Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Baptism by Fire

I was intrigued by Democrat Presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia comments. She has retold this story on several occasions during the campaign, reciting how she was flown into a combat zone in this eastern European nation where they would be under sniper fire.

Two thoughts immediately went through my mind when I read this. First, there is no way on God’s green earth that a military pilot is going to fly the wife of a sitting president into a “hot zone.” Second, if you’ve ever been shot at, whether it’s bullets or bombs, you will never forget the first time it happens. In fact, you remember every detail of that moment.

I’d actually not intended to address this topic, but since it came up yet again during the Democratic Debate the other evening, I thought I’d weigh in. This is not an experience where you will “misspeak” concerning the details. To make the point that being shot at for the first time is unforgettable, I decided to contact several of my friends, all of whom I have served with at one time or another. To a man, they all agreed that you never forget the first time you come under fire. I guess that’s why they call it “Baptism by Fire.” In fact, this phrase goes back to 1822.

“The phrase baptism by fire or baptism of fire is a translation of the French phrase baptême du feu and is a reference to a soldier's first experience under fire in battle. It originates from the ecclesiastical Greek baptisma pyros, in which "fire" is used to mean "the grace of the Holy Spirit as imparted through baptism". Later it was used of martyrdom, especially by fire (e.g. Joan of Arc). Today, it has entered the common vernacular to describe anyone doing something "the hard way" for the first time, particularly if training is necessarily insufficient to fully prepare one for the experience (as is the case with battle).” <>

My friend, Gunnery Sergeant Roy Hutchings (USMC), currently a Nevada Highway Patrolman, said during the first Gulf War, 1990-91, he and his Marines were sitting around drinking coffee when they started taking enemy fire. Mortars were exploding around them. He was amused watching the eyes bug out of his Marines. They dove to the ground trying to disappear. As Roy put it in his inimitable way, they couldn’t get any closer to the ground because their buttons were in the way!

Navy Chaplain Ben Orchard, who currently serves as my deputy in the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, was in a convoy heading for Baghdad. Just outside the city, the Marines set up camp where Ben held worship services. As the sun set, they were told to be in “light discipline,” meaning there was to be no light or noise that would allow the enemy to zero in on them. He and another chaplain tried to catch some sleep in the back of a Humvee. Shortly after midnight another convoy rolled in with lights on, immediately drawing enemy fire. Two Marines had been assigned to look after the chaplains. But when the bullets were flying, these Marines did what they were trained to do – they took a defensive position and fired back at the bad guys. Ben and the other chaplain hunkered down to wait out this fire-fight.

Colonel Al Cruz (USMC retired) was a young enlisted Marine early in 1967. He was assigned to an artillery battalion at Camp Carroll near the DMZ (demilitarized zone). The base had received a big attack just before he arrived. Sure enough, soon after he arrived rockets began to fall from the sky. At that moment, Al was asleep in his bunk. When the ground shook and the loud explosions woke him, he jumped out of the tent and dove into his fighting hole (Marines do not call them “fox holes.”). He says he remembers that he was not really scared as much as he was curious, wanting to watch what was happening.

Lastly, Master Gunnery Sergeant Ray Bael (USMC retired), president of the Stockton Marine Corps Club, was a Force Reconnaissance Marine in Vietnam. As a Private First Class (PFC) he was both new to the Marine Corps and had also just arrived “in country.” He was assigned to stand guard on the perimeter of an observation post situated on a hill. When I asked him what hill and where he was in Nam, he laughed and said he didn’t know. That’s how new he was! He said that all of a sudden they began to take artillery fire from the north. There were about twelve Marines at this post, and they all dove to the ground. Besides being scared, everyone was making sure they still had all their body parts!

If you want to know about being under fire, talk to a veteran, not a politician.

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