Pray for Mark Allen

Some of y’all who read this blog know who Mark Allen is. Some of you have no idea. This should get you caught up to speed.

Mark has been hospitalized recently, and though he’s doing better, he could still use your prayers. This weekend, his wife Shannon had planned a retirement party for him – he is officially retired from service in the Army – but those plans are on hold until he can get well.

If you lift up the occasional line to God, mention Mark and Shannon and Journey and Cody as you do. They are good folks who’ve given much for our freedom. With July 4th just around the corner, we can give them at least a few prayers in return.

A Red, White and Blue Heart

This is more than a's piece of America's freedom and history.

I had a special guest speak to the students on Wednesday night. I won’t mention his name here because when I spoke well of him on Wednesday, he smiled, shook my hand, and whispered, “I’ll get you for that” – so this post probably won’t make him too happy either. I’m going to share one of the stories that he told the kids, and it’s a story of heroism, valor, and why you should thank any service man or woman you come into contact with today.

For clarity’s sake, I’ll call the man “Top.”

Top was drafted into the Army in 1962, just as Vietnam was about to get big. He bounced from heavy equipment duty to demolitions, and it was that specialty – the ability to disarm bombs (or build them) – that carried him over the Pacific in ’63 (I’m typing without my notes, so if I mess up a detail, please forgive me). After some bad luck on the seas, his unit – 172 strong – were disgorged onto the coastline of Vietnam and given the task of teaching the resistance how to strategically blow up bridges and other infrastructure crucial to the Viet Cong regime.

It wasn’t too long, however, before Top and his crew found themselves cleaning up messes – like mines, US ordinance that hadn’t detonated, and even the heinous task of tunnel ratting: going down into a VC tunnel with a .45 and a knife and checking to see if it was occupied. Assignments like those took Top’s unit from 172 men down to 41 over the course of their stay in country.

Top was a sergeant, which meant that he was the middle man in Vietnam. He would go between the commanding officers and the men in the fields, doing his best to solve problems coming from both directions. As he told the kids, it made him tough; made him realize that the difference between office and leadership was found within the character of the man. Top quickly became a leader, and brought home the wounds and medals to prove it.

His first Purple Heart was given to him when he was shot in the leg while carrying a wounded soldier to MEDEVAC. The bullet caught him in the calf. They sewed him up and sent him back out.

His second Purple Heart came when a sniper shot him in the left shoulder one day during a duty run. “They say you can hear the sound of the weapon that ends your life,” he told the kids on Wednesday. “Well, I certainly heard this one. The bullet came and caught me in my shoulder, and sent me flying five feet forward through the air. They pulled me aside, checked out my shoulder, and put a butterfly dressing on it. I went back into the field that afternoon.”

But his third Purple Heart came during an action for which he also won a Bronze Star with Valor. Top and some of his men were in a rice paddy, pinned down by gunfire coming from a farmhouse not too far away. Six Viet Cong troops were positioned in the house, and the only viable front for attack was assault from Top’s position. Between the house and the trench where Top and his men were located was nothing but rice paddy, a murky, watery expanse that offered no cover whatsoever. So Top and his men were waiting for reinforcements– “We were waiting for the tanks to come and, pardon my French, blow the hell out of that farmhouse.”

The story gets better, but it’s not Top’s to tell. “I can’t honestly tell you what happened, because I don’t remember any of it. Alls I know is one of my men came to me and said, ‘Sarge, can I have a cigarette?’ And the next thing I can remember, I was holding that man’s face in my hands and my back was hamburger.”

According to the paperwork filed for his Bronze Star, Top and eight other men charged that farmhouse. Why they chose to do so is not made clear, but nine brave soldiers took the fight across a watery graveyard and were successful. They made it to the house and secured it, putting down all six of the Viet Cong guerillas inside. According to the report, the suicide mission saved 32 lives that day.

If this were a Hollywood story, the camera would pan across the brave soldiers’ faces and they would smile and have a smoke as their helicopter lifted off and circled around the captured farmhouse. We would catch a glint of the setting sun on the paddy waters and the camera would fade to black.

But this isn’t a Hollywood story.

After Top and his men had rushed the house and seemingly secured it, one of the VC soldiers was able to pull the pin on a grenade and send it rolling between Top and his men. Top took most of the shrapnel – he spent six months in a hospital receiving skin grafts and sleeping on his stomach; to this day, three pieces of the shrapnel from that grenade still reside in his back, too dangerous to remove. The only fragment of memory he has is of lying on the Vietnamese soil, in agony, holding the face of that soldier who’d asked for what turned out to be his last smoke.

Top was able to recover, and retired from the Army after 27 years of honorable service. Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned home to a life that had moved on without him – a nation that wasn’t proud of his service, and a wife who’d been unwilling to wait on him. Alone and hurting, he found it difficult to cope.

“I wouldn’t talk about what happened,” he told the kids. “I bottled it up inside, and then tried to forget about it by emptying the wrong kind of bottle.”

He ended up getting help and was encouraged by a doctor to talk about his experiences, to get the emotions and the images out and into the air as a way of healing his soul. The doctor also encouraged him to go to church, and in doing so, Top found peace and forgiveness and the permission to move forward with his life. He was able to remarry. He was able to live.

Top shared more of his story than this, and he shared it with such humble honesty that I can say for certain not one of the students moved while he spoke. They listened, rapt, as Top shared from his heart a story that, if he didn’t tell it, would simply fade into oblivion in a government file cabinet somewhere. By telling the kids, he gave life to not only his story, but the story of every soldier.

It’s one thing for us to celebrate Veteran’s Day – it’s right and good that we do so, because we demand so much from those men and women who volunteer to put on the uniform and charge into whatever mess we the people (or at least our government) deem worthy of our might. But celebrating a day with nice Facebook updates or patriotic flag waving doesn’t do justice to the soldiers themselves; I don’t presume to speak for them, so please don’t take these words as their own, but to me, it is a little hollow to speak of Veterans in some vague, collective sense.

Instead, do yourself the honor of meeting one of these men and women up close. Personal. Ask them about their story. Ask them about the price they paid to give you freedom. And then shake their hand and tell them, from the bottom of a broken and grateful heart, that you thank them for your freedom.

I think about Top today – along with Mark Allen, Karl Johnson, Brannen Murphy, David Brown, David Evans and other good men and women I know who wear the uniform of our military services with pride and honor, never asking for anything in return. Never demanding their rights or freedoms. Never protesting the places or people we ask them to fight on our behalf. They take the risk of their own life and the lives of people who are near and dear to them through the brotherhood of service and do so because they hold the ideals and hopes of this nation as more worthy than those of their own.

Today, I am grateful to tears for each of your service. Little or small, past or present, you have given me – our nation – so much. Today, if you read these 1400 words, I hope you only continually hear these two:

Thank you.

And God bless.

Marine’s Eye-View: We Can’t Handle The Truth And Other Thoughts

Lt. Col. Karl "KJ" Johnson, Marine Corps. He's baaaaaaaaack!

Just before Memorial Day, I wrote a post critiquing the movie A Few Good Men. I basically said that the Jack Nicholson character, Col. Nathan Jessup, was a strawman designed to make the audience dislike him, and how it might be the result of an agenda to get the American people against their brothers-in-arms. I also remarked that we, the American people, seem to have fallen prey to that very agenda.

I was quite proud of the post. Still am. But, always wanting a larger perspective, I sent the link to Marine Lt. Col. Karl “KJ” Johnson and asked him to give me his thoughts. You might remember KJ from his previous post on the death of Osama Bin Laden. He’s not only a Marine, but he’s super smart, very funny, and one heck of a good writer.

It took him a while to respond (defending the very concepts of liberty and freedom can be time consuming, you know…) but I’m glad he did. I asked for his permission to post his thoughts in full, and he graciously agreed.

Please take some time to not only read but offer your comments and feedback to KJ. He’s trying to get back into writing, so your kind words or words of critique can be an immense blessing to him.

But if I were you, I’d keep them mostly positive…you don’t want to piss off a guy who knows his way around a Marine helicopter. Just sayin’.

Movies, The Military and A Marine’s Thoughts

By Lt. Col. Karl “KJ” Johnson

I agree: we can’t handle the truth.  We don’t want to handle the truth; we’d prefer to continue insulating ourselves from reality.  But you cannot ignore Colonel Jessup; he demands…no, he commands our attention.  I find this interesting because A Few Good Men came just a few months after I accepted a commission to be an officer in the Marine Corps.  I was stationed in Quantico, VA (just outside of Washington DC) going through TBS (The Basic School) which is entry-level training for officers and where we learn how to be an officer of Marines.  A lot of folks were excited about the release of this film, but after seeing it I questioned my peers’ excitement.  I would tell them “hey, guys, this doesn’t really cast us in such good light.”  I mean, I know Jack Nicholson makes any role cool and that he was long overdue playing a Marine, but really?  The appeal to this film is that much of what Col. Jessup says is true.  There are so many out there who take for granted the freedoms that they are afforded all the while disparaging the means by which they are afforded those freedoms.  That argument really resonates with many in the military.  Want to see a comical version of this?  Take a couple of minutes and watch this before reading on: Daily Show  (Yes, it’s funny…but watch the whole thing.)

Yeah, wish we had someone designated to protect free speech….but I digress.  Much of what Jessup says is true.  The problem with this caricature (and that’s what it is) is that it’s unrealistic.  There’s no way a full-bird colonel, someone with over 22 years of service, would have gotten involved in something like this.  It’s too far below his level.  I would argue that it’s actually in the realm of the absurd.  It would have been more realistic that Jack Bauer, er, Keifer Sutherland’s character would have ordered the code red (also called a “blanket party”) and maybe Jessup would have tried to cover it up to protect “his boy”.  So I don’t quite right him off as an arrogant jerk, but an unrealistic caricature.  Additionally, there are differences between the Marines and the Navy as was highlight by the lunch scene in Gitmo…it would not be unbelievable to conceive of a scene in which a junior officer fails to observe proper military decorum and falls into the familiar too much.  Add to that the always present rivalry between the Navy and the Marine Corps, Jessup was not out of line to correct Cruise’s character…but that got lost in the “caricature-izing” of Jessup.  But as Jason noted, he is a bit of a bully; they do exist in the Marine Corps (sadly).

But I also don’t see him as a straw man for the government.  Maybe it’s me being “on the inside”, but I see the military as a tool of the government.  I guess I consider the government as the representative body of elected officials and the military as a volunteer career force that simply implements/supports/enforces policy.  The government has multiple tools: diplomatic, informational, military, economic, etc. (a good way to remember that is DIME…but there are others as well).  So I’d disagree on that premise/basis and subsequently I don’t see it as greed.  If anything, Jessup would be guilty of “losing the forest through the trees” and using the ends to justify the means.  He’s decided that, due to his experience and near-total authority, that he’s above the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  It’s a classic case of power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.  His intentions are not actually that bad: he wants to protect unit cohesion and camaraderie while preserving the standards of his “beloved Corps”.  Whether or not you agree with his diagnosis of the problem, we can all agree that he prescribes an entirely unjust and unfair solution to this “problem” within one of his subordinate units.

I find that the movie places us in a moral dilemma.  We buy into Jessup slightly because we admire his dedication and commitment to our country; he sees what many do not see: the daily threats to our national security.  And he stares those threats down.  He’s a real American hero.  But he steps over the line by assuming a role that he’s not been given, by wielding authority that he’s not been granted.  It’s hard to get past the admirable qualities and see the error.  You see, unlike enlisted personnel who sign contracts, officers serve “at the leisure of the President,” and Jessup would have done well to have remembered that.  We can be relieved and dismissed from our careers in a heartbeat.  We are given clearly defined roles and Jessup stepped outside of his role and over-extended his authority.  Officers are held to a higher standard for a good reason…we control and influence a lot.  But none of that diminishes that great things that Jessup has likely done over the course of his highly decorated career.  He’s still a hero, but he’s now a disgraced hero.  So no need to invoke politics; invoking ethics is enough to “de-throne” Jessup.  And the rest of the Marines in the chain of command who were complicit.

So I don’t think the movie has an agenda against the military and I don’t think that the movie-makers are trying to lump all blood shed into one pile.  I think they did a decent job of placing these elements in tension to put us in a spot in which we’re not quite sure how to react.  We know what he’s done is wrong, but we still want to admire him a bit.  Maybe I’m naive and missed that, but I prefer to give the film makers the benefit of the doubt in that they’re more interested in a good moral dilemma than political agenda.  Of course, in light of this recent article, there may also be something to that as well.  But I don’t see enough in the film to make that determination.

But movie critiquing aside, I agree with Jason’s closing point.  Agree or disagree with Just Theory; support “the war” or protest “the war”; pacifist or war-monger; let’s support our men and women in the Armed Forces and thank them for their sacrifice.  Let’s not repeat the horrific mistreatment  and abuses heaped upon those who returned from Vietnam.  That was a travesty of epic proportions.  My dad lived through that, and it was incredibly short-sighted of those who sought peace and disagreed with national policy.  Rail against policy and policy-makers, not the servants who exist solely to implement/support/enforce polify…whether or not they agree with it (remember, not everyone who serves agrees with policy…but we’ve sworn an oath, and it’s an oath we take seriously).  So thank a servicemember the next time you him/her, it means a lot more to us than you can ever realize.  When I returned to United States soil for the first time after seven months in Afghanistan last December, the line of supporters cheering for me, hugging me and shaking my hand in the Dallas airport moved me to tears.  And it still does just thinking about it.  And it made re-entry into normal life a lot easier.  And that’s the truth!

Guest Post: A Marine On The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

Lt. Col. Karl "KJ" Johnson, Marine Corps. Semper Fi indeed.

I mentioned yesterday that I offered the blog up to two people for guest posts. One of them took me up on the offer, and I am unbelievably excited that he did. Lieutenant Colonel Karl “KJ” Johnson is a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corp and a veteran of the War on Terror. KJ has been just about everywhere the War has taken our troops, and has seen everything there is to see. If anyone can lend some perspective to the death of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorist, KJ certainly can.

I first met KJ through my work with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. I was working a public forum at Arizona State University and KJ, who lived in California at the time, drove all they way to Scottsdale just to help work at our book table. I ended up sitting next to him at the payment table, and we struck up a conversation that lasted pretty much all night. His stories fascinating, but his insight into life – insight brought about in part by his service to our country, but mostly by his God-given gift of intelligence – made you stop and really think about issues you’d long considered resolved in your mind. He does exactly that with today’s post. Please, read it, think about it, and then pass it on to someone else.

The Death of OBL

As a Marine officer of nearly 19 years of continuous active duty service and, more importantly, a disciple of Jesus Christ I am very interested in the recent turn of events involving Osama bin Laden (OBL).  In fact, I have been keenly interested since that fateful day in Sept. 2011.  Believe it or not, one of my first thoughts that day was “I wonder if anyone is praying for OBL.”  I mean, aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  As an American citizen I have no more dangerous an enemy than OBL and those who are associated with him.  Aren’t we supposed to forego the weapons of the world, as counterintuitive as that may seem?  At that time I was getting ready to deploy, so the likelihood of going into combat was very real (remember, this was before we went into either Afghanistan or Iraq) and most of my peers were using the events of 9/11 to motivate them for (or cope with) our six-month deployment.  In fact, many of my peers were eager to engage the enemy in order to exact some revenge/justice…all in the name of patriotism.  So why was I thinking about praying for OBL?

Now, I’m not judging my fellow Marines.  A large part of me agrees with them and I certainly subscribe to the Just War Theory; I would never have accepted a commission as an officer in the Corps otherwise.  And this would certainly be a Just War.  But somehow God would not let me feel the hatred for OBL that many of my peers felt.  Oh, I was very affected by the events of 9/11.  In fact, I was very surprised by just how emotional I got seeing my beloved homeland attacked and violated.  I had friends in the Pentagon that day.  And, since I’m a pilot, I played the events of the courageous passengers in my mind over and over and wondered many times what I would have done had I been on one of those flights, or if I had been one of the pilots.  I was enraged to see what had happened.  But I did not harbor a hatred for OBL or any single person.  Perhaps it’s because my worldview accounted for the existence of evil and I recognized the dangers posed by the radical Islamic agenda.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God called me to pray that day.  And I prayed that God would somehow win over OBL, that somehow God would reach into his black heart and redeem it just like he had redeemed mine.

OBL deserves death and hell.  But so do the rest of us.  If God is the standard, we are all in trouble.  We all need grace.  We tend to grade one another, to compare ourselves to others.  This works for us and against us.  “Oh, I may not be perfect but at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so.”  Or how about, “man, look at so-and-so, I’ll never be as good a Christian as he/she is.”  No, there’s only one comparison to be made, the comparison to Christ.  And we all fail that test.  OBL was decieved.  VERY deceived.  But are we any better off?  Do we play games with ourselves and convince ourselves that we’re good enough or better than others?  Remember the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14?  He prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  Or even this terrorist.  Really?  We are just like the Israelites.  We never learn, and we keep repeating the same sins.

Think maybe OBL was beyond God’s reach?  What about Paul?  Oh, but he was an apostle, a one-of-a-kind instance.  Really?  Check out the story of Thomas Tarrants, a terrorist himself, former president of the C.S. Lewis Institute (now their Director of Ministry) and good friend (I did not meet him until years after all of this).  You want a good story?  Google the CS Lewis Institute, write them a letter and they will send you a FREE copy of Tom’s testimony.  You will not regret it, and it will change how you think of others.  You will never again believe that anyone is unreachable.

So, how do I feel about the death of OBL.  Well, it certainly provides a certain amount of closure.  I was a little bit emotional because it represents bringing a tyrant to justice and the closing of a chapter of frustration; OBL had eluded us for so long and I did not want him to get away with his crimes (in this world).  And on the strategic level of warfare this represents a victory.  It will send a message to terrorists all over the globe and serve as a beacon of hope to those who live in fear of men like OBL.  Another part of me recognizes that on the tactical and operational levels of warfare this does not change a lot.  The Taliban and al-Qa’ida are still a threat and the brave American men and women in Afghanistan still face the same dangers they did on April 30.  And they are likely to see those threats increase as the Taliban steps up their efforts to avenge OBL’s demise.  But those same men and women will also find encouragement and a lift in morale to see this victory.  Additionally, those of us in uniform are not naïve enough to think that this going to topple the opposition.  This is not like taking out Hitler during WWII.  No, it’s a whole new kind of warfare.  One in which there are no front lines, no rear area, no obvious enemy.  I guess in the end, I’m a bit ambivalent.  I do not rejoice in the death of anyone, even OBL.  Instead, I am haunted by C.S. Lewis’ words: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”  I know which one I want to be.