Honor to whom honor

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David Epps

Last Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, marked the 49th anniversary of when I got off the bus at Parris Island, South Carolina, and stood on the infamous yellow footprints. It was zero-dark-thirty in the wee hours before dawn and the quiet night was interrupted by the screaming and threats of a fierce Marine Corps sergeant in a Smokey Bear hat. It was the first day of my quest to become a United States Marine.

Last Wednesday was also the day that I was asked to officiate at the funeral of retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Eric Bay, USMC, at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, Ga. Mr. Bay was 83 and left a legacy of service, a caring family, and a lovely wife.

It was my honor to be asked to do this service for a brother Marine whom I had never met. But, that’s what Marines do for each other. Other Marines were there, too. At least one was in the audience. The Marine Corps Reserve members offered a rifle salute, played “Taps,” and folded and presented the flag to Mrs. Bay. A short, somber, yet moving, ceremony.

It certainly wasn’t the first time I had participated in funerals for Marines. Over the 44 years since I first became a pastor I suppose I have conducted or participated in hundreds of funerals. A goodly portion of those have been for veterans and a sizable chunk of that has included Marines.

Over the past decade, I have been the officiant for two or three Marine funerals and, as a member of the Marine Corps League, have had at least a small part in honoring perhaps a dozen or more Marines at their funerals. I always feel both honored and humbled to say “thank you” to these men (so far, no women Marines) in this small way.

But even before I became a pastor, I was called upon to serve these men in their last act on earth. I enlisted in February 1970. Vietnam still had five years to go before that war would be officially over with the fall of Saigon on April 30. United States active involvement ended in 1973.

Nearly 500,000 Marines served in Southeast Asia during that war. Of those, 16,000 were killed and 55,000 wounded, accounting for nearly one third of all U.S. casualties suffered during the war. That’s a lot, considering the USMC is the smallest of the four military services. Which meant there were a great many funerals.

As a young private, PFC, or lance corporal, during my early enlistment days, I was often tapped to be on the honor guard for a Marine killed in Vietnam. My role was to serve as one of the men who fired the rifles at the gravesite. It all seemed surreal to me back then. These weren’t the funerals of men who were retired and “full of years,” having survived war to return home and build a family, a career, and a life. These were men my age — young men — whose lives and futures ended the day they were killed.

I tried, unsuccessfully, during these funerals, to block out the images of the grieving parents, the sobbing young widow or girlfriend, the shocked, confused faces of the small children not fully comprehending what was happening. I heard the ministers reading scriptures and offering attempted consolation as the family tried to find meaning in the unthinkable.

I remember them being startled and shocked by the sound of seven M-14 rifles belching out three explosive rounds each. And is there any sound more mournful than “Taps”?

I do remember the senior Marine kneeling before the mother or the wife, presenting a folded flag and saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” I remember him then standing at attention and offering a respectful salute.

They all run together in my mind. Save one. I remember the sergeant who survived three 13-months tours in Vietnam. After arriving back in the States after his third tour, he was hitchhiking his way home to Tennessee from California. Why he didn’t take a bus or a plane is a mystery. With his thumb out, he was hit by a truck and died on the side of the road.

A few times, the members of the Marine Corps League Detachment to which I belong has met an airplane bringing home the bodies of young men killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It hasn’t mattered if these men were Marines or soldiers or something else. It mattered that we be there, stand there at attention, and salute this young son or husband or father in the presence of his grieving family.

It is true that there is a special brotherhood among Marines. Someone once said that, “There are four branches of the armed services but only two are military. The Army and the Navy are military. The Air Force is a corporation. The Marine Corps is a cult.” There’s some truth there but the truth is also that we all serve the same flag, love the same nation, and bleed the same color.

That’s why, on my 49th anniversary, it was my honor to serve and salute the “Master Guns” and his family. It has been said that, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Only 7 percent of all Americans alive today have ever served in the military. Less than 1 percent serves at any given time. At the very least, these men and women deserve our thanks and a properly rendered salute now and at their death.

“Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Romans 13:7 (KJV)

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]