Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hooray for the USA!

I’ve been watching the Olympics, as time has allowed, these past two weeks. It is always a wonder to see these athletes perform on the world stage which the Olympics provide. I admit that I become something of an Olympics junkie during this two-week period every four years. I marvel at the discipline of the athletes who train their bodies to do things that leave me breathless.

Take, for instance, Michael Phelps. This six-foot four-inch swimming machine has re-written Olympic swimming. In the process he has become larger than his sport; larger than the Olympics; even larger then life. And he comes across as a very nice guy. His mother, frequently picked out of the crowd by a cameraman, is wonderfully expressive during her son’s record-setting swims. Phelps is the same guy who earned six gold medals in the 2004 Olympics. What is not mentioned very often is the fact that Michael gave up an opportunity to earn a seventh gold in those Olympics because he felt that a fellow swimmer was better at the relay swim than he was. He stepped aside for the good of the team. Now that’s refreshing!

And how cute is Shawn Johnson! This pint-sized gymnast is the picture of competitiveness. Her smile lights up the arena. But, man, can she perform! Her coach is a Chinese man born and raised in Beijing who later immigrated to the United States. How ironic is that! A young, precocious six year old walks into the gym of a recently arrived immigrant, and ten years later they arrive in Beijing, China to capture gold medals. What a great country we have!

Then you have Shawn’s fellow gymnast, Nastia Liukin, a young girl who was born in Russia. Her parents were both Russian athletes competing on the world circuit. Her father was an Olympian. They immigrated to the United States when Nastia was a little girl, settling in Texas. The grace and form of this girl is magical! She fairly floats through her routines, making the impossible look simple, representing the United States.

I could go on listing the various athletes and the varied stories that they each have and the means by which they arrived at the pinnacle of their sport. How about Phil Dalhausser? This six-foot nine-inch giant was born in Switzerland, moving to the U.S. as a boy with his parents. Being old school, his folks wanted him to get a job when he graduated from high school. He had been introduced to volleyball, which he initially derided as being a “girls game,” but accepted the challenge to try it. He loved it! When he started making money playing this game his parents decided maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. The whole family is now avid volleyball fans. He and his playing partner won gold yesterday.

Amidst all this competitiveness was a fawning, sycophantic media that couldn’t control themselves in support of these amazing U.S. athletes. The giddiness of these television broadcasters was amusing. The story of Phelps’ attempt to earn an unprecedented eight gold medals was the story of the Olympics. Everyone wanted to interview this phenomenal athlete. They could not contain their glee! Everything was about the American athletes. You could hardly accuse them of being unbiased.

Pardon me for noticing, but aren’t these the same TV personalities and media types who wouldn’t dare compromise their standing as news people by showing a bias for American forces in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or choosing not to wear an American flag pin because it would compromise their so called objectivity? Or show support for our military that is engaged in a war to protect our freedoms? I’ve read that some national broadcasting company’s have passed policy that even forbids their employees, particularly on-air personalities, from wearing the American flag pin.

I’m thrilled and proud of our American athletes. I’m impressed with their dedication to their sport. I love to watch them grab an American flag and drape it over their shoulders, or wave it high over their heads after winning their event. It’s beautiful! But I am more proud of our military young men and women who raise their right hand and pledge an oath to our nation: "I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

These patriots then engage in a period of training that prepares them for war against the enemies of our nation. These are the men and women who voluntarily go into harms way; who help keep the wolf from the door; who protect us and our way of life so we can continue to enjoy our freedoms.

Who are these people that comprise our military? They are our sons and daughters who come from American homes all across this land. They are amazing! They put the importance of the nation’s security ahead of their own personal pursuits. They place on hold any future plans for a family, education, or career opportunities.

These are the ones who deserve our thanks and respect; who should have parades in their honor; yet who expect none of these things in return for their service to our country.

Hooray for them! And God bless America.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

All Over But the Shouting

Well, the time has come. After nearly thirty-four years of military service, the end of this chapter of my life is closing as of September 5 – my 60th birthday.

Every career military person knows that day will come. It’s accepted as part of the inevitable movement of time. While finishing up my time here at the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing headquarters in New Orleans, I ran into a friend and fellow chaplain of many years, Calvin Reynolds. We decided to have dinner together at one of New Orleans’ finest restaurants, located in the French Quarter, called Dickie Brennan’s.

Cal and I lingered over our meal discussing many of our experiences over the past twenty-five or so years while serving at various times with the Navy and Marine Corps. We both came away believing we have been truly blessed to have served.

In looking back on where I’ve been the past forty-odd years, I marvel at the hand of God, especially when I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. In my late teens and early twenties I was adrift. This is one of the reasons I was seriously considering joining the Marine Corps right out of high school in 1966. That quickly became a bad idea, not because the Vietnam War was well under way, but because my brother, John, had enlisted in the Marines in 1964. As I was graduating from high school, he was completing flight school where they made him a helicopter pilot. Vietnam had quickly become a helicopter war. I seemed to recall hearing that Marine 2nd lieutenant helicopter pilots had a life expectancy of two minutes in a combat zone. I wasn’t the brightest light on the street, but I could see that both of us being in the Marines at the same time was potentially very risky. I decided to forgo the Marines until I knew what would happen to my brother. John left for Nam in February of ’67, returning home thirteen months later. I asked him if he planned to stay in. He said that he wasn’t. After he left active duty in 1969, I went ahead and enlisted in the Marines.

During those three years since high school graduation, I had bounced around in junior college, making a general mess of things. I was tired of school, didn’t know what I wanted to study, or even what direction to take with my life. My college grades were so bad . . . “How bad were they, Chuck?” . . . They were so bad that at the end of the Spring Semester in 1969, I received an official post card from the school strongly recommending that I not register for Fall classes! Now that’s bad!

So Marine Corps boot camp, here I come! I enjoyed the training, but most especially the camaraderie Marines share. I applied for the officers program but didn’t seriously believe I had a chance simply because my college grades were . . . well, as I said, Bad! So the Marine Corps decided I should fix jet airplanes. This I did for the rest of my time. Because of this, I was eventually sent overseas with “Orders to WestPac,” a euphemism for Vietnam. Thirty minutes after landing in Da Nang, South Vietnam early in the Easter Offensive of 1972, we were hit with a rocket attack. In scrambling for shelter, I was hit square in the chest with a piece of shrapnel, measuring about two inches by a half in. It had lost its penetrating velocity, falling harmlessly at my feet. Had it hit me four inches higher in the throat, or thirteen inches higher in the eye, this would be an entirely different story.

Six months later, I wandered into a Christian Servicemen’s Center where I heard the gospel preached with such conviction and clarity that I knew I had to make up my mind. Up to this time I had been living pretty loose and free, using God’s name, and the name of Jesus, as swear words. Now I was being confronted with a choice. Would I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior? Or would I risk an eternity in hell by walking away from him? For me, it was a simple choice.

The message of the Gospel finally clicked with me. I’d heard preaching before. I’d even read portions of the Bible. But I hadn’t understood how much God loved me, and how much he was willing to sacrifice for me through the life, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus, in order to free me from the ravages of sin. The epiphany for me was the discovery that Jesus really does love me! This was absolutely wonderful! And it’s why the Gospel is called the “Good News.”

So learning to follow the path the Lord laid out for me was not difficult because I knew he always had something special just ahead. This has consistently been true in my life, no more so than the opportunity that I was given to serve as a chaplain in the United States Navy these past twenty-five years. The Lord has allowed me to share this very same Good News with the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps. These men and women are the ones who willingly place themselves in harms way every day so you and I can live free. Who better to share God’s message of love and sacrifice with than those who already understand self-sacrifice?

It has been a joy and a privilege! To God be the glory!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Visit to Corinth

Nope, not the Corinth in Greece that I visited last March. This Corinth is a small town in northeastern Mississippi where Tennessee and Alabama connect. You say you’ve never heard of Corinth? Well, unless you’re from the area, or you’re a Civil War buff, or your great granddaddy fought there, you wouldn’t have reason to have heard of this place. I spent the weekend traipsing around Corinth and Shiloh. What a time I had!

In the annals of the American Civil War, Corinth is prominent. The name of the town, the battle that took place there, and the significance has been lost upon most Americans, overshadowed by such names as Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Bull Run. But make no mistake: Corinth was critical to the Southern Cause. Why was Corinth of such importance? Because it was the juncture of two railroads that were vital for the Confederacy to move men and supplies from the Mississippi River to the south Atlantic, and Kentucky to Florida. The two railroads were the Mobile & Ohio RR, and the Memphis & Charleston RR.

Corinth was the military training center for all Mississippi recruits from the outset of the War in 1861. Thousands of soldiers descended on this small town where they learned the skills necessary for combat with the Federals (a name often used disparagingly of Union troops). In early 1862, troops marched out of Corinth twenty-two miles to the north to a place soon to be known as Shiloh. Picture two heavyweight fighters standing in the boxing ring and landing one powerful punch after the other on the opponent. For two long days these enemies threw everything they had at each other. The combined number of men from both sides was 98,000. After the battle ended on April 7, the number of killed, wounded, or missing was 23,746. It was tough on both sides, but more so for the Southern boys. Their beloved leader, General Albert Sydney Johnston, was killed during the battle on April 6, bleeding to death from a bullet lodged in his leg. Ironically, an unused tourniquet was later found in his coat. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who aggressively opposed the attack on Grants forces at Shiloh, was appointed successor to Johnston. As the day drew to a close on April 7, the severely battered Confederate troops withdrew from the field, straggling back the twenty-two miles to Corinth. The Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant were equally as spent, and simply let their southern cousins slip away, too exhausted to pursue.

Now comes Corinth. Except for the train crossing, this town would be like any other agricultural southern town of that time. Whoever controlled Corinth, controlled access to the Tennessee and the Mississippi Rivers. General Beauregard knew General Grant would be coming to Corinth to wrest the town from southern control. He was heard to say, “If we lose here (Corinth), we lose the Mississippi Valley, and probably our cause.”

Of particular importance to me is the military service of my great grandfather, Reverend Daniel Thatcher Lake. He joined up with the fledgling 27th Texas Cavalry in early 1862. They soon were off on their first campaign, participating in the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas. They then were ordered to Memphis, and then almost immediately to Corinth. They had heard of the defeat at Shiloh, so they knew Corinth would be the next place for battle. General Beauregard built up the defenses around Corinth, but withdrew before a shot was fired. He was certain that it would be another battle lost should they take on the northern troops again so soon after Shiloh.

Months later in September, the Confederate Army knew they must regain control of Corinth. They were near desperation because the Union Army was squeezing them from all sides. On October 3-4, a horrific battle took place with nearly 8,000 dead from both sides. The news of this battle spread across the land, horrifying all Americans, both from the north and south.

At the end of the day, General Grant’s army was victorious and retained control of this vital railroad junction. One of his generals in the field, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, had this to say: “The effect of the Battle of Corinth was very great . . . It was, indeed, a decisive blow to the Confederate cause in our quarter . . . I could see its effects upon the citizens, and they openly admitted that their cause had sustained a death blow.”

My great granddad was seriously wounded during a raid on Union forces in late December 1862. He was medically discharged and sent home in January of 63. For him, the war was over.

Corinth remained in Union hands, which allowed Grant to move his army down the Mississippi River unmolested where he would launch a siege on the Confederate stronghold in Vicksburg in the spring of 1863. The outcome of the war was in little doubt at that point, but it would rage on for two more years with tens of thousands more dying at the hands of their brothers and fellow countrymen.

The 27th Texas Cavalry would continue to fight throughout the remainder of the war, finally surrendering on May 4, 1865, nearly a month after Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House. Of the 1,007 men who originally made up the 27th, only a handful was still standing by war’s end.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Déjà Vu All Over Again

I’m on the road again, but this is the last time as a military person. I will be retiring from the Navy reserve at the end of September.

In order to make all that happen I needed to travel to the headquarters of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing to begin the rather arduous, time-consuming process we refer to as “checking out.” This has necessitated that I go through a final retirement physical. I couldn’t believe how much blood they had to draw! I was getting a bit concerned when I saw five vials lined up. “All’s well that ends well,” they say. And I’m feeling fine.

There is a significant amount of paperwork to accomplish and administrative tasking required before you are officially retired. I realize it’s all quite necessary; however, I will be celebrating once I have completed the last document sometime next week.

So I said to myself – “Chuck, you have a free weekend coming up. You are far from home with no preaching responsibilities on Sunday. Hmmmm . . . What are you going to do, old boy? Ah! I know!” I grabbed the small map I picked up from the car rental and looked to see what area it covered. It was perfect! I now knew exactly what I was going to be doing over the weekend.

Some time ago I wrote about my great grandfather, Reverend Daniel Thatcher Lake. He was one of the last of the old circuit-riding preachers in the south. The era of circuit-riding preachers in the United States was roughly from 1750 to 1910. Great Granddaddy was traversing most of east Texas from the middle of the 1800s until almost 1890. GGDaddy Lake was born and raised in Carroll County, Tennessee. Since he had to work most of the time, he had little of what we might call a childhood – which meant there was precious little time for going to school, or doing any “book learnin’.” Not to be put off, he attended school for a few weeks each summer, proving to be a quick study. By the time he was twenty he was proficient enough in his academic pursuits to be hired as a teacher in Panola County, Mississippi. It was here that he married his wife, Mary Griffis. He was then hired to teach school in Harris County, Texas.

Later on, in Bethel, Texas, he had a conversion experience. He surrendered his life to Christ and thereby began a journey of service to the Savior that would take him through many experiences that can only be described from Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . .”

Our family is blessed to have had GGDaddy Lake write out his memoirs toward the end of his life. He spends a good deal of time describing his travels, particularly during his time of military service with Whitfield’s Legion, latter known as the 27th Texas Cavalry. He goes into some detail about the battles and military engagements they were involved in. Late in December of 1862 he was wounded during a shootout with some of General Grant’s boys near the state line of Tennessee and Mississippi. Due to the seriousness of his wounds, he was discharged and released from further military duty. He then traveled on a mule captured from the Federalists (a name used by the southern boys to describe those living north of the Mason-Dixon Line), wending his way through northern Mississippi gradually bearing south to follow the “Mighty Mississip.” As he was nearing Vicksburg, he crossed “Old Man River,” making his way across northern Louisiana and finally home to east Texas.

As you may have figured out by now, I’m going to hop in my rental car and drive up to northern Mississippi, staying Friday and Saturday nights in a hotel in Tupelo (hometown of Elvis). There are battle sites all around that area which my GGDaddy fought in. So I’m going to visit as many of these locations as possible, arriving back in New Orleans by Sunday evening.

I’ve read his memoirs a couple of times and have even traced his steps on a map. But now I’ll get to see these places for myself. I’ll be able to look at the terrain, smell the air, see the natural places for military fortification for battles in Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, and the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. I can hardly wait!

That’s why it’s déjà vu all over again!

Psalm for the Day