The Commandant, in his message, reminds us that: Only a few Americans choose the dangerous, but necessary, work of fighting our Nation’s enemies. When our chapter of history is written, it will be a saga of a selfless generation of Marines who were willing to stand up and fight for our Nation; to defend those who could not defend themselves; to thrive on the hardship and sacrifice expected of an elite warrior class; to march to the sound of the guns; and to ably shoulder the legacy of those Marines who have gone before.
On our 233rd birthday, first remember those who have served and those ‘angels’ who have fallen – our reputation was built on their sacrifices.
Earlier this year, our Commandant gave us a recent example of how that legacy is observed, followed and embellished today. Let me take you for a moment to Anbar Province in Iraq where two Marine Corps units were in the midst of “turn over” activities in which members of the outgoing and incoming units spend about a week together so that the “local knowledge” gained by the outgoing unit can be imparted to the incoming Marines.
As it happened, about 50 Marines were gathered in a small building. Outside the buiding, Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 19, of Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Cpl. Jonathan Yale, 21, of Burkeville, Va., were standing guard on April 22 when a truck filled with 2,000 pounds of explosives barreled toward the outpost’s main gate. Suspecting an impending Beirut barracks-like bombing event and seizing the initiative they directed well-aimed rifle fire into the cab of the truck.
While this was happening, the nearby Iraqi soldiers ran for cover. The truck did not slow appreciably, so well-aimed machine gun fire was directed into the cab of the truck. The driver was apparently wired with a dead-man switch, and when he died, it ignited approximately 2000 pounds of high explosive material which exploded about 10 yards from where the two Marines had stood guard and blew a crater five feet deep and twenty feet across in the road. The two Marines – still firing their weapons — were killed instantly.
After the event, the Iraqi commander returned and questioned the Marine leader, asking why his men had not run to save themselves as his men had done, and indicating the Marines were crazy for standing their ground.
The Marine leader’s response was simple and principle-centered: The Marines knew if they did not do their job and hold their ground that 35-40 of their fellow Marines would die. They made the ultimate sacrifice for their teammates. In the past weeks we have lost several Marines–three of whom I consider good friends and the fourth, whom I have met several times, is in a class all by himself. All of these Marines were superb people and wonderful role models in all aspects of their lives.
They are: Major Lonnie Poling. . .F4 RIO, leader, motivator, expert in his field, and revered by those with whom he served;
Colonel Keith Sefton, a wonderful human being, fine Marine, and JAG officer who always looked for a way to help his commander to “get it done” and stay out of jail rather than telling him what he could not do;
John Ripley a genuine American hero whose exploits at the bridge at Dong Ha are chronicled in a book by John Miller, and . . .
General Bob Barrow, our 27th Commandant, a distinguished leader in combat during three wars. He is also the architect of our current personnel policy-the one that ensures we attract quality young Americans and transform them into high quality Marines who, when their active service is complete, eventually return to our communities as responsible citizens.
As General Carl Mundy notes, from his earliest days in the Corps, he gained the firm, and oft articulated belief that it is people who make the difference. Tanks, ships, airplanes and rifles are all important tools; but without the right people, they’re useless. Even numbers didn’t count with him. A favorite saying was, “In battle, it’s not how many show up . . . it’s who they are.”
John Ripley was one of those with General Barrow’s “right stuff”. He exemplified the unique culture of the Marine Corps in every assignment that he took on. Maj. W. Thomas Smith, USMC (Ret.), vividly described what happened when young Ripley and his small band of about 20 ARVN were ordered to “hold and die” in the face of 200 tanks approaching the Ben Hai river during the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive in April 1972. Wrote Smith:
“Dying would be easy. But the only way to hold was to blow the bridge spanning the Dong Ha River”. And, as Ripley said, he was “the Marine there to do it.”
Then a 33-year-old captain, Ripley accomplished his task [over the course of a couple of hours] by dangling from the bridge’s I-beams, climbing along the length of the bridge hand-over-hand, his body weighted down with explosives [as he made repeated trips to emplace about 500 pounds of it], the enemy shooting at him, desperately trying to kill the lone Marine hanging beneath the bridge.
In a June 2008 interview for Marine Corps Times, Ripley said, “I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam. . . . I would work myself into the steel. I used my teeth to crimp the detonator and thus pinch it into place on the fuse. I crimped it with my teeth while the detonator was halfway down my throat.”
Ripley set the charges and moved back to the friendly side of the river, all the while under heavy fire. When the timed-fuses detonated, Ripley – running for his life on the road leading away from the bridge – was literally blown through the air by the massive shockwave he had engineered. The next thing he remembered, he was lying on his back as huge pieces of the bridge were hurtling and cartwheeling across the sky above him. He had accomplished his mission. . .and had lived to tell about it.
These Marines, like the rest of us are part of an organization that retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Victor “Brute” Krulak treated in his book First to Fight. In that book, he remarks that America doesn’t have a Marine Corps because it needs one, but because it wants one. One might wonder why.
I believe America wants a Marine Corps because we embody the fundamental values all Americans hold dear. . . the kinds of things that help us make the right decisions and hopefully avoid some mistakes. I call them, First Principles. And I have found them in the writings of our forefathers who conceived, argued over and penned our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
There’s a reason we take an oath each time we are promoted. It is to remind us that we do not swear to support and defend the Commander in Chief, or the Congress, or any operational commander, or any person at all. Instead, we swear to support and defend the fundamental law of the land, our Constitution.
Taking the oath of office causes us to reflect on the values, ideals and principles upon which this great Nation was founded. Those in turn should guide us in our daily living and decision making. There is remarkable wisdom in those documents if we would but read and review them. I charge you to do that from time to time. Doing so helps keep us grounded and on the right path.
As stated in its Preamble, our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution “. . .in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .”
Years before that, in the Declaration of Independence, they indicated the kinds of values and beliefs that drove them to declare themselves and the Colonies to be free and independent states. Everyone recalls the first line of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: 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. We have morphed the definition of Happiness as it was understood by our forefathers. . .And it seems that we want to focus on the individual rights. . .often to the exclusion of the responsibilities that go with them.
Few today seem to recall the last paragraph of that same Declaration. It follows the list of grievances held against the British Crown and it includes some very powerful concepts.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.“
the reference to a higher power–a moral authority beyond mankind’s laws–that provides us a spiritual reference which both undergirds our religious beliefs and guides us in our temporal existence, guides us in determining right from wrong, and provides a frame of reference for our relationships with others. Our character stems from our relationship with our Higher Power, our God as we understand Him;
the concept of honor, a portion of our character, which demands we do the proper thing when no one is looking, and that we give 110% when the going gets tough; and
the notion of self-sacrifice for the common good.
T R Fehrenbach has written a book entitled Greatness to Spare. It details the history of our Founding Fathers and particularly their experiences during the formative stages of our fledgling Nation. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were hounded mercilessly by their opponents-both foreign and domestic.
Many lost their homes, some were imprisoned, some saw family members imprisoned and killed, most lost fortunes, livelihood and property. All were offered restitution if only they would but recant their allegiance to the United States of America and turn their allegiance to the Crown. None did.
They persevered. Their faith in a Higher Power, their trust in their fellow patriots, their sense of honor, their sense of duty their sense of responsibility and their dedication to the principles for which they stood guided them and sustained them in the worst of times. Their example is timeless, and it engendered and sustains our core values of Courage, Honor and Commitment.
I believe it is reflected in the lives of exemplary Marines like John Ripley, Robert Barrow, Keith Sefton, Lonnie Poling and countless others. The Marine Corps is what it is because of who you and I are. . .and we are who we are now, in no small part, because of the training and exposure the Marine Corps afforded us. So, as we celebrate our history, let’s reflect on what it is that bonds us all together, completes that circle?
I believe it is love. . .of our God as we know Him, of our Country, of our Family, of our Corps and of each other. When it gets down to brass tacks in a combat situation, we don’t fight for the flag or these higher principles that guide us, we fight for one another. . .the guys on our right and on our left. . .the guys with whom we face the imminent danger.