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Thursday, October 09, 2003

THE GOSPEL LESSON...


Note:
The following "mystery" article, which was e-mailed and posted to various messageboards around the Internet these last few weeks, has been determined to have been published in the October, 2003 Marine Corps Gazette.
-DickG

TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY-ONE SONS

Eli Takesian, CAPT, CHC, USN (Ret)


The Gospel Lesson

In early November of each year, a religious service is conducted in Washington National Cathedral honoring the United States Marine Corps.

As the Chaplain of the Marine Corps, it was my task to prepare the order of worship for 1983. Several weeks prior to the service, General Paul Xavier Kelley, the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps, agreed to read the Gospel lesson. After looking over my recommendations, he called me and said, "Eli, I like your choices, but for this, my first year as Commandant, I would like to read the passage in which Jesus tells his disciples about the Good Shepherd. That particular teaching never fails to inspire and challenge me."

It was an appropriate choice for this Commandant, with whom I had served in Vietnam, where I first observed his charismatic qualities and, above all, his faithful shepherding of troops.

In 1970, weeks before our initial meeting, I learned of his reputation. When my outfit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, was notified that Colonel P. X. Kelley was to become our regimental commander, it prompted glowing comments from a gunnery sergeant:

"He'll do a bang-up job! P. X. and I served
together in 1966, when he was honcho of
2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. He took us
through some tough campaigns. A fearless
leader! And hell-on-wheels in combat!
There was nothing he wouldn't do for us
… and nothing we wouldn't do for him!
On field operations, P. X. never carried a
weapon when he walked the perimeter at
night. He'd stop at every foxhole and talk
with his Marines, especially the young ones.
Whenever they'd remind him that he didn't
have a weapon, his answer was always the
same: 'As long as you're here protecting me,
why do I need a weapon?' He touched our
lives, and gave us the confidence we needed."

The words of John C. Maxwell come to mind: "A leader knows the way … goes the way… shows the way."

On the day Colonel Kelley took command of the 1st Marines, I became his regimental chaplain. The gunny's prophetic words were manifested time and again, for in so many ways, grand and simple, P. X. Kelley cared for his troops -- his flock -- earning their profound admiration and respect.

I remember one significant occasion, when he put his career on the line in a courageous and justifiable defense of one of his subordinates. Unfortunately, confidentiality prohibits my divulging details of the incident.

During his tenure with the 1st Marines, the last ground combat organization to leave Vietnam, Colonel Kelley was affectionately known as "The Good Humor Man From the Sky." Whenever he flew out to visit regimental units operating in the field, he was armed with containers of ice cream, cases of Coke, and hot chow.

23 October 1983

Any Marine on active duty on Sunday, 23 October 1983, can remember exactly where they were upon hearing of the terrorist attack at Beirut International Airport, which took the lives of 241 soldiers, sailors and Marines. I was on an official visit to the Marine Corps Base, 29 Palms, California.

Returning to Washington the following day, I learned that President Reagan had asked the Commandant to fly to the Marine unit in Beirut as his personal representative. General Kelley and Sergeant Major Robert Cleary, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, had already departed. Otherwise, I would have gone with them.

My first opportunity to meet with the Commandant took place a few days later, after he had returned from Beirut. It was at the Pentagon helicopter pad. We shared an embrace and with tears in his eyes he said, "Eli, I have just lost 241 sons." Minutes later, he and his party, including me, departed for the U. S. Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, to greet and honor the first planeload of our fallen comrades.

At Dover, in a cold and drafty aircraft hangar, the Commandant addressed grieving families that had so suddenly lost loved ones. He underscored the quality, vitality and importance of these superb troops whose lives were unexpectedly taken by terrorists; and then, looking down the line of flag-draped caskets, he asked, "Lord, where do we get such men?" During moments that were emotionally wrenching, draining, and spiritually consoling, General Kelley met with members of each family and, together, they shared their mutual, heartfelt grief.

On the return trip to Washington, the Commandant informed his party that he had requested the Secretary of Defense to convene a commission to investigate circumstances surrounding the terrorist attack, and that Secretary Weinberger had consented. A panel was soon established and became known as the Long Commission.

The next week was one that would test to an extraordinary degree the leadership, loyalty, emotions, endurance and values of the Commandant, who had assumed the office only four months before the terrorist attack. His frustrations were particularly obvious when, during four days of grueling testimony before Congress, not one member of either body asked him if he knew the identity of the terrorists who had planned and executed the attack. In his closing remarks before four congressional committees, the Commandant said:

"I would hope that the Congress would use
this incident of cruel and premeditated mass
murder to help us determine ways to tell
nations that they cannot export and support
terrorists who kill innocent Americans with
impunity. The perpetrators and supporters
of this challenge to the rights of free men
everywhere must be identified and punished.
I will have little sleep until this happens."

Moreover, he shared with me an off-camera meeting with two senior members of the House of Representatives. When they suggested that the two Marine commanders in Beirut be court-martialed as soon as possible, "to get this all behind us," his refusal was adamant. Appalled, General Kelley informed them that, as a United States Marine, he had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which includes the right to due process. His concluding remarks to the astonished members were, "Not only no … but hell no!"

The Commandant and I met frequently during that long ordeal, most often in private. I shall always remember one particular morning when, speaking with his usual candor, he said:

"Eli, I've spent many years of my Marine
Corps career here in Washington, and
have a lot of respect and admiration for
politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Several of them have given me invaluable
advice and counsel on how the Marine
Corps should deal with this, the worst
tragedy in its entire peacetime history.
However, some others have jumped the
gun and are looking for a quick and easy
way out.

"One suggestion, which I find particularly
offensive, is that I should become less
visible and let responsibility roll down hill.
I've always lived by the principle that
authority and ultimate responsibility are
inseparable. The law gives me the authority
of the Commandant and, therefore, I have
certain inherent responsibilities. First and
foremost, to obviate any suspicion of a
cover-up, I have, as you know, requested
an independent investigation to determine
the facts.

"Another suggestion I strenuously reject
is that we should sweep as much dirt as we
can under the rug. Eli, five words stuck in
my mind that night last June when I
became keeper of the Marine Corps Color:
courage … devotion … compassion …
honesty … and integrity. If I learned
nothing else from the Augustinian
Fathers at Villanova, those last two words
made an indelible impression, for without
honesty and integrity, the others are
meaningless."

On another occasion, General Kelley addressed the matter of sweeping dirt under the rug. I vividly recall his words:

"Marines would never expect, or want,
their Commandant to lie to them … or to
lie for them. Therefore, I will not lie to my
Marines … to the President of the United
States … to Congress … or to the American
people!"

By refusing to take an easy way out, or to protect himself, or to victimize others by seeking scapegoats, the 28th Commandant remained steadfast and faithful in caring for the Corps of Marines.

Washington National Cathedral

This brings me to 6 November 1983. The worship service in Washington National Cathedral that Sunday afternoon honored all Marines, past and present, focusing primarily on our casualties in Beirut.

At the appropriate moment, the Commandant of the Marine Corps walked with dignity to the lectern and recited the moving words of Jesus, as recorded in the tenth chapter of Saint John's Gospel, beginning at the eleventh verse … ironically, the same reading he had chosen several weeks before, excerpts of which are printed here:

"He who enters by the door is the shepherd
of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens;
the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his
own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he
goes before them, and the sheep follow
him, for they know his voice. A stranger
they will not follow, but they will flee from
him, for they do not know the voice of
strangers. I am the good shepherd. The
good shepherd lays down his life for the
sheep. He who is a hireling and not a
shepherd, whose own the sheep are not,
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep
and flees … He flees because he is a
hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; I know my own
and my own know me …"


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by R. W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952-72
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