In libraries and bookstores I used to find myself in the history section, leafing through books about conflicts from years’ past. The photos wedged in the middle of these books often caught my eye. They invariably showed an array of young men in uniform, standing with their rifles and machine guns, maybe in formation at parade rest, smoking, joking, smiling or frowning. Usually trying to look tough.
I used to wonder who these guys were and what they were like. Turns out they were us.
The above photo of my platoon – my first – was taken aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Saipan in February 2003, about six weeks before we crossed the line of departure into Iraq. The little red flag in the middle is the company guidon, which ended up seeing quite a bit of action over the ensuing years – six combat deployments starting with the Iraqi invasion nearly a decade ago. The most recent for my old battalion – 2d Battalion, 8th Marines – was Afghanistan in 2011.
Most of us went on other deployments and turned the page to start new chapters in our lives, but there was no time like that first time. It was my first platoon after finishing Infantry Officer Course, my first time aboard a ship not bound for a Caribbean vacation, our first time shooting live ammo at people and wishing the recipients harm. Of course, we certainly were not the first to go through all of this. The path had been well worn by the bootprints of many others under much tougher circumstances, as pictured below.
When all is said and done, we were one link in the chain. A proud one to be sure, but ultimately a short, humble strand within a long blood stripe that began at a Philadelphia pub on November 10, 1775 and streaked across the ages in places like the Philippines, China, the Caribbean, Central America, France, the South Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The cliche is that these were ordinary guys who ended up doing extraordinary things. Some, like Jason Dunham, were standouts in life long before they put on a uniform.
Others were already stars in a very different field.
Through the years, when you saw a Marine in his Dress Blue uniform, a girl ready to shed her virtue wasn’t far behind.
But not a cold beer in sight, except in the warm hands of a Marine.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, raise your glass to the fallen, to absent friends, to the ones who went before and the ones who will go forward in the coming years. Happy birthday, Marines … and many more.