The day before Veterans Day this year was another, lesser-known holiday: the Marine Corps birthday, an event celebrated by Marines everywhere, no matter the circumstances each year.
I first learned about this birthday on Nov. 10, 1979. I was a college student serving as an intern for Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn in Washington, D.C. Nunn was on the Armed Services Committee, and one of his staff members was Arnold Punaro, who advised him on military affairs. My desk was near Arnold’s in a crowded office in the Senate Office Building. Being a poor college student always on the prowl for a free meal, and also wanting to see a bit of the real “insider’s” Washington, I often worked late with the hope that one of the senior staffers, or on a rare occasion the senator himself, would ask me to accompany him to a dinner, a reception, or other event common in Washington but not usually accessible to lowly interns.
One evening, Arnold asked if I would like to go with him to a birthday party. I said, “Sure, whose party?” He said, “You’ll see. Grab your jacket. We’ve got to go.”
I followed Arnold to the basement of the building and we walked through the tunnel that leads to the Capitol building. We eventually made our way to one of the Capitol’s gorgeous old caucus rooms. There was a huge sheet cake on a table, and Marine generals and colonels were everywhere. It was the birthday of the United States Marine Corps.
Though Arnold was dressed in a business suit, they all called him “Major.” Even the generals, I was surprised to discover, showed a certain deference to him. I assumed it was because his boss was a member of the Armed Services Committee. But that was only one reason for their show of respect.
Arnold, one of the officers told me that night, had served three tours in Vietnam as a young Marine and had been wounded more than once. They tried to ship him home, I was told, but Arnold apparently fought the military bureaucracy as hard as he did the enemy, and he somehow got his wish to stay in Vietnam.
Arnold had continued to serve even after coming home; he was still in the Reserves and that’s why they all called him “Major.” Arnold himself never spoke to me of Vietnam, but over the course of the evening, more than one general came up to me to say something like this: “Son, it must be a real privilege to work for someone like Arnold.” I said, “Yes, sir, it is,” but I was mostly thinking to myself, “I had no idea.”
I had almost completely forgotten about that experience until a Nov. 10 evening a few years ago. I was listening to National Public Radio, and they interviewed a retired Marine general about his most memorable Marine Corps birthday celebration, which happened to be in a foxhole in Korea. It was at that moment that I remembered my first and only Marine Corps birthday party. I googled Arnold’s name and found a website that said he was a major general in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and a senior vice president with SAIC, a major defense contractor. It said his “current reserve assignment is Deputy Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command (Mobilization). From 1997 to 2000 he served as the Commanding General of the 4th Marine Division.”
I called SAIC and eventually got Arnold’s email address. He wrote back a day later, telling me that the bio was a bit dated. He was indeed still at SAIC, but he had retired from the Corps after 35 years. His son, though, was now a young officer in the Marines who had recently returned from a tour in Iraq.
That night, after my children were tucked safely in their beds, I thought about Arnold, his son now serving in the Corps, my dad who served in Korea, and all veterans. Because I never served in the military myself, I always try to take a moment each Veterans Day to remember the sacrifice of those who did.
And now, I can say, one of those who serve is my son Cole, a student at the United States Air Force Academy.
So thanks to all of you who have served in the military, for your sacrifice and for all you’ve done to make my children’s dreams — and the dreams of many around the world — peaceful.
Editor’s Note: Warren Cole Smith originally wrote this Veteran’s Day tribute in 2010 for WORLD Magazine. Since then, Arnold Punaro is now the president of The Punaro Group, a Washington, D.C., defense strategy consulting firm. Cole Smith graduated from the Academy, spent five years in the Air Force, and is now a graduate student at Columbia University’s film school. You can see his short film, Memorial Day, a tribute to fallen soldiers, here. All the actors and crew of this short film are veterans and active-duty military personnel.
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