With that in mind, I would like to share a speech I made exactly five years ago, at the Marine Corps Ball for the San Angelo/Abilene area. Elements of this unit had just returned from Afghanistan while others were making ready to go.
To say that I was honored, as well as humbled, to be asked to speak to such fine young men would be a huge understatement. There are so many, many outstanding Marines much more deserving of such a high privilege. I know because I have stood shoulder to shoulder with those men in the past.
Of all the many blessings of my life, those experiences are some of my most greatly treasured.
So to all of you, Marines as well as American military veterans of every rank and service:
Thank you and may God bless you and yours.
And may God bless America!
Ben H. English
Author of ‘Yonderings’ (TCU Press)
‘Destiny’s Way’ (Creative Texts Publishers)
‘Out There: Essays on the Lower Big Bend’ (Creative Texts Publishers)
Facebook: Ben H. English
‘Graying but still game’
Good evening and thank you for having me…
It is a real pleasure to be among such a magnificent bunch of life takers and heartbreakers decked out in the sharpest military uniform known the man, Marine dress blues. If there is a recruiter in the audience, tonight just might be the night for me to pull another hitch.
That is if the Corps would recruit a 57-year-old, 1976 issue Marine who will never see another 300 PFT again. But I still know how to shoot and put steel on target, if that counts for any sort of reenlistment bonus.
When Staff Sergeant Rubio contacted me about speaking at this illustrious affair, I first asked him if he was sure he had the right guy. He said he was certain of that, and that you Marines would want to hear from a different generation who wore the eagle, globe and anchor.
Being the cautious sort that I am, I first consulted with Mrs. English, better known as the family company gunny. Her greatest concern? You won’t be able to shut me up. So if she starts giving some unusual hand and arm signals not taught at infantry training school, you’ll know what’s up.
I will try to keep my remarks brief, so that we get on with the business at hand. At one time I remember hearing the Officer’s Guide had only one ironclad rule for a Marine Corps Birthday Ball: “Make it a good one.”
Gentlemen, do not let your skipper down in that regard.
But I do have a message for you from an old geezer. Let’s start with three words that have recently fallen out of favor in our society; Duty, Honor, Country.
Yeah, I know. They come from West Point and it’s their motto. But to Marines those three words go to our very soul, down deep where we live and breathe. Besides, where would the Army be without the Marine Corps stealing things and making them better?
Again, three simple words. And in any life well-lived, it’s the simple things that are most important, not to mention the hardest to accomplish.
The question is, why don’t we hear more of those three words outside of the military in general, and the Marine Corps in particular? They shouldn’t be just for us, but inscribed on the hearts of every American citizen.
Yet somewhere along the way we strayed from them as a people, and our country is worse off because of that. It seems we have gone from “Ask not what your country can do for you” to “What’s in it for me?” in a really short time.
However, I can tell you where you can find living, breathing examples of those three words; in this room. Every man jack of you embody them or you wouldn’t be in that uniform. In fact, I would wager the most cynical among you had those words squarely in mind when you took your oath to defend this nation and its Constitution.
Remember your oath? You should. We all should, because if it wasn’t for our fellow Marines who went before and stayed true to it, there wouldn’t be any Marine Corps or United States of America.
I would also ask you to remember something else, there is no expiration date on that oath. I will say to you as I have said to my own sons and nephews: “Hold fast to those three words and their full meaning, as well as that oath, because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride for the foreseeable future.”
You know, some say that 9-11 ushered in a whole new ball game. But I can tell you from those of us who knew better, who had been involved in the fight and were reading the signs. God help me, the first thought that crossed my mind when I heard the news was; “What took them so long?”
All of you know what has happened since, some of you have already experienced personally the horrendous acts our enemy revels in. Do you care to contemplate what they are capable of if allowed to go unchallenged? To our nation, our people and the institutions we took that oath to protect?
The world has always been a dangerous place; but it is even more so now due to this malignant evil and because so many of our own ignore the hard, cold facts of what will happen if that evil continues to spread.
And I am not talking about the tit-for-tat mentality so prevalent these days. I am talking about grabbing those fanatical bastards by the throat and keep squeezing until they stop wiggling. I am speaking of victory, a victory where those little black flags would be as extinct as the Dodo bird.
By some crazy stretch of the imagination many others think that we can somehow ‘reason’ with those who would have us all. Frankly, I don’t know what planet these people come from.
Tell me, just how do you reason with raving lunatics who want to see all of us dead, our nation destroyed, and our civilization blotted from mankind’s collective memory?
So we live in difficult times, but if it weren’t for difficult times there would be no reason for the Marine Corps. Yet the truly ironic thing is that the Marine Corps not only survives in the harshest of climes, but it also thrives because that is its reason for being. And you, all of you, are a part of the program because you are the Marine Corps.
And when it really gets right down to it, would you have it any other way?
When the proverbial cat mess hits the fan and America has its back to the wall, they call upon two entities; God and the United States Marine Corps. Everything else kind of falls in behind there, and often enough those things that were once believed important are hardly given a second thought. At least, until the fighting and dying is over.
The American public knows that no matter how bad the situation or how much they have neglected those two entities, God and the Marine Corps will always be there; always faithful and ready to lay it all on the line.
That willingness brings to mind a conversation I once had with an acquaintance of mine, Charlie Marvin. Charlie is a retired Army light colonel, and one of the most highly decorated combat vets I know.
He was a well-regarded infantry officer in Vietnam, as well as a Huey chopper pilot in different tours. That’s the sort of stuff that either makes you a walking salad bar or very dead, very quickly. Needless to say, I admire Charlie very much.
However, that doesn’t mean we don’t go at each other in those typical Marine Corps-Army volleys that come so naturally. I remember him giving me a hard time about Marines being pure knuckle draggers and dumber than a bunch of New York City alley apples. I took that football and ran for the opposite goal line, pointing out that at least we didn’t have to resort to comic books to keep our M16s running smoothly.
True story by the way; when the M16 rifle was first issued in Vietnam the Army had a hellacious time teaching their troops how to keep them functioning correctly. The Department of the Army had to come out with comic books to teach their soldiers how to clean rifles.
I always thought if you had given those Army folks a couple of days at Parris Island with some Marine drill instructors, that little problem would have been resolved in record time. But I digress…
Anyway, during one of our differences of opinion he made the comment that the best thing the Marine Corps had going for it was PR.
I was silent for a moment and then replied in all sincerity; “No, Charlie. The best thing the Marine Corps has going for it is those thousands upon thousands of lance corporals and PFCs who would rather die, than have that PR proven wrong.”
Now it was his turn to be quiet and do some thinking. Then he admitted, “You know, you’re right.”
You see, Charlie Marvin is a fighting man and he knows what other fighting men are made of. He also knows that what wins battles and wars are those who make the point of the spear; the men who stand in the breach and keep standing, no matter what comes.
That is what it takes to have the reputation we enjoy this evening; courtesy of those long lines of Leathernecks, Jarheads, Devil Dogs and Gyrenes who went before us. Those who stood tall and paid the price at Tripoli, Peking, Belleau Woods, Nicaragua, Wake, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, the Chosin, Hue City, Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, Beirut, Grenada, Kuwait, Fallujah, Helmand Province, and hundreds of other hell holes that most Americans can’t even spell, much less find on a map.
To you NCOs, Staff NCOs and officers who command those lance corporals and PFCs: They, along with you, are our nation’s greatest protector and resource. So, protect them! Don’t be a ‘supervisor’ as is so popular in our present culture. Be a leader.
Supervisors are as common as pig tracks and about as useful when it comes to gaining the loyalty and trust of men. Many organizations have and will topple over on their collective keisters because of that. They are out of the fight before it ever really gets started.
Leaders are a rare commodity and there are never enough of them, especially when the bad guys are on the roof and hollering to come in. Swallow your fears, take the point, and say two other words so simple but so very hard to live by. “FOLLOW ME!”
Remember this too, good leaders mentor future good leaders. If someone is not doing their part in that respect, they need to find another line of work. And wherever that place may be, it needs to be far away from the Marine Corps or any other branch of the military.
Now you lance corporals and PFCs, you need to remember that you are led by some of our nation’s most capable leaders. They will make their mistakes, but so will you. It is your duty to support and care of them, same as they do for you. That is what honorable men do for each other.
Together you make for an unbeatable team that as Chester Puller once said, “all the communists in Hell cannot overcome.”
That same thought goes for jihadists, North Koreans, Red Chinese, the Iranians, the Taliban, Al Queda, unruly mobs with automatic weapons, common street thugs, or whoever else is unlucky enough to meet you in the field of battle.
You wives and sweethearts are part of the team, also. Do not ever kid yourself in thinking otherwise, or allow anyone to say differently. The one thing that a Marine in harm’s way thinks of most often and is of supreme importance, is his family and loved ones. That is why he’s out there in the first place!
It used to be that families and loved ones were considered safe because they were on ‘the home front’. I think we could all agree there is no such thing anymore, not in the type of conflict we find ourselves now in.
You are part of the Marine Corps, even if you didn’t enlist. That makes you very special in my eyes and in the eyes of my fellow Marines. It also makes you a special target in the soulless eyes of some others I could name.
Make yourself a hard target. Stay vigilant, stay strong and stay ready to defend yourself and your home if the need arises. Being so will make whatever your Marine faces a little easier to bear, and make those monsters of the night go someplace else to practice their murdering ways.
Support each other, depend on each other, trust in each other, and love each other like there is no tomorrow. Because there just might not be one.
Now, allow me to key you in on a little secret of mine. It has become more apparent to me as the years have gone by; I guess it’s a change of life when you see those lines in your face and gray in your hair.
When I was young all my heroes were older than me. They were the men who served in “The Big One”, as they used to put it. Or some of those who went to the frozen wastes of Korea and heard those Chinese bugles in that biting cold, or fought in the jungles of Vietnam doing the best they knew how.
Those who answered the call with honor and fidelity, and served as role models for what I expected out of myself.
But as I have grown older, my heroes have tended to grow younger. The geographical names have changed as well as the enemy, but my present heroes are cut from the same cloth as those I knew as a kid.
You guys are my heroes. You are our nation’s finest, and you honor and humble me by having me here tonight.
Cherish each other as if you were family, because you are and nothing will ever change that. Cherish the good times and camaraderie you find tonight because the bad times will come, and you will need these memories to keep your purpose clear.
Do not ever forget who you are and what you stand for. Because it is you and those like you who have kept the wolf from the door for 240 years, and you could never live with yourself if you failed in that sacred duty.
The Marine Corps will always be your one true alma mater. The friends you make here will be your brothers for all time. When you are old and gray and look back on what your life was, you will take pride in who you were and what you stood for. Those will be the days when you read news accounts of faraway places and events, of numerical designations and acronyms that won’t mean anything to most folks.
But they will to you. Because they are just not acronyms and numbers to you, but rather they are your people. And no matter how much time passes they will always be your people, and you will support and pray for them with your final breath.
There is a book written by a former Marine named Michael Norman entitled These Good Men: Friendships Forged From War. Every man in this room needs to read that book if he hasn’t already. It speaks so eloquently of the friendships you will have in the Marine Corps.
In that books is a passage I would like to share with you; my brothers in arms of a different generation. It reads like this…
“I now know why men who have been to war yearn to reunite. Not to tell Stories or look at old pictures. Not to laugh or weep. Comrades gather because they long to be with the men who once acted their best, men who suffered and sacrificed, who were stripped raw, right down to their humanity. I did not pick these men. They were delivered by fate. But I know them in a way I know no other men. I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life.
They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another. I cannot say where we are headed. Ours are not perfect friendships; those are the province of legend and myth. A few of my comrades drift far from me now, sending back only occasional word. I know that one day even these could fall to silence. Some of the men will stay close, a couple, perhaps, always at hand. As long as I have memory, I will think of them all, every day. I am sure that when I leave this world, my last thought will be of my family and my comrades.
…Such good men.”
Be those good men and good Marines and again, don’t ever forget who you are and what you stand for. Our continuing freedom and security, as well as the generations to come, depends on that.
May God bless you, the Marine Corps and the United States of America.
Oh, and one other thing, ‘Devil Dogs’…