For Life, and For Peace

Taking a little break for the holidays, but first wanted to post a few photos that seem appropriate at this time.

Whatever our faith, all around the world we use this season to celebrate life. We who are blessed to live those lives in freedom owe special honor to those who gave their lives to secure our liberty — from 1776 to the present.

In an epoch where untimely death seems to surround us, we must realize that we have the power to conquer — certainly not death itself, but perhaps deaths of the most horrific, premature kind: from six-year old children, to young men and women on the battlefield; on our nation’s highways, on our city streets, and in healthcare and elderly facilities.

We, the people of the world, do have the power to bring peace on earth. We only need to try a bit harder.

Happy Holidays, and best wishes for a peaceful New Year.

A section of Arlington National Cemetery, Va., shows a fraction of the

110,000 wreaths placed at the graves of fallen service members during

Wreaths Across America, Dec. 15, 2012.

A member of the U.S. Army Honor Guard, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, carries a

wreath donated by Wreaths Across America at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 15, 2012.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cornelio pays respect after placing a

wreath at a grave marker during Wreaths Across America at Arlington National

Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 15, 2012. Cornelio is assigned to Marine

Cryptologic Support Battalion on Fort Meade, Md.



The first three grabbed my attention as I approached the US Airways ticket counter in San Diego. I had just arrived TAD via San Francisco from Tokyo for a Navy medical meeting. I was now checking in for my leave flight to Arizona for a reunion with many extended family members.

Even in my jet lagged state the three U.S. Marines enthralled me. Only one was in uniform, the semi-dress version with the blue trousers and khaki shirt. I could tell from their high and tight haircuts and ultrafit habitus that his companions were also Marines. None of them appeared a day older than my own son who is now a college freshman.

With boarding pass in hand I proceeded to the assigned gate, along the way encountering similar knots of very young Marines either in groups or with family. They were young recruits, clear not only from their tender ages and youthful vigor, but also from the single National Defense Ribbon that each sported over the left pocket of his khakis. Most also proudly wore brightly polished new silver marksmanship medals.

These Marines became a sizeable portion of the passengers who boarding my flight to Phoenix. From snippets of overheard conversation I gleaned that these were all brand new graduates of the San Diego Marine Corps Academy, aka boot camp. Our nation’s newest U.S. Marines now headed home or elsewhere  for a couple of weeks of liberty before moving on their next assignment. Most would go to specialty training in the various warfighting skills for which Marines are famous. Beyond that? Some would surely see action in Afghanistan.

Youthful exuberance and justifiable pride pervaded the ranks on this particular day. In the dusk of my military career, I could not help but envy them a bit as they relished the dawn of their own.

On the plane I sat next to the mom of one Marine. She sat next to her ten year old son, and proudly told me that her Marine son was up in first class because a generous passenger, honoring the uniform, had traded boarding passes with him. Engaging in conversation with two other newly minted Marines sitting ahead of us, she gushed on about how wonderful was the graduation ceremony, and how proud (and relieved) she had been to spot her son among the ranks, the first time she had seen him or heard from him in five weeks.

Across the aisle another young Marine entertained a youth of about 10 – 11 years old, with descriptions of what it means to be a Marine, what training he had, and his aspirations for his future career. They young listener, who wore a camoflague jacket of his own, hung on every word, himself probably a future Marine.

Just before landing, the flight attendant announced that on board were some very special people, a group of United States Marines who had just graduated their basic training. The plane erupted in genuine applause and cheers. 

A sexagenarian veteran Navy doctor somewhere in the middle let out a loud OOO-RAH, even as a tear formed in the corner of one eye.

Marines occupy a special place in my heart as my personal heroes, along with EMTs and Hospital Corpsmen. Sharing the pride and patriotism of these young warriors and their beaming parents and siblings was a peak moment for me. Tonight I pray that wherever they go next, each and every one eventually returns home to those same parents and siblings, safe and healthy.

Semper Fi, Marines!

CPOs, Arriving

I love September 16.

Every year on this day the Navy refreshes its cadre of deckplate leaders by making new Chief Petty Officers. Today 7th Fleet and USS BLUE RIDGE held a traditional pinning ceremony, as did most Navy commands around the globe.

Chiefs run the Navy, as any senior officer will avow. Without our Chiefs’ Mess the ships would not sail, the airplanes would not fly, the sailors would not get paid, supplies would not move, healthcare would not happen, the Navy would grind to a halt. Any sailor worth his salt knows what to do when faced with high challenge, stress, or ambiguity. Just ask the Chief. 

As an honorary Master Chief, this is the one day of the year that I really get to feel like I’m a part of that special community of Navy leaders. I proudly don my service khakis, my khaki combination cover, and my Master Chief’s anchors, and I stand up with the real Chiefs to proudly salute these new Chief Petty Officers and welcome them to The Mess.

Officers who achieve success in accomplishing mission or furthering their own career will tell you, by name, the Chief Petty Officers who pointed them ever so subtly (or not) in the right direction on their way to success. 

I have been honored to serve with many outstanding Chief Petty Officers, and I respect and appreciate every one of them. Six played particularly cogent roles in my development and success as a senior officer. For our newest Chiefs, I fondly hope that they will some day stand alongside those true giants whom I am extraordinarily proud to call, “Shipmate”:

Master Chief Paul Thomas
Master Chief John Prus
Master Chief Beverly Leedom
Master Chief Laura Martinez
Master Chief Marcos Sibal
Senior Chief Chris Moore

Navy Chiefs! Navy Pride!

Just a Little Japan BB Episode

Nearing the end of a very long day, the last thing the senior naval officer desired was to lose a valuable piece of government property. Although not a significant threat to national security in the western Pacific, the resultant paperwork alone would ruin anyone’s day, or week for that matter.

The day had begun very early in Yokosuka, mustering a houseful of visitors and one heartsick teenager. The former were due to join the senior officer and his spouse on board the Fleet Flagship for a friends and family day cruise to Tokyo. The latter would be bidding adieu and mata ne to his high school sweetheart as she departed the area for college in the Philippines.

While not without its challenges and a few bumps (in the day, not the sea), the senior officer reached the end of his official day following an expansive reception on the deck of the Flagship. After a brief caffeinated decompression interlude, he climbed out of his white uniform, donned casual attire, then stuffed some spare clothing into an aviator’s helmet bag and packed up his laptop and camera bags. Shortly he crossed the ship’s quarterdeck with “permission to go ashore” to join the aforementioned visitors at a Tokyo hotel.

Although the hour was relatively late, he fortuitously scored a cab shortly after crossing the ship’s brow. Twenty minutes later he paid the driver and alighted from the taxi with a cheerful, “Arigato gozaimasu.” Since tipping doesn’t happen in Japan, those words would be the driver’s only token of the senior officer’s appreciation.

No sooner had the cab pulled away from the hotel than the senior officer realized that his brand new U.S. Government issued Blackberry had disappeared from his belt. Finding no BB remains on the pavement, this incredibly brilliant officer quickly reasoned that said instrument must have detached from his belt at or near the time that he egressed said taxicab, which event he did not notice since he was so encumbered with helmet bag, laptop case, and camera bag.

Being operationally minded the senior officer immediately engaged the hotel concierge. “Sumimasen. Gomen nasai. I hope you can help me. I just left a Blackberry in a cab.”  

With an efficiency and alacrity that many USN watch standers could emulate, the nihonjin immediately sprang into action. “Did you get a receipt?” he asked in very cogent English. Fortunately the officer had not already chucked that little piece of paper into a trash can. Public trash cans essentially disappeared in Japan after the 1995 sarin attack. (Yet Tokyo is cleaner than most American cities.)

The concierge accepted the little piece of paper and dialed the cab company. The officer listened intently to the Japanese conversation hoping to catch an encouraging word. It came toward the end: “Yuroshiku”, which means something like “be kind to me.”

On hanging up, the concierge advised that the company dispatcher would contact the cab driver and have him look for the BB. In the meantime, the guest could relax in his room. The concierge would call as soon as he got any news. With a deeper than usual bow and more enthusiastic than usual “arigato gozaimasu” the officer went up to his room and waited. He didn’t wait long.

The following brief conversations occurred about ten minutes apart:

“Thank you for waiting. The cab driver can find your Blackberry and after ten minutes will bring it here. I will call you back.” Then,

“Thank you for waiting. I will bring your Blackberry to you.”

A knock on the door two minutes later produced the precious government property, once again reunited with its chagrined yet grateful caretaker.

Such is the level of customer service you get in Japan. Offering either the concierge or the cab driver any remuneration or gratuity at all would have insulted them.

You don’t pay for courtesy in Japan. The Japanese are honored to render it gratis, and the more difficult the job the higher the honor.

In The Line of Duty

I didn’t really know Tom Coleman. I knew his mom, who was my first wife’s sister. And I knew his cousins, who are my daughters, Jewls and Lisa. And I knew his older sisters, who were Jewls’ and Lisa’s contemporaneous cousins. And I knew his dad before I knew any of them, because by pure coincidence we were classmates before either one of us married. But I never really knew Tom except as a playful, happy child who always brightened those sometimes uncomfortable family gatherings when divorced parents periodically come together to celebrate their children.

Tom Coleman died tragically in the line of duty, carrying out his sworn mission to protect and to serve the lives of others. Though I never knew Tom as a young adult, I do know about service as a vocation. And I know how those who don the cloth of service sometimes pay the ultimate sacrifice. I have seen the lifeless visages of Marines and Sailors, Soldiers and Law Enforcement Officers who gave their lives before Tom. He joins a most elite and honorable company of warriors.

Tom’s parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins who mourn his loss are good people. They deserved to keep him in their lives much longer. But he died. Now, other grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, and friends – who never knew Tom and never will – can enjoy the continued presence of loved ones in their lives, because of his service. For that he deserves a special place of honor in whatever life exists after death on this earth. And may those who mourn his death also find the strength to cherish his life of service and honor.

No, I never really knew Tom Coleman. But I know the cloth of service. So I am most honored to call him kin. I salute you, Tom. May you rest in peace and glory.

— A Fellow Servant

117 Years and Counting

No. That’s not my current age. Though some may think that’s feasible.

Tonight I humbly presume to write a short tribute to a corps of men and women who are not only the backbone, but also the soul of the world’s most powerful Navy. I refer to U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officers, who yesterday celebrated the 117th anniversary of the establishment of their rank. I’ll make this short, because there is little I can add to the robust history this cadre has written for itself – often in its own blood – over those 117 years.

Just as a powerful lion without a backbone or soul is only a lifeless bag of bones and tissue, our Navy would be nothing more than a jumbled mass of steel without the seasoned, dynamic leaders who make up the Chiefs’ Mess, or Goatlocker, at all Navy commands afloat and ashore.

For me, it’s a bit more personal. In addition to the prescribed uniform elements that I wear as a senior Navy Captain of the Medical Corps, under my right pocket flap I proudly sport – at all times, Chiefs – another uniform device. Here’s an excerpt from a website that describes it:

The Fouled Anchor is the emblem of the Rate of Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy. Attached to the Anchor is a length of chain and the letters U.S.N. To the novice, the anchor, chain and letters only identify a Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy, but, to a Chief, these have a more noble and glorious meaning.

The “U” stands for Unity, which reminds us of cooperation, maintaining harmony and continuity of purpose and action.

The “S”stands for Service, which reminds us of service to our God, our fellow man and our Navy.

The “N” stands for Navigation, which reminds us to keep ourselves on a true course so that we may walk upright before God and man in our transactions with all mankind, but especially with our fellow Chiefs. The Chain is symbolic of flexibility and reminds us of the chain of life that we forge day by day, link by link and may it be forged with Honor, Morality and Virtue.

The Anchor is emblematic of the hope and glory of the fulfillment of all God’s promises to our souls. The golden or precious Anchor by which we must be kept steadfast in faith and encouraged to abide in our proper station amidst the storm of temptation, affliction and persecution.

Roughly two years ago, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy pinned to my uniform that very device, including a Master Chief’s two stars, and welcomed me into the Goatlocker as an Honorary Master Chief in the United States Navy. I do not ever expect to enjoy a higher honor in this great Navy than to be counted worthy of sharing that cherished device with the likes of Paul Thomas, John Prus, Beverly Leedom, Lou Cruz, Laura Martinez, Marcos Sibal, Chris Moore and scores of other Chiefs who have mentored and supported me on my journey to higher Navy leadership. Because, you see, the real job of a Chief is to teach officers how to lead. That’s our secret naval weapon. That’s why we are the world’s most powerful Navy.

Without my Master Chiefs, my Navy career would be worth no more than a bag of bones, or a clump of steel.

Navy Chiefs! Navy Pride!

A True Officer and Gentleman

The following announcement on our 1MC just interrupted work on my next Hong Kong post:

“CAPT Scott Butler, United States Navy, Departing.”

“BH”  had just stopped by my stateroom to say farewell en route to his final trip across this Flagship’s brow.  In deference to OPSEC and personal privacy, I usually don’t disclose full names on my blog, but this officer deserves recognition.

A bit of background for non-Navy readers: The “bonging” of officers aboard or ashore from a naval ship is a traditional rendering of honors dating in time to the early British Navy. Like many of our traditions, the practical reason for this little ceremony long ago ceased relevance. Nowadays we employ it simply to respect our senior leaders, and for other special recognitions. Three elements constitute the simple ceremony: 1) A number of bell rings corresponding to the rank of the honored officer (e.g., four bells for CAPT, eight bells for VADM); 2) The announcement of the honoree, usually by position instead of name. (E.g., “Seventh Fleet, Arriving.”) 3) All stand at attention and salute as the boatswain’s mate pipes the dignitary across the quarterdeck.

A typical naval vessel will bong aboard/ashore anyone of the rank of Captain or above. However, on a 3-Star Fleet Flagship, Captains are as plentiful as corn dogs. So it would be impractical to bong each of us as we go about our daily sojourns. But when a senior officer departs the ship for the last time en route to his next job, as BH did today, we do render these special honors to say, “Fair winds and following seas, Shipmate. Bravo Zulu, and thanks for your service.”

A word about CAPT Scott Butler as he departs for command on the other side of the world. He just completed a stellar tour as Flag Operations Officer, arguably the toughest and most unforgiving job on the staff. Think of being the conduit and control point for all the naval activity in the world’s most expansive area of operations. Think of being on call 24/7, ready to coordinate the movements of this massive naval force in response to any number of contingencies. Think of maintaining a standard of excellence that demands nothing less than perfection. Think of being the mentor, confidante, and advocate for a team of junior officers and enlisted sailors who must adroitly perform a myriad of tasks to get the job done right. Think of that officer also being a person and family man, periodically experiencing issues that accompany any life, irrespective of the demands of your job. Think of all that occurring in a daily double-time battle rhythm, because that’s just the way it has to be here.

And then consider how lesser men or women might crumble under that pressure, or might resort to maladaptive ungentlemanly behaviour in shifting the load and the stress to their shipmates or minions. Think of how they might abandon family and friendship out of some ill-conceived notion that the job always comes first. And then consider that this one Scott Butler, this quintessential Naval Aviator and former winning “Price is Right” contestant, not only executed his job with extraordinary panache, but did so with infectious, self-effacing, morale-enhancing wit and humor; never once laid an undue burden or took out frustration on anyone else; and never forgot nor ignored the really important things in life. In ways we will not completely understand until his absence, Scott embued our staff with team spirit and a winning attitude. Such is the hallmark not only of a true leader, but also of an extraordinary human being.

Outstanding sailors like Scott Butler are the reason I remain an operational Navy doctor and flight surgeon. Their lives add meaning to mine. I am deeply honored to serve them..

BH: BZ, Shipmate! Fair winds and following seas…..”Doc”

A Different Reflection

Just about two years ago I stood on a broad expanse of black sandy beach on the island whose official name now is Iwo To. But to me and others of my generation and that of my parents, the name will always be Iwo Jima, two small Japanese words capable of stirring vast memories and emotions.

I sweated in my nomex flight suit as I gazed along the silent and placid beach toward Mount Suribachi at the head of the island, and I tried to imagine the bloody, chaotic scene there 63 years prior. I tried to picture the ships, the vehicles, the weapons, and the Marines who employed them, all prime targets of the fierce fire barrage emanating from Mt. Suribachi and other points around the island. These men would have been no older than most of my children, yet they were thousands and thousands of miles away from home and families, fighting an enemy desperately entrenched and fully resolved to fight to the last man in defense of their homeland.

Try as I might, I could not feel the aura of that day. Instead I gazed upon an almost idyllic beach that in many other parts of the world would be dotted with sunworshipping vacationers paying exhorbitant prices for the privilege of soaking in sun and sea as if the world had no cares at all. The iconic WWII battle was too far away in time, with no real emotional hook for an Arizona man who was not even born yet on the day that produced one of the most famous photos of all time.

I squatted down and scooped some of that black sand into a plastic baggy, sealed it, and stuffed it into the leg pocket of my flight suit. I took quite a few pictures, because the scene was very photogenic. Then I turned and began walking back up to the road to rejoin my colleagues. That is when the enormity of that day in 1945 did sink in, just as my flight boots sunk into the thick sand that rose abruptly up to a berm about 40 yards from the water. Laden with nothing other than my Nikon and that full baggy, I struggled up the sand to crest the berm. I could easily imagine being weighed down with a heavy ruck sack, a weapon…or perhaps medical gear…being totally open and vulnerable to anyone above taking a shot at me. It seemed an eternity as I slipped and trudged to the relative protection of the berm, and still had an open field to cross before reaching any real cover. What if I was carrying a wounded Marine?

As I made my way to higher ground I noted a group of young men in Marine camoflauge uniforms descending to the beach. Assuming that they were in fact Marines, I was prepared to give them my usual greeting of “Oo-rah, Marines” on passing. But as I got closer I noted the cadeuceus collar insignia on the leader of the group, and the embroidered “US Navy” above the pocket. This was a hospital corpsman, dressed per custom in the uniform of the men and women who know him simply as “Doc”. As I passed him by, a spontaneous ethereal voice arose inside me and proclaimed, “Corpsman up!” The response was immediate as always, “You got it, Sir!”

Hospital corpsmen assigned to the Fleet Marine Force are deservedly among the most well respected and cherished of all military members. In the heat of combat they willingly and bravely risk their own lives to save others…often at the highest personal price. When last I looked almost 40 corpsmen, all men and women in their prime, have lost their lives in OIF and OEF. Most of our Navy hospitals boast a wall dedicated to the many Medal of Honor recipients who were hospital corpsmen. Navy corpsmen are unique among all rates in all services, not only for what they do but for the spirit and dedication with which they do it. And they share a rich legacy and proud heritage.

This spring marks the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.A visit to Iwo Jima can mean many different things and provoke a variety of emotions. For me, it was trudging up that hill and the chance encounter with that young corpsman, a direct descendant of men like John Bradley, the Iwo Jima flagraiser protagonist of “Flags of Our Fathers”.. The enthusiastic response to my greeting means that the true core values of Navy Medicine will endure, at least as long as there are young men and women of honor, courage and commitment ready to respond to the call, “Corpsman up!”