Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Head Strong | Unexpected Memorial Day lesson from decorated Marine

I thought I had a great idea for a Memorial Day Weekend column. I believe that the men currently fighting in Iraq are an unheralded bunch no less deserving of our thanks and praise than those of the so-called greatest generation who fought World War II.

I thought I had a great idea for a Memorial Day Weekend column. I believe that the men currently fighting in Iraq are an unheralded bunch no less deserving of our thanks and praise than those of the so-called greatest generation who fought World War II.

My plan was to contact some of the highest profiles of that generation and see whether they agreed. I had in mind men like Bob Dole, who, as a member of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, tried to rescue one of his platoon's radio men while fighting in the hills of Italy, and almost paid with his life; or "Wild Bill" Guarnere of Easy Company, a D-Day hero immortalized by historian Stephen Ambrose in his book Band of Brothers.

I hoped they'd share a few stories, praise fellow soldiers, and offer a word of remembrance.

That was the plan. Except I never got past the first interview.

I started and ended with Jack Lucas. Lucas became known to me when I visited the USS Iwo Jima last October while she sailed in the Persian Gulf. I was a military tourist, and on landing aboard ship by helicopter, I found myself on what's called the Jack Lucas Airfield. Naturally I inquired: Who is/was Jack Lucas? Well, shame on me for not knowing his story.

Jack Lucas remains the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Civil War. Today he is 79. But he was recognized for his conduct at age 17. Lucas finagled his way into the Marines when he was just 14 by forging his mother's signature on the consent papers. Six days after his 17th birthday, he threw himself on top of two grenades to save three fellow Marines. He was one of 22 Marines to receive the Medal of Honor for service at Iwo Jima.

"I was fortunate that one was a dud. The other tore me up pretty bad but I survived it, and so did the three men who were with me, and they enjoyed a full life," he told me this past week. When the war ended, and his body had healed, Lucas kept a promise made to his mother upon enlistment: He returned to high school (ninth grade), now sporting a Medal of Honor and driving an Oldsmobile convertible!

All of which is column-worthy in itself. But things got even more interesting when I said to him: "You know, Mr. Lucas, we think of you as a member of the greatest generation, and as I become more familiar with the gentlemen who have given their lives in the war in Iraq, I believe that they, too, are a great generation."

As expected, Jack Lucas agreed with me. But then he offered a 10-minute discourse on Iraq, which was not what I expected from this larger-than-life Marine.

He began by reminding me that, in the Second World War, 400,000 young men lost their lives and an additional 900,000 were wounded. He thought that was a horrible price to pay, but necessary because we'd been attacked. Vietnam and Korea, by contrast, were wars that were "really not necessary" but were "brought upon us by politicians who thought we needed to go to war. We were not attacked.

"Each life given for America is most valuable, and most precious, and I do not want to put that down. But for comparison, consider the viciousness of World War II: We lost 5,320 men in the first two days of combat at Iwo Jima. And in just 36 days, 6,820 men killed at Iwo Jima and 19,000 wounded. Just 36 days.

"In Iraq, we are going on five years, and lost 3,300 men and 25,000 wounded. So you see the difference in the violence of the war."

On Iraq, Jack Lucas was just getting started.

He recognized that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, albeit not one who attacked us, and who possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

"We have gone in and caused our young men to lose their lives.

"Our men are very precious, and we don't need to be losing lives for something we should not be in the first place: Iraq."

Lucas bristled at the notion that Iran may be a future point of conflict, and argued that if we'd kept Saddam Hussein in power, he'd be dealing with Iran, and we wouldn't have to.

He told me about a trip he'd taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he saw young men with no arms and legs: "It makes me sick." He deemed it "heartbreaking" and "unnecessary."

"We should have gone into Afghanistan with sufficient troops, and got bin Laden, and wiped out al-Qaeda, and crushed the Taliban," he said, before finally pausing to catch his breath. When he did so, I remembered the initial purpose of my call.

"Mr. Lucas," I said. "Do you agree that the service of these men is no less noble than your own?"

"You got that exactly right," he said with authority. "And I do not want to equate it otherwise. Everyone who serves this great nation, in peacetime as well as wartime, are our most noble young people, and we do cherish them, and want to look out for our young men.

"And when we want to get them out of harm's way, people want to call us 'liberal' or 'pantywaist,' and I ain't never been no pantywaist, but I want my boys out of Iraq."

Lucas' message for Memorial Day?

"Just remember all of the young people who lost their lives in this great country, everybody, and bow your heads, and think about them, and inscribe their names on your hearts."

All the while Lucas spoke, I was thinking of a friend who told me that wars are fought by people who are infinitely wiser and braver than the people who start them.