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.
“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.
Which brings us to this week’s two important singularly American anniversaries: The 234th birthday of our Marine Corps (Nov. 10, 1775) – a very special day for me and every other active, Reserve, retired, and former Marine (there are no ex-Marines) – and Veterans Day, which honors all U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen.
What is it about military veterans that makes them – us – different from non-veterans, in a way that is perhaps impossible to understand if you are a non-veteran, and equally impossible for veterans to adequately describe? In other words, why would young men like Yale and Haerter make a “last stand” as they did when they were clearly just as afraid as anyone else would be in the same set of circumstances (Remember, courage is not the absence of fear: It is doing what one knows to be right despite the fear.)?
Does it mean they – and generally speaking, all – military veterans are somehow better human beings than non-veterans? Absolutely not. No one is born a soldier, though I do believe some people are predisposed to military service.
Harrington quotes the late Col. John W. Ripley, also a Navy Cross recipient, who said:
“Every Marine understands that in war he will be asked, and expected, to do the impossible. He will do his duty while ignoring physical hardship, personal danger and sacrifice, and the certainty of his reward. He will do this simply because it is expected of a Marine – his Corps and his country expect nothing less. And he will always honor the reputation established by the great Marines who preceded him.”
So perhaps it as simple as “legacy.” But within that legacy, there are the instilled soldierly virtues of honor (and honor’s sub-virtues of honesty, loyalty, integrity, and a sense of justice), courage (we could talk all day on this), and commitment, which brings us full-circle back to Yale and Haerter, their commitment to protecting the Corps’ legacy, their commitment to their buddies, and their commitment to defending their dusty little posts on that fateful day.
On this Veterans Day, let’s remember to thank God for this legacy – which far too many of us take for granted – for without it, there would-and-will be no America.