Perspectives on Memorial Day, thanks to boyhood memories

This weekend is Memorial Day, regarded by many as the kickoff of Summer.  It’s easy to forget those who helped make such a lifestyle possible, “those” being the Americans who gave their lives in service to their country via the three branches of the military (a statement I will provide clarity upon later in the post.) Having never served in our nation’s military – though certainly not for lack of desire – please indulge me a few minutes of your time to share experiences from my boyhood which afforded great perspective on military sacrifice as I grew older.  While all branches of our nations military have given great sacrifice, my family and personal experience primarily involve the Navy, which I will focus on today.

As a boy in Pennsylvania, I was involved in the Boy Scouts.  Troop 207 was rather traditional group as we were involved in campouts, flag folding ceremonies, charity drives and public service.  Our primary benefactor was the late John Gould, a former marine who founded a chain of supermarkets in our area.  He was a good man who believed greatly in the notion of public service, and giving back the community.  To that end, he helped to arrange a weeklong trip for our troop which took us to two military installations in South Carolina.  As the Boy Scouts have always enjoyed a strong relationship with the several branches of the military, it was considered a logical educational journey.  It was far more than that.

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F/A/ 18 Hornet landing on the USS Carl Vinson

We spent a full week in South Carolina, first staying three nights aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Points just outside Charleston.  It was an experience of a lifetime. In hindsight, I wished i had appreciated it more.  Seeing the various fighter planes on the flight deck, as well as knowing how the sailors slept slept, lived and fought in very tight quarters gave me greater appreciation for how our military operated during World War II.  I also had the privilege of boarding and touring the U.S.S. Clagamore, a World War II submarine, and the N.S. Savannah, the first nuclear powered Merchant Marine Ship.  In addition, we toured Fort Sumter, the site of the first shots fired during the U.S. Civil War, which offered a glimpse into the lives of Union soldiers over a century ago.  The whole experience took me to another place and time, and cemented both my love of country and love of history.  What gave me food for thought in later years about our military’s sacrifices would come later at Parris Island and M.C.A.S Beaufort.

First, I’d like to offer a little historical perspective to help set the table.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, the U.S. Navy, which the United States Marine Corps is a part of as its infantry department, is the oldest branch of the U.S. military.  The U.S. Navy was first commissioned as the Continental Navy in 1775, predating official American independence. Over the years, the Marine Corps grew to operate as a semi-independent unit with the Navy, with its own bases, command structure, and culture, the latter of which was portrayed in a rather stilted fashion in the movie A Few Good Men. In fact, the Commandant of the Marine Corps (its top officer), sits on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and reports directly to both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy.  America is one of the few nations on Earth which formally recognizes its naval infantry this way, which adds to its long, storied history and mystique.

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USS Yorktown at Patriots Point, South Carolina.

MCAS Beaufort is an air base which, in the mid 1980s, housed the relatively new F/A-18 Hornet, a strike fighter jet.  The Cold War was running white hot at this time as late President Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev, Secretary General of the former Soviet Union, were just beginning to get to know each other.  Both nations still had hawkish individuals in positions of military leadership, which only led to global fears of a new nuclear confrontation akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, only with far more triggerhappy folks behind the missile launch systems.  Reagan’s team held the ideology of deterrence though overwhelming force response to reinforce the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) in the hearts of both Soviet and American commanders.  The theory was that America would have such advanced overwhelming technology and ordinance at its fingertips, that opponents would think twice before attacking.  The Hornet, when coupled with the F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame – the F-14 was the front-line, carrier-based combat fighter of the time – was believed to give American forces that overwhelming edge.

Having seen the Hornet first hand, I can safely say that, at the time, I was truly impressed.  While it has always been easy to impress 12 year old boys, even older boys were truly astonished at the level of technology on display.  Moreover, the pilots, though absolutely confident in their abilities, were quite accessible and willing to discuss different non-classified aspects of the jet, as well as tell us stories of their service.  Later that day, we were treated to a demonstration of fire-fighting abilities by the MCAS Beaufort Fire Department, which involved a dummy airframe being doused in a combination of used oil and jet fuel, then set ablaze.  We were actually warned by the officer, who coordinated the demonstation, that we would likely suffer from minor sunburn as result of exposure to the heat, which most of us discovered later had indeed happened.  Once the demonstration commenced, we watched the airframe burn with intense heat, only to be extinguished within seconds by two MCAS Beaufort fire trucks blasting it with several thousand gallons of flame retardent foam and water.

Then it was off to Parris Island for four nights.

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Marine Corp recruits engaged in Pugil Stick combat training at Parris Island, South Carolina

Learning the life of Marine Corp recruits at boot camp was an eye-opening experience.  We quickly learned two things about the Marines; they were fed well, and boot camp is one of the most extreme, life-altering experiences one could ever endure.  We learned that recruits would not just have to experience the emotional, mental, and physical transformation of their person and psyche by the Marine Corps’ infamous Drill Sargeants, they would also have to demonstrate their ability to withstand the sort of abuse and danger which battlefield life would throw their way.  Everything from obstacle courses to explanations of live fire exercises, to visits to environmental extremes training sites, were given.  We also had the privilege of staying in a barracks to get a true taste of Marine Corp life, including waking up for Scout revelrie.  The experience inspired me.  It also helped me to understand, later in life, the sort of sacrifices which military families make to serve our nation and guarantee our freedoms.

Much more happened on that trip, the vast majority of which were memorable experiences which I carry with me and help me to understand what makes our nation great.  The following year, my gratitude to our military was cemented when our troop took a trip to Washington, D.C., and spent a morning at Arlington National Cemetary touring the grounds, while paying our respects to those soldiers, sailors and airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.  We also witnessed the moving Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and visited the Eternal Flame Monument at the tomb of the late President John F. Kennedy.  These experiences are the sort which open eyes, and help offer a healthy, sober and somber perspective on the cost of service to one’s country.

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For those who gave all, respect and gratitude.

While in high school, I had considered applying the U.S. Naval Academy to follow in the footsteps of my now late Uncle, who was a Naval Submariner.  It was something I never carried though on, though I had also considered enlisting when I was first married.  Again, it was something I never followed through on.  While I am confident in my choice to not enlist, I remain grateful to those who chose the path of military service.  They, and their families, should be respected and shown the sort of genuine gratitude which remains rare in this nation – too many still regard Memorial Day not as a somber day of reflection, but as a day for play and fun.  Though we should honor our fallen by celebrating the freedoms they guaranteed with their spilled blood and released souls, we also should show respect, and reflect upon the sacrifice made by their families as well.

Let’s salute the families of those who have fallen, and remind our fellow Americans that such sacrifice should never be forgotten or taken for granted.

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