We’d gone through boot camp together at Parris Island and Infantry Training School at Camp Geiger. We both excelled and were invited to compete, along with dozens of others, for three available slots in Force Recon. I came in third place and went to Force; Michael came in a close fourth and went to Recon Battalion -- but only because he sprained his ankle on an obstacle course. He held a grudge against me for awhile. I was where he should have been, and he was where I would have been.
It was a strange twist of fate that occasionally haunts me to this day.
On that particular summer night I was jealous; he and his unit were readying to ship out, somewhere far across the vast, dark ocean in front of us. Training was over, and it was time to put it all to the test.
We talked a lot that night, about anticipation, fear, excitement, war and what separates good warriors from bad. We also talked about fishing. I told him about a photo I had of my dad fishing off this very beach, in the 1940s, when the base was known simply as “Tent City,” before he shipped off to fight on Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Now it was our turn. Well . . . at least his turn. At some point, when the bottle of Jack went from half-full to half-empty and beyond, we talked about patriotism.
“Everyone should have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” Michael replied.
It surprised me, and irritated me a bit.
“Freedom is freedom,” he said. “People should do whatever they want if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Nobody should be forced to do what they don’t want to do, just because others think they should. I believe in freedom. That’s why I’m a Marine.”
Two months later Michael Sauls was killed when two separate suicide bombers – part of a group calling themselves “Islamic Jihad” – drove trucks full of explosives into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. He was among 220 Marines (241 American servicemen) who died that day.
I thought of Michael a few days ago when I saw a meme on a USMC Force Recon Association Facebook Page depicting a photo of actor R. Lee Ermey looking angry and threatening, playing the role of fictitious Marine Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” The fictitious caption, attributed to the fictitious Gunny Hartman, reads: “THE NATIONAL ANTHEM: When it plays you get off your ass, put your hand over your heart, remove your headgear, and render the proper respect!”
“HELL YEAH!!! OOORAH!!” wrote the person who posted it.
“Damn straight!” responded another.
“Bullshit!” I responded.
“I served in Force Recon to help protect the American ideals of freedom and liberty for all, including freedom of choice,” I wrote. “If someone doesn't want to stand for the national anthem, that's their choice. In a free country, they should not be compelled to do so -- not even by an actor who pretended to be a DI in a movie. I support and will defend with my life such freedom.”
A fellow Marine dared me to say such a thing at the next Force Recon Reunion, “and see how fast you get your ass kicked!” He called me a “traitor,” and questioned if I were truly a Force Recon Marine. He said my friends who died – including Michael Sauls – “are rolling over in their graves.”
It’s an attitude growing dangerously prevalent in our society. People love “freedom” as long as you think and act just like they do. If you don’t, you can’t truly be a real Marine, or a real American, or a real patriot. It seems those who most adamantly defend the Constitution, the principles of our Founders, and the American way know and understand the least about it. Some people seem to think they have a monopoly on patriotism. Those who don't agree with them "hate America,” they say. “Love it or leave it!”
How about this one? “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The fellow Force Recon Marine who called me a “traitor” asked me: “What would make you post this unpatriotic crap on this weekend especially?”
Personally, I don’t think freedom is unpatriotic. Neither did my friend Michael Sauls.
Wave the flag, visit veteran cemeteries, decorate the graves of heroes, hit the Memorial Day sales, cook up some hot dogs, stand for the National Anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If you want. Or not. That’s up to you. But remember this – those who died for this nation died because they believed in freedom. Practice it. Enjoy it. Respect it.
“Freedom is freedom,” Michael said. “People should do whatever they want if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Nobody should be forced to do what they don’t want to do, just because others think they should. I believe in freedom. That’s why I’m a Marine.”