Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about honor and what it means to pay honor to someone. This might have to do with the fact that I attended a few funerals in the past few months or that my son is creeping ever-closer to his first birthday, which had made me consider what are the greatest of virtues I want to teach him. For whatever reason I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking through it and have been thinking back to my time of service in the Marine Corps.
I do not usually talk about my time in the service but with those that understand it because it is truly a different world. I have many stories about my time in service concerning the many places I went, people I interacted with, training, missions or operations, and homecomings. I would not say that I did anything extraordinary, and I have no outstanding medals but I will say that 4 years in the grunts (infantry) will have an impact on your life.
In thinking through all of this I want to share with you the first of my miliary memories. This particular day in my life was the day that I saw the highest amount of honor ever portrayed. Not just to one man but by every man I had the privilege to serve with.
It was April of 2003 and we had been in Iraq for a few weeks. Our chain of command was given a mission concerning the remains of a United States Marine SGT that was killed in action and his body had been taken by the enemy. They later learned that his remains were in the city nearby.
The next morning we formed in a patrol and headed south from our position in the desert into the city. I remember everyday being hot but with for some reason as the day began I remember thinking that it was hotter than usual. Sweat was pouring from our faces and the rest of our bodies.
As we approached the city we all became more and more aware of the danger we were about to walk into. The city on the other side of the river was known to have hostile enemy and we were told their numbers exceeded our own (estimated 220). We were heading into the city to find the remains of this Marine but were not positive of where his remains were or how long it would take to find them.
In we went, crossed the bridge into the river and walked East straight into the heart of the city. By this time it must have been near 10 am because the businesses were all in full swing and we were walking right down the middle of the streets. At first many people just watched but they began to follow us wondering where we were going and what we were doing. It was nerve-racking to be in the midst of crowds and consistently be checking hands, windows, doors and alleys for anything that seemed out-of-place, that could be a threat. I remember thinking at one time “I have never been here before how am I going to know what is out-of-place?”
We pressed forward as our CO (Commanding Officer) took us to the hospital and then the mosque. As he talked with the people we would set up perimeter and keep a watchful eye for anything hostile. I was in a machine gun squad and our teams would cover the avenues of approach, mainly the larger roads or alleyways. I remember when we arrived at the mosque my CO getting frustrated because he could not gain any more information. That is when he saw this one kid. (I say kid because he could not have been more than 18.) My CO noticed something was off with this kid, like he was scared or something, I guess.
He sent some Marines to go escort him over so that he could separate him from his friends. Then he had those men surround the young man and himself so that he could speak to him quietly. Just the kid, my CO and a translator. From this simple intimidation our CO learned that the people had buried his body when they heard we were coming for it. Our CO had somehow found one of the young men that actually buried the remains of our comrade.
At this point we had entered on the West side of the city were we crossed the river, traveled through the heart of the city to the near South border to the mosque and as we followed this young man to the North East we all prayed that he was not smarter than we thought and leading us into an ambush. That being our most constant fear all through the city.
We finally got to the East side of the city some way out-of-town where after crossing what seemed to be a highly trafficked road we found ourselves in the city dump. Now let me explain something real fast. The city dump is not this landfill that is a big mound of dirt with pretty grass and different levels so that you can not see where all the trash actually is. Oh no, this is basically a large piece of real-estate where people just dump their garbage. It is just laying all around you. The stench is awful, the flies are innumerable, and the wild dogs looking for scraps are abundant. This is where the young man lead us.
So once he pointed to the location that he had buried our comrade we laid down in a perimeter around the site and took up a defensive position so that we could dig. Our CO, thinking ahead, had a few Marines strap shovels to their backs and they began digging. Again I was with the machine guns, who are very valuable in such situations and therefore was not called upon to help dig. They took turns and eventually came to his corpse 6 feet under the trash.
Once the Marine’s remains were pulled from the ground and placed in a bag, they laid him in wait for the convoy that was to bring trucks for our evacuation. The convoy was on stand by on the West side of the city awaiting the call. When the call went out we were all excited that this could be over. By this time we had already walked through the hottest part of the day and it had taken quite a toll on us.
We waited patiently for our chain of command to relay down to us what the next step was as our eyes were glued to the ever-growing crowd of people coming out of the city. At the time it felt like there were thousands of people around us. We had no idea how many of them wanted to hurt us or had weapons. We were just trying to stay calm and wait for further instructions.
The convoy sent back their reply and we found that they were not coming for us. Their trucks had not yet been armored up with bullet proof plates and so for them to come through the heart of the city could have been a nightmare waiting to happen. So what then do we do. We walk.
Up until this point I hope that you are tracking with the honor of our military. The highest promise of we leave no man behind and the drive to find a lost comrade and bring him home to American soil, but this is where the honor gets nuts. This is when this day became one of the biggest in my life.
As we began to pick up and get ready to move we were given order or movement and last-minute direction, I watched our Company First SGT, First Sergeant Scarborough, grab 5 other Marines and tell them that this body never touches the sand again. They all reached down and grabbed one of the handles on the bag and at the count of 1…2…3 they all lifted.
Once we started walking we were heading West as we got closer to the city with every step. We started walking through the heart of the city, right down main street. Every few blocks you would see one of the Senior men in our company grab 6 Marines and tell them to run out and relieve the men carrying the SGT. Each time I remember seeing First Sergeant Scarborough look at the Marine who was sent to relieve him and sent him back. Each time he said something, but I was not close enough to hear it.
We all walked through the city on the side walks still clearing doorways, windows, and alleys while consistently watching the crowd that seemed to be everywhere. Our eyes were bouncing between potential dangers as fast as we could. While we walked on the sidewalks First Sergeant and the other Marines walked right down the middle of the street.
As we reached the West side of the city we approached the river and crossed the bridge. Each man on a handle must have changed out at least 10 times except our First Sergeant, who did not change out even once.
We approached the trucks and as we set up a perimeter around the vehicles they loaded the body into the back of a 7-ton truck and we set into our defensive perimeter. By the time we were in place the crowd that had followed us through the city had come over the bridge and seemed to have doubled in size.
We were all in our positions and watching the crowd again and were surrounded by hundreds of people. Then the medevac came in. When those blades turn and gets closer to the ground they kick up so much sand that it pushed the crowd back a good bit. The back of the CH-53 Super Stallion opened up and the ramp lowered to the ground. You could see the flight crew come out to help, awaiting the remains of the Marine.
First Sergeant Scarborough and 5 other Marines were waiting next to the truck which held the remains and just as they had carried the body through the city they grabbed the handles of the bag and started walking toward the helicopter.
One of the other Marines in our company started going around the perimeter letting us know that every other man will need to stay in position while the other Marines will be called to attention. They were about 20 feet away from the ramp and our CO called those Marines to attention. A few steps later he called “Present Arms,” which is a salute.
Roughly 100 Marines brought their hands up strong to their sweaty brows. They held their salute until the Marines had taken the remains of our fallen comrade into the helicopter and upon their exit our CO called out “Order Arms” to end the salute.
As the CO called out “At Ease” all the Marines dropped back into their position of the perimeter of our defensive position. At that time, I was so exhausted that I was not aware of the significance of what had just taken place.
Since then I have been home for quite some time I have had the opportunity to learn the significance of what took place that day. While some people see honor in movies and in books that portray acts of honor embodied in men that are fiction we are greatly privileged to be in situations where men with their own flesh and blood show honor to those who have sacrificed so much.
I have been in such places at such times to either be a part of or be a witness of a level of honor that others only read of in books and see in films. These situations have been of great value to me and have caused me to give honor to those I have the opportunity to.
Here are a few ways you can do the same:
- The next time you see a man or woman wearing a hat that says Veteran. Take a moment to say “Thank you.”
- When you have the opportunity to do the same to any Police Officer take the time to do the same.
- Go to a nursing home and spend time showing respect and giving honor to those that live there. Remember that the men are not the only ones that sacrifice. Their wives and children did as well and some still do. Be sure to Thank them as well.
- When anyone does something well take the time to recognize it. Whether it be a parent, a teacher, a mentor, or a friend.