Just Do It, George

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In March, after U.S. President George W. Bush got an earful about problems and progress in Afghanistan, he said: "I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger."

Well, we’ve got some jobs lined up for George when he leaves office in January. Heck, he’ll only be 62 years old, and with all that mountain-biking I’m sure that even a dummy like him he can handle the easy jobs we’ve found for him. His reservations shouldn’t matter, if he’s honest about it (I know).

First, let’s check out the romance of confronting danger as seen through the dead eyes of two US Navy sailors who served together in romantic Afghanistan.

Raised in Davison, Michigan, Ross Toles, the father of three boys — Shawn, 14, Jake, 10, and Ryan, 5 — had recently relocated his family to a new home in North Branch. He was the consummate family man — the kind of guy who stepped in to head the cub scout troup and served on the neighborhood association.

Toles enlisted in the Navy right out of high school, and now at 37, he was settling into a managerial role in his career. He’d followed in his dad’s footsteps, Ross Toles II, and switched over to the Naval Reserves. His father retired from the same unit earlier this year as a senior petty officer. There was no reason to believe he’d have to go into the war zone, because he was in a unit that supported the Naval Air Station Sigonella base in Sicily. Annually they’d trek to the country for three weeks of training.

Lt. Commander George Degener, Toles’ executive officer for 10 years, said Toles was tapped for an assignment in Afghanistan for one reason — he was the best. "Being in the military we are all subject to individual augmentation, where you’re chosen because of the rate or specialty you have," Degener said. "That was the case in Petty Officer Toles going to Afghanistan. His specialty was public works and construction battalions."

Marc Retmier spent his life like most of his friends, riding skateboards and doing high-flying motocross stunts in the hills of Beaumont and Lake Elsinore, California. A star safety on the West Valley High School football team, he also had lettered in swimming as a freshman. He attended Hemet High and graduated from Alessandro High School in Hemet. He was the eldest of three brothers, ahead of Matthew, 17, and Mason, 11. "He was one of the most popular kids in town," said Dale Powers, the grandfather whom Marc Retmier called "Papa."

After graduating from high school, Retmier enlisted in the Navy. He attended training at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, N.C. and worked in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., before volunteering for a tour, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. His dream was to become a doctor eventually, his mother said. Steven Retmier, Marc’s father, said the lack of job opportunities and activities makes the region an easy target for military recruiters.

"There’s nothing else for these kids to do," he said. "There’s no future here for them."

When a Marine deployment to Iraq was canceled, Retmier volunteered for one to Afghanistan to provide medical services for Marines there. When in Afghanistan, Retmier exchanged e-mails and phone calls with his family and said he loved what he was doing, but they sensed the war was beginning to wear on him. When his convoy delivered candy and coloring books to Afghan children, they often would throw rocks at the Humvees as they drove away.

"He felt like they were wasting their time there," his mother said. "He was worried they didn’t want us there at all."

Last week, on Wednesday, June 18th, a US Navy unit was working in an Afghan village when ten Chinese-made rockets slammed into them. Petty Officer 1st Class Ross Tolles III, 37, of Michigan, and Corpsman Marc Retmier, 19, of California died at the scene.

One of the tragedies of war, among others, is that we send our best and strongest to get physically and mentally mangled in the war racket. Smedley Butler understood this. General Butler, who served thirty-three years in the Marine Corps and received two Congressional Medals of Honor, had some ideas on who should go to war and who should pay for it.

General Butler on the war racket: "The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation — it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted — to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get. Let the workers in these plants get the same wages — all the workers, all presidents, all executives, all directors, all managers, all bankers — yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders — everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches! Let all these kings and tycoons and masters of business and all those workers in industry and all our senators and governors and majors pay half of their monthly $30 wage to their families and pay war risk insurance and buy Liberty Bonds.

"Why shouldn’t they? They aren’t running any risk of being killed or of having their bodies mangled or their minds shattered. They aren’t sleeping in muddy trenches. They aren’t hungry. The soldiers are!"

Now under General Butler’s prescription, Bush’s pay would be cut to a private’s and he could keep the job that daddy got him. But George did say he wanted a romantic assignment confronting danger, so here’s some choices for George.

KBR — Afghanistan
#455906 Pest Controller
#443624 Coordinator — Security Services
#425510 Field Buyer
#10432 Heavy Truck Driver
(plus others too numerous to list, and they change)

Just do it, George, and be sure to write. Thanks for everything that you’ll do. It’s never too late; let’s hope the experience will make a man of you. In the meantime, our thoughts return to two real men, and others like them, who saw their duty and did it. They didn’t BS it like George, they just did it. So this GI poem is for them, Ross and Marc and all the other gentle heroes who were left behind.

If you are able, save them a place inside of you
and save one backward glance when you are leaving
for the places they can no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say you loved them,
though you may or may not have always.
Take what they have left and what they have taught you
with their dying and keep it with your own.
And in that time when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes you left behind.

This poem was written by Major Michael Davis O’Donnell, on January 1, 1970 in Dak To, Vietnam. Major O’Donnell was a helicopter commander with the 170th Aviation Company, 17th Aviation Group, 52nd Aviation Batalion, 1st Aviation Brigade. He and his crew were shot down two months later, on 24 March, 1970, while performing an extraction operation. Major O’Donnell’s remains were never found.

"Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own." Let’s just do it, without reservations.

Don Bacon [send him mail] is a retired army officer who founded the Smedley Butler Society several years ago because, as General Butler said, “war is a racket.”

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