Honor and Courage
*This article was featured in the Daily Post Athenian Newspaper*
"I hope that if I do go, that I went with honor and courage. I hope that I died leading Marines, and not from a random bomb or a sniper... I will regret not being able to hold you again, but there are fine Marines under my charge, and I want to lead them with honor and courage."
These words didn’t come from some long-ago missive in a far-past time of chivalry and duty. They came from a letter written in the early-2000s. Carly Kirk read this excerpt from a letter her husband, Jeff, sent to her from overseas. It appears to be from an account of her accepting an award (likely a Silver Star) on Jeff's behalf.
I served with Jeff Kirk in the1st Platoon of the 2nd Fleet Antiterrorism Team. We were in our late teens or early twenties at the time. He was an intense young man; passionate and loyal. The words he wrote his wife surprise me, but not because of the sentiment expressed. I'd simply never seen him say that much. Jeff was a man of much action and few words.
The reason he couldn't be there to accept this award himself is that he made the ultimate sacrifice on December 12, 2004. He'd been shot in the thigh some months earlier, but insisted on returning to combat. It's my understanding that he died while rescuing fellow Marines who had been wounded. He was 24 years old.
Jeff’s life ended a mere two years after my Marine Corps enlistment was completed. Like Jeff, I was just a young man at the time. Like him, I also had my whole life ahead of me. Since leaving the Marine Corps in 2002, I’ve gone on to build a family, chase my dreams and live twenty years’ worth of life. Jeff didn’t get that opportunity. He gave up the chance for all of those things so that people like me could have them. He sacrificed all the years from 2004 to now so that others could enjoy building their dreams in the relative safety of the greatest country on earth. Every age associated ache, every pet I've owned, every friend I've made and every memory with my family are possible because he was willing to give up his chance to experience these things for himself. First home purchases, college graduations, countless birthdays and innumerable “firsts” were foregone in exchange for the chance for others to have them.
The things Jeff talks about in that letter to his wife don't feel modern. The first time I read it, I thought that it must have been written by one of Washington's men from the battlefield as he squared off against the redcoats. Perhaps it was inscribed on some muddy notepad in a European field while pushing back the Nazis? It took me by surprise as I read further into the article and realized the words were written by a man during relatively modern times. It doesn’t feel like something someone would write nowadays. Our cynical society seems to scoff at such basic concepts as those Jeff clung to.
Things like “honor and courage” seem archaic in an age marked by ubiquitous negativity. Sure, they might be thrown around as a catchphrase. Some corporations and governmental organizations hang them on the wall, but that’s normally where they stay. Few seem to actually apply them. Our society certainly doesn’t seem to be driven by them. To turn on one’s computer is to find a social media feed with the latest war of words on Twitter or an endorsement of worldly opulence from some Instagram influencer’s latest vacation. To watch the nightly news is to witness tales of government corruption or countless other tragedies. We live in trying times where riots, lies, corruption and selfishness seem to be the norm. It's easy to feel hopeless. Yet here, in the midst of these times, is Jeff Kirk; sitting somewhere overseas and writing to his wife about honor and courage. He’s writing it knowing full well that he might not make it home. There’s something so pure and encouraging about the image. The concepts seem outdated in our world; they’re things that might get a guy laughed at for bringing them up. But honor and courage, sacrifice and loyalty, all the things that Jeff stood for are what we need most now. They're the things that still stir men's souls. People like me need to know that these concepts are still alive and well.
I have so many memories of Jeff and the other men I served with during those formative years of my life. I remember training, hanging out in the barracks and seeing the world. If I could go back for just a moment, I’d tell Jeff several things. I’d want him to know that I appreciated his warrior’s heart that was so full of courage. I’d made sure he knew I admired his “old-fashioned” commitment to honor. But most of all, I’d tell him that he’d still be making a difference twenty years later, when he gave hope to a middle-aged me.