Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Safe Place

Last Thursday, bags packed and loaded in the car, Isaura and I began our short trek to Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco, located at 609 Sutter Street (at Mason). It is a private social club for United States Marines and other veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The nonprofit Marines’ Memorial Association owns the large building in the Union Square neighborhood that houses a hotel, theater, restaurant/bar, sports club, special event facilities, library, museum, memorial, and a military history bookstore. The president and CEO is Major General Mike Myatt, USMC (Retired).

Recognizing the need for Gold Star families to come together, the Blue Star Moms in California took it upon themselves to reach out to these folks who have lost a loved one serving in the military. The toll in blood from Iraq and Afghanistan has brought many would-be strangers together who grieve over a child or spouse who was forcibly, and usually violently, taken from them. These families are no stranger to the depths of sorrow life sometimes brings. Yet, they come together once a year for two days to shut out the rest of the world. In a disarming way they look into each other’s eyes and enter into a very sacred place where each is safe with the other because of their shared pain and loss.
The script for these annual gatherings of Gold Star families is the same. Those of us who are there to assist in the event, such as counselors, coordinators, administrators, and the like, are privileged to briefly share the burden with these families.
The first evening begins with a social time followed by dinner together. This year one of the couples seated at our table was there for the first time. Their son, an Army medic, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. We talked about this middle son of theirs and his love of country, and how much he loved his fellow soldiers. He was initially assigned to a safer location when he arrived in Afghanistan. But he believed he needed to be with the guys who might need him most – the guys taking the fight to the enemy. He laid down his life for his friends. I mentioned to the parents that many of the men their son had patched up in the midst of battle are alive today because he was there.
On Friday morning we begin with a memorial service honoring those who have fallen. This is perhaps the most difficult time for the families because it brings to the forefront, one more time, the reality of their loss. Held in the theater, folks slowly gather, greeted by a dozen or so Marines in their dress blues, there to honor these families. Before the program begins, harpist Laura Simpson plays quietly while folks find their seats. On the stage are tiered rows of votive candles with an embossed name card for each of the 96 fallen service members. A white rose is placed in a vase beside each candle by the family. General Myatt is the emcee for this event. After the presentation of the colors, the national anthem, and the invocation, the solemnity of the occasion changes as the fallen are remembered. In alphabetical order, each name is read aloud by General Myatt, stating their rank and branch of service. The family members who are present stand as their loved one is mentioned. The chaplain then leads the rest of us invoking this sobering phrase, “A grateful nation acknowledges your sacrifice and prays for your peace.”
Opera singer Erich Stratmann has been our featured soloist in this service. His rich baritone voice fills the theater with his rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Following this is the presentation of the Gold Star flag to the newest members of this club that no one would ever want to join. This year, Mrs. Karen Kelly, wife of General John F. Kelly, USMC, presented the flag to each new family. She and her husband are themselves members of this club of Gold Star families, having lost their son, Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly, USMC in Afghanistan, November 9, 2010.
On Friday evening for our closing event, a banquet is held in the formal dining room. The guest speaker this year, as in 2012, was General John F. Kelly, Commander, Southern Command. I can assure you that when this man speaks to these Gold Star families there is a connection, a bond shared that transcends all other communication, because the Kelly’s know from firsthand experience. So when Gold Star dad John Kelly speaks about losing his son, you could hear a pin drop in that vast room filled with a couple hundred people.
To top off the evening, the Party Band of the First Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, comes in and really gets rocking. They have a repertoire of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz that gets the joint jumping.
As we part, we all look forward to next year’s gathering. This is particularly true of the Gold Star families who will once again be able to enter that safe zone with others who have shared in grief and loss.

 Thank you, Blue Star Moms! You’re the best!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Olympic Stories

              Sports and athletic competition have always been a fascination to me. In particular, the Olympics grab my attention. There’s the obvious athletic prowess in the individual events, but my favorite part of the Olympics is the human interest stories.
During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia these past two weeks, I enjoyed the story of the Canadian mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau. He won the gold four years ago skiing the moguls in Vancouver, Canada. He repeated his win last week in the same event by once again winning the gold. When asked who his hero is and what motivates him to continue to try and be the best in his sport, Alexandre makes no bones about it – he credits his older brother, Frederic. It is plain to see that these brothers love each other. Frederic can never be the athlete that his younger brother has become because when he was very young he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The parents were told that he would no longer be able to walk by the age of 12. Today he is 28 and is still walking. In fact he has been in Soshi cheering on his brother in his now successful quest for his second gold medal.

In the 116 year history of the Olympic Games, there are athletes who are heroes of mine. First was Jim Thorpe. Jim was one of the greatest all-around athletes ever to grace a field or stadium. Prior to the Olympics Jim played baseball, basketball, and football. He made the 1912 U.S. Olympic Team and sailed off to Stockholm, Sweden to compete in the games. But he was competing in track and field. He won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. Thorpe was such a versatile athlete that he was declared to be “The Greatest Athlete in the World” by the King of Sweden who handed out the Olympic medals at the end of the games in 1912. Thorpe endured a number of challenges, having been born and raised as an Indian on an Oklahoma reservation. Despite this, he overcame the latent prejudice and hatred that was still in evidence during his lifetime.

Jesse Owens, an amazing athlete, single-handedly destroyed Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany by summarily beating the German athletes in track and field. Owens’ grandparents had been slaves, and his parents were share-croppers. Coming from such humble beginnings, his rise to international athletic celebrity status speaks volumes about his talent and character. During the award ceremony for one of the four gold medals he earned in Berlin, the German athlete who came in second place raised his arm in the Nazi salute during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem, no doubt attempting to besmirch Owens’ achievement and to ridicule the United States. Owens made his own statement by raising his right hand in an American military salute. It has been reported that Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse, but Owens thinks otherwise. "Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."

Al Oerter won the gold medal in the discus throw in four straight Olympics: 1956 – Melbourne, Australia; 1960 – Rome, Italy; 1964 – Tokyo, Japan; and 1968 – Mexico City, Mexico. He was the first Olympian to successfully defend his gold medal three times in a row. Sports injuries, and a near fatal car crash, always seemed to place him in the “underdog” status going into the Olympics. But he always rose to the occasion, despite at times having to endure excruciating pain.

It was the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia when a little sprite of a girl, all four feet, eight inches, named Kerri Strug captivated the world with her guts and determination. Having failed to rotate fully on the vault, she seriously injured her left ankle during the awkward landing. She still had one more jump in the team competition, so she hobbled her way back to the starting line. Kerri then ran full bore down the approach and hit the springboard with both feet, launching herself onto the vault, flipping in mid-air and then sticking her landing. The pain she endured must have been horrific. But this jump helped the American women’s gymnastics team win the gold. She was in terrible pain, so her friend and coach, Bela Karolyi, carried her from the stadium.

Derek Redmond is my final Olympian. This British athlete was competing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain in the 400 meter sprint, a race that was his specialty. About half-way through the race he came up limping, having torn his hamstring. The physical pain was undoubtedly enormous, causing him to collapse on the track. The disappointment he experienced was another kind of pain, particularly because he had been favored to win the gold in this event. Medical assistants were immediately at his side, but he waved them back. He then rose to his feet and began hopping on his good leg, having every intention of completing the race. Tears were streaming down his face as he painfully hopped along. His father stood just inside the barrier from the stands. Seeing his son struggling to finish, dad jumped the barrier, ran to his son’s side and with an arm under his shoulders helped him complete the race. As father and son struggled toward the finish line, the crowd rose to their feet, cheering and shouting in admiration for this young man who would not quit. 

It is people like Thorpe, Owens, Oerter, Strug, and Redmond, and just last week, Bilodeau, who inspire me with their grit and courage both in their athletic pursuits, and in facing the challenges of daily life. I’m not suggesting that these are perfect people. What I am suggesting is that these are people who have simply refused to allow life to beat them. And for one glorious moment, they allowed us all to join in their triumph.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pursuit of Happiness

              My oldest daughter, Laura, called me to suggest that I write an article about the pursuit of happiness. In particular, she wanted me to bring attention to “the pursuit of happiness” as mentioned in the Constitution. It’s true that happiness, or acquiring happiness, is often misunderstood.

As Americans, when it comes to the matter of happiness, we love to refer to the second paragraph and first sentence of the Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What a powerful declaration! I can’t read that without a surge of thankfulness coursing its way through my soul. Only those who have known true freedom can begin to appreciate the hard-fought liberties that were secured for us by our Founding Fathers and the men and women who have stood against tyranny and enslavement to hand succeeding generations this priceless gift.

Those who wrote these words, who crafted their intent so that future generations would understand their meaning, were wise beyond our imagining. Our Founding Fathers knew all too well the dangers inherent in a nation whose government ruled the people with a heavy hand, crushing the spirit and the will of the governed. These men were determined to provide this new nation with an avenue of freedom that should not be interfered with by an overbearing government. Thus, America became the “Home of the Free.”

But what about happiness? Is this a right for all Americans? Or is it that some in our society have missed out on the intent of the Constitution?

Happiness, by definition, means, “good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.” Such expressions pertaining to happiness are nebulous, meaning they have a different implication depending on the individual and their life experience. The God-given Rights of Life and Liberty, on the other hand, are a bit easier to agree on because they are more specific.

Life – you are alive! You are cognizant of your existence. The Founders believed that life was indeed given by God, and every individual had a right to that life.

Liberty – you are to be free to live your life as you choose. The Founders would hope you would live your life in such a way as to honor God. But whichever way a person selects in living their life, you should have the liberty to do so within the bounds of law, morality and decency.

All too often today we see laws being legislated that have more to do with trying to make people happy – which is contrary to the intent of the Founding Fathers. It is because you have the right to Life and Liberty that you can then pursue those paths in life that you believe would make you happy. This also means a person can pursue a path of personal destruction as well. This is sadly typified by those in the entertainment industry. Case in point: Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and tragically this past week, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

There was an excellent article by Jeffrey Kluger on the pursuit of happiness in TIME Magazine last summer. The following is an excerpt: “Pilgrims to the New World were a self-selected group. Not every person suffering under the whip of tyranny or the crush of poverty had the temperamental wherewithal to pick up, pack up and travel to the other side of the globe and start over. Those who did were looking for something--pursuing something--and happiness is as good a way of defining that goal as any. Once that migrant population started raising babies on a new continent, the odds were that the same questing spirit would be bred into or at least taught to the new generations as well.

“And it has been. It took us 100 years to settle the continent and less than 200 to become the world's dominant power. We snatched and grabbed and extracted, yes, but we gave back too. Happy people don't just accumulate fortune; they invent things--the lightbulb, the telegraph, the movie camera, the airplane, the mass-produced automobile, the polio vaccine, the personal computer, social media, the iPhone. And happy people are also generous people, rebuilding other nations (hello, Marshall Plan) and donating to charities; the U.S. still ranks No. 1 among all nations in per capita charitable giving.” Read more: The American Pursuit of Happiness - TIME,9171,2146449,00.html#ixzz2smm6CD52

         Hmmmm. Happy people give back. Happy people are generous people.

         Happiness, then, is not a Right. It is a choice.
         Are you happy?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Super Bowled Over

              So, there I was comfortably ensconced in my stuffed chair awaiting the start of the 48th Super Bowl. Our church services were over and I was looking forward to a bite of lunch and a short Sunday afternoon nap in preparation for the Big Game.

My history with the Super Bowl goes back to my freshman year in college. Even though I lived in the dorms on campus, the drive home was only forty-five minutes, so I made the trip to watch the first of the now 48 Super Bowls with my step father. He was an avid football fan, having played high school ball, and then for the University of Alabama back in 1930. My own time playing football was not nearly so illustrious – mostly due to the fact that we were in Europe for three years during the years I might have learned to play the game. But such was not to be.

Early on I was a Dallas Cowboys fan believing them to be “America’s Team.” In particular, I liked Roger Staubach, especially since he had won the Heisman Trophy while playing at the Naval Academy. And Coach Tom Landry was a class act. The Cowboys managed to play in five Super Bowls during the 70s, winning two. I parted company with the Cowboys in 1989 when they acquired a new owner and a new head coach. At that point, I shifted to the San Francisco 49ers.

Since I was born and raised in New England my default team has always been the Boston Patriots, later changed to the New England Patriots. With the 49ers in the NFC and the Patriots in the AFC they rarely play each other. A couple of weeks ago I envisioned Super Bowl 48 being played between Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers against Tom Brady and the Patriots. And if that scenario did not work out, I figured at least one of those two teams would make it into the Big Game. Alas and Alack, ‘twas not to be.

Okay then! The Broncos and the Seahawks. Number one offense against the number one defense. Should be a great game! Not so fast!

So I’ve had my nap and the game is to start in about a half hour. I wasn’t too particular as to which team I was going to root for. I settled on the Denver Broncos for a couple of reasons. First, Payton Manning. Second, the Broncos’ experience. Third, Broncos’ corps of receivers. Fourth, Cornerback Sherman seriously prejudiced me against the Seahawks after his childish, churlish rant in defeating the 49ers two weeks prior. Anyway, I figured the game was going to be close in the first half with Denver salting it away in the second half. So much for my faulty analysis and lame prognostications.

From the kick-off I could see that the Broncos were not making good decisions. The kick-returner chose to run the ball out from deep in the end zone. This proved unwise, since the first snap to Manning from center was errant and cost them a safety. I was speechless! A dark cloud rolled into the living room and parked itself there for the remainder of the game.

The Seahawks came into the game with an enormous amount of energy and fire. From the first play of the game until the last seconds ticked off the clock, Seattle played a tough, physical, aggressive game and totally smothered the Broncos. But at the halftime it was 22 to 0. My wife, who is no football fan, sat in the living room with me and occasionally made a comment about what was happening in the game. Even with her untrained eye for football she could see that things were not going well for Denver. My periodic gasps, grunts, and groans lent themselves to her accurate perception of a game going bad for the boys in orange.

As the first half ended I tried to put a good face on this train wreck. Payton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to ever have played in the NFL. If anyone could mount a charge and bring their team back from the brink of Super Bowl oblivion, Payton could. As I have often said to my wife, “You never count the score at halftime.”

Whatever hopes the Broncos had were dashed, and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over in the first play to start the second half. The Seattle kick returner caught the ball and ran it all the way to the end zone for a touchdown, sealing the fate of the Denver Broncos. At that point the game could not end soon enough for the boys from Colorado. Sure they managed to finally score a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, but it was cosmetic at best.

Ever the consummate gentleman, Payton Manning handled himself well in defeat. But I was particularly impressed with the young, second-year quarterback for Seattle, Russell Wilson. He demonstrated a grasp of the game for someone so inexperienced. His demeanor was very much like Joe Montana when he was “Joe Cool” with the 49ers. And Wilson was quick to express his thanks to God for the opportunity to play football in the NFL and to be in the Super Bowl. I like this guy!

The Denver Broncos simply found themselves bowled over by a much better team in the Seattle Seahawks.

As I lick my wounds over the losses of the 49ers and the Patriots, I take solace in the fact that training camp is six months away. I can envision Super Bowl 49 pitting the Patriots against the 49ers. Now that would be some game!