On Veterans Day, those attending Williston Crossings Veterans Ceremony listened as Paul Bahlin eloquently told a story of courage and bravery.  His timely, poignant message appears below. 

WHY WE HONOR VETERANS

50 years ago I was stationed on the USCGC Basswood, a not very glamorous, 180 ft. buoy tender; basically a big crane with a boat under it. We were working in a very primitive area of the Mekong river in South Vietnam. It was mostly muddy, reed infested, islands with a few villages and we stopped at one for a day to wait for supplies.

The people in this village made their living selling firewood downstream. Every day the men would paddle upstream to harvest drifting debris. The women and children stayed behind to knock the wet bark from the previous days harvest.

This went on every day of the year; 12, 13, 14 hour days in 100 degree heat with stifling humidity. I’ve never forgotten that little village, with everybody from naked 2-year-old babies to the oldest woman, squatting in a circle in the mud, knocking sticks together for their next meal.

I was standing on the bridge looking down on this scene that could have been from the bronze age and, I remember thinking, who does this? Who sends their treasure and the blood of their young to these alien places? We do! Americans do it, mostly our military, and we have never asked for anything in return, but the few acres of land it took to bury our dead.  We don’t do it for conquest, or colonization, or subjugation, or to enslave the people there. We do it to help! You can argue whether or not we should have been in some of those places but you can never argue that we’ve been there for ignoble or immoral reasons. The evidence for this is the 24 foreign cemeteries, holding a quarter million of our young people, that we have left behind. It is all we ever asked for from the countries we have fought in and it’s all that we have ever left behind.

I didn't want to talk in generalities about honor, and sacrifice, and heroism today. These are all relevant and important things of course, but using these terms dresses up what lies beneath. They disguise the horror, the stench, the terror, the blood and the death that are the sea these things float upon.

So instead of generalities, I thought it would be good to see what honor, sacrifice and heroism actually look like and I came across a powerful story that sort of rips off those fancy clothes. It was told in a 2008 speech by General John Kelly when he was commander of all the U.S. and Iraqi troops in Iraq.

It’s a story about 22-year-old Corporal Jonathan Yale, a dirt poor mixed race kid from rural Virginia and Lance Corporal Jordan Hearter, a 20-year-old middle class white kid from Long Island. The story tells us about the last six seconds of their lives.  Here's their story in General Kelly's words....

SIX SECONDS TO LIVE

When I read the situation report about the incident a few hours after it happened I called the regimental commander for details as something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. We expect Marines regardless of rank or MOS to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different.

The regimental commander had just returned from the site and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event—just Iraqi police. I figured if there was any chance of finding out what actually happened and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it as a combat award that requires two eye-witnesses and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements.  If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.

I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police all of whom told the same story. The blue truck turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way through the serpentine. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police then related that some of them also fired, and then to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion.

All survived. Many were injured…some seriously. One of 10 the Iraqis elaborated and with tears welling up said, “They’d run like any normal man would to save his life.” “What I didn’t know until then,” he said, “and what I learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal.” Choking past the emotion he said, “Sir, in the name of God no sane man would have stood there and done what they did. No sane man. They saved us all.”

What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned a couple of days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis had described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated.

You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.

It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were—some running right past the Marines. They had three seconds left to live.

For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing nonstop, the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have known they were safe, because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber. The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.

The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty—into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you. 

 End 

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I saw a sidewalk interview the other day, where a college girl was asked if she would like to see America great again. She looked confused by the question and said, “What? America was never great.” It broke my heart. I would like for her to spend a few days on that mud island in the Mekong delta, banging the bark off sticks so she could eat a bowl of rice the next day; half dressed, no iPhone, no shoes, no air conditioning, no medicine, and no cocoa before stretching out in the mud for a fitful night slapping at giant mosquitoes. 

America has always been great. It’s never been perfect, but always great and good, with unbelievable patriots that step forward into danger. That girl won’t likely ever be tested like those marines in the alley because young warriors are standing out in front of her, giving up their lives, leaning into danger so that she can live in luxurious ignorance.  

We stand here today for them!