A perspective on heroes: my latest column in the North County Times

Here is last Friday’s column in the North County Times:

Hero. It is difficult these days to see anything in print or on screen that doesn’t ascribe the moniker of hero to our men and women in uniform. While that is a wonderful sentiment, it seems to have been used quite a bit in recent years. Is every Marine a hero?

I guess the concept of hero is really like that of beauty —- it is in the eye of the beholder. I believe the sincerity shown by my fellow countrymen when they show their respect by bestowing that honorable title on warriors and veterans. It is a testament to the good will that our nation feels for the men and women who have carried the flag to foreign shores and shed their blood in its defense.

It was not always that way, however. Not long ago the warriors and veterans of the war in Vietnam were not widely welcomed home as heroes. Instead, they were often at best simply ignored and at worst treated as pariahs. It is a stark juxtaposition in comparison to here and now, and made even more so when you consider who it is that those in uniform today consider their heroes.

Marines who fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan have heroes, too. Heroes in the classical sense of antiquity, which defined a hero as a person who faced great danger and adversity, yet displayed courage and a willingness to undergo tremendous sacrifice. For Marines, our heroes are those who preceded us in places like Trenton during the Revolution and the Argonne during the War to End All Wars. Those are our heroes of antiquity.

Our heroes in modernity are those who fought in less popular wars and yet still walk among us. Our heroes fought their way from one end of Korea to the other and endured the savagery of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

One particular battle is known to each and every serving Marine because it typifies the soldierly virtues of Marines in the absolutely worst circumstances. In early 1968, a string of hilltops close to the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam became a cauldron that swallowed the lives of countless combatants. Khe Sanh, as those hilltops were known, found a beleaguered force of Marines facing many times their number of hardened Vietnamese who were determined to wipe them from the face of the earth.

The savagery of the battle has been recorded in books and articles and documentaries, but those are incapable of recording the horrific conditions that existed during the battles in the hills. Hundreds of Marines died, as did thousands of Vietnamese. They fought each other with knives and rifles and often their bare hands. It was war at its most visceral and most savage, and despite the relentless fighting that went on for months, the Marines held their ground until their enemy gave up and faded back into the jungle.

I know this because recently I was honored to be in the company of men who were there. To call them heroes would only embarrass them, because like all true warriors, they view themselves as Marines who answered their nation’s call and fought as Marines always have. They fought because they were Marines and that is what Marines do, but their sacrifice and tenacity and dedication to each other is the stuff of legend.

Although they would never call themselves heroes, I consider them to be so nonetheless. They have etched their legacy into the Marine Corps just as the Spartans did at Thermopylae thousands of years ago. Today, Marines revere those who fought at Khe Sanh, and speak of them in hushed and respectful tones.

Our heroes are among us. To them, the veterans of Khe Sanh and countless other fights in Vietnam I say thank you for your service, for they gave me and all Marines a living example of the stuff that true heroes are made of. We can only hope to be able to follow in their footsteps and carry the mantle that they have passed to us.



Getting the band back together

Thursdays come and go once a week, so generally speaking they aren’t particularly significant.  Compared to Friday. which is everybody’s favorite weekday it doesn’t amount to much.  Pretty much everyone agrees that Thursday is better than Monday, but it can’t hold a candle to Saturday or Sunday.  Nope, Thursday is pretty much just an average day in the grand scheme of things.

Except for this past Thursday.  Last Thursday, March 1st, marked the 61st anniversary of the birth of the Marine Corps unit that I served in during three tours to combat.  On March 1st 1951 the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company unfurled its flag on its way to fight in the hills of Korea.  Since that time ANGLICO Marines and Sailors have deployed across the globe and fought in places like Beirut, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  They stood on the frontiers of American interests during the cold war and set the unequalled standard for professionalism and skill in the realm of fire support (employing things like mortars, artillery, naval gunfire, attack helicopters and jets) and communications (with the capability to talk via radio to pretty much anyone, anywhere, and at any time).

So this past Thursday, March 1st, was special because it was the 61st birthday of such a fantastic organization.  It was even more distinguished, however, because the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors who currently serve in 1st ANGLICO threw a little birthday party and they invited any and all veterans of 1st ANGLICO to come on down to Camp Pendleton and share in the big day.  And come we did- from those of us just down the road in San Diego to others who traveled thousands of miles across the country to share in the big day.  All told there were nearly 50 veterans and their wives in attendance, with veterans who were with the company when it was brand spankin’ new and headed for Korea to those of us who just left last year.

And what a day it was!  The Marines and Sailors of the company set up a series of briefings and displays to show how the unit operates as it enters its seventh decade of existence.  We saw the newest equipment and were briefed on the latest combat techniques, and it was truly impressive to see such a great bunch of Marines and Sailors so proudly share their trade with the older generation.  Before lunch in the most excellent new chowhall on Camp Las Flores (which is the home of 1st ANGLICO) there was a brief but impressive ceremony where a birthday cake was cut and the eldest ANGLICO veteran shared the first slices with the commanding officer.  The vets were then honored to be present as a half dozen or so Marines were promoted to the next higher rank; the Marine Corps promotes their best and brightest at the beginning of the month, so we were fortunate to be able to attend such a significant event in the lives of these young and motivated warriors.

Then, off to lunch.  For me it was a tremendously rewarding experience because I was able to break bread (or in my case, a turkey Panini sandwich) with brother Marines that I had served with during my last tour.  Now that I am retired I am no longer Lieutenant Colonel Grice (even though my retired ID card says so), but instead the exalted rank of Marine, which all of us who served proudly share.  We are all now brothers unseparated by rank and position, and it was a great time to have lunch with brothers Barnette, Fortson, and Brantley.  We talked about life, deployment, chow, and everything else, and it was a great time.  With men such as these keeping the wolf from the door our nation has nothing to fear.

The afternoon was spent observing the newest training technologies, which was interesting.  For me, it was more thrilling to meet and talk to the veterans of ANGLICO who had served in so many far flung places and had cemented the legacy of the unit into the story of the Marine Corps.  I finally met Vance and Tom, who had served in Vietnam and were simply the most amazing supporters of deployed ANGLICO units as they led care package drives that sent us literally hundreds of boxes from home as we served overseas.  I met Buzz and John and Walt and Joe and countless other vets, and it was truly my privilege and honor to be counted as one of their ranks.  To be with them was to walk in the shadow of giants, and it was truly a thrilling honor just to be around them.

We had cocktails at the old Officer’s Club later that evening, and I was able to chat with another John, with whom I had served in Iraq as well as with a half dozen Marines with whom I had served during my last deployment to Afghanistan.  There were over a hundred people packed into the bar that evening, and the mixture of camoflage uniforms and retiree’s ballcaps was impressive to witness.  Veterans who fought a half century ago traded tips with Marines who were yet thirty years unborn when Korea was hot, and regardless of age or war the connection was genuinely made.  It eclipses nostalgia and enters the realm of true brotherhood, and I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of it all.

So my hat is off to the Commanding Officer, Marines, and Sailors of 1st ANGLICO for putting on such a marvelous event.  I thank you on behalf of all of us who served, and to all who attended, it was simply magnificent to meet you.  It is times like this that wash away the pain, the anguish, and the anxiety that comes with serving the hard master that is the Marine Corps in time of war.  It is times like this that that rejuvenate the soul and remind you that, after all, no matter what you did or where you served, it was all worth it.

For that all to brief moment in time the cross generational band that is 1st ANGLICO got back together, and it was a sight to behold.  To all members of 1st ANGLICO past and present, I say congratulations on your 61st Birthday and Semper Fidelis!