Spend a day with your local military recruiter, and you’ll be encouraged by the number of people who go out of their way to say how much they support our troops and how much they appreciate the service of these young veterans. Then watch as the recruiters casually ask when they’ll be bringing their son or daughter to the recruiting station to learn more about serving their country.
Their spines stiffen, they smile blankly, and a coldness comes over them. If they are quick-witted, they will find a joking way to dismiss the question. More often, though, they will simply blurt out that there is no way they’d let their own child enlist. They’ll support someone else’s children being soldiers, but not their own.
Dealing with hostile parents is just one of the myriad reasons recruiting duty is considered second only to combat on the list of most stressful jobs in the military. Most of the Marines I have known, though, would rather do a tour fighting insurgents in Iraq than a tour recruiting teenagers in America.
During the late 1990s I served a three-year stint as a Marine recruiter in Olympia, Washington. After a typically grueling week in October, a fellow recruiter and I decided to amuse ourselves by taking a trip out to Evergreen State College. Our area of Washington was the recruiting equivalent of Al Anbar province, but that particular school had a reputation for being like Fallujah—a place so unwelcoming that it was rumored that no one from our office had visited in a decade.
Evergreen, considered one of the most liberal colleges in the country, prided itself on being one of the first schools to hold a protest against the first Gulf War. About the only thing my fellow recruiter and I shared in common with the students was that our alma maters both had Latin mottos. (For the Corps: Semper Fidelis, “always faithful”; for the Greeners: Omnia Extares, “let it all hang out.”) As we stepped on campus in our dress blue uniforms we prepared ourselves for what was bound to be a hostile environment.
We were disappointed by the reception we received. There were no spontaneous protests, no name-calling, no confrontations with patchouli-wearing hippie chicks. Instead, we received a cool, almost apathetic reception. Stares and smirks and polite bemusement, but no one went out of their way to be rude or unkind. They simply ignored us, assuming (correctly) that we would soon leave, never to return.
Disappointed, we walked to the student union, ordered lunch, and sat at a corner table by ourselves. Most of the students did their best to avoid making eye contact but one young woman, dressed in Birkenstocks and sporting white-girl dreadlocks, walked up and smiled. “Are you Canadian Mounties?” she asked.
My friend snorted, thinking that she was making fun of our uniforms. But I could tell from her expression that her question was sincere. “Um, no,” I said, “We’re U.S. Marines.”
“Oh,” she said, looking puzzled. “So what do Marines do?”
I invited her to join us and we talked for half an hour. She was in her third year, studied “sustainability,” and had grown up in Aberdeen, the hometown of the alte grunge musician Kurt Cobain. Her lack of understanding about the military turned out to be genuine; she had truly never been exposed to Marines before.
As we drove back to the office, my fellow sergeant was fuming. He couldn’t believe that anyone could make it to college without acquiring a basic familiarity with the military. While I agreed that the girl’s ignorance reflected poorly on the educational system, it had a surprisingly different affect on me: I couldn’t remember ever being more proud to be a Marine.
The encounter reminded me that the reason I served my country was because I loved freedom. I loved it so much that I was willing to sacrifice some of my own freedom, or even my life if necessary, to secure it for myself and for my nation. The young woman had the luxury of being uninformed about the military because my fellow Marines had bought that liberty for her. For over two centuries, American soldiers and sailors had paid the cost necessary to give her to have the freedom to think—or not think—as she chooses. We had provided her with the safety and security needed to forget that people like us existed.
It’s true that freedom is only valued when it’s taken away. But freedom can only be appreciated when it’s taken for granted. When we have to concentrate on each breath, we cannot truly enjoy our health. When we have to remain constantly vigilant, we cannot truly enjoy our liberty.
After 9/11, we lost many of our illusions of security. And after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you’re unlikely to find college students—even at Evergreen—who don’t know about the Marines. But it has been nine years since the terrorists attacked us on our own soil; time enough to allow us to relax our guard, if only slightly. We haven’t defeated the enemies that are working to destroy us, and we have many battles ahead. But we should all take pride in the men and women of our military whose constant vigilance keeps our enemies outside our gates.
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Veterans Day. On their way to the lake and the cookouts, a few of our fellow countrymen will remember to shake our hands and thank us for our service. While I’ll appreciate the generous sentiment, what I really want is to see the day when they can take us for granted again.
Because the world is a dangerous place, that day won’t come any time soon. But because there are U.S. Marines in the world, I know that day will come again.
Semper Fi, Marines, and Happy 235th Birthday.
Joe Carter, a former Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps, is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here. For his reflection on Veterans Day, see What a Veteran Knows.
Addendum: During the American Revolution a committee of the Continental Congress met at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia to draft a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines able to fight for independence at sea and on shore. The resolution was approved on November 10, 1775, officially forming the Continental Marines. Each year, the Marine Corps marks November 10th with a celebration of the brave spirit which compelled these citizens, and thousands since, to defend our country as United States Marines.