along with two buses. I’d guess there were easily a thousand or more who braved the cold wind and threat of rain to attend this ceremony that lasted about ten minutes simply because they wanted to honor an American hero who gave to us his last full measure of devotion.

That’s the stuff that has made this country great.

Be proud America! Your sons and daughters are on the job.

Psalm for the Day