The Marine Corps Times and the Commandant of the Marine Corps have been in the news together recently, and not in a good way. After hearing sketchy details at work about integrity issues, whistleblowers, and biased reporting, and seeing the associated headlines, I finally spent time doing some catch-up reading to figure out what was actually happening. As a result I am now completely confused, and given the questionable coverage, bizarre headlines, and the “he said-she said” nature of it all, I’m probably not alone.
The news cycle started with the reporting surrounding the video that surfaced in 2012 of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses. The incident and subsequent official investigation garnered attention, and the news cycle continued with stories about unlawful command influence and who did or did not make specific statements to others about the investigation. This winter, media coverage veered off into the bizarre with allegations that the removal of the Marine Corps Times from the front shelves of PXs around the world was a purposeful act directed at the paper by a vengeful Commandant’s Office. The reporting of the incidents in question is, of course, mainly performed by the Marine Corps Times and published by the same; as far as professional publications go, Foreign Affairs it isn’t. I don’t know that stating that “the Commandant’s Office punted all questions” is a shining example of unbiased, objective reporting. To be honest, I haven’t heard too much grumbling from fellow Marines over the stories; those I spoke to seemed as unaware as I was about the details of the stories in question. It seemed like the kind of background noise and drama that Marines avoid.
But the articles, however biased they may be, are disturbing for their existence if nothing else. Why are we reading about the diverging statements of top Marine generals? Why does it seem like the Commandant’s office has a message problem? Is the Marine Corps Times stirring the pot in order to report on legitimate problems? Or is the paper, in the words of the Commandant’s office, hoping to undermine good order and discipline by broadcasting stories that question the integrity of a sitting Commandant and cast doubt upon his abilities?
(One article in particular left me thinking that I had forgotten how to read the English language. A Marine Corps Times reporter interviewed four Public Affairs Officers, but I really can’t tell if any of the questions were answered in the process. Give it a try here and let me know what you figure out.)
In wading through the mess, one point jumped out: the Marine Corps is creating an OPT to help decide what should be placed near the front of Marine Corps exchanges. We are going to have “focus groups,” “discussions,” and “an ongoing process” in order to conduct a “holistic,” “comprehensive review.” (All this from the same article).
What is going on here? Have we completely lost our way? We are at war and the Marine Corps is in a spitting contest with a JV paper over where that paper is placed in the PX? We’re cutting funding by the pantload, trying to refocus a force after over a decade of conflict, and are spending money and energy creating an OPT to figure out what should go near the front of the PX? This entire exercise seems way beneath the dignity of the Commandant’s office. Figuring out the PX layout and products should be number 800 on his priority list. What am I missing?
The message we are sending to our Marines with this mess is not pretty. It resembles the ugliness and distractions of politics. It reminds me of what my kids do when they are trying to keep me from discovering the indelible marker drawings on the wall or the candy they hid under their pillows. I am honestly not sure where the blame lies for this situation, but I hope for our own sake we recover quickly and move on to the 799 items that are more worthy of our attention as a service.
A few weeks ago, I started writing a post that discussed a particularly relevant and compelling thesis written by a student at the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College. The thesis in question was written by a fellow Marine, Major Misty Posey, and is creatively titled “Duped by the ‘Frailty Myth:’ USMC Gender Based Physical Fitness Standards.” Great title, although it is so descriptive that it might lead some to believe that they can dismiss it without reading it. Don’t be fooled; it’s worth every paragraph. Mid-way through my work on the post (I write slowly), it became even more relevant, because the Marine Corps announced that it was going to postpone the requirement for women to perform pull-ups instead of the flexed arm hang as part of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT).
My first reaction to this news was to slap my forehead again. My second was to work harder at carving out the time to write this post in light of the news. Grad school and the holidays intervened, life happened, and I woke up this week to find two separate newspaper articles (Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune) beating me to the punch.
I wrote about pull-ups last summer, when I first heard that the requirement might be delayed. My opinion has not changed. But Major Posey’s thesis says it bigger and better; she describes the Marine Corps as “institutionally constipated,” a phrase I can only hope to use myself in my writing one day. I sincerely hope some of our leaders read her work.
She explains in great detail how men and women develop physical expectations and how this affects actual capabilities, and it rings true. I wrote earlier that while many male friends had to do pull-ups in high school PE, I was only required to run/walk one mile after a year of “training.” I had to learn line dancing in PE another year. And a third year involved a semester of “Jake on the Beach” aerobics tapes—the low-impact version so as to not hurt us girls. That’s a far cry from doing pull-ups. And the gap between what we expect our men to do and what we expect our women to do only continues to grow and become entrenched after high school. Remember the President’s Physical Fitness Test? No wonder women show up at 18-22 years old and can’t do pull-ups. I couldn’t either. It no surprise that it’s taking some time for women to develop the upper body strength and mental confidence needed to do pull-ups.
The pull-up requirement delay is causing mass hysteria among those who think such an event signifies the end of the world is approaching, or at the least that dogs and cats are starting to live together. I beg our leaders to take a step back and focus on a few brief points: 1) these are just pull-ups. And women are often starting from a lower level of strength. Of course they will get there, it will just take time. It has only been a year, for crying out loud. 2) These are Marines we are talking about. Again, they will get there. Just takes time. 3) Keep it at a delay and no more. Don’t throw out the requirement.
We really should make this whole discussion a discussion about the PFT itself, while we’re at it. It is meant to measure individual fitness, thus the gender-normed and age-normed standards (any takers on the age-normed standards? I don’t hear much about them). Yet it fails at that task, and is systematically used and interpreted in a very different way anyway. What are we really trying to do here, measure overall fitness or ensure we are aware of strengths and weaknesses in our units? What would benefit leaders more?
Truth is, women can get plenty strong, strong enough for all the pull-ups we need. I’m not in love with pull-ups; make the test pushups instead. Or handstands. Bear crawls. Whatever. But we should set one standard for all Marines and stick with it, and make it high. Separate standards hurt women far more than they could possibly help them, and they hurt the Marine Corps. Delaying the change is not necessarily bad…as long as the change happens.
Here’s the thing: the flexed-arm-hang requirement, the postponement of the pull-up requirement, lower physical standards…these things simply limit Marines. They limit personal expectations, they limit expectations of others. They effectively pat our Marines on the head and say, “nice try, honey, but we don’t think you should bother with this.” Why do that? Why shoot ourselves in the foot and limit our future leaders and the future of the Marine Corps?
Who determines any individual’s physical baseline? Who sets those limits? By delaying the pull-ups and questioning women’s abilities to perform to that standard, we are imposing external limits. We’re saying that women should not be expected to have great strength, that pulling our own weight up to a bar 20 times, or even 3 times, is too much to ask. And that, right there, is what makes me worry. I believed it for years, and I was wrong. And now I’m older—I could have been doing these for years! Instead of limiting our Marines, we should ask more of them: set the bar high, and encourage them to fly right past it. We’re not doing that right now.
(Fun Facts from the Marine Corps Times: the first female PFT, in 1969, required women to perform a 120’ shuttle run, vertical jump, knee pushups, situps, and a 600-yard run/walk. The PFT has only been altered two more times for women: in 1975, it changed to a 1.5 mile run, situps, and the dreaded flexed-arm hang, and in 1996 the 1.5 miles changed to 3 miles. Maybe it’s time for a reassessment?)
Three weeks ago, a good friend and former roommate, Major Jenn Marino, USMC (Ret), started on her cross-country bike ride to connect with Gold Star families. I mentioned this on a previous blog, but now the ride is a reality—she started it over two weeks ago. Jenn was a Ch-46 and Marine One pilot who started meeting and talking with Gold Star families while still on active duty. As she struggled with the question of what she could do to make a difference in the lives of these families, and how she could help, she came up with the idea for a cross-country ride. She decided that one way to honor those we have lost and the families they left behind would be to ride across the United States in honor of them, from Camp Pendleton to Camp Lejeune and ending in Quantico, meeting the families along the way. Over the 77-day trip, Jenn is conducting interviews with many Gold Star families, and is dedicating each day’s ride to someone else as she gets to know them through their survivors.
Her journey gives a voice to these families and to remind us all about what we have lost as a nation. She is also amazed, repeatedly, by how great loss can galvanize people to act, and writes about the people she meets most evenings after her day’s ride. She has a website, www.goldstarride.com, and a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GoldStarRide. She updates the Facebook page daily with stories of those she meets and those she rides in memory of. Please take the time to look through her sites, and to read about the families and sons and daughters they lost.
The enormity of this ride is humbling. Yet at the same time, the work she is doing is life-affirming, as are the memories she relays. Hopefully people will follow along with her on her journey, and perhaps show up along the route in support. She is planning to do two key legs during the last week of October: one in Camp Lejeune on October 23, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombing, and the final leg up to the National Museum of the Marine Corps on October 25. A ride like this will need all the support it can get.
Last fall, the Commandant of the Marine Corps announced that starting in January 2014, as part of the annual Physical Fitness Test, female Marines would be required to perform pull-ups just like male Marines. The announcement was a long time coming and way overdue. (And no, I have no innate ability when it comes to pull-ups. On the contrary, my upper body strength is unimpressive, and as work and family demands have increased over the years, my interest in getting stronger regularly falls by the wayside, trumped by everything else that needs constant attention. A weak excuse, sure, but we’ve all been there.)
But PFT changes are way overdue, and adding the pull-up requirement is an honest start. It’s only right that as Marines, if we expect some to perform pull-ups as part of the PFT, we should all be expected to do them. The flexed arm hang is a poor approximation for upper body strength; I consistently max it and have yet to practice it. But critically, for a service that prides itself on its high standards, expecting—requiring—different outcomes based solely on gender creates more problems than it solves. The Marine Corps should expect all Marines to meet the minimum standards, not just some. Pull-ups may be harder for me to do than others, but I should be able to perform them as required. And I will, it’ll just take more work on my end.
So when I recently heard a rumor that the Marine Corps is reconsidering the requirement for women to do pull-ups based on low success rates and sub-par numbers, I slapped my forehead in response. It’s only been seven months since the initial announcement, and we’re already rethinking it? We’re talking about discarding the pull-up requirement before it even goes into effect? This bothers me on every level. To those making this decision: don’t take it back. To say to the women out there, “We were wrong, you’re not capable, go back to your arm hang and sorry we had you all worried?” Please, please don’t. Stick to the standard, keep the expectations high. Force us all, male and female, to hoist ourselves up to that bar. At least three times, and preferably many more.
The PFT has its share of problems: the different standards for men and women, the way it reeks of favoritism, how it diminishes us as Marines by expecting less, and the way the sliding scale also favors age (but no one complains). On one level, I get it: it’s a fitness test, and I recognize that we’re trying to measure a fitness level and not unambiguous strength in three areas. But we go about it wrong, resulting in a convoluted system that misses the boat. We were heading in the right direction with the pull-up change. Let’s get back to that.
Think about this. We’re only seven months into the change. Seven months doesn’t mean squat when we consider the weight of the preceding years and the different expectations many people face in high school and college. There’s a giant gulf between what is expected athletically of men and women from a young age. By my husband’s senior year of high school, he was required to perform ten pull-ups as part of his P.E. classes after years of preparation. By my senior year of high school, I was required, after building up to it over a year, to run a mile. One mile, that was it. Pretty sure we didn’t even have to run the whole time. There was no expectation for girls to do pull-ups, pushups, or any other strength training. Which one of us showed up better prepared?
Many of us have to start from scratch, or at least from a low standard. But we are talking about Marines; if we expect Marines to do something, they generally won’t disappoint. Give the standard time to work. Give Marines time to believe that we can all do it and then to act on that belief. We’ve got time: the requirement doesn’t take effect until next January. This spring, realizing that it had been years since I’d attempted pull-ups, I set up a bar in the hallway, jumped up there, and tried to knock some out. It was an epic failure. But after working on it, I’m there now. I can’t max it yet, but if I can haul my old, mother-of-three self up on that bar and make it happen, then so can anyone.
The point? This is about pull-ups, but it’s really about much more. Don’t go back to the ridiculous arm hang. Make us all work for it. Set the bar high, and Marines will reach it.
Last night I got to visit with a good friend who is about to retire. We spent most of the visit talking about her post-retirement project, which was fitting for Memorial Day: the day after her retirement ceremony, she is embarking on a cross-country bike ride to meet with and interview Gold Star Mothers. The purpose of her ride is to focus on the families and the sons and daughters they lost, to give a voice to the memories that they have, and to remember. She’ll ride from state to state, and as she completes each day or more of riding, she will meet these families and conduct interviews. The interviews are not so much formal interviews as they are a way for these families to share their memories of their sons and daughters so that others will get to know them too. She’ll see baby pictures and scrapbooks, watch videos and hear stories. And in the process, and in her subsequent work on the subject, she will get to know some of those we have lost and—more importantly—will keep their memories alive.
It’s going to be exhausting and draining, and I am humbled by the enormity of her project.
We forget so easily—and yes, those of us who have served tend to forget less easily than others, but we all forget at some point—the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that so many have endured. As a nation, we pay tribute on our appointed “holiday” days. And then life goes on for most.
As a child, I often heard the story of my great-uncle George, who enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II and was killed in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was the youngest of seven children, the baby of a big, Catholic family in New Orleans. Family legend has it that when he was 17, the Marine Corps recruiter told him he was too short to enlist, and he desperately wanted to be a Marine, so he went home and stretched himself out by holding onto the claw feet of the bathtub. Sure enough, within a year, he was miraculously tall enough to enlist, so he shipped out and ended up on Iwo Jima.
Private First Class Dittmann was present for the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, but just over two weeks later, he was killed. My great-grandparents received the telegram notifying them of his death. Painfully, shortly after that, the mailman brought a letter from George, written shortly before he was killed. Today, my grandmother remembers with incredible clarity the pain of that time. I’ve only seen two pictures of him, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s all that the family had when he died, barely 19 years old.
Things are different now in some ways: technology has changed that. If he had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the details of his death might still be fuzzy, but his pictures, videos, and cell phone messages would still be around. But in other ways, nothing has changed. The grief, the painfully empty space, and the loss are all the same. Memorial Day should make people remember, but only if they have forgotten. Memorial Day in the Washington area is a series of cookouts and sales and pool parties and parades. And oh, that’s right, a day to remember those we have lost. For my great-grandmother, and for all of the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, husbands and wives left behind, Memorial Day is not a single, lone day. Memorial Day is every day, every hour, and every minute for the rest of their lives.
As stories of a massive manhunt through Boston and of the still-unfolding drama surrounding Monday’s events capture the attention of every news network, I am struck by our collective reaction to Monday’s attacks. Yesterday morning, the Washington Post’s editorial page carried a number of letters to the editor concerning the Boston Marathon bombing. One letter in particular jumped out: the author worried that Americans feel too safe these days and have grown too complacent, and as a result are less vigilant; she concluded that what this country needs is heightened security and additional precautions, since our current system didn’t prevent the attacks from happening.
In a similar vein, I got hit with an unexpected question Monday night: am I still planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon this fall? The question gave me pause. I’ve run Marine Corps as often over the years as deployments and children allowed, and ran Boston once some years ago (I remember that finish line spectacularly well, mostly because I barely crossed it). The family often comes out to watch, and the team I run Marine Corps with has accumulated a strong cheering squad and support group at the finish. But what would the reverberations of Monday’s events be? Would people want their families to be there after what happened in Boston? Would I? And would I feel safe running it?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yes, yes, and again, yes. Absolutely, I’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon, as will thousands of others. We will run it with pride, anger, and disgust, directed at those who spread fear within our borders. What happened Monday is exceedingly rare here, and in that we are beyond fortunate; Boston should remind us of that. What happened is abnormal, horrific, and yet so often, in so many places that are not America, people are numb to it. Not here. Our defenses and security measures are imperfect; we cannot see and catch all. But when a bad apple gets through and inflicts harm upon fellow Americans, we react. We abhor. And we bear witness. Monday’s events had news outlets tripping over each other trying to get the facts out; four days later we can still see the same ubiquitous slow-motion video clip of the explosions everywhere we look. The analysis is too much, perhaps even voyeuristic, sensationalistic. But that’s far better than the alternative, and it keeps us aware.
My immediate reaction to the letter I initially described was primarily an instinctive hatred for the unwelcome image of this nation gripped by fear. We should always be improving security, and we should always be alert. We should embrace our families, and fear for their safety. Yet part of what makes this country amazing is that there will still be marathons, and there will still be spectators at the finish line. We will continue to fly, to travel, and to gather in large numbers in public places. We will continue to be shocked when terrorists attack here, obsessive in the aftermath, and naïve in our beliefs that we can really keep terrorism out of our borders. What scares me most of all is the image of an America where those things cease to happen.
Last Friday, in the wake of the two-week-old announcement overturning the Combat Exclusion Policy, I attended a panel event about the removal of the CEP and its implications for the services. Having seen the damage that the CEP could—and did—do, I wrote about it both for a blog post and as a news article. The policy’s removal was both anticlimactic and embarrassingly necessary. It’s embarrassing that it took us this long—in a force that hinges on the high expectations and ambitions of hard-working people—to dispose of this policy. Despite an entire system set up to evaluate individuals on merit, the CEP codified the idea that ability mattered less than boy-or-girl.
But now that the CEP is—sort of—removed, what comes next? How do we as a military do this right, without overthinking things or treating people like children? The symposium was planned to address specific concerns about how the changes would impact the force, and to discuss past successes and failures both here and abroad. The main concerns included how to ensure that standards are set and remain high, how to avoid overthinking and micromanaging the process, possible impacts on unit cohesion, and more. It featured four different panels and 17 speakers. Most of the panel members were current or retired military; some are still on active duty and will deploy again shortly. Among the panelists were: Specialist Shoshana Johnson, USA (Ret); Major Mary Jennings Hegar, ANG; Sergeant Julia Bringloe, USA; Specialist Heidi Olson, USA; CAPT Joellen Oslund, USNR (Ret); Colonel Martha McSally, USAF (Ret); and Colonel Ingrid Gjerde, Norwegian Infantry.
Anyone interested in watching can view the videos here. The first and second panels were particularly interesting as they included testimony from American and foreign women who had experience in ground combat, among others.
Opponents of allowing women into ground combat roles have expressed concern that if units become co-ed, when under fire, men will forget their training and rush to help the women, risking mission and unit in the process. But panelist after panelist told otherwise. Major Hegar relayed how she and her crew crash-landed while on a mission in Afghanistan; while defending the crashed aircraft, they came under enemy fire. The crew fought back fiercely, as they had been trained to do. Her gender was not an issue. And why? Because they knew and trusted each other, had trained together and respected each other. Specialist Olson, Sergeant Bringloe, and Specialist Johnson emphasized the same points, echoing that the team is paramount, and that the vital piece was always the training: training as a unit allowed for development of the necessary rapport and respect, something that being “temporarily attached” does not provide.
Physical standards, specifically upper-body strength, have historically commanded the majority of the coverage in past discussions. But as most of the panelists pointed out, physical strength—especially upper-body strength—is only one part of the puzzle. Endurance, mental toughness, the ability to remain calm under fire—these cannot easily be taught yet are critically important, and none are gender-specific. I was sitting next to an infantry Marine in the audience, and on a break he mentioned that in Afghanistan, he’d seen a women break down while taking fire. Yet he’d also seen one of his own Marines fall apart and go into the fetal position, and he’d had to send others in after him, endangering them all. We often ignore the fact that while physical strength is one part of it, mental toughness is another. And mental toughness is not gender-specific.
But the physical aspect is undeniably part of it all. Greg Jacob, a prior infantry Marine, related how he had taken command of a company at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry and found himself working with women for the first time. Amazed that they couldn’t do pull-ups easily, he started them on a pull-up program, and soon everyone was knocking out pull-ups together; the problem was that the women had never trained for them, since the PFT only required the flexed-arm hang. We can develop strength in people, and we can develop endurance. But we have to train to the standards, and to do that we must set—and not lower—high standards.
And as to endurance and toughness, the panelists’ experiences highlighted how those qualities also come in both men and women. One audience member, a prior Marine infantryman, relayed the tale of a deployment he had to Okinawa years ago. He explained that his battalion had performed a number of long marches in full gear, and as they were struggling up the mountains in the Northern Training Area, they were accompanied by older Okinawan women. These women carried large baskets of water and other supplies on their heads and backs, and generally arrived at the destination in much better shape than the Marines did.
The physical standards were a recurring item for discussion throughout the day. Comments in the press by General Dempsey about developing a “critical mass” and having “enough women” are worrisome, and speak to a different path than what is needed to do this right. As I wrote about in the news piece for USNI, standards for each job must be defined, if specific ones are called for, and those should not shift to accommodate anyone. If this means only one or two women serve in each unit, or none, so be it. Some men may get cut as well if the standards are stricter than, for example, the current standard to become an infantry Marine. But every panelist repeatedly urged our leadership to set and adhere to high standards.
As to fears about unit cohesion, so much of it comes down to leadership, and to training to standards and expectations. Co-ed units have been deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade now, and they are strong and successful. Many of the panelists—and many in the audience—had deployed in co-ed units, and those units served ably and confidently. Leadership is paramount, just as it is for everything else we do. Expecting this to be any different is naïve.
Much more was said, but I’ll stop there to keep this from going on longer. At the end of the day, the main suggestions mirrored the panel discussions. Set high standards and stick to them. Expect high performance. Train to higher standards. Treat those serving as functioning adults rather than children who require constant hand-holding. Exercise leadership; as in any unit, the signs are there when trouble is ahead. And so many concerns can be overcome with a small amount of common sense and practicality.
As to the CEP, good riddance. It was a policy proven obsolete time and time again. It caused the “temporary attachment” of women to all-male infantry units that they had little integration or training with prior to deployment, weakening links that did eventually develop, and drove a wedge between those serving, labeling some as less qualified based solely on how they were born vs. actual capabilities. In effect, the CEP held that Justin Bieber is more qualified than Venus Williams to perform the duties of an 0311 (I paraphrased this from Colonel McSally, who used it repeatedly). We’re much better off acknowledging that this is not the case at all.
In light of the previous post by USNI admin, and the commentary generated, I’d like to add my thoughts in the form of a picture. Or rather, two pictures. And neither one is taken particularly well, for which I apologize.
Back story: last weekend, we took the kids up to Annapolis to see downtown and the Yard all decorated for Christmas. On a trip through the Naval Academy Club (BOQ), we came upon this gingerbread house. No doubt paid for by taxpayer dollars. Hmmm.
Very nice, of course, and I thought the midshipman sneaking out of the house was fitting.
Of course, someone had made a slight change from the original model:
It was nice to see that some things, like the behavior of 18- to-22-year-olds, will never change. And then my 4-year-old asked me why one reindeer was on top of the other one.
I’m inclined to think—based on my reading of the info in the admin post below—that the cancellation of the live Nativity in Bahrain was somewhat over-the-top. However, I’m also inclined to believe that: a) I belong to a mainstream religion and have never felt marginalized for any religious beliefs, and b) we have bigger problems to argue about.
I, for one, got a laugh from the taxpayer-funded reindeer…um…party that apparently lasted all night at USNA (when we came through the next morning Dasher and Prancer were back in their originally intended, separate spots).
Last week, I read one of those books that is impossible to put down. I read it—devoured it is more like it—in about a night-and-a-half of reading instead of sleeping. That’s something I don’t do these days, but I had to finish it.
It was weirdly familiar and hard to read, and in many ways it resonated. It’s called After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey, and it was written by Dan Sheehan, a fellow Cobra pilot. It’s—sort of—a recall/analysis of his time in Iraq in the early days of OIF and a discussion of the aftermath. I haven’t flown since 2010, but while reading his book, it felt like yesterday. I could smell the cockpit like the blades had just stopped turning, could feel the switches and gauges under my fingertips again, and remember well the post-mission stupor exacerbated by the dull, strong whomp-whomp of the blades echoing up my back.
Dan is an acquaintance; we both served as instructors at the Fleet Replacement Squadron right before we each left active duty. I don’t know him incredibly well, but he’s got a stellar reputation and was exceedingly competent. But that’s not why I hope people read his book.
I hope people read it because what he writes about is important. Yes, flying is interesting, and he describes what that’s like so expertly and eloquently that it made me physically miss it (as if I didn’t miss it enough already). So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fly and fight a Cobra, he’ll tell you. But the beauty in this book—if I dare use that word to describe the critical part of his story—is his ability and willingness to stand up and put a face to what so many veterans have experienced and continue to experience.
It’s a book that may not get a huge following, as it’s kind of in its own category. But if it doesn’t get widely read, then it’s a crying shame. Despite the fact that we’ve been at war for over a decade, less than 1% of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (yet many of those endured multiple deployments), and I find myself repeatedly surprised by how few citizens have a real awareness of just what has been happening since 2001. I want people to read Dan’s book, both those who have served and those who have not. Those who have might see traces of themselves in his story, and those who have not served need the perspective. Thank you, Shoe. Keep writing.
This Sunday, 28 October, the Marine Corps Marathon will once again be closing down the streets of Washington, D.C. Since the MCM began in 1976 it has grown immensely, and over 43,000 runners are registered for the three main events of the weekend.
I’ve run it off-and-on since 1995, between deployments, PCSs, and the births of my children, and have seen it grow from a smaller, simpler race to the massive event that it is today. Without fail, it always feels amazing to be able to run the marathon in the heart of the beautiful city that D.C. can be, in the middle of fall, around all of the monuments, and surrounded by spectators and friends. Some things about the MCM have not changed over time: it is still inspiring, it is still entertaining (standing at the start in 2009 with three other current/former Marine Corps helicopter pilots made the Osprey fly-over incredibly fun), and it still possesses the ability to humble me.
The MCM has grown into a mini-reunion of sorts, as those I’ve served with and known over the years fly in town for the run, or sign up for it while stationed here. I’ve run it on warm, sunny days and on cold, rainy ones, and I’ve run it as a healthy 20-year-old who thought nothing of it and as a 36-year-old with three kids (who thought quite a bit). I have beaten Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey, and have been beaten by Kermit the Frog, Elvis, and a man with a pot-belly wearing a shirt that read “I hydrated with beer” on the back. Humorous but humbling.
Fittingly, one aspect of the MCM that has changed is the number and type of groups running for something. The striking difference about the runners of the MCM is how many are military and how many are running for other servicemembers, whether in memory of friends or family lost over the past decade or in honor of those wounded or currently serving. No other race I’ve run has that kind of presence. And the level of commitment, the depth of loss, and the amount of respect is far more humbling than anything I feel physically over the distance. While there are times that I feel as if most of this country has forgotten that we are and have been a nation at war for 11 years, at the MCM the opposite is true. From groups like USNA’s Run to Honor and the Travis Manion Foundation to the hundreds (thousands?) of people running with a friend’s name on their shirt, Washington, D.C. looks amazing every year on the last Sunday in October.
I will be running again this weekend as part of Team Beav, a group started by Katy Kerch in 2006 in honor of her brother and my squadron-mate, Major Gerald Bloomfield (“Beav”). We lost Beav and Major Michael Martino on November 2, 2005, when their Cobra was shot down in Iraq. Team Beav has grown over the years, and the list of names on the back of our shirts has grown as well. Katy is an indefatigable woman who has motivated runners and non-runners alike to run the MCM in memory of Beav, raising money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund along the way.
So if you’re in town and you are running the marathon, I hope you enjoy it. And if you are in the area but not running, come out to watch. Rain, shine, or tropical-storm-force winds, the crowds and the energy level will be high. If you feel as though you have lost faith in America and in her citizens, being part of the MCM on race morning can change that, if only for a few hours.
For those we have lost, I miss you, I remember you, and I will be thinking of you on Sunday morning. Semper Fi.