Letter #8: Living by a Code
May 17, 2021
We made it! Your mom and I are married, and I am officially your stepdad! The rain held, and the day was absolutely perfect in so many ways. It was truly the happiest day of my life, and I’ll never forget how blurry my vision got with tears as I watched you walk down the aisle ahead of your mom that day. It was a day and a series of moments that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I want to write to you about one of those moments in particular today.
As we talked and laughed together under the trees and lights that night during the reception, one of my closest friends got up to give a speech. Alex is particularly memorable because he is bald and hilarious, and I had assigned him the important role of emcee for the dinner — a decision which was the moral equivalent of handing a toddler a can of gasoline and a lighted match and then asking him to be careful.
As Alex took the mic, I took a deep breath and prepared to be absolutely roasted for the next fifteen to twenty minutes. Instead, he gave a powerful, touching speech about your mom, you and me and this journey that we were about to begin together. He finished his speech with a challenge and a quote for a way to live and a way to love each other…
“Never above you.
Never below you.
Always beside you.”
Alex and I served in the same unit in the Marine Corps with many of the same Marines and in many of the same tough places overseas. Several of the guys that stood by me that day as you and mom walked down the aisle, served with me to fight to protect and defend the idea of America.
Those words that Alex spoke at the wedding were part of a set of values, beliefs and principles that guided my thoughts and actions while I served as a Marine, and they still guide me to this day. The words were part of a creed…a code to live by in the pursuit of a better world, both for our families and for millions of people we would never meet.
The unit I served with was a special place. It is a team made up of Americans of all shapes, sizes, colors, education levels, and cultures. We came from wildly different backgrounds, opinions and beliefs, but when we came together, we worked as one family with one purpose and one mission — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We stood side by side — at times against seemingly impossible odds — to fight for the idea of America. Our focus of purpose bound us together. The code we lived by ensured that those bonds would never break.
The code we lived by was not a lengthy document of rules and regulations — we were men of few words (except maybe Alex). It wasn’t a long list of do’s and don’ts that tried to anticipate every possible bad behavior to prevent team members from stumbling. Instead, it was a simple set of unwritten values and principles that guided our thoughts, words and actions as we pressed the fight together day after day. The code was the glue that held us together. The code was a living, breathing framework of leadership principles that great leaders from our community added to from time to time. One of the most inspiring leaders of the community and a personal hero of mine was Doug Zembiec — a servant leader who inspired all who met him and fought ferociously for the idea of America.
Doug lived by the code, and he documented elements of it as principles that had been passed down to him in a combat journal entry that he made before he was killed during a raid in Iraq in 2007:
“Be a man of principle.
Fight for what you believe in.
Keep your word.
Live with integrity.
Believe in something bigger than yourself.
Serve your country.
Give something back to society.
Lead from the front.
Conquer your fears.
Be a good friend.
Be humble and self-confident.
Appreciate your friends and family.
Be a leader and not a follower.
Be valorous on the battlefield.
Take responsibility for your actions.
Never forget those that were killed, and never let rest those who killed them.”
The code we lived by was about being a quiet professional — doing the job because it was the right thing to do, knowing that most likely no one will ever know or understand what you did or the sacrifices you made to do it. Living by the code was about serving others. It was about putting aside your own needs and giving your all to ensure that others could experience freedom, hope and goodness in the world.
Those who live by a code understand that you just don’t break the code. It becomes a part of who you are — part of your core identity. Breaking the code means turning into someone you are not. Breaking the code means turning your back on your team…turning your back on those you love…those who depend on you.
Today, we as Americans have been infected by a disease…a disease far more destructive than covid or any other infectious disease. Our communities and the American idea are being slowly killed by this disease — a disease of divisiveness and fear. We the American people must be the ones to pull our country out of this increasingly dangerous mess. It’s time for all of us to come together and commit to living by a code. A code that unites us. A code that brings us to higher ground and reminds us all what it means to be Americans. A code that shows us that what unites us is far more important than what divides us.
My team and I at More Perfect Union have created a Code of Conduct that we hope can be an antidote to the divisiveness and fear that is ripping our country apart. We hope that it can be a starting point for uniting us and turning the nation back from the brink of destruction. There is a way out of this. If we as citizens can commit to living by this Code, then perhaps we can move past the hateful rhetoric and fear of the “other,” to discover that there is no “other”…there is only “us.” There is only “Americans.”
You will hear a lot of leaders talking about trying to find common ground. Instead of common ground, I think we need to go beyond that. As a Marine, our mission was often to take the high ground in an effort to gain an advantage over the enemy. In order for us to defeat the enemy within us, we as united American citizens, must now push to find higher ground. This mission can begin by agreeing to live by a new Code…
A Code that can guide our thoughts, words and actions every day.
A Code that can help us get past the fear of one another.
A Code that allows us to give one another the benefit of the doubt — to assume the best, and not the worst in each other.
A Code that helps us stand in one another’s shoes for just a moment instead of judging one another.
A Code that will help us overcome seemingly impossible obstacles together.
A Code that can enable” we the people” to deliver on the promise of America for all of us.
A Code that can propel America forward to become the leader and beacon to the rest of the world that we have the potential to be.
Trinity, my generation and those who have gone before us need you now. I have watched you and your friends wrestle with what is happening all around us. I have watched as the divisiveness has even crept into your school and friend groups. We need your generation to help lead the country in committing to this Code and ensuring that the light of American democracy is not snuffed out. Your generation did not get us into this mess, but we are going to need you to help lead us out of it if we hope to preserve the idea of America.
You are not tainted by the cynicism, doubt and anger that have claimed so many. You are innocent enough to believe in the impossible. You are young enough to still see and feel authentic hope. That is your strength. It is your superpower, and we need you as the next generation of heroes to show all of us what is possible. I can’t wait to watch you save the day.
Thank you for inspiring me and for giving me hope. Because of you, when I pick my head up and look down the road, I don’t feel fear as the path veers out of sight to the left or right…I feel only hope and possibility for a new day and a new America.