A Word About Heroes

I haven’t posted recently because I was engaged in running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. (I use the word “running” in its broadest sense, one foot planted ahead of the other at some forward pace.)

One always feels a sense of accomplishment finishing a long race, but the feelings I experienced from this event went far beyond any sense of personal victory. This race was never about me, but about heroes — a hero whose image I proudly wore on my back, others who wore the TAPS singlets and photos of their own heroes, and the brave men and women in harm’s way, present and past, who guarantee the lifestyle of freedom that we Americans enjoy every day of our lives.

The most important aspect of the finish photo is not the aging marathon runner propping himself up on the railing, but the background statue depicting Joe Rosenthal’s iconic portrayal of the valor of United States Marines who took the strategic island of Iwo Jima in the waning days of World War II. If you have not read Flags of Our Fathers, or seen the Clint Eastwood movie, I urge you to do so.

When I was stationed in Japan, I had the honor to visit Iwo Jima with a group of Navy colleagues. On a brilliant and tranquil spring Pacific morning, I trudged the black sand of the landing beach, gazed up at Mount Suribachi, and imagined the chaos of hitting that beach in the face of withering enemy fire from all over the island. As I trudged back up the steep berm, my flight boots sank into the grit, an effort that labored my breathing in spite of my good physical shape. Could I have made that short trek with a load on my back and a weapon in my hand, all the time taking fire? What true heroes were the hospital corpsmen like John Bradley who rose to the task of treating the many casualties falling all around them!

After we toured the landing beach, a bus took our us up the steep road to the top of Mount Suribachi. Along the way we passed a group of U.S. Marines trekking to the top, as their forebears had done over a half-century before them.

At the top, we viewed the monument where the flag was raised, and looked down at the now tranquil black beach below. After we paid our respects to the fallen Marines who gave their lives in the assault, our bus toured us over the rest of the island.

Dog tags left by prior visitors. Landing beach below.

Japanese hospital cave

In the hospital cave, I reflected on the other side of the battle — from the perspective of the Japanese who knew they would die on that island, never again to see their loved ones. (Eastwood’s companion movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, tells their story.)

Taken in the light of history, the Marine Corps Marathon looms so much larger than a 26.2 mile run. Of course I’m proud to have completed the distance, but I am all the more humbled at having done so in the company of heroes, past and present.

Semper Fi! 

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!”