Up Front and Personal

You Don’t Have To Be John Wayne

by Rick Kenney 

We recently observed Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who did not return from their service in our nation’s various wars. 

You might be expecting an essay about my combat service and wartime experiences. I’m sorry. I have none. Only 1 in 10 military members actually goes into combat. I was among the other nine who “also serve who only stand and wait,” supporting that one. 

Seven of my uncles served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific in World War II. (My mom would send each a care package of a bottle of booze buried in a box of Tide detergent!) 

My older brother was a Marine just after the Korean War. (Look for him, one of the hundreds of Marines who storm the beach in the movie “Battle Cry.” He’s near the star, Aldo Ray!) 

So it was preordained that I would join the Marines after college. 

All 119 pounds of me arrived at Marine Officers Candidate School in Quantico. Obviously not the “ultimate weapon,” I promptly washed out at the end of the course and was sent to enlisted boot camp in Parris Island. 

I realized early on that the Marine Corps and the military were not for me. The Corps was probably happy to be rid of me when my enlistment ended. I might possibly have been the worst Marine ever, with apologies to Gomer Pyle! 

It was only after my time in the service that I began to realize what the term “veteran” really meant. I went to work at an insurance company and joined the company’s American Legion Post, where I was privileged to get to know World War II and Korean War vets still in the workforce and began to recognize their distinctive pride. 

A random civil service exam landed me a civilian job with the U.S. Navy, putting crewmen on ships supporting the war effort in Vietnam, the war I had missed in uniform. I worked alongside older veterans who refused to let any ship leave undermanned. “Hey you, can you make a bed?” they would ask at the saloon across from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where drunk mariners gathered. “Yeah!” “OK, you’re a room steward, get on the ship!” my old Jewish boss, who lost family in the Holocaust, would yell. Once onboard, those professional merchant mariners, who as a group suffered just fewer losses than the Marines in WWII, also exhibited a profound pride in getting the ships there. 

I learned the keyword to life was “pride,” as they drummed into us in the Marines. Then it all began to fall into place. As I progressed in my government career, I realized how fortunate I was to have the unique perspective of management I learned from both officer and enlisted Marine training. I tried to put those lessons into practice: take care of the employees under you, train them, praise them, and promote them. 

In a subsequent job, I would end up representing our country overseas, and literally meet a king, a prince, and a president. I would witness real poverty in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the Soviet Union collapsed; I would be asked to take photos with children in Shanghai, China, because I was “so tall.” I was thrilled and proud to interface with our Marine guards at embassies overseas. 

I now understand the concept of “the stone the builders rejected.” A guy who did not fit into the military ended up spending a lifetime around it. God does work in strange ways. Ironically, this civilian was at ground zero on 9/11, and then the government gave me a medal and one day of combat pay. 

I would have the honor to speak for the secretary of the Navy, who was delayed by weather, at an event. I would address the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization and act as treasurer for the commissioning ceremony of the USS New York. In retirement, I would try to give back to veterans with services provided by the U.S. Navy League and now the Catholic War Veterans. 

Pride is a great motivator, but pride also humbles you. Each one of us has an obligation to instill pride in our young people, most of whom unfortunately are not exposed to the ethos of military life. Only 1% of the population is currently defending the rest of us in our military services. 

We need to teach young people pride in their abilities, their appearance, their country, and their faith. All of that pride is summed up in the simple headstone of any fallen soldier who gave his all: “John Smith, 1948- 1971, U.S. Veteran.” Let us remember them on Memorial Day and all year.

 Rick Kenney is a Trustee of St. Anthony-St. Alphonsus Parish, Greenpoint, and National Administrator of the Catholic War Veterans