“Changing of the Guard”
This morning I rushed myself out the door hair still wet not wanting to be late for church service. I didn’t even take the time to check the schedule for Christmas services. Surely service might be held a little earlier than usual? Perhaps at 9:00 a.m. sharp instead of 9:15? I waded my way through traffic and arrived just before 9:00. As I turned into the parking lot, it felt great to be on time, but the parking lot was empty. I was far too early; no one was there.
Two young girls rolled down the window of their car as they pulled in asking, “Sir, do know when the church service is?”
“It’s obviously later; I don’t know when. I’m going to walk up to the building and find out.”
A well-dressed man, dressed all in black, a little older than myself with more gray and white in his hair than I, pulled up into a handicapped spot. He smiled as he parked and got out of his car.
Service was not until 11:15. We laughed as I joked that if I went back home I’d probably be late for that service. I was going to stay and read my Bible; he said there should be coffee. And as I turned from the locked Information Center, he told me he was an usher and he would be making some hot coffee. He invited me inside and introduced himself.
Ron or someone opened the door for us and Ron disappeared. In front of me I saw a man sitting down wearing what appeared to be a brand-new black satin jacket with a large Marine Corps patch on the back. The red and gold and white of the patch looked brand-new; it must have been 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
“My, that looks like a new patch,” I complimented the wearer, not considering my words very carefully I’ll admit.
“No, its 10 years old.”
Perhaps I had insulted the wearer somehow. As I walked around him, I saw tattoos on the left side of his neck and the back of his left hand. He was clean-shaven, even his head, but more significantly, he was leaning forward, slightly bent over. In retrospect, he may have been praying. His forward posture allowed me to clearly see the patch on the back of his jacket without the plush maroon seat back blocking my view.
More importantly, I thought I saw a tear in his eye; tears hanging from his eye lashes. His eyes were bloodshot. Rather than sit at the small table right in front of him and with him, as I feared that might be intrusive, I sat in the taller chairs and tables nearby. Close enough so we might continue to speak. Thus, I hoped not to impose myself upon him because I felt as if I might have interrupted him.
“How’s this Christmas going?” I asked as I opened my study Bible on the tall table.
He shrugged his shoulders fighting back another tear; this warrior was losing that battle. I closed Psalms, walked directly over and took the seat opposite him across the small low circular table.
“These holidays are blue days.” I answered my question aloud for him rather than making him talk as I moved over towards him.
He was in very good shape but he was not a young man. Although much younger than myself, this was no fresh recruit. He was a seasoned warrior and his heart was breaking.
He excused himself politely to go to the restroom but immediately doubled back placing his hat on the small dark wooden table. Seeing the crumpled up ball cap, I knew he was coming back and he wanted to talk with me. I accepted that invitation.
“Where you from?”
“Oregon, but it’s too cold there. They’re deploying me to Afghanistan; I don’t want to go back,” his voice trailed off.
“How many times you been there?”
“This will be my fourth time . . . I’m a Marine scout.” He cried, “You don’t know what it’s like.”
“No, I have no idea of what it’s like,” I agreed.
“I’ve been shot three times, stabbed twice. I’m afraid I’m going to die over there. But I don’t have a choice, I’ve been ordered to redeploy.”
“When do you go?”
“That’s, that’s . . . soon . . . less . . . less thanna week. . . . How many years you got in?”
“21, almost 22.”
“That’s more than enough to retire. Why don’t you retire?”
“I have no choice; I’ve got to go back. Besides, they want me to reenlist.” He shrugged as he folded his ball cap, “It’s a good pension.”
“I know . . . If you don’t go it’s a felony. . . These systems, the way they’re designed, we’re all stuck in them and we’re slaves to ‘em. We have no choice . . . I did the right thing in the wrong place and they tried to destroy me . . . I’m waiting a couple months to see what my fate is as well,” as I fought back my own tears.
“I’m afraid God’s going to hold me accountable for murder.” He stammered, “. . . I was only doing what I was told . . .” He again fought off the compulsion to cry, “Oh, the guilt!”
“It’s not murder. There’s a war. It’s not murder; it’s under the color of authority. You’re obeying orders.” And I emphasized slowly, “Besides, you have no choice.”
“I’ve lost one kidney and part of my stomach . . .” He choked, “The guilt . . .”
Just then, the door opened and in walked three men. The lead man was finely dressed in a tweed suit jacket with a bolo tie, western style and I caught only a glimpse . . . under his chin a silver eagle with a shield clasping arrows, a US military symbol.
“Semper Fi!” this elderly gentleman heartily greeted the younger warrior as he walked up behind the Marine scout.
The younger warrior turned and rose to greet his senior. They shook hands eagerly. The tears went away . . .
What happened during this meeting I lost track of and I cannot give a very accurate accounting, but I was witnessing one of those rare sights and rare moments:
The Changing of the Guard.
The younger Marine scout recognized his senior as a fellow warrior. There was mutual appreciation for each other’s sacrifices. The senior decorated World War II veteran mentioned being aboard a ship.
“Were you a squid? Were you a squid?” his younger compatriot demanded enthusiastically while they kept shaking hands.
“No, I was in the Navy, a sailor, on board a ship.”
“Well, you fellows did a good job. Never forget that!”
“Forget that? I’ll never forget; I’m still carrying around Japanese shrapnel in my body!”
“I know that.”
“And I came back without,” he removed his left hand from his walker and lifted his left arm slightly demonstrating his artificial limb hidden within his suit jacket, “my left arm.”
Then the two embraced.
The elder went within the sanctuary. The Marine scout sat back down in front of me.
I was destined to sit with that seasoned warrior whose heart was breaking, filled with remorse and guilt. I wasn’t early for church; I was right on time.
It was one of those admittedly rare moments during which I kept my words to a minimum; just sitting, sharing in his grief and fighting back tears of my own was all that was necessary. Just being present with him.
I do not know his name and I didn’t ask. I cannot query someone who cannot talk about their work about anything that might compromise them or place them in harm’s way. My biggest concern was that this younger man warrior might lose his edge, dropping his guard at the worst time, perhaps even resulting in injury or death.
He asked me if the office was open yet because he was going to see his sister-in-law. She worked for the church. He excused himself to step outside and smoke, but this time he took his hat with him. I knew he was not going to return.
“You’re a good man. Thanks for talking with me,” he said as he arose and shook my hand.
“It was my honor.”
My prayers are with this man, younger than I, a seasoned warrior returning to Afghanistan for a fourth time in less than five years. He doesn’t know it, but I know what he does. A Marine scout is a sniper. He is required to maintain cover and to take lives whenever his mission might be compromised, even the very young who might alert others about the presence of his small two-man team.
This type of warrior is one of the noblest, deployed for long periods of time with minimal support. They operate under the most horrific conditions and take no joy in killing.
It is a job. It’s only their job. It’s not who they are; it’s what they must do. Snipers are derided even among regular soldiers and are never given their due, the respect they earn. It’s a tough job and it takes special men—of extremely good character—to succeed.
Carlos Hathcock, Marine gunnery Sergeant called White Feather by the Viet Cong put it this way. Allow me to paraphrase the greatest shooter of the Vietnam conflict:
“I take no joy in taking life, in killing. All I think about is for each of the enemy I kill about 5,000 of our boys will be going home. It’s that thought that keeps me going. For each of them I kill, more of our boys will be going home alive.”
It’s a shame we must put such good God-fearing men into these positions. Each day we lose 1,000 to 2,000 of our World War II veterans as they approach their 80s and 90s, and in the most twisted of ironies, we lose good men almost daily in Iraq to false charges.
To the unknown Marine scout and seasoned warrior:
Do not drop your guard.
Come home alive . . . and . . . free.
John Taylor Kent, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
Revised December 24, 2008