Not the words of one who kneels
“Then he [Grant] looked toward Lee, and his eyes seemed to be resting on the handsome sword that hung at that officer’s side. He said afterward that this set him to thinking that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require the officers to surrender their swords, and a great hardship to deprive them of their personal baggage and horses, and after a short pause he wrote the sentence: ‘This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.’”
— Horace Porter, Brevet Brigadier General, United States Army
Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond): Well, the prodigal brother. When did you get back? Ain’t seen you since the surrender. Come to think of it, I didn’t see you at the surrender.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne): I don’t believe in surrenders. Nope, I’ve still got my saber, Reverend. Didn’t beat it into no plowshare, neither.
— The Searchers_ (1956)
For the past week the two quotes above have been swirling in my head. As quite a large group of Marines in my battalion (including myself) are getting out of the Corps in the upcoming months, I’ve been talking with a number of guys about mementos.
In my platoon it is customary to give a departing Marine, whether he leaves through a change of duty station, retirement, or simply the end of his enlistment, a plaque with his current rank, name, duty assignment, dates on station. We accompany that information with a brief quote or favorite remark uttered by that Marine to tie him to a specific time and place, a sort of crystallization of his character.
Quite a few of the Marines I’ve talked to said they’d like to put together a shadowbox as well, full of their medals, ribbons, citations, and rank insignia. For my own personal purposes, I’ve been somewhat lukewarm to the idea of a shadowbox. With one exception (my Good Conduct medal, which I had to continually strive for), to my line of thinking medals and ribbons aren’t much if there isn’t a chest behind them to fill them out. Citations and promotion warrants invariably look better framed.
Through my dad, my grandfather passed down to me two souvenirs from his naval service — his peacoat, and his Dixie cup (sailor) hat. Both are marked with his last name, first and middle initials, and Service Number. The peacoat fits me extremely well and is incredibly warm and in pristine condition, fifty long years after Gramps was in the Navy. Both are among my most prized possessions. With my enlistment drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to have as a memento to pass down to my own grandchildren. Unlike Gramps’ peacoat or Dixie Cup, my uniforms have much less personalization. My Service Uniform is merely stamped “SCHUTH WH” and (because it is tailored) probably couldn’t be worn by anyone other than me. My All Weather Coat is simply a grey trench coat, hardly a iconic thing to hand down. I doubt any of my camouflage utilities would make the cut, either.
The question was starting to vex me, until I hit upon the almost 150 year old solution. ￼ From the Marines.com recruiting website:
The sword symbolizes the military virtues and traditions maintained by noncommissioned officers, or NCOs. The sword’s origins are based in the decisions to discontinue the officer’s Mameluke sword and replace it with the Cavalry sword. Unpopular with many officers, the Corps reverted back to the original saber. When the Commandant officially switched the officer sword back, he decided to present the 1858 Cavalry sword to the NCOs in recognition of their leadership in combat. The NCO sword remains the oldest weapon in the U.S. services still in continued use. Only the Marine Corps has this distinction.
At the same exact moment the NCO sword popped into my mind, I remembered the scene from The Searchers where Ethan (John Wayne) gives his nephew (or son, depending on your persuasion) Ben his saber. Ben hangs it over the fireplace in honor of Ethan.
A few moments later, Ethan tells fellow Civil War veteran Reverend Clayton that he still has his sword, and it is clear the sword symbolizes his spirit and dignity. So, too, does the NCO sword symbolize mine. I spent 27 months waiting to become a noncommissioned officer, the single most important step in the enlisted Marine’s life. Those 27 months comprised the hardest struggle I’ve ever faced, a fight to prove my superiors were wrong in holding up my promotion while maintaining my dignity as a man and not a sycophant. I was determined to not to lick a single boot, even if it cost me the opportunity to ever wear that rank. ￼ It seemed like forever, but eventually I made it. On 01 December 2005, my old boss, 1stSgt Fontaine, took off my Lance Corporal chevron and put a Corporal chevron in its place. I’d never been prouder of another personal achievement in my service, including when I was awarded the NAM. Part of that promotion included earning the right to carry the NCO sword. My entire enlistment was a progression to that point, that single moment the central focus of three years of grinding away well beyond the point I should have given up.
So, if I have my way, one day I’ll have an NCO sword to put up above my fireplace for safekeeping. I can tell my grandchildren about how it came to get there, what it stands for, and how much it meant to earn the right to carry it. It can be a lesson in perseverance for them, a tangible one that can be passed from one generation to the next.