My brain pistons were working overtime this morning. In pondering the next two presidential debates and the myriad issues at hand, are we on the cusp of one of the most important elections in American history?
The above consumed one cup of coffee.
Starting my second cup, a triad of related thoughts jumped front and center; our military, the political gamesmanship that is putting our armed forces in the crosshairs of danger, and purpose.
- On January 2, 2013, the U.S. defense budget will undergo the most dramatic and dangerous cuts in its history. Unless Washington acts.
- Because of the failure of politicians to agree on a deficit reduction plan, the 2011 Budget Control Act automatically cuts about $500 billion from the defense budget. These cuts fall on top of the already agreed-upon $487 billion in reductions. All told, about $1 trillion in cuts over a decade. This is a recipe for disaster. Are we really intent on inviting catastrophe?
- Purpose is a divinely mysterious topic that has great fascination for me––especially its interrelatedness to the messiness of life. How are we supposed to figure out what God wants us to do with our lives? Moreover, how does one reconcile purpose with lives cut drastically short? Perhaps I can put it another way. I don’t feel guilty for being alive when so many exceptional people in my life have died. But sometimes I wonder, “Why not me?” I’m referring to the honorable men of the Navy and Marine Corps who blessed my life but are no longer with us. I’m also alluding to the possibility that more men and women may die, perhaps needlessly, due to the antics of Presidents and Congress.
I’m going to connect these three points by relating a story from my Marine Corps past. From the right field bleachers and without a large megaphone, it’s the least I can do. First, the underlying theme of this post.
I never want our leaders to forget the service and sacrifice of so many and then relegate the men and women of our military to chess pieces in a cynical gambit.
I’ll begin. Naval flight training was one of the most exciting times in my life. My class of Navy and Marine wannabe fighter pilots consisted of extraordinary young men, most of who had always dreamed of flying jets. Without exception, there was no other place they wanted to be––primary training in Pensacola, Florida, and basic and advanced jet training in Texas.
The typical training week was pressure filled with classes, self-directed study, simulators and flying but Saturday night meant Animal House. Most of the guys were married, albeit briefly, since everyone had just graduated from college. The single men, like me, in need of Debra Winger types, would roll in hot at the Officer’s Club and abscond with the ladies before the instructor pilots––the dashing superstars with golden wings on their chest––knew what hit them. I usually led this effort, thinking my boyish charm was irresistible. More likely, it was the offer of free food and adult beverages.
The wives would put together the eats and drinks and the men would relive the training flights of the week, hands flying, shooting watches, and we would all get halfway smashed. Then Saturday Night Live would come on. Still new and iconoclastic, we would sit around in disbelief at their comedy. For the times, it was brave and unique but hilarious.
I remember those evenings with great affection. We could let loose, have fun and temporarily suspend whatever fears we might entertain about failing the program. The thought of not getting your wings, of being kicked out for any number of reasons, was one of the worst possible scenarios to consider––like waking up without a face. Because until the time wings were pinned on our chests, we never knew if we were going to make it.
One Marine lieutenant was booted out less than three hops from completing the training. He did something amazingly stupid in air-to-air combat, which screamed to those in charge that he lacked headwork. Before he left for home in “disgrace,” he shot out all the hall lights in the bachelor quarters. Great shooting by the way.
I was aware of the slim odds before I ever arrived at Pensacola. I also was cognizant that the Navy and Marine instructor pilots did not suffer fools or mistakes. Of the 280 Marines in my Basic School class, mandatory infantry training for all Marine officers, well over half had contracts to attend naval flight training. All told, only ten of us became jet pilots. The hill was steep. Any training flight could be your last.
One of my best friends, Ron, a naval officer, had graduated from Purdue with an engineering degree. His wife had not yet finished her exams so she hadn’t joined him, which meant we spent a lot of time together. One of our favorite activities was the Wednesday night drive-in where they would play the worst movies imaginable. Armed with one or two six-packs and a complete snack bar strewn about the front seat, we looked forward to double-headers such as I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin, a terrific distraction to the rigors of training.
Some of you have probably noticed that a lot of drinking was going on. I can truthfully say it never affected me or the other pilots. It was just part of the culture. Is it different today? Probably.
One of the last sections of our syllabus in advanced jet training was carrier landings. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. I’ll never forget it. It’s demanding, precise and nerves will kill you if they take control. It’s a big ocean, you have to land on a steel postage stamp and you’re alone. The night prior, a thought-provoking tradition livened the evening. We watched crashes of jets landing (or attempting to) on aircraft carriers. It wasn’t somber; we were hooting and hollering throughout. The message? Have fun but be careful.
I remember Ron had a terrible day. It took him a boatload of passes (18?) to make six landings or traps, which isn’t good. Normally, one might make eight passes for six traps or even better, six passes for six traps. In other words, no wave-offs or missing the arresting gear.
In spite of Ron’s poor performance, he passed. I imagine the instructors and those in charge debated fiercely about letting him continue but his overall flight school performance was exemplary. In a few short weeks we earned our wings. One of the most glorious days of my life.
Less than a year later, Ron died.
This man of great character and wit would never again gently chide me for my failings. This devout husband, who loved his wife beyond anything, would never hold the child he dreamed about. And this natural-born leader, seemingly a rarity in our body politic, would never again inspire others as he inspired me.
Ron crashed into the ocean during a low-level training flight. Bad weather granted, but it was still inexplicable since he flew one of the most advanced fighters on the planet. If my memory is correct, upwards of forty to fifty percent of my flight class were killed flying jets. This came after Vietnam and before Iraq so the deaths weren’t combat related. Military flying is dangerous and until drones take up all the slack, it will always be so.
There is a hugely important parallel to be made between Ron’s death and the current shenanigans in Washington. The best possible training on earth does not make one immune to danger. The U.S. government spent a fortune on Ron and me and the rest of our class. Clearly, training is expensive and military budgets are necessarily prioritized. But to cut a trillion bucks means the national security of our nation will be compromised and the risks to our military will increase.
Train less and people die. Carve this in stone.
So here I sit, no legacy to speak of, no family to surround me. I think it’s natural to mull over fate’s inequities but this one has always stumped me. On more than one occasion, I’ve been ashamed at my selfish histrionics when I remember those good souls who are no longer with us. Even now, as I anguish over my future, my blood flows and my brain thinks. Unlike my kindred spirits, I’m alive.
Lord, is this a good time to ask about the purpose of Ron dying and me living? Another day? Okay.
As I reflect on presidential politics, negligent maneuvering in Washington, my dear friend Ron and lastly, purpose, I’d like to end with the following genius insight from the Catechism. I’m never not amazed at its wisdom on the issues of man.
As the book of Proverbs states: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”
By prayer we can discern “what is the will of God” and obtain the endurance to do it. Jesus teaches that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing “the will of my Father in heaven.”
Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, one can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings.
Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face,” will we fully know the ways by which—even through the dramas of evil and sin—God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.