A Red, White and Blue Heart

This is more than a medal...it'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!

The Truth? We Can’t Handle It

The courtroom is silent as the old military man gathers himself. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.

The courtroom is silent as the young lawyer stands waiting. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.

Finally, the old military man speaks.

"Have I made myself clear?"

“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

“You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post.

“Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.”

If you’ve seen the film A Few Good Men, or read the exceptional play by Aaron Sorkin upon which the film is based, you know that in the end Col. Nathan Jessup is not only a misguided fool but a pernicious bully, and we cheer when he is removed from the courtroom, guilty of an innocent man’s blood. In the end, he is the villain – the straw man that represents our government and its blind ambition, greed and callousness.

But the question, as I sit here typing before Memorial Day, is are we right to cheer for Jessup’s downfall?

Sure, in the movie, he’s an arrogant jerk who thinks he owns the world. Even in the speech I’ve quoted above, he references his belief that he provides “the blanket of freedom” under which we all live. We’re set up from the get-go to dislike this man – in fact, it reminds me of something David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on David Lynch. Wallace said, and I’m paraphrasing, that most movies come with a built-in morality that’s designed to mirror the audiences perceptions. The more accurately a movie diagnoses the audiences moral convictions and panders to them, the more popular the movie will turn out to be.

Wallace’s point is that the movies we love best are the ones that manipulate us the most. And in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin manipulate us with the best of them, most compellingly so in our disgust for Col. Jessup.

Now, I won’t bother to parse the politics of either Mr. Reiner or Mr. Sorkin, because I don’t believe they are the issue here. What I guess is bothering me this Friday of the Memorial Day weekend, is that we as the American audience can ever be swayed to dislike a solider at all.

Sure, there are those who enter into our voluntary military out of a misguided notion that they’ll be able to make better use of their socio- or psychopathic tendencies, but those soldiers are, I’ve been told more than once, quickly identified and rendered unfit for service. And while I’m aware that any large bureaucracy will have its inherent corruptions, I believe sincerely that the majority of the U.S. Armed Forces membership is comprised of good and noble men and women who sign their lives away a piece at a time to do those things which keep us free.

Those things which neither you nor I as civilians have the wherewithal to do.

In A Few Good Men we are led to revile Col. Jessup because he lives by the idea that his existence is meant to keep the American people free, and that means blood sometimes has to be shed. While the blood shed in the movie is the blood of an innocent Marine, we’re led to revile Jessup for being willing to shed blood at all. We’re led to the pacifistic notion that we can solve our problems without guns.

And while I wish that were true, all I need do is head on over to CNN.com and read the latest story from Kandahar or Kabul to realize that we do indeed live in a world that requires men with guns to protect us. We, the homebound many, are dependent upon the armed few. We, the clean civilians, are made free by the blood-covered soldiers who serve at our behest, which is the ultimate irony of A Few Good Men:

We hate Nathan Jessup for being willing to kill, but he’s only willing to kill because we the people have commissioned him to do so on our own behalf. Our dislike for Jessup is really a perverse self-loathing projected onto him, an unconscious rejection of the cost of our self-righteous contentedness.

I remember the first time I really thought about the relationship between the American people and the American soldier. I was in fifth grade, and we took a FOCUS trip to Washington D.C., a bunch of geeky intellectual kids cut loose on the nation’s capitol. One of our stops was the National Mall, and I somehow ended up at the Vietnam Memorial. Something about those thousands of tiny names cut deeply into the black granite made me stand still. While other memorials were to individuals, or were oblique statues meant to represent many people, this monument stood out because of the stunning care it took to display each and every name to the seeing eye.

I didn’t know how to articulate this of course, but it resonated with me: here, for all to see, was the human cost of war. Not abstractions or slogans or jargon, but the actual flesh and blood price for freedom. I remember just standing there, moved to tears, looking for a name I might recognize. I didn’t know anyone on the wall, but I felt as if I should.

And when I came across a man, dressed in tattered Army greens, who just stared at a single panel of the wall, at a single name, I knew that whatever price the men and women on that wall paid was far greater than any I was willing to pay. I knew, in my heart, that what they had seen and done and felt and remembered was burden that should be mine to carry, but one which I willingly shifted to their shoulders, not caring if the weight was too much.

It’s sort of like how a lot of people see the Cross of Christ. But I’ll leave that for another time.

I guess I just want us all to remember, as we grill out this weekend, or whenever we feel compelled to make smart remarks when we read of some military exercise gone wrong (or in the case of Osama Bin Laden, gone right), that we are not talking about abstractions. We’re not even talking about the fictional “bad guys” like Nathan Jessup, whom we can pretentiously hate without having to really think about it.

We’re discussing men and women, sons and daughters, who are willing to bear the price of bloodshed so that we may be free. They bear by proxy the blood that is on our hands.

Let’s make sure we take some time this weekend to be grateful.

And if we can’t be grateful, then let’s at least agree to shut up and give honor by not spewing dishonor.

It’s the very least we can do.