Back in 1997 I was a freshly minted young Marine undergoing Infantry school in North Carolina. During one particularly long and hot week of training we sat on the hard clay soil in a circle around our company First Sergeant. We were tired and hurting. Our feet bled from blisters and our shoulders carried bruises from a thirty mile tug of war with seventy-five pound packs. The complaints were flowing freely that evening and had been heard by our company First Sergeant, a veteran of twenty two years in the Marines. The First Sergeant, a gray-haired man in his fifties, had gathered us together for a history lesson and to silence some of our grumbles and complaints. At first, he didn’t say anything, but simply removed a picture from his pack and held it out in front of his chest, before passing around to the young men gathered there.
The picture depicted a group of young marines sometime towards the end of the First World War. They were a sorry-looking lot for sure, muddy, ragged, with the look of men who had seen too much and been asked to go even further. They were all young like ourselves. There was one more trait they shared though and that was the smile adorning all of their faces. Whether it came from their thankfulness at still being alive, or their pride to be serving their country I do not know. Our First Sergeant went on to tell us simply that these men had no air conditioning, no showers, and no heat. They carried bolt-action rifles into muddy trenches swarming with rats, and disease. They ate cold rations often spoiled by mold, but they went and they did and they didn’t stop until the war was won.
Looking at this picture I could not help but feel that my own complaints and worries had become trivial and petty. If these men could do what they did and come out the other side with a smile then so could I. That was one of many moments of Inspiration I would find in the Marines. Often times just when it seemed we could go no further one of our superiors would recount a story from the Marine Corps colored past to lift our spirits and ragged bones and keep us going. The history of The Corps was filled with people who seemed to do the impossible; men who defied the odds and rewrote the story of what men could do. As a culture the Marine Corps believes there is always more to give, one more step, one more pull-up, and one more mile. Don’t quit, never give up, adapt, and overcome were the by-words of my vocabulary during my time in and in the years since.
At first it was easy to believe that these sayings were just clichés and tools to make us perform. We would chant them endlessly on marches, during exercise, and each night before bed. Now I see them as matters of perspective. The Marine Corps is filled with heroes. We celebrate their deeds and remember their deaths. One thing we do not do is venerate them as supermen. If anything the Corps makes it a point to reinforce the concept that these Marines of the past and present are just Marines, just men. The idea being, that what one man can do so can another. I learned in The Marines, that it didn’t matter where you came from, or what you did before, we all had the same potential and capability, and that it was in the will where fate was decided.
In battle there comes a point where men face death. It closes in on them like a predator; circling and getting closer with every heartbeat. In these moments history has shown that some men will act, often times at great peril to themselves. They see the situation, understand the consequences, and rise to their feet nevertheless. They see with great clarity what must be done no matter the cost. I think we admire these people for several reasons. There is great nobility in the idea of sacrifice for ones friends, to face death with courage, and resolve. We want to think that given a similar situation we would react the same way. People can be very selfish. Our society in The United States rewards and even promotes a kind of self obsession and interest. Yet when we see and hear tales of those whose actions were selfless in the extreme we cheer, and we raise them up. They are inspiring.
Outside the military men and women are standing and seeing what must be done as well. These visionaries have seen with great clarity the problems facing us, and vowed to do something about it. They act when others caution patience and waiting. They dare when others tell them hope is lost. There is great courage in the world and it is not exclusive to the military. In every society and nation people are making a stand against what they see as wrong. It boggles my mind though how much society as a whole has decided to largely ignore these people and their actions. Our news programs are filled with crime, scandal, and worsening debt. Where are the stories of hope and success? Where are the bright beacons shining out in the midst of darkness to show us the way?
We need inspiration today, now more than ever. We need men and women willing to step into the line of fire and lead those behind over the hill. We need a picture to remind us of those that came before. We need stories to tell us of what can be done. We need Inspiration. Do you know someone truly inspiring? The world and Wikipedia is filled with people who have overcome and triumphed. If we could make it a habit of filling our time with their stories instead of CNN and Cable, Maybe we could gain some perspective. This new life I’m trying to make, the move to Seattle, the Spartan race next spring is about inspiring myself. I want to remember again that I can accomplish anything. I want to feel like I did as an eighteen year old Private; tired, weary, covered in muck, but never more alive.