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Once an Eagle: A Classic Novel of Military Life

“This classic novel of soldiers and soldiering ranks with Red Badge of Courage and All Quite on the Western Front as time-tested epics of war and warriors.”– John W. Vessey, Jr., Gen., US Army (Ret.)

Sam Damon (Sam Elliot) cries over a fallen friend

Tonight I started watching the NBC television mini-series adaptation of Anton Myrer’s classic novel of war military life and love Once an Eagle on DVD. I had been hoping to find the series on video or DVD for years and it was released again last year. I was introduced to the book through the series which I saw in High School when it came out in 1976. Back then I never missed an episode. I found the story which weaves the life of a soldier who rises from the ranks named Sam Damon who is played by Sam Elliott and a self-serving careerist named Courtney Massengale to be compelling then and caused me to get the book and read it back in High School and I found it even more compelling than the series.

Coutney Massengale (Cliff Potts)

Years later while deployed to Okinawa I saw a few episodes on AFN and purchased another copy which I took to Iraq with me in 2007. Reading the book there made even more of an impact on me.  I guess it was something about getting shot at and being out in locations with small groups of Americans and our Iraqis with the big battalions far away that made it more poignant. I was pleased to find it this week on DVD at the Camp LeJeune Marine Corps Exchange.

I guess for me the hook is that ever since I was a small child I dreamed of all things military and knew that I would probably spend a major part of my life in the military I was attracted to the story. Since I grew up in a Navy family and lived up and down the West Coast and the Philippines it was in my blood. Part of this was being surrounded by the Navy as well as the Marines. I remember seeing the movie The Green Berets when I was in second grade and listening to the Ballad of the Green Berets on the radio. A couple of my friends and I got sent to the principal’s office because we decided to play war a bit long at recess and didn’t go back to class. If there was something military on television I was going to watch it and I remember films like Patton, The Battle of the Bulge, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, The Desert Fox, M*A*S*H, The Sands of Iwo Jima and tons of others. I built hundreds of model tanks and armored vehicles, ships and aircraft and lived for the day that I could join.

The idealistic and altruistic character of Sam Damon struck a chord in me. The Character of Sam Damon is man who worked his way up from the ranks and not afraid to speak his mind who is able to lead men in the worst situations and accomplish the mission. He cares for his troops but knows his job and knows that men, even friends die in war. At the same time he does not recklessly throw his men’s lives away and they believe that he will get them through. The book takes Damon along with his wife “Tommy” who is not a big fan of the Army despite being an Army Brat and the daughter of a General through their sometimes tumultuous marriage as they are stationed in many places both the glamorous and the not so glamorous in the United States and overseas. It follows Damon’s career from the days before World War One thorough the Great War, the doldrums of the 1920s and 1930s, World War Two, Korea and as a special envoy retired from the Army in a fictionalized Vietnam.  It also traces his relationship with the ambition driven Courtney Massengale.  To avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail but the two characters are in a sense stereotypical of the best and the worst types of men that populate the Officer Corps of the Army, but in a broader sense any military institution.

Tommy Damon (Darlene Carr)

The book is very real in its descriptions of combat as Myrer was an enlisted Marine who was wounded during the invasion of Guam and his descriptions of military life including the hardships endured by military families and while the novel is set in an earlier time where military personnel and their families did not have the communication abilities as we do now, but even with such niceties deployments and family separations, especially those where the military member deploys to a combat zone take a terrible toll on military families.

The novel is very pertinent for those of us in the military because it makes us ask the hard questions of what we will do to further our career and the cost of such a life on our families. I am coming up on 30 years service including about 10 years in the reserves and have made many deployments and my wife has had to endure many separations including my current geographic bachelor tour. Thankfully I am close enough to see her most weekends but we are apart more than we are together.  It is funny that knowing what I knew from my life as a Navy Brat and from books like Once an Eagle that I chose such a life. It is in a sense a calling for me. I know that I’ll never be an Admiral nor do I want to be it is enough to have the privilege to continue to serve when most or all of my contemporaries from my early days in the military have long since left the service or retired. I thank God for that privilege as well as a wife who when she was looking forward to me retiring from the Army Reserve saw me decide to join the Navy to go back on active duty following a mobilization tour where I lost my civilian job, without asking her first. She has endured years of me being gone.  Someday I’ll lay it down but not yet as I still feel that sacred call and thankfully despite the hardship she still loves me but is not unaware of my shortcomings.

In spite of this I am a realist when it comes to the institution of the military. It is not perfect. We have our Sam Damon’s and Courtney Massengale’s but most including me fall somewhere in between these polar opposites to one degree or another. I think that is why men or women who are too idealistic sometimes struggle when their leaders don’t measure up to those ideals.  I remember who my idealism was shattered.  After that I have endeavored to do the best as a Line Officer, Priest and Chaplain knowing that that I won’t always get it right but also knowing that I will try to always uphold the best ideals of the Navy and the military.

The book is required reading in many advanced military schools and is on the Army and the Marine Corps required reading lists.  There is much to learn from it and a lot of wisdom on its pages.  When I finish the mini-series I will read the book again. I recommend it highly.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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