Marines.Together We Served

Monday, December 25, 2006

My "I Love Me" Wall

As this year comes to an end, I thought I would share with you some of those personal items that are important to me. They wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to someone else, but it’s the story behind each one that brings back a flood of memories.

Last week a friend stopped by the church office to visit me unannounced. Wes is a retired Marine colonel. We had served together a number of years ago down at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California. We haven’t been in touch since his retirement several years ago. Last October, while I was assisting my wife’s company with their annual golf tournament (not exactly a hardship!), I received a call on my cell phone. It was Wes. He informed me that he was in Ripon. In fact, he was visiting a friend at City Hall where he saw my picture on the Military Wall. After stating that he knew me, he asked if anyone had my phone number. Thus we renewed contact.

So last week Wes was traveling back to Ripon on business. Sitting in my office he commented on my “I Love Me” Wall. For the uninitiated, an “I Love Me” Wall is an unofficial military term. This wall consists of various items of importance that a military person has acquired during their time of service. Typically, for instance, when you complete a tour of duty with one command, you receive a plaque with the command logo, your name, and the dates served with that command, and any other bits of info that identify you. Pictures, promotion documents, coins, and a host of other items now festoon the wall of many service members today. The focus is on the individual. It tells of where they have been and what they have done. Thus, it is referred to as the “I Love Me” Wall.

Allow me to share with you some of the items on my wall.

There are four pictures that stand out for me. The first picture is of my brother, John, and me in 1970 at Camp Pendleton. He is in his Marine green flight suit, and I am in my Marine sateens (solid green dungaree material). The second photo shows me shaking hands with President Ronald Reagan in the Radisson Miyako Hotel during the 1986 Economic Summit in Tokyo, Japan. The third photo is of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. No, I was not there in 1945! But, for any Marine to have such a picture is practically iconic. What sets this picture apart is that I met the man who took this photo – a photo that is considered to be the most recognized photo in the world. Joe Rosenthal was a civilian reporter with the Marines when they stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima February 19, 1945. Joe passed away a few months back. In 1999 it was my pleasure to meet Joe at the Marine Corps Combat Correspondence Association, Joe Rosenthal Chapter’s monthly luncheon held in Alameda. Knowing that he would only sign pictures that were printed from the original negative – and he owned the negative – makes this picture that much more special. The fourth picture is when Brigadier General Mastin Robeson presented me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal in Djibouti, Africa in 2003.

Other items: 1) a 3 foot Christian cross that was made for me with rebar (unfinished steel bars) by a Navy Seabee in Kuwait, 2003, 2) a Vietnam era helmet like the one I wore there, 3) various military coins I have received over the years. The first one was given to me by the commanding officer of squadron HMM-364, the “Purple Foxes,” Camp Pendleton, 4) an honorary Religious Program Specialist plaque from the RPs at Naval Station Rota, Spain, 1992, 5) four small jars that contain the following: sand from Omaha Beach; sand from Utah Beach; sand from the beach at Iwo Jima; and a portion of a stick from a tree at Belleau Wood, France. For an explanation of the first two, ask a soldier. For an explanation of the last two, ask a Marine, 6) my step father’s honorable discharge from the Marine Corps at the end of World War II, and 7) a picture of my wife and me at the 208th Marine Corps Ball. This was my last Ball as Marine Staff Sergeant wearing my dress blues, 1983. The next month I was commissioned as a chaplain in the Navy.

There are many more things I could share with you that embody moments or experiences that help make up the whole of life. Makes me wonder what this New Year has in store that may become part of my “I Love Me” Wall.

Whatever lies ahead in 2007, being in the service of the Lord is reward enough. The best part is simply knowing that my picture is on Jesus’ “I Love Me” Wall.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 18, 2006

War Leads to Peace

No, this is not a continuation article of my World War III series. I concluded that last week. You can read all past articles on my web site: Instead, I am writing about Christmas.

What does war and peace have to do with Christmas? Good question! Stay with me and let’s see if we can put this conundrum together.

On the Christian Calendar there is what is called Advent Season. This refers to the time when God visited the earth in the person of his son, Jesus. Specifically, it means the coming of Christ. The four Sundays leading to Christmas typically address four characteristics associated with God: Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace.

This past Sunday I was preaching on Peace. It is amazing how many times the term “peace” is used throughout the Bible. With few exceptions, the term normally is in reference to us and our relationship to God.

So let me ask you, “What is your relationship to God?”

Assuming the existence of God (something the Bible does in the very first verse), we quickly see that mankind was created to have a personal, intimate relationship with this Creator God. Why does the Bible assume the existence of God? Because since God made us, we naturally respond to him. To do otherwise is to go against the very reason for your existence.

Since a relationship such as we are invited to have with God is close and personal, we can only enjoy the relationship as long as it is entirely voluntary! If God were to force us into this relationship even a little bit, we would rebel and withdraw. Love cannot be forced. It must be voluntary. This allows both parties to relax and love each other.

Before I lose the men here, let me explain that the love that the Bible refers to is not the mushy, gooey love so often associated with romantic love. That’s all well and good and has its place in any relationship, but love for God is 1) based upon respect for who God is, 2) acknowledging his attributes, usually the big three: All Powerful, All Knowing, and Ever Present, and 3) Accepting that he loves us despite our fallen, debased, craven, sinful nature. This third part is a mystery, to be sure!

There’s the rub! Even though we know we have sinned against God, he declares his love for us anyway. Go figure! Part of the mystery is why? Why would he love me when I couldn’t have cared less about him at one period in my life?

Allow me to try and answer that. God loves you because you are just like him. He made you that way. You can’t change it. Just as any parent sees themselves in their child, God sees himself in us. The problem is, sin has marred and distorted that image of God. In our sinful condition, we are at war with God, we push him away because we know we’re not worthy of his love.

Well, since I can’t change my sin nature, and if it’s going to be changed at all, God is the only one who can do it. He makes this happen by coming into the world as one of us. That’s Jesus! He came as a baby and lived as we live. As an adult he walked among us, showing us in person the love of the Father. This was no more evident than when Jesus went to the cross. It was there that the war between us and God was fought and won. Jesus, the son of God, paid the price for our sin. This opened up the way for us to have a new relationship with God.

As a man, Jesus did not come to threaten us with damnation. He did not come to dazzle us with his superior knowledge. He did not come to cause us to be awe-struck by his miraculous deeds. He did not come to chasten us for our sinful behavior. He came to demonstrate the most powerful force in the universe. Nothing can defeat this force. Nothing can shake it. Nothing can compare to it. That force is love – God’s love.

Because of God’s love, Jesus, the son of God, came to offer us peace with God. That peace is available when we accept, by faith, the work of God’s love and forgiveness. It’s all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the message the angels gave to the shepherds the night Christ was born: “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

We no longer need to be at war with God. He offers us his peace.

And once you are at peace with God, you can be at peace with others.

And that’s why we say, Merry Christmas!

[Allow me to suggest a last-minute Christmas gift idea. There are two books that are absolutely “must read” material and they are in sequel format. The first is, “Dinner with a Perfect Stranger,” and the second is, “A Day with a Perfect Stranger.” The author is David Gregory. They run about $13.00/ea at you local Christian Bookstore, or Christine’s Little Bookstore in Ripon]

Monday, December 11, 2006

World War III? (Part IV)

Since the late 1960s Vietnam has become synonymous with failure. To be more precise – it means failure in foreign policy when it comes to American military intervention.

Here’s the nation that grudgingly entered two world wars within twenty-five years taking on the world’s most powerful military forces at the time. It goes without saying that had we not stepped into the fray Americans would have been speaking German or Japanese. So how is it that since the end of WWII we have yet to win any war or conflict?

Let’s go back and look at what happened since 1945. The United States barely had the opportunity to catch its collective breath when we were confronted with the rapid spread of Communism. The newly formed United Nations, in an attempt to prove itself superior to its predecessor, the League of Nations, called on the United States to engage Communist forces in Korea. The U.S. now found itself in the unenviable position of being an attack dog in hot spots around the world. Remember: previous to this we were extremely reluctant to get involved anywhere around the globe. We retaliated only if we had been pushed too far. Now there is a world organization in the U.N. asking us to do their bidding. If there is a familiar ring to this, you’re quite correct. For the past sixty years we have either been tabbed by the U.N. to intervene in such places as Korea, Kuwait, and Iraq, along with a list of lesser known places; or we’ve been vilified by this same organization for taking independent action apart from their approval. Just today outgoing Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan, used his farewell speech to rail against our country, and President Bush in particular.

All of a sudden the United States, the nation that virtually liberated the world from tyrannical dictators in the first half of the last century, is today denigrated as the bad guy. Since then we have been engaged in quite a few military conflicts and wars. Each has been fumbled because we have lost sight of the goal. Consider the following: 1) 1950s Korean War – we fought to a draw, 2) 1963 Bay of Pigs in Cuba – the U.S. was a no-show, 3) 1960-70s Vietnam War – we abandoned the field, 4) 1980 Tehran, Iran U.S. Embassy Hostage Rescue – it was called off at the last minute, 5) 1983 Beirut, Lebanon Barracks Bombing – we pulled out, 6) 1991 Gulf War – we promised to support anti-Saddam forces but went home instead, 7) 1993 Twin Towers Bombing in New York City, and the “Blackhawk Down Debacle” in Somalia – nothing was done, 8) 1996 Bombing of the Kobart Towers military quarters in Saudi Arabia – we again did nothing, 9) 1998 Bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya – we did nothing, 10) 1999 the Bombing of the USS Cole – we did nothing. And now Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Will we stay and finish the job?

So what does this mean to us? When it comes to fighting it means we have lost our will as a people. Politicians, who are elected to serve the American people, stumble when taking a stand against any aggressor. We allow ourselves to be bullied by petty dictators. We stand by when our motives are questioned. We apologize for being bigger and more powerful than any other nation. We turn on ourselves when it seems the rest of the world doesn’t like us. All the while our military, the best, most powerful force in the world, stands ready to act on the orders of their civilian leaders.

Consider this: The last war we fought that interrupted the lives of the average American was World War II. Since then all wars and conflicts have been news items on the 6 O’clock News hour. Unless, of course, you had a family member or close friend serving in the military at the time. But it still didn’t affect your daily life.

The places where we have been fighting for the last sixty years may not make much difference on the grand scale of world affairs. But the enemy we face today, Islamic radicals, have made their intentions quite clear. One way or the other, they want us dead. If we should wind up pulling out of Iraq, you may be certain that these enemies will follow us right back to our own shores. Remember these two things: 1) The 9-11 hijackers had been living in the U.S. for several years, waiting, and 2) The Islamic radicals are counting on us to lose our nerve.

The question is whether we want the promise of security more than we want our freedom. If it’s security we want, we will be intimidated into submission in hopes that the enemy will not harm us. If it is freedom we want, we will stand firm against this enemy and fight.

In closing, consider these quotes from two previous presidents. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility - I welcome it.” He later said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

President Ronald Reagan stated this as his beliefs concerning freedom, “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have.” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.”

We can, and we must turn away from hand-wringing when dealing with the world’s troubles. When our freedoms are imperiled, we are safer when we act with courage and boldness. This once was our nation’s trademark. It can be again.

Monday, December 04, 2006

World War III? (Part III)

Yes, this is the third part to a series I’ve been considering for some weeks. No, I do not intend to continue this series ad nauseam. However, I do believe it is critical for us to have a basic understanding of how we arrived at this point in our nation’s history.

Last week we finished with President Nixon attempting to withdraw American troops from Vietnam honorably. This may have actually worked had the president not been embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Our combat forces left Nam in January of 1973. We maintained a presence there in hopes that the South Vietnamese might miraculously put a stop to the aggression of the North Vietnamese who now saw the South as being ripe for the taking. In 1975 we saw the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy. In the months that followed countless Vietnamese loyal to the South and who had supported our American forces were rounded up and sent to repatriation camps, a euphemism for concentration camps if ever there was one! We will never know the number of people who vanished, or died at the hands of their countrymen from the North in these camps. During this time there was a rash of communist brutality sweeping across Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The Khmer Rouge, a vicious communist government in Cambodia under their leader Pol Pot, is responsible for killing anywhere from one and a half million to three million people during their reign of terror. The area outside of the capital, Phnom Penh, became known as the “Killing Fields.” One of their mottos was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

During this same time in the 1970s, millions of Vietnamese were attempting to leave their country in hopes of having some sort of future anywhere else but Vietnam. One Navy chaplain I know was a young priest in Vietnam when Saigon fell to the communists. His brother-in-law offered to help him escape. He was closed up in a wooden crate, placed on a cargo ship bound for the Philippines, and eventually was released from his wooden prison before starving to death. He was one of the first of what became known as the “Boat People.” Once again, the number of people who were lost attempting to escape is unknown. (This was not our first experience with boat people. Before the United States entered World War Two, boatloads of Jews from Germany came to America’s shores only to be turned away. Instead of the new start they had hoped for, they had no choice but to return to Germany where most of them would eventually be taken to the Nazi death camps.) In any event, thousands of Southeast Asian boat people wound up coming to America. Many of them settled in the Central Valley of California. I was pastor of my first church in the early 1980s and witnessed a huge increase in the number of people who settled in Fresno. My superintendent asked me if I would work with these folks. I was honored to do so. Having served in Vietnam as a Marine I felt we owed these folks a debt. After our inglorious exit from Vietnam I was somewhat mystified that they were still willing to come to the United States.

Also in the 1970s there was a “cleansing” of sorts taking place in Communist China, with a focus on anyone who is educated or is a professional (doctor, lawyer, minister, etc) within society. Even if you wore glasses you were regarded as being educated. Their logic went something like this: “Why do you need glasses unless you are reading?” This is, and continues to be, a threat to non-democratic nations. Communists typically deal with non-communist countrymen by killing them. At the very least they are imprisoned for the remainder of their lives, or forced to work in labor camps which is equal to a slow death.

The bottom line is: America should have finished what she started. We had the means, but we lost the will. We’ve heard about the atrocities perpetrated on helpless people groups throughout Indochina after we left. Sadly, this is a dark chapter in our history. People who were counting on us to stand by them during the difficult times were left to face ruthless tyranny. Countless lives were lost in the process, not the least of which was the more than fifty-eight thousand U.S. troops killed during our ten years in Vietnam.

It is my belief that our nation has yet to get past our failures in Vietnam. This is the specter that is raised every time we even think about engaging in warfare. The mantra is quickly and frequently intoned, “We don’t want another Vietnam!”

So with Iraq, are we in another Vietnam? Yes & no. But that will have to wait for next week.