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Thursday, May 9, 2013
Campus was a buzz of activity Saturday as I crossed over to the chapel. Commencement was in a few hours; good seats were already being claimed; boxes of programs were stacked; the band was warming up. But I was there for another reason at that early hour: the commissioning of an officer into the United States Marine Corps.
Tim Wolfe was one of my students this past semester; he was enrolled in my class on the history of World War II and seemed to enjoy it. He especially enjoyed the required reading of “Flags of our Fathers,” the stirring tale of the five Marines and one Navy corpsman who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, as immortalized in the famous photograph. I was flattered to receive an invitation to his ceremony, given we’d only met in January.
Tim had informed me early on that he was an officer candidate, though his close-cropped hair and military bearing had already tipped me off. He would miss a class, he said, to go to Quantico and purchase his uniforms. I assured him it would be an excused absence, and expressed the civilian’s surprise that his accoutrements were not furnished at taxpayer expense. “No,” he replied, looking thoughtful, “it has been the honor of a Marine to purchase his own uniform since 1775.”
I probably chuckled at that line, but thought later that a lot was packed into it. In one sentence, he’d expressed a great deal of awareness: that he was joining an elite military group with an illustrious history older than the nation itself; that doing so involved sacrifice that would greatly exceed the cost of a uniform; and that to do all of this was an honor.
The short commissioning ceremony, the first I had ever witnessed, was suitably solemn and celebratory. A prayer by the chaplain, a few words by a superior officer, a reading of the commission itself and an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Tim’s mother pinned on his lieutenant bars; his father presented him with the traditional Mameluke sword, the oldest weapon in continuous use in the U.S. military.
I was not familiar with one tradition of the Corps but found it interesting. When an officer is commissioned, the first enlisted man to salute him is presented with a silver dollar, a custom apparently dating back to colonial days. As it turned out, the staff sergeant who saluted Lt. Wolfe was also a former student of mine.
Lt. Wolfe is not finished — he still has months of rigorous training ahead of him, covering everything from tactics to etiquette for state dinners. After that, more Military Occupational Specialty training before he heads out to his first posting.
I didn’t know if a gift was appropriate to the occasion, but along with my good wishes gave the new officer a book I thought he’d enjoy: the biography of Jack Lucas, a Marine on Iwo Jima who threw himself on a grenade — two grenades actually — to save his buddies. He survived; “too damned young and too damned tough to die,” said a surgeon. Lucas was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor at the age of 17. What were you doing at 17? Probably not winning the nation’s highest honor for valor. I know I wasn’t. And when I was 22 I wasn’t heading out to protect and defend the Constitution either. So I can have only utmost respect for those who serve my nation in uniform.
As I described in my last column, Wolfe and his classmates had to interview a veteran of the epic conflict and record his or her story. That shrinking pool of survivors is often called “The Greatest Generation,” and with good reason. But in all of my years of talking to and learning from my father’s generation, I’ve never heard a single World War II vet refer to himself in such glorified terms. If the subject comes up, they demur and point to the current men and women in uniform and say they’re made of the same stuff. We’re not greater than they are. If Hitler or Tojo were around today, they’d get the job done just like we did.
I, for one, won’t argue the point. Wolfe and the rest of this new greatest generation stand ready, willingly so, to place themselves between my family and those in the world who would do us harm. I won’t — can’t — take that lightly.
Long, a Roanoke Times columnist, is director of the Salem Museum.
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