Thoughts on Veteran’s Day by SgtMaj Michael Burke, USMC (Ret)
On the morning of April 22, two young Marines manned an entry control point in the city of Ramadi, Iraq. Corporal Yale and Lance Corporal Haerter were from two different battalions conducting a turnover of the battlespace, transferring control from one battalion to the other. Inside this compound with the Iraqis were about forty Marines, some sleeping after a long night patrol, some going about their daily routine.
Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It is a dangerous space which requires upright character and a strong moral foundation to navigate. Sometimes, in the moment of pressure, it is too late to give much thought to the dilemma. Often, the nature of the character we’ve developed chooses our course long before the situation arrives at our door.
At about 9:30 that morning, a twenty-foot tanker truck broke through the outer security perimeter of Iraqi soldiers and headed towards an old flimsy metal gate (the stimulus). At 500 yards, the Marines at the entry control point recognized the danger and began putting well aimed rifle fire on the cab of the truck (the response). At twenty-five yards, an American machine gun opened up fire, and the truck finally came to a halt about ten yards from the post. The truck exploded in a massive fireball. Approximately 2,000 pounds of explosive had ignited. Corporal Yale and Lance Corporal Haerter, having stood their ground, were so close they never really stood a chance against the blast.
The Iraqis manning the gate with the Marines had run (their response). An hour or two later, when senior Marine Commander General Kelly and the Iraqi commander came to view the blast hole that was seven feet deep and twenty feet across, the Iraqi commander said to General Kelly, “Why didn’t they run? My men ran and they lived.” General Kelly responded, “They couldn’t run. I hope someday you will understand that, but they couldn’t run because there were forty Marines on the inside of that gate depending on them.” Corporal Yale and Lance Corporal Haerter made their decision long before a bomb laden truck ever crossed their path.
Throughout his epistles, Paul calls on believers to take on the attributes of a soldier. Though it may seem odd for Christians to emulate soldierly virtues at first, there is a purposeful and practical reason. He uses military metaphors a number of times in his letters to the Philippians, the Corinthians, Philemon, Timothy, and most memorably to the Ephesians. There are also numerous Old Testament examples of warriors who conducted themselves righteously in the sight of God. Joshua, Caleb, Gideon, and David come immediately to mind.
Soldierly virtues are also often associated with loyalty, duty, sacrifice, and noble comportment. It was a Roman centurion who displayed more faith than anyone in Israel when he approached Jesus on behalf of his ill servant. (Matthew 8:1-13). In the book of Acts, Cornelius, a centurion, and his entire household were the first Gentiles baptized into the church. At the cross, when the attending centurion witnessed the events as Christ died, he praised God (Luke 23:47)
On July 18, 2010, Corporal Joe Wrightsman was leading a patrol crossing the Helmand river when an Afghan National Policeman (ANP) was swept away in the river behind him (the stimulus). Without hesitation, Cpl Wrightsman, in full personal protective gear, dove into the water in an effort to rescue the ANP (the response). He was last seen about fifty feet downstream when he surfaced briefly. Four other Marines had dropped their gear and went in after him but were unable to find anything. The entire Marine Expeditionary Force threw all its efforts into recovering Cpl Wrightsman. Every type of asset, aircraft, equipment, and personnel were employed. Taliban forces began to move in from the north in an effort to capture Cpl Wrightsman’s body before the Marines. They were thwarted after two days when the Americans recovered both bodies.
Joe Wrightsman was one of my Marines back in the 2000s. He was charismatic, funny, a natural leader. Lean, tough, and fit, he easily fit the role of an infantry squad leader. Younger guys immediately looked up to him. By the time I rotated out of the battalion, Wrightsman decided to extend his tour and deploy with his squad to Afghanistan.
Upon hearing what happened on July 18, nearly every one of us that knew him immediately thought, “But Wrightsman can’t swim!” Fortunately, America still breeds the kind of people with a bias for action who don’t dwell on what they can’t do. I imagine Wrightsman thought to himself, “I can’t let this guy down!” Then he heedlessly went after a man who wasn’t a fellow Marine or even an American.
I remember Wrightsman had a tattoo of the Green Lantern symbol on his arm. Many young men have joined the service with dreams of doing heroic deeds and exploits. No doubt Wrightsman was no different, hoping to emulate the valor of his childhood heroes.
One of my last acts as Wrightsman’s 1stSgt was to submit him for meritorious promotion to Corporal. At the time of his death, his current 1stSgt had submitted him for meritorious Sergeant. It was once remarked to me that all Joe cared about was being a Marine and taking care of his squad. That’s just about my breed of Marine, I’d say.
I think it’s no coincidence the Marine Corps Birthday, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving all fall in the same month. As we prepare ourselves for the rigors of the holiday season, take a moment to consider those few who made the decision to stand in the gap, negotiate the thin treacherous space between stimulus and response, and do the right thing. When the time comes, pray each of us can do the same.
To face the challenges of tomorrow, we must foster moral discipline and recognize the “space between.” Take positive action and purposely choose to be part of something better.
“And each man stands with his face in the light of his own drawn sword. Ready to do what a hero can.”
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning