Posts tagged with: marines

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, September 9, 2011
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Justin Constantine has written an excellent piece on the high cost of war in the Atlantic titled “Wounded in Iraq: A Marine’s Story.”

Constantine, who was shot in the head in Iraq, notes in his essay,

Blood and treasure are the costs of war. However, many news articles today only address the treasure — the ballooning defense budget and high-priced weapons systems. The blood is simply an afterthought. Forgotten is the price paid by our wounded warriors. Forgotten are the families torn apart by lengthy and multiple deployments. Forgotten are the relatives of those who make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. As we look back on 9/11, we should also remember all those who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have fought in these wars, and it is important for the public to understand their effects on our fighters and those close to them.

Constantine also touches on his own frustration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the piece. I wrote a commentary in 2009 on the need for the federal government to fulfill its obligations to our veterans before expanding its scope and reach on health care. The fact that Congress rushed through a comprehensive health care law in 2010 without major reform of care for veterans speaks to the failure of the political leadership in this nation.

We should remember the high cost of war this weekend and every day. Constantine evokes the 44,000 wounded warriors from Afghanistan and Iraq and the more than 6,000 families who have had to bury a loved one. Last Memorial Day, I wrote a post on a few of the men whose names adorn the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. One of the names is Roy Mitchell Wheat, a Medal of Honor recepient from Moselle, Miss. Trying to hold back tears, his brother recently offered these haunting but wise words about the cost of war,

When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.

Blog author: rnothstine
Thursday, June 4, 2009
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chanceLieutenant Colonel Mike Strobl began his 2004 essay “Taking Chance” by saying, “Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.”

HBO turned Strobl’s essay into an emotional film about the journey of Chance’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to his home in Dubois, Wyoming. Taking Chance is excellent at depicting the dignity, honor, and respect involved with the preparation and transport of an individual in the military who have been killed in action. Every military KIA is given a military escort that accompanies the remains of the deceased to their final resting place.

In the film Lt. Col. Strobl is played by actor Kevin Bacon. Bacon does a tremendous job playing a U.S. Marine officer who exudes leadership and professionalism. Normally senior officers don’t serve as escorts, but for reasons explained in the film Lt. Col Strobl volunteers to serve as the escort for the all too young 19 year old Private First Class Chance Phelps, who was later promoted to Lance Corporal posthumously.

One of the real moving parts of the film has to do with Strobl’s encounters with the civilians he meets along the way as he accompanies the fallen Marine whose remains travel in the cargo hold of a commercial flight. Many of the civilians just want to pass their sympathies on to the family and let them know that people are thinking about and praying for them. Still others want Strobel to know what the military has meant to them or want to share with them some sort of experience that has touched them. A particularly moving scene is when a Northwest flight attendant hands Strobel a crucifix for him to keep that obviously is a possession that means a lot to her. Strobel passes it on to Chance’s mother who places it on the top of his casket before burial.

Another moving scene from the film comes early on as the hands and feet of Chance are being meticulously washed at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. This evokes an excellent piece that Chris Jones wrote for Esquire Magazine in May 2008 titled, “The Things That Carried Him.” The article by Jones is a descriptive account of what happens during the final homecoming for one Army Sargent. In his piece Jones also wrote generally about the intimacy and honor for those who prepare the remains of the fallen:

Karen Giles tells a story about another young airman, who was polishing the brass on a dead soldier’s uniform jacket. He was using a little tool, a kind of buffer, to make sure that every button shined. A visitor complimented him on his attention to detail. ‘The family will really appreciate what you’re doing,’ the visitor said. But the airman replied, ‘Oh, no, sir, the family won’t know about this.’ The airman told him that the family had requested that their son be cremated, and just a short while later, he was.

Interestingly, if the story in this film was to happen right now instead of 2004 it would be remarkably different. As of Jan 1, 2007 the Holly Provision, a part of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, changed the law when it comes to how the remains of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines killed in the line of duty are transported to their final resting place. The Department of Defense must use a military transport plane or charter flights because of the concerns raised about proper respect. Remains can no longer be transported by a commercial carrier.

There is little dialogue in this film, and part of the allure of the film is the pageantry the military provides for its fallen. It almost has to be a film with considerably less dialogue to keep the focus on Chance’s sacrifice and journey home. The slow salute is very moving and well executed by any U.S. Marine in their dress blues, and is very emotional in this film.

While this HBO portrayal is ultimately about Chance Phelps and his heroic sacrifice it emphasizes several other important points. When Strobel meets a Marine veteran from the Korean War who came to pay his respects to Chance, we see the camaraderie and special bond between fellow Marines no matter the age, rank, or theater of service. Marines love and cherish their traditions and their accomplishments on the field of battle. The famed nickname for Marines is “Devil Dog,” a moniker of respect they earned by defeating a war hardened and entrenched German enemy at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. The Germans on the front lines sent dispatches to their headquarters saying the Marines fought like “hounds from hell.”

The courage, tradition, and fighting spirit of the Marines today shows just how dedicated they are to the principles that made our country free. When my own brother was in Iraq with the Marines and I was living in D.C. a few years ago, I decided to go to Arlington National Cemetery. Just months before I had remembered reading a special report about the fresh graves from Iraq and Afghanistan in section 60.

I felt like I should pay my respects since I was mostly just enjoying a warm D.C. summer. As I walked through the headstones the newness of it all was very haunting, some just buried days before. Flowers, teddy bears, letters, and pictures adorned section 60. This section is tucked away from the notable attractions and graves tourists visit at the cemetery. There was an eerie stillness and quietness there. And then I saw a picture of a very attractive young girl against one particular headstone. I read the name and date and realized the girl in the picture was buried below me. She was only eighteen and killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the Army. It’s times like that when war is just too overwhelming and heartbreaking for those even somewhat distanced from it. I believe that is why Taking Chance is a film worth watching, it also celebrates a nation that often struggles to show just how thankful they are of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

The National WWII Memorial

When FDR ordered General Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines in 1942, the dismal fate of the American and Filipino defenders at Bataan and Corregidor was sealed. Japanese forces had blockaded the island, achieved air superiority, and set their forces up to easily overpower the American defenses. The story of Bataan and Corregidor was a heroic tragedy. Heroic in that American and Filipino forces fought back bravely for months, and tragic in that any relief, retreat, or victory was impossible. The Japanese were on the offensive all over the Pacific, achieving a string of humiliating defeats to the American military.

With the exit of MacArthur, General Jonathon “Skinny” Wainwright was given command of the defense of the islands. The forces under him were slowly starving, unhealthy, and increasingly ineffective. Wainwright did his best to rally the men, visiting the front lines to encourage his forces. He even gained the highest respect of the Marines at Corregidor for his courage under fire and how he personally returned fire on the front.

Bataan was the first to surrender, setting up the atrocity of the Bataan Death March, where only 54,000 out of 70,000 arrived at POW camps. It was the largest surrender in American history, and even those who survived the death march awaited further atrocities at Camp O’Donnel. General MacArthur said of the Bataan defenders:

The Bataan force went out as it wished, fighting to the end its flickering forlorn hope. No army has ever done so much with so little and nothing became it more than its last hour of trial and agony. To the weeping Mothers of its dead, I can only say that the sacrifice and halo of Jesus of Nazareth has descended upon their sons, and God will take them unto Himself.

General Wainwright added, “Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand – a beacon to all the liberty – loving peoples of the world – cannot fall!” Wainwright carried a heavy burden for the surrender, and further despair settled in among the defenders at Corregidor for the fate that awaited them.

The American people followed the reports of the battle, clinging to any hope for a victory in the Pacific. It was never to be, despite further bitter and heroic fighting. Wainwright was forced to surrender the entire Philippines in May of 1942 for the purpose of saving civilians and his remaining men. Privately MacArthur was livid with the action, as some believed additional American and Filipino forces in other parts of the islands might have been able to hold out awhile longer or take up guerrilla action. Unfortunately for Wainwright, he was left with no other choice, yet he still declared, “I have taken a dreadful step.”

Wainwright was made a prisoner of war with his men. He was depressed that he was the commander who surrendered the largest contingent of American forces in its history.

General Jonathan M. Wainwright

He also believed he would receive a court martial and be made the scape goat for the Philippines if he ever returned home. His treatment like nearly every Allied prisoner in the Pacific was brutal. Like the men he led, he wasted away to a skeleton under Japanese care. Denied basic provisions, he was shuffled from camp to camp until the very end. Upon his liberation, he asked the first American he saw what the American Brass and people thought of him. The soldier replied, “You are a hero General Wainwright.” Still skeptical he kept asking additional men and officers the same questions.

The story of Bataan and Corregidor is a story of American defeat and temporary American abandonment of those who fought and bled there. Out of the ashes total victory and redemption would emerge for those fighting to free and liberate the people under Imperial Japanese aggression. The heroic defense of Bataan and Corregidor slowed the Japanese offensive in the Pacific, giving time for the Navy and MacArthur to organize their forces.

Wainwright did return to the United States a hero, and President Truman awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on the front lines of Corregidor. Wainwright was loved by the men he commanded because he suffered with them. He refused to leave their side or the rock he defended saying, “We have been through so much together that my conscience would not let me leave before the final curtain.” The Pacific Theater is sometimes overshadowed by the European Theater in WWII. The greatest thing about Veterans Day is we remember and honor all of those who served from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the lowliest infantry grunt.

Understanding in many ways he was a symbol of defeat, albeit heroically, Wainwright warned the nation against ever being ill prepared in its defense again. Wainwright declared:

I hope that the story of what Americans suffered will always be remembered in its practical significance – as a lesson which almost lost for us this land we love. Remember Bataan! Remember Corregidor!