My eldest son has decided that he wants to be a marine. His plan is to enter the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and then serve his country as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.
My son is still at an age when plans for the future change with the seasons. It may be that time brings about a change of his mind. Even so, when he announced his decision, I couldn’t help but smile. One often hears that this young generation is consumed with narcissism and the accumulation of wealth. When my son informed me that he wished to dedicate his life to serving his country, I felt a real sense of pride.
As we approach the 234th anniversary of this nation’s independence, I have begun to think about what that type of service truly entails. The Marine Corp recruiting billboards state that the Marines do not accept applications–just commitments. What is the depth of that commitment?
The answer became clear to me a few weeks ago as I stood on the grounds of the Los Angeles National Cemetery. I was participating in a Memorial Day program, which gave me an opportunity to speak to veterans, some of whom had been wounded and even disfigured during combat. It is one thing to objectively recognize the dangers inherent in military service, and it is quite another for a father to subjectively realize that one of the headstones in the cemetery might someday bear the name of his son. Suddenly, I began to think that a medical career might not be so bad. “Son,” I said. “Have you thought about attending UCLA?”
Nope. He has his heart set on becoming a leatherneck like his new hero, John Basilone.
“Manila John” Basilone was a platoon sergeant and the first Marine in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor. During the battle for Guadalcanal, Basilone single handedly fought off an entire company of Japanese soldiers. Armed with only a .45-caliber hand gun and a machine gun, which he cradled in his arms, Basilone fought furiously throughout the night until he was reached by reinforcements. The morning light revealed hundreds of dead Japanese soldiers surrounding Basilone’s position. He was, as Isaac Hayes sang, “a bad mutha!” Shut yo mouth!
After receiving his medal, Basilone turned down a promotion to second lieutenant saying he was just “a plain soldier.” He could have remained safe, warm, and fat in the states, but Basilone chose to rejoin his fellow troops in the thick of the fighting. Basilone lost his life on a beach on the island of Iwo Jima at the age of 28. For his heroism, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second highest decoration for valor.
Basilone was a leader of men. He inspired those around him to dig a little deeper and find courage that they didn’t think they had. The tattoo on Basilone’s forearm read, “Death before Dishonor!” He truly led by example.
There is no part of me that wishes my son to die the hero’s death of John Basilone. However, if my son lives his life with as much courage and integrity as “Manila John” did, he will be quite a man.
On July Fourth we celebrate the idea that all men should live free. Alas, that freedom is purchased at a price and from time to time an invoice will arrive marked, “payable on demand.” The price is steep: Fathers will lose boys with whom they used to play catch; mothers will lose children they suckled at their breast. But what choice is there?
It is the nature of men that some will seek to exploit others; the strong will attempt to enslave the weak, and the evil will seek to infect the good. Freedom requires that some among us man the towers in order to protect the weak, defend the good, and secure the blessings of liberty.
Of course, peace is always preferable to war, but peace is secured through strength not through capitulation. Winston Churchill said: “There is no virtue in a tame acquiescence in evil. To protest against cruelty and wrong, and to strive to end them, is the mark of a man.”
Thank God for men like John Basilone and the thousands of others that have given their lives and bodies fighting for what is right. Thank God as well for the many thousands of parents who looked into the eyes of their children and wished them God’s speed.
Ultimately, my son may choose to follow another path. However, if time does not deter him and he chooses to become a Marine, I will be a proud father. Yes, I will worry and I will pray that no harm comes to him. I will also stick out my chest, confident that he is putting his life on the line in service of something greater than himself.