Veterans Day 2012

The military is in the news a lot these days. Fortunately, this is one day they’re getting well deserved attention for having served.

On Memorial Day 2006, I interviewed Lt. Col. Oliver North about the concepts of duty, honor, valor, self-sacrifice, and whether we still recognize that as a society or not. He proudly spoke about what sets the men and women apart who step up to serve, who pass the scrutiny of eligibility and then training and then the rigors of battle or any tour of duty they’re assigned. He was grateful to focus that attention on service members, because they represent the best of well-disciplined human qualities.

Service members I’ve either known or encountered publicly have embodied a certain dignity and integrity that stays ingrained in their character long after their service ends. Whenever I pass a man or woman in uniform at the airport or anywher else and say ‘Thank you for your service,’ they nearly always humbly say ‘Thank you for the thank you.’ Or, ‘Just doing my duty.’

Memorial Day is for remembering those who gave their lives in service, and Veterans Day is meant to honor all veterans. But both are also marked by appreciation for all the troops who serve now, or ever have.

So I add my personal gratitude to this national celebration. And some reflections on a few interviews I’ve done with authors about veterans who made a huge difference by their service. One common thread among many is their faith.

Fr. Vincent Capodanno, ‘The Grunt Padre.’

He gained a reputation for always being there–for always taking care of his Marines.

At 4:30 am, September 4th, 1967 , in the Thang Binh District of the Que-Son Valley, elements of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines found the large North Vietnamese Unit, approx. 2500 men, near the village of Dong Son. Operation Swift was underway. The out-numbered and disorganized Company D was in need of reinforcements. By 9:14 am, twenty-six Marines were confirmed dead. The situation was in doubt and another Company of Marines was committed to the battle. At 9:25 am, the 1st Battalion 5th Marine Commander requested assistance of two company’s of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, “M”and “K” Company.

During those early hours, Chaplain Capodanno received word of the battle taking place. He sat in on the morning briefing at the 3rd Battalion’s Combat Operations Center. He took notes and listened to the radio reports coming in. As the elements of Company “M” and “K” prepared to load the helicopters. “Fr.Vince” requested to go with them. His Marines needed him. “It’s not going to be easy” he stated. As Company “M” approached the small village of Chau Lam, the North Vietnamese opened up on the 2nd Platoon, which was caught on a small knoll, out in the open. The fighting was fierce, hand to hand at times, and the platoon was in danger of being overrun. Father Capodanno went among the wounded and dying, giving last rites and taking care of his Marines. Wounded once in the face and suffering another wound that almost severed his hand, Father Capodanno moved to help a wounded corpsman only yards from an enemy machinegun. Father Capodanno died taking care of one of his men.

So did Adam Brown. Author Eric Blehm’s book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown, is compelling and riveting and full of very human struggles and drama. But one standout account late in the book reveals the tender heart of a warrior well placed.  

The two SEALs were always swapping books and having long talks about history, religion, politics, and war. The rest of their squadron ribbed them endlessly for watching hours of Book TV on deployments and training trips.

“What ya got going there?” John said from the doorway, lifting his chin toward the book.

Tender Warrior,” Adam replied and showed John the cover. “You can read it; I’m almost done. Check this out,” he said, thumbing backward through the pages. “It was written by Stu Weber, a Vietnam veteran, Special Forces. He became a chaplain.” Stopping at a passage, he handed the book to John, who read,

“The Warrior function is…unmistakable in Scripture…Within the epistles, the mature believing man is often described in militant terms–a warrior equipped to battle mighty enemies and shatter satanic strongholds.

“The heart of the Warrior is a protective heart. The Warrior shields, defends, stands between, and guards…He invests himself in ‘the energy of self-disciplined, aggressive action.’ By Warrior I do not mean one who loves war or draws sadistic pleasure from fighting or bloodshed. There is a difference between a warrior and a brute. A warrior is a protector…Men stand tallest when they are protecting and defending.”

This was ingrained in the DNA of George S. Patton. We probably thought we knew just about everything, or certainly the highlights, of the infamous general and his career and legacy. But along came this book recently, Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer, and author Michael Keane revealed more than most of us knew or ever heard.

“For this guy, faith was part of his being,” said Michael Keane, a fellow of national security at the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy.

If you ignore Patton’s Christianity, then you cannot understand how he approached challenges or how he achieved his successes, or how he shaped history, Keane said.

“He was raised reading the Bible, praying every day,” he said.

“His faith in God and his faith in himself became this core,” he said.

“You can’t find a page or entry in his diary with him not giving thanks to God or asking for God’s help when he is being challenged or writing a prayer himself—it is amazing how intense his personal devotion is,” he said.

Patton’s most famous prayer, an incident portrayed in detail in the movie “Patton,” was the one he ordered the Third Army chaplain Msgr. James H. O’Neill to write in early December 1944, as rains were bogging down the army’s progress.

O’Neill wrote a prayer that he assumed was for the general’s private devotion, but Patton ordered it sent to every soldier under his command.

The prayer was printed on cards with Patton’s Christmas greeting on the other side, and it was out to most of the troops by the middle of December—right before the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge.“The movie is great, obviously, but it tends to see Patton as a bit of a caricature, and the same thing for that prayer,” Keane said.

Keane said he researched the prayer thoroughly to fully understand what it was all about.“It wasn’t just a gimmick to him,” he said.

“What you start to understand is that Patton saw prayer as a force, a force of nature, a force of God, really, not just some words one uttered,” he said.

“He thought that everyone praying together was like a force field, like an X-Ray, you couldn’t see it, but it could shape and affect things, with a power unto itself,” he said.

“That’s why he had the whole Third Army pray and issue a directive on prayer because he thought it would help them accomplish their mission,” he said.

The prayer he had printed and delivered to all his soldier of the Third Army just before Christmas 1944:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to refrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.

Note that he prayed to crush oppression and wickedness – not oppressors themselves – to establish justice among peoples.

Happy Veterans Day.

Navy SEALs get more attention

For an elite special operations force that relies on stealth and anonymity, the SEALs sure have been in the limelight this year. It’s probably the one place on earth they’re not exactly prepared to be.

After the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, President Obama’s White House readily talked up the successful mission, too much according to some members of the SEAL community.

Obama’s noticeable swagger in public appearances, especially one at an immigration rally in Texas, led to the popular Saturday Night Live ‘victory lap’ skit soon after.

There’s been a movie on the SEALs and one is in the works, and a number of books. Which all seemed very odd to reckon with their need for secrecy and their strong code of silence.

The latest and most controversial is the book No Easy Day by a former SEAL who took part in the bin Laden raid and before that, the rescue of the captain held hostage by Somali pirates. Before I ever heard of it though, I had the author of one outstanding book on the SEALs on my radio program, on August 6, the anniversary of the worst single-day loss of life in the history of Naval Special Warfare. A US military Chinook helicopter crashed that day the year before, killing 30 Americans, 17 of them Navy SEALs. Eric Blehm wrote this essay about it for Time.

Blehm spent the hour on my program on August 6th this year discussing his book FEARLESS: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown. It’s the one book I highly recommend on these elite forces, because it’s so well done, thoroughly and honorably and with the willing cooperation of the team who served with Adam Brown. Willing only because they wanted his story told.

From the Prologue:

From May through July 2011, when it seemed that every journalist on the planet was scrambling to get an inside angle on the Osama bin Laden kill mission in Pakistan, I was making my way around the United States interviewing over a dozen U.S. Navy SEALs. Although most were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group or, as the Obama administration announced to the world, SEAL Team SIX – the team that had taken out bin Laden – I was meeting with them for a different reason altogether.

I traveled from California to Pennsylvania to Alaska to Virginia to Arkansas, interviewing each of the SEALs for several hours. Although the mission of a lifetime that some had taken part in only days before was still on their minds, we weren’t there to focus on bin Laden. Theyd met with me, an outsider to their ranks, for something equally important and deeply personal to them: the family of one of their fallen SEAL brothers–Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Brown–wanted his story told.

And if the world was to learn about Adam Brown, the SEALs wanted it done right. As one of the men, Thomas Ratzlaff, humbly said to me…”Adam is the one SEAL from our command whose story absolutely deserves a book.”…

“You need to tell the whole story,” John Faas admonished me…”There are enough books that show how tough SEAL training is, there’s enough Tom Clancy fiction. What there isn’t enough of is the humanity. When you start digging, you are going to find a whole lot of humanity in Adam Brown.”

The book jacket has several strong endorsements. One of my favorites is the one author James Campbell wrote:

“When people know they are going to die, often their one regret is that they didn’t say ‘I love you’ enough. Adam brown never had to worry. His life was about love: love of God, family, friends, country, his fellow SEALs, and the Afghan children who worshipped him.”

And this, from U.S. Navy Chaplain Bob Freiberg, Adam’s chaplain during BUD/S:

“Be prepared for the full range of emotions as the true adventures of a real American hero demonstrate that ‘with God, all things are possible.'”

I don’t know how these other books and films portray these men, but FEARLESS is gripping and full of heart and, as that one SEAL put it, humanity.

Late in Blehm’s book, he wrote about a book Adam Brown was reading during one of his deployments, one he shared with a buddy who enjoyed book swapping and “long talks about history, religion, politics, and war. The rest of their squadron ribbed them endlessly for watching hours of Book TV on deployments and training trips.”

This particular book was Tender Warrior, and Adam eagerly shared portions with his buddy. “You can read it; I’m almost done. Check this out,” he said, thumbing backward through the pages. “It was written by Stu Weber, a Vietnam veteran, Special Forces. He became a chaplain. Stopping at a passage, he handed the book to John, who read,

The Warrior function is…unmistakable in Scripture…Within the epistles, the mature believing man is often described in militant terms–a warrior equipped to battle mighty enemies and shatter satanic strongholds.

The heart of the Warrior is a protective heart. The Warrior shields, defends, stands between, and guards…He invests himself in “the energy of self-disciplined, aggressive action.” By Warrior I do not mean one who loves war or draws sadistic pleasure from fighting or bloodshed. There is a difference between a warrior and a brute. A warrior is a protector…Men stand tallest when they are protecting and defending.

Of the SEALs I know, and what I know of the SEALs, this is true. It’s what they do.

When No Easy Day was coming out, I had Eric Blehm back on the show, eager to hear what the SEALs thought and said about that controversial book. Among other things, he told me that just two hours before coming on the air, he learned that a counter-narrative had just become available online, and he urged anyone reading the book to read the counter narrative put together by special forces members. It’s called No Easy Op.

This handy guide isn’t a book review of “No Easy Day” – there will be no shortage of those to come. Instead, it is a review of the modern culture in which these operations are conducted and reported upon, this Information Age, and where the release of “No Easy Day” touches on hot issues in Operational Security (OpSec). SOFREP [Special Operations Forces Situation Report] provides invaluable context the public needs to understand how to frame their own assessments of the balance between the public’s desire to know what is going on versus the need for secrecy and security to maintain and conduct these types of operations. This guide gives the reader bearings on how to interpret the information, and sources of information, that will be flooding the news about “No Easy Day” as it is released.

This quote from “No Easy Op” easily summarizes why SOFREP is an essential component to the interaction between SOF, the media and the public:

“Our world is filled with information, misinformation, and deliberate disinformation, all at the same time, and sometimes they even come from the very same source. It has never been easier to conduct research and become informed, but it has never been harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. SOFREP’s goal is to make this determination easier.”

Read it to be informed. Read Eric Blehm to be inspired.

What America is rejoicing

Why did they start dancing in the streets in Washington and New York immediately after President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid on his compound in Pakistan? Why did young adults in many college towns across the country pour out into the streets to celebrate on Monday as the fever spread? Was this as jarring as it seemed?

Some of us were on the fence about the immense relief…beyond description really…of so long a dry spell of despair and darkness being so suddenly and bracingly snapped with the jolt of Sunday night news flashes that bin Laden was dead. I’ve been focusing lately on the power of the message John Paul II brought to the dispirited Poles that reminded them of their human dignity and what their heritage as Christians ennobled them to do.

That message transfers well and intact to America today. In this nation too, Christianity is the dominant religion of the people, but people have been dispirited and disheartened and in need of a spark to rally the nation around ideals it seems we’ve long dropped in the politically correct halls of academia and the pages of press and very much in the press statements of politicians. Things got called by new names that didn’t really describe their reality. The ‘war on terror’ became an ‘overseas contingency operation,’ and terms like ‘enemy combatants’ were sanitized though they didn’t change and their attempted operations were stopped just short of hitting the homeland again.

Media articles have been pondering the decline of American exceptionalism, the dollar has been weakened and nothing decisive seems to be happening in Washington these days to break the general malaise.

Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, this happened.

And so the US rejoices.

After nearly a decade of anger and fear, America rejoiced Monday at the demise of Osama bin Laden, the terror mastermind behind the horrific 9/11 attacks. Navy SEALs who killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist seized a trove of al-Qaida documents to pore over, and President Barack Obama laid plans to visit New York’s ground zero.

Big media are back to calling him the terror mastermind, and the attack horrific.

Bin Laden’s death after a decade on the run unloosed a national wave of euphoria mixed with remembrance for the thousands who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of students at Penn State University and in other college towns spilled into the streets and set off firecrackers to mark the moment.

I’ve assilmilated this better now, after the initial relief mixed with dismay over some of the rhetoric about this dead man who, granted, has haunted the West and mostly America for so many years. As one priest said about what disturbed him most, “dancing in the streets over killing someone is what they do, it’s not what we do.” Right.

But I came to think about this visceral eruption of relief across America that there was finally a triumph of enormous importance for our troops, as those SEALs descended on that compound for such a daring and critical mission. It’s of enormous importance to much of the world, too.

It’s too great a leap to expect an end to terrorism or a new era of peace, but it’s not too great a hope.

[Vatican press spokesman Father Federico Lombard] reflected upon the crimes Bin Laden stood accused of.

“Osama bin Laden – as we all know – was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples, causing the end of countless innocent lives, and of exploiting religions to this end.”…

“Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event is an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.”

Amen to that. Let the celebration be about a new resolve toward the tough love that’s going to require. Starting with ourselves, and our leaders who proclaim this as a new rallying call for unity.