[Note: I left active-duty seven months ago, but in honor of Veterans’ Day and the 230th birthday of the Marine Corps I wanted to share a story about why I love being a Marine.]
During the late ‘90s I served a three year sting on recruiting duty in Olympia, WA. The long hours and tedium of dealing with teenagers was wearing me down so on a rainy October day my partner and I decided to take a trip out to Evergreen State College. Our area of Washington wasn’t exactly friendly to recruiters but that particular school had a reputation for being so unwelcoming that it was rumored that no one from our office had visited in the past ten years.
Evergreen, considered one of the most liberal schools in the country, prided itself on being one of the first schools to hold protest against the first Gulf War. The only thing that we shared in common was that our organizations both had latin mottos. (For the Corps: Semper Fidelis, “always faithful”; for the Greeners: Omnia Extares, a latinization of the sixties catchphrase “let it all hang out.”) As we stepped on campus in our dress blue uniforms we prepared ourselves for what was sure to be an interesting visit.
When we arrived, though, we were disappointed by our reception. No spontaneous protests broke out, no one called us names, no confrontations with patchouli wearing hippie chicks. Instead, we received a cool reception. Stares and smirks and polite bemusement, but no one went out of their way to be rude or unkind. They simply ignored us, figuring that we would soon just go away without a fuss.
We walked over to the student union, ordered some lunch and sat at a corner table by ourselves. Most of the students did their best to avoid making eye contact but one young girl, dressed in Birkenstocks and sporting white-girl dreadlocks, walked up to us and smiled.
“Are you two Canadian Mounties?” she asked. I smiled, thinking that she was making fun of our uniforms. Then I realized she was serious. “Um no,“ I said, “We’re U.S. Marines.“
“Oh,” she said, looking puzzled. “So what do Marines do?”
I invited her to join us and we talked for several minutes. She was a junior who grew up in Aberdeen, the hometown of Kurt Cobain. Her lack of understanding about the military turned out to be genuine; she had truly never been exposed to Marines before.
As we returned to the office, my buddy was fuming. He couldn’t believe that anyone could make it to college without having even the most basic knowledge of the military. While I agreed that it reflected poorly on the educational system, it had a surprisingly different affect on me: I couldn’t remember ever being more proud to be a Marine.
I served my country because I love freedom. I love it so much that I was willing to sacrifice some of my own freedom, or even my life if necessary, to secure it for myself and my nation. The young girl had the luxury of being uninformed about the military because my fellow Marines had bought that liberty for her. For 230 years, Marines had paid the cost to allow her to have the freedom to think – or not think – as she chooses.
We often say that freedom can only truly be appreciated when it’s taken away. While that may be true, I believe that freedom can only be enjoyed when it can be taken for granted. When we have to concentrate on each breath, we cannot enjoy our health. When a country’s citizens have to remain constantly vigilant, they cannot enjoy liberty.
After 9/11, we lost much of our innocence and it’s unlikely you’ll find college students, even at Evergreen, who are unaware of the Marines. But it has been four years since the terrorists attacked us on our own soil; time enough to allow us to relax our guard, if only slightly. We haven’t won the war on terrorism yet, and we have many battles ahead — including years of hard work in Iraq. But we should all take pride in the men and women of our military whose constant vigilance keeps the enemies outside our gates.
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Veteran’s Day. On their way to the lake and the cookouts a few of our fellow countrymen will remember to shake our hands and thank us for our service. While I’ll appreciate the generous sentiment what I really want is to see the day when they can take us for granted again.
Because there are Marines, I know that day will come.
Semper Fi and Happy Birthday, Marines.
[About the photo: Pearl Harbor survivor Houston James embraces Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Graunke Jr. during a Veterans Day commemoration in Dallas. Graunke, a member of a Marine ordnance-disposal team, lost a hand, leg, and eye while defusing a bomb in Iraq in July of 2003. (Photo by Jim Mahoney/Dallas Morning News) A poignant reminder that for some people, every day is veterans’ day.]