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Thu July 29, 2004
Honor, courage and sacrifice; paying tribute to the bravery of American youth.
By Paul Wilkes
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Paul's commentary.]
In the local section of the Wilmington Star-News, we?ve all seen the stories. Most of the time, we pass them over; they have gotten to be so sadly routine. The death of another Camp Lejeune Marine. Small stories, usually, with little more than a hometown, Marine unit, what part of Iraq or Afghanistan and the circumstances.
I had occasion to visit Camp Lejeune last week and I was thinking about those small stories as I approached the main gate. The grass along the roadways is as neatly clipped as any Marine?s hair. Not a hint of litter; the buildings well maintained. The sentries are professional, serious, trim? and so achingly young. There, off the road, is the Beirut monument, ?They Came in Peace? it reads, tribute to the 241 killed at Marine Barracks in 1983. And there Tarawa Terrace, remembering that brave landing and battle in the South Pacific during World War II.
There, fluttering in the hot July wind were colorfully painted,,, bed sheets. One of Lejeune?s units had just come back. Welcome home to this gunnery sergeant and that lance corporal. Their loved ones, their children rejoiced. Prayers were answered; they were safe. Their names would not be in one of those small stories we see.
My mind leapt back to the Wilmington airport many months before where I had encountered one of those Lejeune Marines on his way to Iraq. He was in peak physical and mental shape, ready, so ready for the combat for which he had been well trained. I had been an officer in the military and I knew ? he was your ideal enlisted man. Great attitude. Morale was no problem here.
But at Lejeune this trip, I saw other Marines; all had already been to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Again, so achingly young. But they had seen combat. They had seen death. Death of the enemy. Death and injury to men of their own units.
One young Marine displayed his well-tanned forearm. A tiny scar marked where shrapnel had entered and then, greedily taking the flesh in its path, emerged through what was now a much larger scar on the other side of his arm.
Fallujah RPG. Rocket propelled grenade. Hit the side of his HumVee. But probably didn?t explode, just shattered. If it had exploded, he allowed, I wouldn?t be talking to him that day.
The excitement of combat is a young man?s prerogative.. It does not usually last long in that form. All wars are horrible. Those were no longer just words to this Marine. In Iraq, he said, it was even worse because the very people he came to liberate might be the people who would kill him.
Camp Lejeune, just a little over an hour north of us, is home to some 45,000 military personnel. We owe them so much ? we owe those young wives and children a debt of our gratitude. We have not really had to sacrifice during our current wars.
They have, night after sleepless night.
These Marines are loyal sons and daughters of America and none of you, going around this base, would think otherwise. But there are two specific Marines, one so eager to serve and fight and the other, chastened by his experience, that now haunt my memory.
It?s difficult to be a fighting man or woman today, yet so needed. And we, as a citizenry, must never misuse their bravery, their dedication. Or needlessly, their lives.
Paul Wilkes teaches in the English department at UNCW.