Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Taste the Good Stuff

Recently, I was on a military trip to our headquarters in New Orleans. This was our annual Marine Forces Reserve Religious Ministries Workshop where Navy chaplains and Religious Program Specialists come together for specified training with Marines.

Of course, if you are in New Orleans, known as the Big Easy, you have to partake of the local cuisine. Restaurants abound in this city, with the flare for the unusual. Gumbo comes to mind. This is a wonderful concoction that to the uninitiated is called soup. Taste it and you’ll never think of it in so plebian terms as “soup” again. It is made of roux (fat and flour mix), various vegetables, garlic, chicken, onions, sausage, scallions, and parsley, spiced up with salt, black and cayenne pepper. There are innumerable variations of this dish, but this is the basic. Sea foods abound, as do the most fattening desserts known to man.

Feeling a bit frisky on this trip, I decided to try some things that have never before passed my lips. It’s not like eating strange and exotic foods is new to me. When my parents moved us to Paris in 1960, I had the opportunity to sample the best of French cooking. We traveled all over Europe and Scandinavia. Growing up, we kids were always encouraged to try different foods. Once it was tasted, we could either order more, or decline. Our choice. So I tried lots of stuff. I even ate escargot, and liked it. Escargot is snails if you were wondering, though it sounds much more Continental when you call it escargot!

Then during my time in the Marine Corps, I was sent to such far away places as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, all of which have some very interesting foods. There were many times I ate what was placed in front of me not really knowing what it was. Having been raised to eat everything on my plate, I just naturally chowed down. Sometimes it was better not to ask what was on your plate. As a Navy chaplain I have added more countries to my travels: Guam, Hong Kong, Bahrain, England, Singapore, Kenya, Australia, South Korea, Scotland, Okinawa, Spain, Morocco, and Oman. Back serving with the Marines during Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom, I traveled to Italy, Cyprus, Kuwait, the Azores, Iraq, and Djibouti.

Then there have been the mission trips with my church to Ethiopia, Malawi, and most recently, Peru, with a side trip to Chile. In Peru, one of the foods that are popular is guinea pig. It tastes like chicken.

So, back in New Orleans I decided to try a couple of new things. First, I ate frog legs. Very tasty, especially when prepared Cajun style. You eat the meat right off the bone like a chicken leg. It, too, tasted like chicken. The other food I sampled on this trip was alligator. Barbecued, it is delicious! It does not, however, taste like chicken.

I got to thinking. We eat different foods because we want to see what they taste like. We are often repulsed by the idea of eating certain things. The mission team tried to make those of us who actually ate the cute little cuddly guinea pigs feel badly. My pocket dictionary offers two definitions for guinea pig: 1) a plump tailless rodent kept as a pet, and 2) somebody or something used as the subject of an experiment or test. The way the rest of the mission team looked at us, we weren’t sure if we were to become the experiment!

It seems a number of foods around the world have a similar taste to that of chicken. This usually implies disappointment since in America we can get chicken any time we want. We want the unusual foods we try to be unique, different, something that will tantalize our taste buds. We want the good stuff.

Taste is one of the most pleasurable sensations in life. As infants, we naturally want to taste everything. It helps us interpret our diminutive world. Our likes and dislikes are formed early on with our sense of taste.

Spiritually speaking, we yearn to taste the good stuff. After I came to know Christ as my savior, I discovered a verse of scripture that says it all for me. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see the Lord is good.” I’m here to tell you that I have tasted the Lord and he is, indeed, wonderfully good!

I’ve been blessed to travel the world, being exposed to cultures, customs, people groups, beliefs, and lots of food. But nothing can satisfy like the Lord. Taste, and see that he is good!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Freedom and Responsibility

There is clearly a growing controversy surrounding the need for some effective plan to protect our borders. Apparently, both the Mexican and Canadian borders are easily crossed – legally and illegally.

There is a solution to this problem, I’m sure. It just seems to me that we’d better come up with something real soon, or we will have even greater problems than already exist.

Freedom demands responsibility. Therefore, free people must always act responsibly, or they will lose their freedom.

As I see it, there is one major problem with our borders: They are an easy avenue of attack on our soil. It has been a curiosity to me that terrorists have not attacked us more openly in our own land. As a free people we assume that others will respect, even welcome that same freedom. We are always shocked and confused whenever we see “America-haters” chanting anti-American slogans. First thought is, “What did we ever do to you?” Second is, “Don’t mess with us!” Because we love freedom, we are vulnerable. None of us wants to live in a police state, but we can no longer ignore the problem at our borders.

Because of the porosity of our borders it would be very simple to enter our country where a terrorist could kill and maim a lot of people. This is not difficult to imagine since there seem to be enough radicals in the world willing to sacrifice their lives for whatever deviant cause they choose to defend. Nor is it difficult for me to understand why people would want to come to America where they can begin a new life, enjoying freedoms and opportunities only imagined in their wildest dreams. This is why the inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads, "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."

We Americans invite to our shores all those who would be free. But there is an expectation that goes with that invitation: Act Responsibly. And you must be willing to protect that freedom. The first way you protect it is to obey the laws of the land. That means you enter the country in the proper manner, not skulking across the border illegally. Otherwise, right from the start, you have violated the basic tenet of freedom – to act responsibly.

At age thirteen, my wife, her five siblings and her parents, came to this country legally. They applied for visas, filling out all the necessary paperwork, doing everything properly and in order. She studied hard so she could take the test to become a citizen of the United States.

On the other hand, Cuba’s Castro has, at varying times, emptied his prisons, sending his undesirables to our shores. Haiti has done the same thing. Then there were the “boat people” from Cambodia not so many years ago. Historically, in most cases we have taken these people in.

Has our record on immigration been without blemish? Hardly. One of the ugliest chapters in our history, apart from the heinous affair of slavery, was when our government refused to accept boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi Germany. Instead, we sent them back to Germany where many would wind up in the ovens of Auschwitz, Dachau, and the like.

Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, chides the United States for not opening its borders so Mexicans can freely pass back and forth. This would not be the responsible action of a free people. Instead, we need to protect our borders, especially now that there are so many terrorist groups who want to harm us.

Americans are increasingly concerned about security matters. Though we’d rather not have security checks at the airport, we’re willing to put up with this minor inconvenience. But unless there is some action taken to secure our borders, airport security will become irrelevant

The Minutemen on the Arizona border are a reaction to a governmental policy that is, at best, inept, or has gone awry. Demand that your elected officials take action, pressing hard on this issue until we have protected our people to the best of our ability.

It’s time to wake up, America, and take responsibility for our borders.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

True Repentance

I few years ago I read that Jane Fonda had actually repented of her sins and committed her life to Jesus Christ. It was substantiated by a well-known Christian writer who wrote a lengthy column describing the conversion experience of Henry Fonda’s daughter.

At the time, such news was very welcome to this Vietnam Vet. You see, true repentance is evidenced by action on the part of the penitent. I remember telling my wife that if this was a true conversion experience, Jane would be making a heart-felt apology to the Vietnam Vets for her treasonous cavorting with the North Vietnamese in 1972, the same time that I was in South Vietnam. The Bible says when you have offended someone; go, be reconciled with your brother. Sadly, despite her latest tearful remarks in an apparent effort to sell her new book, I’m still waiting.

Let me state clearly that I have no personal ill will toward this woman. As does every American, she has the absolute right to think and believe what she wants. Providing aid and comfort to the enemy during time of war, however, crosses the line. Jane Fonda crossed that line. But to Vietnam Vets, the mere mention of the name, Jane Fonda, a.k.a. Hanoi Jane, brings a most visceral reaction.

In 1995, former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamera, published his mea culpa regarding his botched attempts at running a war. Some of you will remember that initially our entrance into Vietnam was referred to euphemistically as “McNamera’s War.” During an interview regarding McNamera’s book, Senator John McCain had this to say: "I believe that it's important for us to try to put to rest (and behind us) the division and the terrible tragedies associated with the war. And I think that Mr. McNamara's book contributes little. It's 25 years too late, and frankly, we don't need it." To borrow a proper British phrase of affirmation currently in vogue, the senator is “spot on!”

Last year our nation was subjected to innumerable recitations of the heroics of Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kerry, who served with the Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam. His attempts at portraying himself as a war hero were grievous to the extreme for many of us who served there, exacerbated by his anti-war activities in concert with Hanoi Jane upon his return to the United States.

Recently, I was invited to speak at a church men’s retreat. My topic was the role of a Christian man in today’s world. After the meeting that first night, one of the men asked if we could speak in private. He told me he was one of the first Swift Boat operators in Vietnam. He was responsible for training all the new boat operators when they arrived “in country.” We talked for quite a while. Suffice it to say, neither of us will be sending Christmas cards to Fonda, Kerry or McNamera.

I’ve been able to watch the interviews with Jane recently. Referring to the infamous incident where she sat on an enemy anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam, she stated, “That two-minute lapse of sanity will haunt me until the day I die.” Let me add, “What about your radio broadcasts from Hanoi, in which you criticized our president and our troops, earning you the dubious moniker, ‘Hanoi Jane’? And what of the servicemen who died because of your actions?” In a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Walter Inge wrote in response to Fonda’s remarks, “Writing that it was ‘a betrayal’ and ‘a lapse of judgment’ is a confession, not an apology.” Spot on, sir!

This is my point exactly. True repentance looks much different. Consider the late Pope, John Paul II. The world watched in amazement when this man, the most recognized head of the Christian faith, humbly begged Jews to forgive the church for having turned a blind eye to the heinous actions of Hitler and the Nazis. No one else had ever broached the issue of the church’s complicity in what was done to the Jews, as well as others, caught in the death-grip of Nazi Germany. At least not successfully. Pope John Paul II actually wept! And this from a man who, during WWII, was battling the same Nazis who had ravaged, then occupied, his homeland of Poland. Gratefully, the Pope put a face to the church’s failure to accept its share of responsibility for the Holocaust.

In an article entitled, “The Pope who turned Anti-Semitism aside,” written by Jeff Jacoby for the Jewish World Review, dated April 8 (, he briefly outlines the various ways this godly man made every effort imaginable to come alongside the Jews, who the Pope called “our elder brothers.” For instance, the Pope’s best friend growing up in Poland was a Jewish kid, Jerzy Kluger. Jocoby writes, “As a young bishop at the Second Vatican Council (in the mid-60s), he spoke up powerfully in support of Nostra Aetate, the landmark Vatican declaration that renounced the idea of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jews is unbroken.”

In 1979, as newly selected pope, John Paul II traveled to Poland and Auschwitz. In referring to the notorious death camp, he said, “It is not possible for anyone to pass by this (place) with indifference.”

In 1986 he paid the first visit by a pope to the Great Synagogue in Rome, where he stressed the debt that Christians owe to Jews. In 1993, as a head of state, he formally recognized Israel. Then in 2000, he became the first pope to pray at the Western Wall, reverently acknowledging this Jewish religious site. This is a man who understands repentance, which includes making amends for past sins, not making excuses, placing blame elsewhere, or wishing you’d done things differently.

Jeff Jacoby, a Jew, concludes his article this way: “If John XXIII was the “good pope” who set in motion the great shift in the church’s relations with the Jewish people, John Paul II was the “great pope” who made it undeniable and irrevocable. As he is laid to rest, Jews and Christians will weep together.”

For now, we weep together. But tomorrow, together, we will strive to build a better world. And that starts with true repentance.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Singing Nuns

Some of you will remember “The Singing Nun,” back in the 1960s. This past weekend I was treated to a reprise, in a manner of speaking.

This was not Whoopi Goldberg in another remake of the movie “Sister Act,” though that would be fine by me. Nor was it a performance in honor of the passing of the Pope. No, this was something so unique, so unusual (in my humble opinion), as to be a veritable one-of-a-kind event.

As the Commanding Officer of MEFREL 220 (Marine Expeditionary Forces Religious 220), it was my extreme pleasure to witness one of the officers in my unit retire this past Saturday, having faithfully served her required twenty years. This officer, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Donna Moses, is one of those very special people who had received a calling to ministry. About eight years ago she realized her vocation was to become a nun. Today she is a Sister in the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.

Now here’s where things get really interesting. I assumed my role as Commanding Officer (CO) of MEFREL 220. I say commanding officer because that is what the commanding officer of our reserve center, Captain Kristine Carlock, calls all of the COs attached to NMCRC Alameda. Conversely, within the Navy Chaplain Corps, chaplains are never in a “command” position, which is clearly defined within military dictums. It is quite true that chaplains do not wield the military judicial sword, as it were. We are staff officers, serving under the commanding officer, advising in matters of religion, ethics, morals and morale. We may be called the Officer in Charge (OIC), but that’s the extent of it. Got that?

So, anyway, CDR Donna Moses is a line officer. This means she is in position to take command. So how did she wind up serving under a chaplain? Well, once she accepted her call as a Dominican Sister, the Navy decided to allow her to serve with those who provide religious ministry. Donna remained a line officer, but she did her military reserve duty with MEFREL 220, functioning as our administration officer. She would also have served as a military lay leader for Catholics. You still with me?

The military is big on ceremony; and retirement is no exception. On Saturday, the military retirement ceremony for LCDR Moses was slated for 1500 (3:00 PM for you landlubbers). Earlier the Alameda Reserve Center was virtually overrun with nuns. From all around the Bay Area, Dominican Sisters carpooled to the Center, not wanting to miss out on one of their own receiving the time-honored military retirement ceremony. I had walked through the Center earlier in an attempt to inform the various Navy commands that we would be having special guests. The looks on the faces of some of our sailors was priceless. “Chaplain, how many nuns did you say would be here?” “About sixty,” I replied. “Sixty?” “Yup! Six Zero.” “I gotta see this!” was the typical response.

I got to thinking: Is it possible that there has ever been, or will ever be again, a nun coming out of the line officer community, having a retirement ceremony with all the military honors and folderol associated with it? Not to mention a bevy of nuns in attendance? I really don’t think so.

The ceremony began with sideboys in position and the boatswain’s mate piping aboard Donna as the retiree, me as the CO of the unit, and Captain Carlock as the CO of the Alameda Reserve Center. We then stood on the dais with the guest speaker, Captain (ret) Jack O’Neill, a Catholic priest, and Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, the Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters. Sister Rose Marie would have been called “Mother Superior” a few decades ago, but that is now Prioress General. Has a nice military ring to it, doesn’t it?

We all came to attention as the Marine Color Guard presented the colors, followed by the playing of the national anthem. Those of us in uniform held our salute as the tape recorder blared the familiar restrain. Then something happened that will stay with me the rest of my life. Quietly at first, a few of the nuns began to sing the national anthem, “O, say, can you see . . .” Then the rest of the sisters joined in, swelling the tune to its climactic ending, “. . . and the home of the brave!” It was a special moment. I didn’t want it to end!

At the conclusion of the ceremony we had cake and punch while everyone milled about, chatting animatedly with the Sisters. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle was feverishly interviewing both military personnel and nuns, clicking priceless pictures, thus capturing this moment for posterity.

It seemed fitting to end this day, Saturday, April 2, with sixty Dominican Sisters singing in full voice. It was a day when LCDR (ret) Donna Moses was retired from military service. It was also on this day that the People’s Pope, John Paul II, was loosed from his earthly bonds.

Let the nuns, and all the heavenly host, break out in song!