“Usually the bullets going past your head make a popping sound. These were coming so fast and furious, there were so many of them, all I heard were swishes,” said Captain Matt, a United States Marine.
I was invited on a pheasant hunt to South Dakota by my friend John Warren. John is the Chair of the South Carolina Young President’s Organization. He is also a successful entrepreneur who built an amazing financial services company called Lima One. He is also a husband, father, and just-missed Governor of South Carolina. Finally, he is a former Captain of the United States Marine Corp.
He is also my friend.
John invited me to spend two full days with six active-duty Marines and a retired General. We were living together in a lodge, eating three squares a day, and hunting pheasant. This group was sponsored by John and also a decorated and inspiring Vietnam veteran and evangelist Clebe McClary.
I wasn’t going to attend because I don’t hunt and I’m not a Marine. Why me? John said he wanted the Marines to be exposed to a businessman and a disciple of Christ. He also wanted me to spend time with Clebe.
This trip was a once in a life-time experience. It changed my life. It put me and my life into perspective. It showed me I am not worthy.
Even as I am typing these words, my eyes are tearing up. Or as Clebe would say, “Marines don’t cry. But sometimes their eyes sweat.” That’s me right now as I think back on these men.
Clebe shared his story.
On the second night we were at the lodge, Clebe shared his story. Not only with our group but with everyone else in the lodge. There were at least 30 people there. When Clebe spoke, you could hear a pin drop.
He stood in front of the room. Five foot eleven, slight of build, seventy-seven years old, one eye, one arm, and a deformed hand. He told us how all that happened to him as a first lieutenant on a hill in Vietnam in 1968. Many of his men lost their lives that day, but he was spared in spite of these horrific injuries. They got him out of there, and he ended up in a naval hospital in Japan wanting to die.
As you might imagine, his story was gripping. Clebe, being an evangelist, found his hope in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Thirty-four surgeries and fifty years later, he was standing in front of all of us telling his story. The energy, the twinkle in his eye, the humility, and the hope gripped me and everyone else.
Captain Matt’s story.
After Clebe’s talk, while people like David Wells of the New York Yankees were taking pictures with him, I walked over to Captain Matt. He is also slight of build and a good-looking, well-spoken, 31-year-old Marine officer. He is a graduate of the University of Maine, a husband, and a father of two little girls.
When I talked to Captain Matt in my previous encounters, he would quickly deflect any compliments I gave him. He was self-effacing to the point I thought I would never really get to know him.
But this night was different.
I asked him, “Do you know men like Clebe who are on active duty? In my line of work, I don’t hang around men who have this kind of character and courage.”
He pointed to Eric and Ian, both high ranking sergeants. Both highly decorated. Eric has three Purple Hearts (wounded in battle three times), a Bronze Star with a “V,” and a Silver Star with a “V.” I asked, “Why the V?”
He said, “It is added for extraordinary valor in the engagement.”
I could see how much he respected these men. That’s when he told me the story about the bullets whizzing by his head.
He was leading his Marines in guarding the US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. All was quiet, but during the last several months, he said, “You could feel the tension in the city building around the embassy.”
Then the rocket.
“While on guard duty, a missile sails past Ian, misses his head by a foot, and went through the embassy and blew up the back wall of the building. It missed him by a foot. Then all hell broke loose. Rockets and small arms fire from everywhere. All we could do is hunker down and return fire,” he said.
“After three weeks of this on and off fighting, we were ordered to abandon the embassy and get everyone out. We burned the documents and the equipment. We loaded up the ambassador, the diplomatic corp and the CIA personnel, and all us Marines and headed out. We drove through Libya to Tunisia. It was a harrowing six hundred mile drive from hostile territory to hostile territory.
Two C-130s landed in Tunisia. The first one landed, and we quickly loaded up the non-military personnel we were charged to protect. As their plane was taking off, the second C-130 landed, and I loaded up my Marines. I jumped on the plane, and we took off for a Marine base in Sicily.”
“Did anybody get wounded?” I asked.
“Amazingly, no one,” he answered.
“Was this covered by the news? I asked. “It sounds like it was just like Benghazi, but you didn’t lose the ambassador.”
“It got a few minutes on CBS, but that was it,” he said. “We did our job and protected the embassy personnel.”
I am not worthy.
I left the main lodge to go to my room in the other building. That’s when the tears came. I promise you, I am not a crier. But I was so touched by Captain Matt and these men, these Marines. They put their lives on the line for me.
I was thinking, “Why am I here? I don’t deserve to be here with these men.” It was like my character was fully exposed to me. Their character was so clear, bright, and bold. It was real and right in front of me. I didn’t measure up. But I was so humbled to be there with them. I was honored to be in the same room. They are warriors, husbands, and fathers. Men of character and courage. Men who serve, who give their all for each other and for others, all the time.
And to meet them, you wouldn’t know these backstories, these awful experiences. All I knew was their love, appreciation, and respect for me. “Yes, sir. No, sir.” They would say with sincerity as they looked me right in the eye.
Then I thought of Jesus
These words, “Not worthy,” kept resurfacing in my thoughts. Each time, I would be brought to tears as I saw the faces of these men.
Then it hit me. Jesus knew me as that man who was lacking in character. I was a sinner, and he knew all the sins. He knew I was disappointed in myself. I couldn’t even live up to my own standards.
In spite of this, he came to show me who God is and how much he loves me. He showed me how he protected me throughout my life. He guided me to safety through the battle zone of alcoholism, on to AA, and then right to the Cross. He gave his life for my life. He flew me to safety.
But there is more.
I found out the next day, David Wells, the retired All-Star, New York Yankees World Series pitcher who just happened to be there, gave those Marines his cell phone number. “If you ever need anything or know of Marines with Traumatic Brain Injury, you call me. Don’t hesitate. I want you to call me.”
We have a lot to be thankful for here in the United States of America. We are surrounded and served by men and women of valor, character, and love. One of them is my friend John. Thanks, John, for the experience of a lifetime.
As Jesus said, Let him who wants to be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven be a servant to all.
This will be an especially thankful Thanksgiving.