My Brother the Marine: A Soldier’s Vocation

My youngest brother, Josh, always felt like he was in the shadow of his two older brothers. Coming out of High School he had one brother who was finishing seminary and one who was starting medical school. He wanted to do something different. He wanted to pave a trail of his own. He wanted to be one of the few, one of the proud… he joined the Marines. It was a noble vocation, particularly as he enlisted during wartime.

We all flew down for Family Day at his boot camp graduation from Camp Pendleton, California, (my parents, my other brother Matt and I, along with our pregnant wives). Part of the Family Day fun is when family and friends get to witness the recruit’s last boot camp run. After 13 weeks of physically grueling training, intense discipline, sleep deprivation, mental intimidation, and isolation from family, the recruits get to run their last lap of boot camp around a deafening mass of cheering family and friends. At the end of it, they stop and stand at attention, looking straight ahead, (sideways to the crowd) while everyone is cheering them on. They aren’t allowed to look at the crowd, but only to listen to the swelling cheers and raucous admiration of the crowd calling out their names.

It is part of their last unofficial test. It is the heartfelt rite of passage for every enlisted Marine. Who will crack, who will break down and weep under the intense emotional nature of the gathering? The Drill Sergeants watch closely, but only to see who will get teased later on. My brother stood stiff, crew cut hair, hands brisk at his side, fifteen pounds lighter, lean and trim; his steely eyes peered straight ahead. A boy had been fashioned into a man. We intensified our cheers. He stood unflinching and resolute, one of the few, one of the proud… a Marine. His face wouldn’t crack. But mine did. So did my brother Matt’s. He had done something we would never do. We were overwhelmed with pride and our tears showed it.

Finally they were dismissed. There were many tear filled, joyful reunions of recruits with their families. However, the last component was the formal graduation. Here, in full uniform, the recruits—now officially Marines—line up in formation, salute their commanding officer, and give a final “Ooh-rah!” before being dismissed for leave.

One cannot miss the honor and respect that such ceremonies convey. The most prevalent being the salute. It is an expression of respect for the authority and honor possessed by an individual. In effect, is says “As brothers in arms and fellow Marines, I consider you worthy of my respect.” It is an expression of the absolute honor a Marine has for other Marines.

I marveled every time a Drill Sergeant or senior officer would walk by my brother. No matter what he was doing or who he was talking to, he would snap to attention, salute, and properly greet his superior officer. Once, when he saw a three star general coming from a distance, he even had us stand at attention so he could be sure to properly salute and honor the general. I was proud of my brother and his vocation.

However, it was not until a little over a year later that I saw him salute someone in this way again. Our brother Matt and his unborn son had been killed in a car accident (see my previous post on this). Josh wore his Marine dress blues to the funeral. It was a bitterly cold Minnesota January day. We all went out to the grave site for the committal. He stared unflinchingly at the below zero temperatures. His voice was unwavering as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy will be done” can be hard to pray at times. But his voice carried through it strong and clear. And when our pastor proclaimed the Easter verse (Christ is Risen!) my brother’s voice was even more resolute: He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

After the committal service we all began to depart. Josh could no longer hold it in. The tears began flowing. But he was not leaving. Not yet. He took a breath. He composed himself. The Marine in him took over. He defiantly removed his winter overcoat, pulled tight his midnight blue dress coat, straightened his white peaked Marine cap, called out his cadence and marched to the foot of the grave and stood at attention. His face clear and bold, the icy wind blasting his checks raw, he would not be deterred. I turned to see he was now the last one there.

He stood tall. His head was up, eyes looking at the grave. He brought his arms to full attention; his right arm came to his forehead. The image of him saluting his brother—my brother—will never fade from my mind. Then he called out his cadence, turned squarely, marched three steps and crumpled in grief. The valor and honor of a soldier is powerful.

Still, Josh will be the first to tell you that it is nothing compared to the valor and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ. As the Apostles’ Creed says, he was “crucified, dead, and buried” for every last man, woman, and child. A Marine is familiar with sacrifice. Josh was reminded of it while serving in Iraq. He had to load the bodies of his fellow soldiers onto Angel Flights to bring them back home to their families.

Yet, amid the sorrow and loss, he was reminded of the Creed that also says, “The third day he rose again from the dead.” Not every fellow soldier believed in Jesus. Some did. At times Josh spoke of his faith with others, though I am not sure how often. His vocation was that of a soldier, not a missionary. Nonetheless, facing death has a way of making one open up about things. Josh had hope even in the midst of death. He knew that Jesus did not stay dead. Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

It was a hope that was proclaimed at our brother’s funeral. It also was the hope that sustained him when he and his sergeant were separated from their platoon and taking on enemy fire. It was a hope that sustained him when he was blown across the road by an RPG. It was a hope that allowed him to endure an intense hand to hand combat encounter.

As a United States Marine, Josh well understood his allegiance to his country. Yet as a Christian Marine he knew well the honor and allegiance due to His Lord. And as a fragile sinner, he knew (and now as a veteran still knows) the hope and power of his Savior, Jesus Christ.

 He wasn’t a pastor. He wasn’t a doctor. He was a soldier. One vocation among many. And just one example of those who make up the Holy Christian Church today. Christians living life, serving in their vocations, trusting in Jesus—His death and resurrection—and sharing the hope they have in Him. It is the mission of the church.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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