During his thirty-five-year career in the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak served two tours of duty in Vietnam and rose through several command and staff positions to become Commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At a Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics in January 2000, General Krulak opened the meeting with the following stated goals – “We study and discuss ethical principles because it serves to strengthen and validate our own inner value system…it gives direction to what I call our moral compass. It is the understanding of ethics that becomes the foundation upon which we can deliberately commit to inviolate principles. It becomes the basis of what we are…of what we include in our character. Based on it, we commit to doing what is right. We expect such commitment from our leaders. But most importantly, we must demand it of ourselves.”
Taken from my book, What Do You Stand For?, the following story from Krulak not only underscores the role of faith, but demonstrates that the powerful moments in life can and do re-emerge to help clarify the principles we believe in and strive to live out.
“In December 1965, while serving as a rifle company executive officer in Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, I went ashore with my unit and one of my dearest friends, a second lieutenant that was serving as a platoon commander, in South Vietnam as part of Operation Harvest Moon. This second lieutenant was a quiet, gentle, but very strong leader, and he was a man of deep faith in God. I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but the events of that day changed the course of my life. His example in the crucible of combat, has inspired my own faith to this very day.
“As my company of about one-hundred-fifty Marines was moving down a trail bordered on one side by very thick foliage and on the other by a wide-open rice paddy, we were ambushed. My friend’s platoon had been the lead element in our formation. The enemy initiated the ambush with a large caliber weapon, hitting my friend twice, shearing off his leg and tearing through his chest. I was wounded at nearly the same time, but my wounds were not nearly as severe as his.
“As I crawled to his position, he quickly asked if I was okay. After I responded that I was fine, he immediately asked about the condition of his Marines. When I told him that they too were fine, he looked to the sky and thanked God repeatedly until he lost consciousness. I was amazed by his selfless spirit and his tremendous faith in the Lord.
“Still, for the next eleven years, while never forgetting his courage and faith, I failed to follow his example. And despite having a beautiful family, a thriving career, and a life rich with tremendous blessings, I was profoundly unhappy.
“In 1976, while assigned to the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, that all changed when I met an Army Chaplain in the body of a Chicago Bears linebacker. This gentleman was a Vietnam War hero, a West Point sports star, and a first-class, tough soldier. He immediately recognized my unhappiness and would not accept any of my sorry excuses for what was causing it.
“Through his persistence and example, as well as my memory of my dear friend in Operation Harvest Moon in December 1965, I found the courage to put God first in my life, to pledge myself to His service. Despite the trials and challenges of the last twenty-three years, I have never wavered from that promise.
“My faith now anchors my entire perspective, strengthening the lessons of right and wrong that I learned as a child; giving far greater meaning to my daily actions, decisions, and example; helping me to order my priorities; and filling me with the joy of God’s love and salvation. My faith reinforces – and is reinforced by – the core values of the institution to which I have dedicated my professional life, the United States Marine Corps.
“The Marine Corps’ core values – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – are the defining qualities of a Marine. They are mutually reinforcing and dependent, if one quality is strong, it supports the others; if one is weak, the others suffer. Honor is a well-developed sense of right and wrong. We boil it down to the simple expression that “Marines do not lie, cheat, or steal. Marines treat all people with dignity and respect.”
“Courage, particularly moral courage, is the willingness to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost or sacrifice. It is the foundation and source of physical courage, which is more often associated with military heroism. Finally, Commitment is selfless devotion to our faith, the Marine Corps, our fellow Marines, and our family and friends. Easy to remember, more challenging to live by, these are the standards to which all Marines are held.
“In this day and age, as we are constantly challenged by attacks on our sensibilities and our values, I am still heartened by the example of my fellow lieutenant and dear friend in Vietnam. He embodied the Christian faith and the Marine Corps’ core values, which I measure myself against. His willingness to put himself at risk by leading from the front, his courage in the face of fire, his selfless concern for others despite his own injuries, and his determination to witness for God through his personal conduct represent the tremendous potential in all of us, as well as our greatest responsibilities.
“All around us, there are countless opportunities to serve the Lord and one another, to stand up for right in the face of daunting evil and injustice. It takes courage, sacrifice, and strength to do so, but we all have the responsibility to act, to get involved, and to demonstrate our faith for those who are looking for God’s inspiration and may only find it through our example.”