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Walking the Lines: A Day on McPerson, Seminary, and Oak Ridge at Gettysburg


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today’s post is a bit late but I had a great day yesterday with my students as we had dinner and I taught about the strategic and operational conundrums faced by the Union and the Confederacy in early 1863 and the operational and command aspects of the Gettysburg campaign. This first night helps my students to link the lessons faced by commanders in the Civil War with what they are learning at the Staff College.

I went up to the battlefield early yesterday as we had stayed with friends near Washington DC where Judy and the Papillon puppies are staying with friends who have four Papillons. I arrived on the  battlefield a little after 11AM and did some exploring of the grounds around the Seminary building before going in to the building to see the Seminary Ridge Museum which opened there in 2013. It is worth the visit. One floor deals with the first day of the battle; another, slavery and abolition; another, the wounded and dead including fascinating exhibits on medical care; and the last which dealt with religion in that era. I was able to go up to the famous cupola of the Seminary from which the Union Cavalry commander, John Buford directed the initial phase of the battle.


After that I drove over to McPherson’s Ridge, where I parked my car and  walked the lines of the Union First Corps along McPherson. Seminary, and Oak Ridge. Arriving early I as able to walk and see parts of that portion of the battlefield that I had only read about before, despite my many trips here. For those who have never walked the ground of such a battle it is a remarkable experience. As I walked the Union line I could almost see the massed ranks of Union infantry; walking through Herbst Woods I could imagine the chaos that enveloped Archer’s Confederate Brigade as it was hit by the Union Iron Brigade; descending into the railroad cut I could imagine the desperation of the Confederate soldiers whose commanders had led them into a trap from which few would emerge alive, unwounded, or uncaptured. When I got to Oak Ridge I was able to walk out to the spot the the 88th Pennsylvania had destroyed Iverson’s Confederate Brigade and captured its colors. As I walked through those places I could  sense the desperation and the need to win a victory by the men on both sides.

After a long time on the battlefield I checked into my hotel, and in the evening met my students for dinner, drinks and the introductory class on the campaign  of 1863 which helps to tie together the understanding of strategy and the operational art involved in the Gettysburg campaign and the broader aspects of what was happening in 1863 and what drove Robert E. Lee to insist on the invasion of the North instead of sending his troops west to relieve Vicksburg, or perhaps attempt to relieve Vicksburg by defeating Rosecran’s Union army in East Tennessee and then moving to Threaten Cincinnati and the Ohio River which potentially could have drawn Grant away from Vicksburg.

I spent today with my students on the battlefield and hopefully will post something about that tomorrow.

So have a great night,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History

Writing About War

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“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife 1864

Memorial Day weekend is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course, people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not. 

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am pissing into the wind so to speak, but I cannot stand by silently.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest and I have a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty.This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front. 

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I believe will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude which cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

Over the weekend I did a series on this site about the tragedy of the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German Battleship Bismarck which transpired over the course of a week in May 1941. In that week the two largest and most powerful warships of their day were sunk taking over 3600 of the roughly 3750 sailors aboard to a watery grave in the North Atlantic. While doing this I had the opportunity to go aboard the USS Wisconsin here in Norfolk, a ship that is roughly the same size of those two doomed warships. As I walked the passageways surrounded by massive armor plating It helped me, a sailor who has served aboard a modern Guided Missile Cruiser and other warships to appreciate the life and death of the sailors on those ships. I thought of the Hood’s who with the exception of three sailors being annihilated as the massive ship exploded, and then I thought about the crew of the Bismarck who had nearly half a day to contemplate their end before the British shells turned their ship into a funeral pyre.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War: “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.”

Anyway, that is all for tonight. Over the coming week I should be putting out my next chapter revision to my Gettysburg text and some other articles.

I wish you all the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, philosophy

Bitter Feelings I wish Never to Experience Again: Tuesday Musings

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is funny how a single event, or a number of seemingly unrelated events can change all the plans for a week of writing. Tonight I am struggling with my own feelings as I try to make sense out of my own experiences as well as the events of the day. I am still awake and writing because of how upset I am about a number of things that really  on the surface shouldn’t be so upsetting but wound me deeply. 

This weekend I will be leading a group of my students to Gettysburg and I have been working on my Gettysburg text as well as revisions to that text. My plan is to place a number of the short biographic articles on a number of leaders in that battle who I find particularly interesting and not just for what they did in the battle. I find complex and contradictory people fascinating. Likewise I will be posting an article about the classic action of the first day of the battle between the Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford, a fascinating man in his own right and Confederate general Harry Heth who led the Confederate army into the a battle that would help turn the tide of the war.

Of course I am cognizant of the the fact that events can change my plans as far as what I intend to write and tend to plan accordingly. But sometimes such events actually give me a chance to reflect and actually cause me to think about the significance of those events. Since I do a lot of that the attack in Garland that I wrote about yesterday has triggered some more of those thoughts.

When I wrote yesterday’s article I began thinking about some of the things that I wrote in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris as well as other terrorist attacks, those of Moslems as well as those who attack and hate Moslems. Some critics might think I am being “politically correct” but truth is truth and terrorism no matter what the ideology or religion of those who kill innocents is evil. So I think I will probably re-package one or more of those articles because of the attack in Garland because when I went back and re-read the series I saw that so much of what I wrote then was still pertinent today, and because of the seriousness of what is going on probably need more attention.

I will also be writing something about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu which sealed the fate of French colonialism in Indochina. That battle was concluded sixty-one years ago this week. Having been a participant in the Iraq war, a war which like Indochina was a disaster for the colonial power and a war in which the soldiers who sacrificed so much were so rapidly forgotten by the nation even as they were thrown into other hopeless wars.

I have been reading a book on the experiences of the Union soldiers when they returned home from the Civil War and that book has stirred up a lot of my emotions concerning my return from Iraq and what I have experienced over the past six years.

Sadly I have a hard time containing my bitterness about my sacrifices and the insults I have endured even from the incredibly irrational and insensitive military bureaucracy and even my own Chaplain Corps. Some of that I was reminded of today in dealing with a bureaucracy that ensures that you are caught in a permanent state of “catch-twenty-two” when simply trying to get the appropriate credit for what you have done. I ran into that today in regard to an administrative catch-twenty-two regarding my Joint Qualification credit and I am so angry that I can scarcely contain myself. Sadly, that is just one more reason that I will be glad to retire in 2017. 

The past week I have had terrible nightmares, some dealing with those issues and I can fully understand the words of Union General Gouverneur Warren who wrote his wife after the war:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

I fully understand how Warren felt, because he was not only a victim of the war but of Army bureaucracy. In Warren I have found someone that I can completely understand and relate to in what he had to deal with during and after the war.

People ask me sometimes why I will remove my name from consideration for promotion to Captain in the Navy Chaplain Corps and retire instead of remaining on active duty and possibly make Captain. This my friends something that many men and women would consider the pinnacle of accomplishment, and which a number of senior chaplains tell me I would be very competitive. In fact even two years ago I would have almost sold my soul to be promoted to that rank. But I know that don’t need to sacrifice any more of my life for a promotion that I no longer want. 

Maybe I’m a bit bitter, not terribly, but enough to make me realize that I don’t want to deal with the bullshit that I would have to deal with at a higher rank as I now realize that I am rank enough in my own right. Frankly, somehow I need to let go of the bitterness and disappointment that I have, but I realize that I may never fully let it go. Not because I do not want to, but because whenever I turn around there is yet another reminder which twists the knife in my belly that the bureaucrats in the service do not give a damn about me, or for that matter anyone else. 

But I am now rambling and I should stop writing for the night before I get myself in trouble by being too honest by naming names. 

Until the next time, pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under History, iraq, leadership, Military

Granny, Me & a Tombstone Makes Three: Thoughts on Turning 55

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turn fifty-five today. That is 55, or as it is sometimes known as double nickels. Now I try not to look and I certainly don’t act my age. Despite this I am now officially eligible for my AARP card and discounts, I’ll probably get carded when I try to use them.

Since I think I am now what they call “middle-aged” this means that I should live to be about 110. I actually think that would be cool because I would certainly be around for the Civil War Bicentennial, hopefully still leading Staff Rides at Gettysburg for officers not yet born. 

It really is hard to believe how views on age and aging have changed over the years. When I was about seven years old my paternal grandmother, Verdie, who insisted on being called “Granny” informed me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer. At the time she was fifty-five. But back then people did act old, especially once they entered their forties. I remember one of my Algebra teachers from junior high school back in 1973-74. The man looked, dressed and acted like he was in his sixties. He wore a gray woolen suit, a white button down shirt, a nondescript thin black tie, black oxfords, and when he was outside, a gray fedora.

I thought he had he had passed away years ago and I was surprised as hell to see his obituary a year or two back. He was only about eighty, which would have meant that when he was my teacher he would have been in his early forties, and looking like he was sixty. But that wasn’t unusual back then, just watch some movies from the era and see what the 40-50 year olds looked and dressed like.

Well anyway, back to Granny. Granny was from Putnam County West Virginia and she left home at age eighteen because she did not like the repressive atmosphere and wanted to make a life for herself away from the farm. As the oldest daughter she was having to take responsibility for raising her younger siblings, and she could not abide such a life in the holler with no freedom or opportunity. Granny talked with an old Appalachian dialect that has almost died out. But she was very progressive for her day, raising two sons as a widowed single-mother.  She worked until she was forced to retire and then volunteered at the local hospital gift shop for another decade or so. She could talk baseball, but sadly she was a Dodgers’ fan and lived and died with he team. She travelled the country bus Greyhound bus until she was in her early eighties. She was a fascinating person.

She was active in her church and into her eighties she would take meals to ome-bound church members who she called “those poor old people.”  Of course most of them were younger than her. Now as far as cooking was concerned, her’s was infamous around the family and in the church, something that we all strove to avoid eating if possible. My wife Judy who probably spent the most time with her was subjected to her fare more than anyone. To this day she tells me, that me, my brother that the rest of my cousins and me owe her big for that, but I digress….

But the one thing about her was that no-matter when we would meet she would say that she “didn’t have long to live” or “wouldn’t be around much longer.”  To make sure that we understood that she purchased a plot a a cemetery which had just opened during the early 1970s and even had her headstone planted there. Occasionally if we were in town it would be among the graves that she would have us visit. She had this morbid obsession with death. Maybe it is because she was twice widowed and grew up in difficult times, World War One, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. But for whatever reason she talked like she was old and soon to die, even as she travelled the country on Greyhound.

Then in 1995 I took my first post seminary  job as a contract emergency department chaplain in the city that she lived. It was fascinating to get to know her again as well as my maternal grandmother who was also still alive and living in the town. I worked nights and weekends so Judy got to know them better than anyone, she took them both shopping and to doctors appointments, all the while attempting to ensure that Granny did not feed her. Once I angered Granny when she told me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer and I asked if she was moving. She popped a cork and informed me that I knew what she was talking about. I replied, “Yes, I know you have been telling me this since I was a child and you are still alive.”  She didn’t talk to me for a week, but got over it.

My maternal grandmother, Christine died unexpectedly when I was deployed for the Bosnia mission in 1996 and between that and another active reserve tour I missed seeing Granny a lot until we returned in October of 1998.

One day, it was in November or December of that year, I got a panicked call from Granny. Evidently a salesman from the cemetery had called her and asked if she wanted to pay the opening and closing fee on her plot in advance. Evidently this brought the matter of her mortality to the fore, in a much more tangible way than she had imagined. She told me that she had a nephew who had connections to cemetery where her parents and some siblings were buried and wanted me to move her tombstone to it.

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I told her that we would probably have to go to the cemetery office because one could not simply appear at the cemetery and start digging up tombstones without permission. I imagined being like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein when he went to dig up the corpse in which to implant Abby’s brain. Abby who? Abby someone… Abby, Abby Normal, that’s who I think it was… again I digress…

So I set up an appointment for her and me to make the arrangements. The people were nice, we filled out the necessary forms and two workmen dug up the stone and placed in the truck of my 1984 Volvo 240 GL.

We had to wait a week until her nephew could make time to meet us at the family cemetery and for two weeks I had to drive around town with Granny’s tombstone in my trunk. I just knew that someone was going to rear-end the car, pop the trunk and that I would have to answer some questions  rather pointed questions from the police. Questions that I might add, could prove distressing, as how many people drive around with tombstones in their trunk? I could hear the conversation:

Police officer: What is that? 

Me: A tombstone officer. 

Police officer: What kind of ghoul are you?

Me: How many kinds are there?

Thankfully however, no one hit me, I did not have to explain the tombstone in the trunk to the police and the next Saturday we drove up to her nephew’s house and then to the cemetery. Of course the weather was perfect for placing a tombstone, cold, cloudy, dreary and rainy; just like any horror movie. Not even birds were chirping. Her nephew and I emplaced the monument with great care. We ensured that it was in the correct plot and carefully measured and the appropriate distance to the neighboring graves of her parents, for even in death people need their space. As we worked, Granny supervised, much happier now that if she was going to die that she had a home so to speak. Once we had it set I grabbed a bottle of Windex, a rag and cleaned the mud off of the top of the monument. Granny was pleased, and I was glad to have the tombstone out of my trunk.

Two months later I transferred from the Army Reserve to the Navy and we moved away. Soon after the 9-11-2001 attacks we visited, Granny had reached the point that she was in a nursing home. I drove her around the town to places she used to visit and took her her for a hot dog at the local original Stewart’s Root Beer and hot dog stand. Since she couldn’t go to church she had Judy sing a couple of hymns for her before we went back to North Carolina. A couple of weeks later she passed away and we gathered for her funeral.

My dad and uncle were there as were many other relatives. The service was at the church where she had attended for decades and where I had been baptized as an infant. The cemetery was about thirty miles away a bit up I-64. Since there was a home football game for the local college, Marshall University, the funeral home employees ensured that we had the fasted motorcade I have ever been a part, we were chasing the hearse which was doing about eighty with the little purple funeral flags furiously flapping in the wind. After a quick graveside service it was done. I don’t think that anyone missed the opening kick off that day and I’m sure that Granny wouldn’t have minded. My dad and Judy both agreed in hindsight that old time sake and for safety reasons we should have hired a Greyhound bus for the funeral party with Granny’s coffin in the luggage compartment.

So anyway, from the time she was fifty-five until she was almost ninety, Granny never ceased to let me know that she didn’t have long to live. I hope as a minimum I live as long as she did and I do promise that you won’t be hearing me tell you that I haven’t long left, unless they are dragging me away to the funeral home as my fingers type out one last article.

Here’s to health and long life!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Just for fun, Loose thoughts and musings

Return from Gettysburg: Table Talk and Meeting a Hero

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I am on the way back from Gettysburg following our Staff Ride. As always it was a very interesting trip and as much as I get to expound on what I know, I also get to learn. As the late Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver so eloquently put it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love going up, not just for the teaching opportunity, but to spend time with the students, and sometimes their family members over lunch, dinner or drinks at the various watering holes. These occasions of table talk are probably some of the most important parts of learning and relationships. They are something that have become an anomaly in our modern higher education process, which driven by the need for profit, or by austerity in public or military educational systems, or fear of legal liability, have all too often sacrificed this all too important manner of learning.

I remember reading Martin Luther’s Table Talk, which is a collection of writings by his student’s gathered around the table as they ate and drank. They show Luther at his best and worst, expounding on some of his less systematized ideas, as well as his ability to expound on subjects outside of the lecture hall or the theological debate, sometimes while certainly under the influence of good German beer.

This type of learning was common at one time, but now is a dying art. One of the things that it does for me is that my student’s questions, comments, experiences and ideas also spur my thinking and cause me to do more research, discover more and learn more. I then attempt to assimilate what I have learned and then develop those thoughts into things that I am either writing or teaching.

For me this is about a commitment to the truth, as I quoted from Star Trek the Next Generation on Friday, that my first duty, is to the truth, and as one of my students mention to me last night can be painful, especially when long cherished myths, are crushed by the weight of facts. For him it was the ugly truth of the Lost Cause and especially in the role of religion in the South to justify slavery, secession and following the war segregation, discrimination and sometimes even lynching. For him, as it was for me, so many years ago at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was difficult. But if truth matters at all, we cannot ignore it as so many do and cling to myth, as Captain Picard said ” be it scientific, historic or personal truth.” 

I was fortunate that my professors at Southwestern, especially my professors of Church History, Systematic Theology and Philosophy of religion challenged me and laid waste to the myths that I believed that I am who I am today.

I think I am going to start doing table talk sessions for any interested students during our next term.

I also had a unique honor on this trip. One of my students brought his dad, a retired Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran. He was a very interesting man and was engaged in the lessons of the trip, even since his son had provided him a copy of my text, asking when I would get it published. He didn’t try to draw attention to himself, we had some nice conversation over dinner and drinks with the rest of the students, and at the end of the Staff Ride, which is at the Solder’s Cemetery he walked up and thanked me. He the said “let me give you my coin.”

For us in the military a being presented a commander’s coin or unit coin is an honor. I have a lot of them, including one from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who I met at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend when I was the chaplain of the ship that carries the name and legacy of Hue City.

When I looked at the coin it was inscribed “Colonel Walter Marm, Vietnam, 14 November 1965.” In the center a depiction of the Medal of Honor. The front, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, United States of America. Colonel Marm was a platoon leader then, a young lieutenant, in Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Ia Drang. You might recognize it, the battle was chronicled in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” and film We Were Soldiers

If you want to read about his heroism you can google him or go to this site, which is just one of many where you can read about this American hero.

http://www.medalofhonorspeakout.org/bio/walter-marm

Interestingly enough President Obama will award the Medal of Honor posthumously on November 6th to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing who died defending the Angle on day three at Gettysburg.

So this indeed was a special trip, a reminder to me of the lost art of table talk in education, as well as the heroes who do not draw attention to themselves. Yes my friends, it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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