It was a hot and smoggy summer day in Van Nuys California when drove into the parking lot of the old Armory on Van Nuys Boulevard in my 1975 yellow Chevy Monza with a black vinyl top. It was August 25th 1981. That night the San Francisco Giants defeated the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 4-2 and the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Seattle Mariners 6-5 in 12 innings. In less important news the Voyager II space craft reached its lowest orbit around Saturn.
Getting out of the car I walked into the offices of the Headquarters, 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery of the California Army National Guard. I had in my sweaty hands the paperwork from the Army ROTC detachment at UCLA the “Bruin Battalion” accepting me into the program and allowing me to enlist simultaneously in the National Guard.
I was met by the Headquarters Battery Commander, Captain Jeff Kramer who after my commissioning would allow me to borrow his sword and sword belt to wear at my wedding with my Dress Blue Uniform. Jeff finished his career as a full Colonel. He took me to Major Charles Armagost the battalion S-1 who rapidly had a clerk type up my enlistment papers and administered the oath of enlistment below:
I, Padre Steve (I wasn’t one then but it sounds good) do solemnly swear (I don’t affirm because it’s namby pamby) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States (Ronald Reagan) and the Governor of California (Jerry Brown) and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to law and regulations. So help me God.
That was the beginning. I was taken to the supply sergeant who ordered my uniforms which came as a surprise since I had been issued a set by the ROTC detachment. Of course the ROTC ones were the green permanent press fatigues which I loved and the Guard ordered the then new BDUs which some Navy units still wear. The Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and parts of the Navy having replaced them over the past decade. My first drill was when the Battalion went to Fort Irwin for a long weekend in early September; I was on the advanced party and was assigned to drive a M151A1 “Jeep” in the convoy from Van Nuys to Fort Irwin.
In June of 1983 I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and I took a different oath, an oath of office versus enlistment, I would repeat it again in February 1999 when I was commissioned in the Navy and renew it in 2006 upon my promotion to Lieutenant Commander.
I, Padre Steve, do solemnly swear (again I don’t affirm, namby pamby) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Since I swore the oath the first time I have served in the Army and Navy, in the Army National Guard of California, Texas and Virginia and the Army Reserves. I have spent about six years assigned to the Marines in my capacity as a Navy Chaplain. I have served in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at sea and ashore in war and peace. I have served as a Company Commander and a Staff Officer before becoming a Chaplain and there is no greater honor than to serve this country.
It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years. I do take the oath of office quite seriously especially the part about defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Since I have served 30 years I have served five Presidents and seen Congress make some fairy wild changes of direction. That is the thing about our republic our officers do not make their oath to the President or even the majority party in the House of Representatives or the Senate. National Guard Officers also swear an oath to the Constitution of the State in which they serve but their commissions are cognizant on their Federal recognition and thus they like all other officers are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States above all.
This is a good thing as I have not completely agreed with the actions or policies of each President and Congress that I have served. While I have deeply held political views they have never kept me from serving under administrations that I have disagreed with on major policies. Officers may have strong political views but those must always be subordinated to our oath to support and defend the Constitution. General Winfield Scott Hancock said “We are serving one country and not one man.” Hancock was a states rights Democrat who remained in the Union because he did not believe that secession was legal. He had no political friends in Washington and he served valiantly during and after the war. When asked about his opinion on what to do when their home state of Virginia seceded from the Union by his friends and fellow officers George Pickett, Lo Armistead and Dick Garnett before the war in California he said “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.”
This is not the case in much of the world. Many militaries swear allegiance to the ruler, the state, ruling political party or the majority religion. The officers in many Moslem nations combine their oath with the Bya’ah which includes a personal oath to the King or Sheik and the Islamic statement of faith.
The British military swears an oath to the Queen and her successors:
“I ( name), swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.”
The Red Army of the Soviet Union swore an oath to “to protect with all his strength the property of the Army and the People and to cherish unto death his People, the Soviet homeland and the government of Workers and Peasants, also to respond at the first call from the government of Workers and Peasants to defend the homeland, the USSR.”
Germany has had a rather perilous history with oaths sworn by the military. The Imperial Army swore an oath to the Kaiser but when the Kaiser abdicated and the Weimar Constitution was ratified German Officers and Soldiers took this oath: “I swear loyalty to the Reich’s constitution and pledge, that I as a courageous soldier always want to protect the German Nation and its legal institutions, (and) be obedient to the Reichspräsident and to my superiors.” The history of the Republic shows that many officers and soldiers, especially those that had served under the Kaiser resented this oath. In 1933 Hitler changed the oath to this “I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.” The current German military oath states: “I swear to serve loyally the Federal Republic of Germany and to defend bravely the right and the freedom of the German people. So help me God.”
All oaths hold potential dangers but those of theUnited States military officer corps is perhaps the best thought out oath in the world. The oath is to the Constitution, not a person, political party or religion. The efficacy of the oath is based on the honor of those that swear to uphold it. In times of national turmoil it is important for officers and enlisted personnel to ensure that remember that fact.
When a nation is as badly divided as we are at this point in our history there will be divergent views regarding political beliefs in the officer corps. This has happened before but only one time did it fracture the military and that was during the Civil War. Many Southern officers in Federal service resigned their commissions and entered the service of their home states as did a number from the North who had family or marriage connections to Southerners. Those that did so believed that they had a higher allegiance to their states and viewed the Federal government as an oppressor.
My family came from Cabell County Virginia in the far west of the state. It was one of six Virginia counties to vote to remain in the Union. My family opposed this and sided with the Confederacy. They owned slaves and sided with their self interests over their neighbors. I find the talk of secession by some politicians today repulsive and hateful and those that even suggest it should be shunned by every American.
But there were Southern Officers that remained loyal to the Union; the most prominent of which was General George Thomas. Thomas was a highly successful commander who remained in the Army despite having his friends and superiors in the Second U.S. Cavalry Regiment including Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee. He struggled with his decision but kept his oath. His family was outraged by this and turned his picture against the wall, destroyed his letters, and never spoke to him again. They also refused his financial help after the war. He was pro-emancipation and commanded some of the first Black Regiments in battle during the Western campaigns. Thomas is emblematic of the cost that one can endure in remaining true to his oath.
Politicians, pundits and preachers from both parties will always attempt to peel military personnel, especially officers away from their oath to the Constitution in order to appear strong on defense, more patriotic or ingratiate themselves to them during a time of war. This is nothing new, George Thomas noticed it after the Civil War and said “I am also afraid that the military arm is becoming more or less infected with politics; let us by all means keep that branch of the public service free from the taint of intrigue and party strife.”
Yes we have problems I this nation, but they are not insurmountable. A strong and able military that keeps its oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United Statesis necessary to that end; it cannot allow itself to be drawn away from that no matter what our individual political beliefs. General Winfield Scott Hancock said “The time under our System of Government, when an army becomes political in its character … is about the end of its career.”
I’m proud that I will have a chance to renew that Oath of Office when I am promoted to Commander in the Navy on Thursday. Technically there is no legal requirement to do this as an officer in continuous service as the promotion is only cognizant on me accepting it and signing the letter of acceptance. However I do think it important that I renew it publicly to remind me that I serve the people of this country in a time of war and not any political party.
A dear friend, Retired Marine Corps Colonel and former commanding officer will do the honors for me behind home plate at Harbor Park in Norfolk before the Norfolk Tides play the Gwinnett Braves. We went through many difficult times together and I cannot imagine having anyone else stand with me in reaffirming this sacred oath.
As for the place of the Oath, I could have chosen from several but the Tides and baseball mean a lot to me, after Iraq Harbor Park was one of the few places that I found peace. When the season ended the team management allowed me to visit and walk the concourse in the off season. I can’t think of a more fitting place to renew the Oath.
I pray that I will be faithful to the oath and the people that I serve in the coming years. It is an honor to still remain in the service of this country. I have served five Presidents and quite possibly will serve under another before I finally end my service. That is a testament to our political system, there have been no purges of the military like in many other nations and the military is not a king maker. We can be immensely thankful for that.
Those serving in the military come from every walk of life as well as political and religious beliefs. What sets us apart is that we serve in harm’s way and look out for each other regardless of those beliefs even when they conflict. I think the rest of the country could learn a lesson from us.
So long as we remain people of good will and commit ourselves to placing the interests of the nation above our own we shall do well. That is the essence of the Officer’s Oath of Office.