W. Thomas Smith, Jr

Speaking to some 500-plus Marines and their families on Saturday evening in Columbia, S.C., retired Marine Col. Myron C. Harrington explained in simple terms why on Apr. 22, 2008, two young Marines – Cpl. Jonathan Yale, 21, and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 19 – stood their ground blasting away at a suicide truck-bomber speeding toward their barracks in Ramadi, Iraq, when an Iraqi policeman standing guard with them broke and ran for his life.

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“I believe it was the legacy of 234 years of Marine Corps history,” said Harrington, who received the Navy Cross for his actions as a Marine company commander during the bloody battle for the Vietnamese city of Hué in 1968. “In those six seconds, they [Yale and Haerter] saw visions of our past warriors.”

Yale and Haerter were killed when the truck detonated. But their actions prevented the truck from reaching the barracks (a joint U.S.-Iraqi outpost) and saved the lives of 50 Marines and Iraqis. Like Harrington, the two Marines were awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.

Harrington’s explanation – for why two young Americans with their entire lives in front of them unhesitatingly sacrificed their lives – was as clear and honest as any I have ever heard.

But I think it may be difficult for those who have never worn the cloth of the United States (much less the eagle, globe, and anchor – the emblem of Marines) to truly get their heads around this idea of legacy.

Fortunately for me, I saw the type of commitment Harrington speaks of among young Americans in Iraq when I was there in 2007, and it had everything to do with legacy. There were even discussions about it: Young Marines would ask Old Corps veterans questions about whether or not the new breed was as tough and committed as the old breed. Jokingly, the Old Corps Marines would tell the younger guys, “no.” Privately, the Old Corps Marines would talk in terms of being personally comforted by the fact that the new breed was - and is - every bit as tough, committed, and brave as their predecessors; and that the legacy was still intact.

Looking back 25 years ago, I clearly remember witnessing this indescribable transformation from innate human self-preservation toward this unflinching, sacrificial commitment among countless recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. And the foundation for this commitment was legacy.

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor. He is the author of six books, and he has covered war and conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and Lebanon. Visit him online at http://www.uswriter.com.
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