Letter #2: An idea worth fighting for
December 17, 2020
It was dark this morning as I carried my coffee from the kitchen to my desk and eased into the new chair that you and mom got me for Christmas. I finished my workout early this morning because I was eager to get started on my next letter to you. I took a deep breath and just sat for a few moments, feeling the quiet peacefulness around me that filled the house in those early morning hours.
Where do I start? There is so much to say — so much I want to tell you. The memories and ideas flooded in and out of conscious thought as I wrestled with where to begin.
As I slowly sipped my coffee in the morning stillness, searching for a bit of inspiration, I noticed the dark forms outside the window over my shoulder beginning to take shape — as leaves, branches, trees, and dueling squirrels slowly came into focus and the early morning darkness turned from gray to blue to purple to pink on the horizon — signaling that we most likely would get that snow storm today that everyone had been talking about.
For a moment, the sun began to poke through the clouds on the horizon and a small glint of light caught my eye. I looked up from my steady gaze out the window and followed the reflecting light to its source. My eyes came to rest on the recon paddle hanging on the wall next to my desk. I watched as the first rays of sunlight danced across the small plaque, wings and bubble carefully mounted on the blade of the paddle.
“That’s a good place to start,” I thought.
As I gazed at the paddle, a wave of memories began washing over me, bringing with them the intensity of emotion and heart-pounding rawness of the moments that created them.
I’m not one to hang things on my wall. I don’t keep momentos. That paddle is my one exception. It’s probably the most important thing that I own — not because of any monetary value, but because of what it represents.
When I was in the Marine Corps, one of the units that I had the privilege of serving in was First Force Reconnaissance Company. In the Marine recon community, we have a tradition that when you transition out of the unit, your teammates present you with a wooden paddle. But this isn’t just any old paddle. Your team works diligently for hours (sometimes days or weeks) carefully decorating your paddle with the celebrated symbols of your unit, objects and icons that make the paddle unique to you, and personalized (often hilarious) messages from your Marines engraved on the paddle.
The tradition of the recon paddle goes back to the old Marine Raider Battalions of World War II. Marine Raiders were often charged with taking a beach against incredible odds using small rubber boats to infiltrate enemy defenses under cover of darkness. As part of the unit, each Marine Raider would be issued his own paddle. When the Marine left the unit, his teammates would decorate his paddle with symbols and messages honoring the departing Marine and his record of combat service in the unit.
As is the tradition, on my final day at the unit, my team threw a party to say goodbye and present my paddle to me. In a sort of unofficial ceremony, my friends and brothers stood around the bonfire with me and passed the paddle around the circle. As each man took the paddle, he recounted a favorite story about me. A couple of the stories highlighted good things about me and what I’d been able to accomplish while at the unit…but the overwhelming majority of the stories were laughter-filled tales from those teammates who were closest to me that included stories of embarrassing mess-ups and hilarious blunders that I had committed. They told stories of selection (the physical training you have to pass to get into the unit), stories about training, stories from our combat time together, and stories from life moments that we had all shared.
As I listened to each one telling his story, I was overwhelmed by the intense emotion of commitment, loyalty and love that I felt for my team. I sat in grateful silence with a heavy heart as I thought about the bond and trust that I had formed with each one of them — men from all walks of life. That bond had been truly forged in fire.
We had accomplished unbelievable things together. We rejoiced together in victory, and we cried together during times of heartbreaking loss and despair. We hoped together, and we prayed together. We fought side by side, day in and day out — for one another and for the greater virtues and freedoms that we were willing to risk everything to protect.
The men in my team inspired me through their heroic acts — acts both of physical courage when many lives were hanging in the balance and acts deliberately done in quiet moments of extraordinary moral courage when integrity and truth were on the line. The men I served with lived by a code. They did not think of themselves as they fought, as they toiled, as they sacrificed for a nation they hoped to make better with each breath they took in. They were my brothers, and they would remain a key pillar of strength for me throughout my life.
We laughed and told stories late into the night until the last embers of the bonfire burned out. It was a rowdy, fun and emotionally bittersweet moment for me…a moment that is seared into my memory for life. I see their faces — some of them no longer with us. They believed in America and the hope it could bring to the world. They knew the fight to protect and defend it was worth it, and they left it all on the field.
In writing these letters to you, this was the world that I was most hesitant to let you in on. My time as a Marine in combat in Iraq is a hard thing to talk about — especially with those you love. War is hard. It is complex. But part of knowing me…the real me…is understanding that part of my life. My experiences in combat with my fellow Marines helped shape and mold me into the leader and man that I am today and the father I want to be for you.
Many friends and loved ones have asked me over the years why my men and I chose to fight in war. They ask me why I chose to step forward to volunteer for a job that could end me — permanently ripping me from this world and taking me away from them. I think it’s important for you to know the answer to that question.
First, let’s talk about things we did not fight for. My Marines and I did not choose to fight for a President in the White House. We did not choose to fight for Members of Congress. We did not fight for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. We did not fight because we were forced to, as some experienced in Vietnam. We did not fight because it was easy and the pay was great — trust me, living in a muddy hole in thirty-four degree freezing rain watching the same small compound for days on end is not exactly a walk in the park.
When I raised my hand and volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.
The Constitution is not based on the person who lives in the White House. It is not based on whether or not Congress is functional or dysfunctional. The Constitution is not based on which political party is better or which one is currently in power.
No. The Constitution is based on a powerful idea.
When people ask me why I fought — I tell them that first and foremost, I fought for the brother on my left and the brother on my right — fighting to make sure that they returned home to the families I knew were waiting for them. But then I tell them that perhaps at a more fundamental level, I fought for that powerful idea the Constitution was based upon. I fought for the idea of America…the idea of America — a nation that stands for the freedom of lasting meaningful choices for everyone, everywhere.
War is a horrible thing. It is one of the worst things that we as human beings can do to one another. Countless lives are lost. Families are torn apart. Young men, women and children become scarred for life — with both visible and invisible wounds. Stories get written in combat that you can’t just simply unwrite.
But there are evil forces in this world — forces that seek to oppress the innocent, to strip away freedom, dignity and hope from those who don’t have the voice or power to stand against them. These forces are a threat to all that is good. They are a threat to all that is right.
There are ideas that are worth fighting for…ideas worth fighting to protect and preserve against those same forces of evil — ideas that, when actualized, have the power to stand strong for freedom, dignity and hope…and win.
America is one of those ideas.
Don’t get me wrong — America as a nation is not perfect. We never have been. The idea of America has yet to match our shared reality as a people. We have made many mistakes as a nation — at times unjustly hurting others and even hurting our own. America has never been truly great for all who have worn the American identity. But the good news is…we could be.
The idea of America is powerful. It’s the idea of a nation where every voice matters and every child gets a shot to make her dream a reality. It is an idea that represents a promise to the rest of the world of what can be.
America is not without its flaws, but it is a powerful idea in transformation. It is an idea founded on a bedrock of values and ideals that do not shift with time. Values and ideals that do not depend on perfect actions from imperfect people — including our nation’s founders. These values and ideals remain unchanged decade after decade, as American heroes continue the never-ending struggle to build that more perfect union — shaping and reshaping the way that our nation interacts with the rest of the world and with its own citizens. Our nation has a rich history of these courageous heroes who stood strong for what is right. These men and women kept the fire and vision alive for what America could one day become — never fully realizing it in their lifetime, but knowing that we could get there.
I am confident that we as a nation can deliver on the promise that America represents. But we cannot rely on others to get us there. We the people are going to have to lead this change. We cannot wait for leaders in Washington to deliver on this promise. Our political system has become too broken, and too many of our leaders have worked to intentionally divide us and make us forget our common ground. They’ve tried to make us forget what unites us and what it even means to be American.
America’s strength and power lie in the striving to become better…in our ability to come together as a people and constantly be learning, changing and growing. And we can be better. There are times throughout our history that have required courage and action from every American. Today is one of those times. Today, we will need to find the hero in each of us to protect the idea of America from those who would tear us apart using fear, power and hatred.
The times seem so dark right now with all the bitter division, fear and confusion. But the darkest part of the night is right before dawn. When I look at you, Trin, I have so much hope for our country. You and your generation will write the next chapter in the story of American heroes — the next generation of champions for the idea of America and the generation that can deliver on a promise and a dream finally fulfilled.
In my old life, I fought for the idea that is America next to men who inspired me to believe that we can do better…that we can be better. America is an idea worth fighting for. Today as I write this, I promise you that I will continue this fight. I will keep fighting for the idea of America…fighting to make a more perfect union — for the men who passed my paddle around that bonfire, for our family and friends, and most importantly — for you.