It is tragically ironic that two military memorial statues have made the headlines this week. The first, the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA, features the famous statue of six servicemen raising the American flag on Iwo Jima in World War II. The second, The No Man Left Behind Monument, located on both Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Bases, captures two marines helping an injured comrade during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq.
Today is Iwo Jima Day. On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines landed on the island of Iwo Jima and began the incredibly bloody battle to take the island from the Japanese. Five few days after the battle began, on February 23, Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, took a photo of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising an American flag on the island. This photo would serve as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Virginia. Three of the six servicemen captured in the photograph and subsequent statue, Cpl. Harlon Block, PFC Franklin Sousley and Sgt. Michael Strank, were killed before the battle for Iwo Jima was over. They were three of the nearly 7,000 Marines killed during the battle. Twenty thousand Marines were wounded during the fighting. The sacrifices made by the Marine Corps made it possible to take control of Iwo Jima and continue the fight to stop the Japanese. Today is a day to remember the heroes of Iwo Jima.
Late last Friday night, Chris Marquez, a decorated Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, was attacked and seriously injured while eating in a Washington, D.C. McDonalds. His attackers were thugs who harassed Marquez before hitting him over the head, attacking and robbing him. Marquez earned a Bronze Star for valor in Iraq and is captured in The No Man Left Behind Monument – the Marine on the left, carrying his wounded comrade to safety. We have no reason to believe that those who attacked Marquez knew he was an American hero, however, as we remember the brave soldiers of Iwo Jima, it is truly deplorable that one of our nation’s heroes was so terribly dishonored.
In 1945, when the fighting came to an end on Iwo Jima, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, planned an interfaith memorial service and asked Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain in the Marine Corps, to deliver the eulogy for those killed in battle. Sadly, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to Rabbi Gittelsohn’s role in the service and instead of an interfaith service, each religious community held their own memorial service. At the Jewish service, which you can watch here, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the eulogy he had planned to give at the interfaith service. Included in this eulogy were the following words:
Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…
Three Protestant chaplains were so disturbed by the prejudice directed at Rabbi Gittelsohn that they boycotted their own religious service and attended the Jewish service. One of the Protestant chaplains took a copy of the Rabbi’s eulogy and shared thousands of copies with his Marine unit. Many of the Marines who received it shared Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words with their families via letters home. The press got word of the rabbi’s eulogy and Time magazine published parts of it and the entire eulogy was inserted into the Congressional Record. The eulogy was subsequently broadcast on short-wave radio to American troops around the world. In his autobiography, Rabbi Gittelsohn reflected: “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”
Perhaps Rabbi Gittelsohn’s thoughts about his eulogy can help us as we wrestle with the attack of Chris Marquez. I for one was unaware of Marquez, his bravery and The No Man Left Behind Monument. I wish that it did not take the attack in our nation’s capital for me to learn about him and his heroism. But, as Rabbi Gittlesohn suggests, sometimes it takes something terrible to teach the rest of us something wonderful.
Today, we pray for Chris Marquez’s healing and we give thanks for his bravery and the bravery of those who gave so much on Iwo Jima.