The final week of ’06 allowed me to witness both highs and lows… I wasn’t able to enjoy a big New Year’s Eve bash (and certainly no champagne), but I was able to accompany a Military Transition Team to a celebration of the Muslim holiday of “Eid,” which recognizes the end of the Hajj. As we sipped sweet Araq chai (tea) and ate rice and mutton, the event could have taken place hundreds of years before. The richness of the tradition was a visible reminder of how and why things change slowly in Iraq. It is a place steeped in thousands of years of tradition and we westerners have to learn patience as we seek to impart “new” ideals – even such noble ones such as democracy.
The Marine leaders present were treated as honored guests – a fact that has political and military implications as well as social ones. The Marines (and our Army brothers in Al Anbar) have begun to engage traditional leaders; respecting their long-standing influence in their communities and drawing them into the “official” government structures created during elections of the past couple years. This engagement is paying huge dividends as tribal leaders in one area after another begin to use their influence to help the coalition defeat the Al Qaida in Iraq insurgency in their areas. (And, as we engage and respect local Sunni leaders, and they come to trust that we have no desire to occupy their lands, the internal insurgency is also melting away.) The Eid celebration was a symbol of all that is being done right by so many leaders here in Iraq.
The day before was a symbol of all that can still be terribly wrong here. I attended a memorial service for 5 men killed in a devastating IED blast a few days before… All under 25, all loved by their families and fellow Marines, all struck down trying to help create a better and more secure Iraq, they are a symbol of the tragedies that occur here too frequently. I did not know these men. I was only a visitor to their command, paying my respects as a fellow Marine. I had not served with them, laughed with them, suffered with them or celebrated successes with them. But I still found myself getting choked up as their friends talked about all those things. When their First Sergeant concluded the ceremony by alluding to the last line of the Marines’ Hymn, that there a now a few more guards at Heaven’s gate, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. I’m not ashamed because there were tougher and stronger men than me in the room who were also crying. And because those fallen heroes earned my tears and the love and respect they symbolize. As we begin 2007 and approach the fourth year of the war, one thing is very certain: Heaven’s streets are very secure.
But take heart, day by day, so are the streets of Iraq, especially here in Western Iraq where those young men gave their lives to make a difference. Most Marines here believe, “This is a hard job, but let us finish.” God Bless those who have fallen, and their families. God Bless all of those who remain on post. Help us to accomplish our mission in 2007. God Bless all of you and thank you for your continued support which is SO GREATLY APPRECIATED by the troops here. Happy New Year.
THE MARINES’ HYMN
From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli' ,
We fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title of United States Marines.
Our flags unfurl'd to every breeze from dawn to setting sun.
We have fought in every clime and place where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off northern lands And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job - the United States Marines.
Here's health to you and to our Corps which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life and never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy ever gaze on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.