Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

It's Just Stuff

If I heard this once, I heard it a dozen times during my time in New Orleans last week.

I was visiting the Marines who are part of the 4th MAW (Marine Aircraft Wing) currently headquartered in Marietta, Georgia. These reservists are spread out between Marietta and New Orleans, all trying to assist those who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

At the start of the week, everyone was acutely aware of the growing threat on the horizon imposed by Hurricane Rita. Everyone was paying attention to the weather developments in the Gulf of Mexico wondering if Rita was going to run right up behind Katrina. Hurricanes were no longer just a threat to Florida and the Keys, or the Caribbean Islands.

I flew to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans on Monday to check on our 4th MAW Marines and found in them what I expected. They were helping assist those who were in more dire need than themselves. I also made contact with a number of chaplains not only with the Navy, but the Army, Air Force, the National and Air National Guard, all coordinating efforts to help those less fortunate. On Wednesday I was asked to spend the day at the largest FEMA Disaster Relief Center. They specifically wanted a military chaplain in uniform (camouflage utilities is what I was wearing) to be present. It seems that some of the people they were trying to process for assistance were so emotionally overwrought that they would break down in tears.

The FEMA folks were located in a Bingo Hall in the town of Boutte, Saint Charles Parrish, about fifteen miles from New Orleans. When I arrived I saw a long line of people standing patiently under a canopied walkway, waiting to be allowed inside where they would be seen by one of a number of agencies. FEMA, Red Cross, the phone company, something called Blue Tarp, and the Small Businessmen’s Association were all on hand and had been since the storm hit. I hadn’t heard that through the news media.

So, sizing up the situation, I began to look after the workers first, since many of them had lost everything as well. Here they were helping others. One young lady worked tirelessly, always with a big smile. I learned she was what we call a “military brat.” That is to say, her dad (or mom) was active duty military while she was growing up. Though her apartment survived the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, looters got in before she was able to retrieve her stuff. They wiped her out. To watch her, knowing what I now knew, was inspirational.

Another man, perhaps late 60s, came in, saw me and said, “You’re a chaplain?” I assured him that I was. He then made this most unusual pronouncement: “Hurricane Katrina is the best thing that ever happened to me!” I said, “Really!” waiting for an explanation that I knew he was going to provide. He said, “You see, my wife and I had to leave New Orleans because of Katrina. Our home is now gone. We hadn’t been to church in thirty years. Never had time for God. I was always too busy. As a result, we went back to church, rededicated our lives to Jesus Christ, and were baptized. Now I’m at peace even though all our stuff is gone. Praise the Lord!” Then he hugged me. The peace on his face was evidence enough of a changed heart.

I started thinking about Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

So many people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and now Texas, have had all their earthly possessions destroyed, or stolen, that they’ve learned life is far more precious than the stuff we acquire. It’s all about relationships – specifically, family. And above all, God.

I have often shared with people this truth: You never see a u-haul truck following behind a hearse. It’s just stuff, and you won’t be taking it with you.

Where are you storing your treasure?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Georgia on My Mind

I took the red-eye Tuesday night. I can sleep anywhere, anytime. But I’ve got to tell you, this trip took the starch out of me!

The reason I was taking this trip was to have the opportunity to introduce myself to my new command: the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. Their headquarters is in New Orleans. However, due to Hurricane Katrina they have temporarily relocated at the Atlanta Naval Air Station in Marietta, Georgia. Thus, my sojourn to the Deep South.

This is also an opportunity for me to provide ministry to the Marines who have been displaced while helping rescue others. They are fully engaged in recovery throughout the Gulf region, but particularly New Orleans.

I boarded the Delta Airlines flight in Sacramento fully prepared to sleep all the way to Atlanta. There was a loud group of folks returning from some raucous affair, but that didn’t even faze me. I was asleep before the plane lifted off. I woke about two hours into the flight, munched on some airline snacks, drank a cup of Coke (This IS an Atlanta-based airline!), and went back to sleep.

We arrived ahead of schedule, so by the time I picked up my luggage and obtained my rental car, it was seven-thirty in the morning. I drove north toward Marietta going right through the heart of downtown Atlanta just ahead of the morning commute traffic. I was hungry so pulled in to a Waffle House. It was about now that I was feeling as though a truck had run me over. My brain was in the buzz mode. I slumped into a booth. The waitress came over and said, “Can I get you some coffee, sweetie?” Coffee? You bet! Bring it on. So after a ham & cheese omelet with a side order of grits and butter, plus a waffle, all washed down with copious amounts of hot coffee, I felt like I might make it till noon.

You’ve got to love the Southern way of talking. A few years ago I was on a military trip to Memphis. I stopped to wander around a Cracker Barrel store (If you’ve never been in one of these, you haven’t lived!) looking to pick up some small gift for the family. I saw a pink T-shirt with silver sequins spelling out the letters GRITS across the front. There was a matching hat to go with it. Below the letters was written the meaning of this acronym: Girls Raised in the South. This I absolutely had to get for my Texas born-and-raised mother.

I’ll never forget my Grandmother Roots. She spent her whole life in East Texas. During her visits when I was a little boy, she’d sit on the couch, glance in my direction, and with a big smile, say, “Chahles Rahbuht, cum’ohn ovuh an’ sidohn Grandmamma’s kneh.” Translation: Charles Robert, come on over and sit on Grandmother’s knee.” Of course I would do as she asked, whereupon she would plant one of her big, wet kisses on my face. You gotta love it!

Today, I had lunch with my friend, Joe Harden. He lives in Marietta very near the base. We go back to 1969 when we were both Marine recruits in San Diego. He figured, correctly, that I would want to have Southern cooking. We ate fried chicken and hush puppies, fried okra, creamed corn, all the while reminiscing about our early days in the Marines.

On Monday I will be visiting our 4th MAW Marines in New Orleans who are involved in the on-going recovery efforts.

Even though these Marines have been relocated with their families, many losing all their earthly goods, their attitude is nothing less than an inspiration to me. I spoke with one sergeant and his wife who were on base picking up some items for their family of four. This man is originally from Columbia. After coming to the United States, he joined the Marine Corps, married his Puerto Rican-born wife, and began a life together. They saved their money to buy their first home. Last year they found a house in Slidell, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans. In July they bought a brand new living room set. They haven’t even made their first payment yet. It’s all gone now. He’s waiting to go back to see if there is anything salvageable. But their attitude is great! They and their two young sons are healthy and safe. The boys are registered in school and they’re now in a new apartment in Marietta. No hint of discontent. No complaining. They’re just moving on with life.

The American spirit is indomitable. It’s truly refreshing.

I’ll share more next week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Real Americans

Amidst all the politicizing, camera-hogging, pontificating, blame-casting, excuse-making, and Bush-bashing, real Americans step up to the plate and answer the call when their fellow citizens are in trouble.

Once again we have been subjected to some of the most awful accusations and diatribes imaginable spewed out of the mouths of politicians, movie actors, rappers and other brainless Neanderthals. For these folks, the whole world is a stage, upon which they reveal themselves to be a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Where’s the love?

Let me tell you where the real love is – it’s something that resides deep in the heart and soul of Americans like embers that only need to be stirred for the fire to leap back to flame. Last Sunday, a young lady in our congregation whose name is Amber asked me if she could make an announcement to the congregation. She told us she was planning to leave for Houston, Texas on Thursday to assist with the relief effort. Could we help her with some things she could take down?

We received any number of coloring books, games, playing cards, children’s books, and a host of other items over the next several days for Amanda to carry down. Only problem is she’d need an old-fashioned shipping trunk to carry all the stuff. She had informed us that she was only taking one suitcase. Ha!

Ellen, who is in charge of our social activities and is one excellent cook, told me she’d love to go down and help organize feeding these displaced people. She and her husband raised their own children plus a number of adopted children. I’ve forgotten just how many. She laments that she cannot go and help due to health conditions.

I ran into Sharon at the gas station yesterday. She doesn’t attend our church, but asked if we were taking an offering to help in the relief effort. I assured her we were, and in fact, had taken a collection the previous Sunday, September 7. She said she figured as much and wanted to make a contribution.

My friend and fellow-Marine, Dave, asked if he could use his skills as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). I looked at him and sadly shook my head no. You see, Dave is a Vietnam Vet, who, due to wounds and injuries, must move around now with a walker. This is a man with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and the Navy Cross. He’s in his early fifties. And he’s someone you would want in a time of crisis. His broken body simply won’t allow him to be involved in this rescue effort.

I could tell you of others but you get the idea. You could probably add to this list yourself. In fact, you’d probably want to go yourself if you could.

The truth of the matter is that so many Americans have stepped up that the organizers of the rescue efforts are having to now turn people away. Not to worry, though. It is predicted that the recovery period will go on for months. More people will be needed as others are required to return home to their jobs and families.

I was spending the day on Friday at the Navy/Marine Corps Reserve Center in Alameda where my command is located. I was visiting the Commanding Officer, Commander Lisa Avila, and the Executive Officer, LCDR Brian Week. I asked what was being done by our reservists regarding Hurricane Katrina. They told me the phones have been ringing off the hook from reservists wanting to know how they could be used in the relief effort. Could they get orders to the Gulf?

These are my kind of Americans! No hand-wringing. No finger-pointing. No excuse-making. Just normal folks who know how to get things done. And if they can’t go themselves, they’ll at least make a monetary contribution. Or they’ll ship supplies to the affected area. And they’ll pray.

I can’t help but think of what Jesus said in John 15:12-13. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Real Americans know this truth. They love their neighbor, regardless of race, creed or national origin. This has been my experience everywhere I travel in this great land of ours.

Do the nay-sayers bother me? Not really. After my initial desire to reach through the TV screen and grab some mealy-mouthed no-account by the throat, I remember that they do not represent Americans, real Americans I have been privileged to know.

America is great because her people are great.

God bless America!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Devastation in Dixie

Like many of you, I sat watching my television screen as multiple pictures of total devastation were flashed before my eyes. A sense of helplessness began to overwhelm me. Can’t we do something? Is anybody doing anything?

For most of us the effects of Hurricane Katrina will be the images in living color on the pages of magazines such as Life, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, etc. Some photo-journalist will no doubt receive an award for the picture that “says it all,” capturing for the rest of us the essence of the whole experience.

We will continue to hear the refrain that not enough is being done. Many have, and will continue to take political advantage of this crisis. Shame on them. The American people will ignore them. Instead, Americans will figure out ways to be helpful. The amount of money that will be given by the average citizen in this country may never be known. But I can assure you of this – it will be a staggering amount. And this will be above and beyond the amount of taxpayer money the federal and state governments will throw at this relief effort.

As typically occurs in such instances, the media focuses on the really bad stuff. Besides the catastrophic destruction of New Orleans, and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, we are subjected to the wanton disregard for personal property, hearing that the police are powerless, or incapable of preventing wholesale looting and vandalism (as if the hurricanes destructive forces were not enough!). Rapes occurring in locations re-designated as places of refuge from the storm. Food and water availability is slow in coming. Hospitals are without power, and the generators are not designed to operate continuously. Bodies are floating in the streets. Gun-toting residents are roaming certain neighborhoods. Diseases, such as typhoid, may become epidemic.

Then there’s the cry for the National Guard. Where are they? We have tens of thousands of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can’t protect the streets of New Orleans. We can drop food packages all over Afghanistan, but what about our fellow Americans in Dixie who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Or even if they will have a next meal?

The nay-sayers will be in full voice for months to come after this is finally stabilized. Are there things we could have done differently? Done better? Of course. That is always the case. But let’s remember – our nation has never had to deal with such a monumental act of natural devastation as we have just experienced with Hurricane Katrina. Should we have been better prepared? Yes. And there will be much beating of the breast over what could have been done, should have been done and would have been done, if only . . .

The National Red Cross, and a host of private agencies, will work round the clock in seemingly tireless efforts to aid their fellow citizens. They will need much more financial support from us to carry out their mission. And they will get it. That’s how we are as Americans. We help each other.

Cities and towns that have been a part of the American lexicon may soon be part of our history. Biloxi, Mississippi, is one example. This city was devastated by Hurricane Camille in 1969. Will they be able to come together and rebuild yet again? And what about New Orleans? What will be left of this historic city? Already there are those in government suggesting that to rebuild a city that is below sea level is not wise. With levees built to keep back the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchetrain, aren’t they just asking for trouble?

Then there will be those who will cast a downward glance at the apparent decadent lifestyle evidenced in New Orleans and say something like, “Serves them right,” or “God has brought his judgment on their sinful living.”

Before any of you go too far in thinking this way, I’d like to remind you that I have been to New Orleans numerous times in my responsibilities as a Navy Chaplain. Our headquarters for the Marine Forces Reserve, and Naval Reserve Forces are, or I should say, were located there. I have walked those streets. I have witnessed the debauched life lived by some, but most are God-fearing, family folks who happen to live in New Orleans.

I also remember it was the testimony of an evangelist from New Orleans that God used to bring me to faith in Christ. That was thirty-three years ago tomorrow.

Jesus was able to take my sin-sick soul and reclaim it for himself through the witness of one of his ministers from New Orleans. I’m confident he will be at work bringing about his desired purposes in the midst of this devastation. It won’t make the evening news, but it will change lives for eternity.

Please pray with me for our southern neighbors.