As my plane ascends quickly out of Reagan National Airport, through the mist that hangs over Washington DC on this cloudy spring day, it banks steeply to the right, providing brief glimpses of the tree-lined suburbs below.
My mind is cycling just as rapidly through images from this past week and especially the last two days.
Last night, seated next to an older man in the VIP section at Marine Barracks’ evening parade, we approached the end of the 90-minute spectacle of Marine precision. Pass in Review had just concluded after the Marine Corps Band, Drum and Bugle Corps, Alpha Company and Bravo Company had marched smartly and precisely in front of the evening’s honorees and Col. Christian Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of the Barracks.
“There he is,” my seatmate Larry said. Looking up to the tall parapet, above which the reproduction 15-star flag snapped in the rapidly changing wind, I saw what he noticed, a lone figure in a red Drum and Bugle Corps uniform. The lights on the parade ground darkened and a spotlight lit the bugler. The crowd rose, and waited.
So slowly that it ached, the bugler blew the haunting refrain of Taps. I wondered who Larry was remembering, afraid to look in his direction lest I catch him welling up for friends lost in the Vietnam war, his first combat operation.
Though my Dad was here 55 years ago, when the evening parade was a “moonlight innovation” (as the newspaper described it at the time), he was a phantom by my side the whole evening.
Before the parade, in the Drum Room of Center House, I chatted with Maj. Sarah Armstrong who was manning the log of drinks served to active duty personnel of the Barracks. Her demeanor easily toggled from a relaxed chat with the visiting daughter of a late Marine Colonel — socially at ease, articulate, with a ready sense of humor winking under the surface — to a direct gaze and ramrod straight bearing when greeting the Commanding Officer.
I told the Commanding Officer that, as the youngest of my siblings, I had no memory of the Barracks. The silent drill that I remembered was a demonstration performed at home by my father with an umbrella. The umbrella did not always fare well for the experience.
Col. Cabaniss said that his youngest daughter seemed less than impressed by his position in the Corps. She was more likely to “Oh, Daddy” him than his eight year old, who liked the idea of giving orders. “Sir, she even orders me when she visits,” added Major Johnson.
As the reception progressed, I superimposed my father upon it. He was there, standing and smiling in the direction of Gen. Pate. On the other side of Gen. Pate stood Gen. Leonard Chapman, then Commanding Officer of the Barracks and later Commandant.
In the photo, Gen. Chapman is smiling broadly, looking directly at the camera. Given his rank and position, he cannot be a man to trifle with, but the warmth and welcome in his face is striking.
Dad looks a little less relaxed, but you can tell he likes these men under whom he serves. Respect and admiration shows on his face, but so does affection.
Having grown up outside the shelter of the Corps, this is one of the things that strikes me: the obvious affection between the men and women I see around me.
In corporate life, we may develop deep and long-lasting friendships. We learn to behave as a team. Inevitably, we work with a few who set us on edge.
I know from my Dad’s stories that there were men he didn’t like and men who didn’t like him. He once reported for duty to his new Commanding Officer (not Col. Chapman) and was greeted with the statement, “I didn’t ask for you.”
But I know he loved many of the people in the photos. It was in his eyes when he spoke of those he admired.
I saw the same mutual respect and warmth in the relationship between Col. Cabaniss and the current Executive Officer, LtC. Tom Garnett. In response to my question about how he came to be Executive Officer, LtC. Garnett said that he had previously served as Col. Cabaniss’ XO and was asked to join him in that role again when the Col. was given command of the post.
When I left Center House that evening, LtC. Garnett was standing by the door. I thanked him for his hospitality and told him how deeply the event had affected me. I told him I appreciated meeting Col. Cabaniss and could see why he would be pleased to be his XO, not once, but twice. I added, “And I can see why he is lucky to have you.”
He raised his index finger to his lips, smiled and whispered, “Shhhh.”
These are men and women who train together not just for the ceremonies that are a major part of the mission of the Barracks, but for survival and success. The officers I met had a common thread in their service history: Afghanistan.
I grew up in the time before 9/11, during a long period of peace. My generation had never been called upon to defend our freedoms. Most of what my generation knew about warfare came from movies and video games. It took becoming a parent to make me realize the vulnerability of the men and women on the line of fire, someone else’s sons and daughters.
I once asked Dad how he could have had the bravery to run toward enemy fire. He answered, “You do it for the guy next to you.” Your brother.
Here at the Barracks, you meet people who have been chosen to uphold the legacy of the Marine Corps, a storied history, ultimately, of military successes against terrible odds. The ribbons on the Marine Corps battle flag, presented during the ceremony, is a graphic reminder of each of the campaigns in which the Marine Corps has fought since the beginning of the country.
As the Marine Corps Hymn says: “… First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean: We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.”