Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

Posts tagged “Memorial Day

In Memoriam: Lt. Robert L. Ledbetter, USN


Today is Memorial Day, 2020. It is the day our nation has set aside to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country. While I have had the honor of knowing far too many young men who gave the last measure of devotion, I want to take this opportunity to remember one in particular, Lieutenant Robert L. Ledbetter.

Lt. Ledbetter was the chaplain when I first checked into 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in April, 1984. Now, something you may not know: the Marine Corps doesn’t have their own chaplains. Like our corpsmen, we get them from the Naval Chaplain Corps. You may have heard that Marines are hell raisers. Well, that’s true as it goes, but the chaplain’s job is to not only try and redeem the souls of those hell raisers, but act as a counselor for those Marines who find themselves troubled by their profession.

In this respect, Lt. Ledbetter was a giant of a man. He made it a point to know every Marine in the battalion. He treated everyone, regardless of rank or religion, with the utmost courtesy and respect. What’s more, he didn’t patronize us because of our youth. He understood, probably better than we did, that we had chosen a rough business to be part of and what that business could do to a man’s soul and his humanity. He had a unique talent for being able to talk to you, man to man, and letting you walk away from the conversation not only feeling better about life, but better about yourself. No matter what trouble you came to him with, whether the most intimate or the silliest, Lt. Ledbetter seemed to always know what to say.

3/4 was designated Battalion Landing Team 3/4 and assigned to the 26th Marine Amphibious Unit for a Mediterranean expedition. We were all excited. We would be spending the winter of 1985-6 in the sunny Mediterranean, and our months spent undergoing training to become Special Operations capable meant we would be the very pointy tip of the spear.

Before we sailed north to Norfolk to join up with our escorts, we were to take part in a “dog & pony” show. That is, we were to stage a mock amphibious assault on the beach at Camp Lejeune for the benefit of the media. It was the sort of thing we had done dozens of times. Nobody expected any trouble.

The morning of October 15, 1985 was chilly and foggy. Before boarding my CH-46 for the beach landing, I heard Lt. Ledbetter call out, “LCpl Rothfeldt!”

My primary MOS (that’s your job title) was Radio Repairman. Now, there’s not much radio repairing happening out in the field. You might be able to patch up a broken switch or rig up something to attach a cracked antenna, but if the radio is kaput, it needs to wait until the unit returns to the rear to get maintenance. So what does the Marine Corps do with their radio repairmen when in the field? They train them up to handle other jobs. So I was assigned as an auxillary radio operator for field operations with Company K (Kilo Company). That meant I was to fly with elements of Kilo’s headquarters staff, instead of Headquarters & Service Company.

The reason Lt. Ledbetter was asking for me was simple: he wanted to fly in with the line company, to show his solidarity with the grunts. He had already cleared it with both the colonel and the company commander, so who was I to say no? I stepped out of the “stick” and moved on to the next helo, while Lt. Ledbetter took my spot.

What happened next will remain etched on my mind forever.

Almost immediately after lifting off, the CH-46 Lt. Ledbetter and 15 other Marines were flying in began flying erratically. Before anyone could say “what happened,” the helicopter pitched over, nose first, straight into the water. Time seemed frozen for a moment, a heartbeat, a second that felt like a lifetime. And then all pandemonium broke out.

The alarm klaxons on the USS Guadalcanal began sounding. Marines from India Company (which was our boat assault force) redirected their boats to the area where the helo went into the water to search for survivors. There was only one, the copilot. 15 men, including our beloved chaplain, were killed that dreary morning.

In the 35 years since that fateful day, I’ve often found myself asking why. Why didn’t I ask the Padre to switch with someone else? Why did he pick me to switch with? Why was a fine man, a man of God, a man everybody respected and admired, the one to die and not me? And there’s one more thing I want to know.

I want to know why Lt. Robert L. Ledbetter isn’t here to answer these questions. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish he was.

Fair winds and following seas, Padre.


In Memoriam


The following men lost their lives in service to their country on October 16, 1985, while serving with the 26th Marine Amphibious Unit:

Lt. Robert Ledbetter, USN, Norfolk, VA
1stLt. John Wasko, USMC, San Diego, CA
1stLt. John Blee, USMC, Durant, IA
2ndLt. John Karner, USMC, Eagle, WI
SSGT David Jones, USMC, Beaumont, TX
SGT John Carney, USMC, Glendora, CA
SGT Dirk Witcher, USMC, BelAir, TX
CPL Larry Day, USMC, Peoria, IL
CPL AL Jones, Jr., USMC, Jamestown, RI
CPL Cliff Moyer, USMC, Cement City, MO
CPL Greg Reber, USMC, Auburn, PA
PFC Craig Carnley, USMC, Bay Minette, AL
PFC Michael Stuhlsatz, USMC, Millstadt, IL
PVT Purnell Jones, USMC, Milwaukee, WI
PVT Johnnie Young, USMC, Cordele, OK

Semper Fi! Rest in Peace.


A Veteran’s Memorial Day


I originally posted this on Memorial Day, 2010, but the sentiment is the same. As you head out to the beach, the barbecue or the ballgame today, please take a moment to remember why you have this particular Monday off from school or work.

And although it’s been three years since I originally wrote this and the little boy at the end is now not quite so little, I still want to thank him and his parents. Whenever I need affirmation that this nation still has good and just people, I think of them.

I awoke this morning to thoughts of old friends who left us too soon. It’s not an unusual occurrence; most mornings I wake thinking of the same men. When they died, they did not give in to fear; cowardice was not these men’s forte. Some died in battle, some preparing for battle. Two very good friends of mine died not in battle, but the wounds they sustained in defense of liberty hastened their untimely departure from our world. One man was known simply as Tank. He was a large man, but in his later years his body had been ravaged by the effects of two bullet wounds and prolonged exposure to Agent Orange during his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Today, I celebrate not only Memorial Day but the tenth anniversary of his passing. Although Tank never spoke of it, he was awarded a Bronze Star during his second tour. It wasn’t until his funeral that I learned how as a 23 year old platoon sergeant he ran back onto a hot LZ, taking a bullet in the back and one in the shoulder, in order to pull one of his men to the relative safety of a tree line. But anyone who knew the man wasn’t surprised to hear of his courage under fire.

This morning, as I thought of him, I shed a tear.

The other day, I watched my town’s annual Memorial Day parade. In addition to the Korean War and Vietnam vets, a detachment from the local Marine Corps reserve unit marched. As I looked at their eager young faces, I realized that most of those kids weren’t born when I earned my EGA in 1983. In fact, most of them hadn’t been born when I mustered out. Realizing that most of these young men will be shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan, I reflected on my own service. I joined to fight Communism, and like most of the world, I rejoiced when the Berlin War crashed to the ground. I truly thought my service had proven, in some small way, invaluable to the defense of the American way of life. Yet here I was, watching a new generation of Marines preparing to fight a new enemy. Had my service not been as valuable as I once thought? Had the men I had known during my service, men who had fought and died in battles around the world – had they died in vain? I decided that no, our service – their service – had been as important in our time as these brave young men’s service is today. And then I realized that none of those young men will return from their combat tours the same. Even if not scarred on the outside, even if they survive to return home physically intact, they will carry the memories of what they see and feel and endure for the rest of their lives.

And as I watched, I shed a tear.

Last night I watched the National Memorial Day Concert, broadcast from the National Mall on PBS. I listened as Gary Sinise and Dennis Haysbert recounted the final moments of Charlie Johnson’s life. I watched as a new generation of war widows were celebrated. I enjoyed the stylings of Brad Paisley. Like plenty of others, I rose to attention and sang the Marine Corps hymn during the Salute to the Services, and I rose to attention and sang again during “America the Beautiful.”

But many times during the concert, I stopped to shed a tear.

And I wondered, as I prepared to try and sleep, will anyone awake on Tuesday and remember the sacrifices of the men who have fought and died to preserve the United States? It’s terrific that we have a day set aside to pay tribute to those men. And I don’t mind that we celebrate by doing uniquely American things – backyard barbecues, trips to the beach, baseball games. But I wondered, when Tuesday comes will my fellow countrymen remember those who ensured that the backyard barbecues could continue?

A little earlier today, I went to the neighborhood bodega. It was a routine trip to pick up a few items needed for my own backyard barbecue. Like many veterans, I have a “Pride Hat.” You may have seen one perched on a veteran’s head – a military baseball cap on which are pinned his campaign ribbons. Mine is nearing retirement. It’s 14 years of service are evidenced by its faded color and the only thing keeping it together are years of starch used to block it. As a result, I only wear it on special occasions. Today being one of those occasions, I wore it on my walk to the bodega. On my return trip, a neighborhood kid – maybe 6 or 7 years old – stopped me and said, “Were you really in the Army?” I smiled and said, no, I am a Marine and we’re better than the Army. The little boy sat on his bike for a minute, seeming to take in this bit of information. The he stood, and said “Thank you” before pedaling off down the street.

I shed a tear. In fact, I’m still shedding a few as write this. Because I have my answer. For as long as children like this can find my service honorable, they will keep the flame of liberty alive. In so doing, the most important thing we can do as Americans is to remember and honor the sacrifices that so many brave men have and  will endure. We will continue to live as Americans, preserving our republic as the beacon of freedom and liberty for the rest of the world.


I Shed a Tear (orig. posted Memorial Day, 2010)


I originally posted this on Memorial Day, 2010, but the sentiment is the same. As you head out to the beach, the barbecue or the ballgame today, please take a moment to remember why you have this particular Monday off from school or work.

I awoke this morning to thoughts of old friends who left us too soon. It’s not an unusual occurrence; most mornings I wake thinking of the same men. When they died, they did not give in to fear; cowardice was not these men’s forte. Some died in battle, some preparing for battle. Two very good friends of mine died not in battle, but the wounds they sustained in defense of liberty hastened their untimely departure from our world. One man was known simply as Tank. He was a large man, but in his later years his body had been ravaged by the effects of two bullet wounds and prolonged exposure to Agent Orange during his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Today, I celebrate not only Memorial Day but the tenth anniversary of his passing. Although Tank never spoke of it, he was awarded a Bronze Star during his second tour. It wasn’t until his funeral that I learned how as a 23 year old platoon sergeant he ran back onto a hot LZ, taking a bullet in the back and one in the shoulder, in order to pull one of his men to the relative safety of a tree line. But anyone who knew the man wasn’t surprised to hear of his courage under fire.

This morning, as I thought of him, I shed a tear.

The other day, I watched my town’s annual Memorial Day parade. In addition to the Korean War and Vietnam vets, a detachment from the local Marine Corps reserve unit marched. As I looked at their eager young faces, I realized that most of those kids weren’t born when I earned my EGA in 1983. In fact, most of them hadn’t been born when I mustered out. Realizing that most of these young men will be shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan, I reflected on my own service. I joined to fight Communism, and like most of the world, I rejoiced when the Berlin War crashed to the ground. I truly thought my service had proven, in some small way, invaluable to the defense of the American way of life. Yet here I was, watching a new generation of Marines preparing to fight a new enemy. Had my service not been as valuable as I once thought? Had the men I had known during my service, men who had fought and died in battles around the world – had they died in vain? I decided that no, our service – their service – had been as important in our time as these brave young men’s service is today. And then I realized that none of those young men will return from their combat tours the same. Even if not scarred on the outside, even if they survive to return home physically intact, they will carry the memories of what they see and feel and endure for the rest of their lives.

And as I watched, I shed a tear.

Last night I watched the National Memorial Day Concert, broadcast from the National Mall on PBS. I listened as Gary Sinise and Dennis Haysbert recounted the final moments of Charlie Johnson’s life. I watched as a new generation of war widows were celebrated. I enjoyed the stylings of Brad Paisley. Like plenty of others, I rose to attention and sang the Marine Corps hymn during the Salute to the Services, and I rose to attention and sang again during “America the Beautiful.”

But many times during the concert, I stopped to shed a tear.

And I wondered, as I prepared to try and sleep, will anyone awake on Tuesday and remember the sacrifices of the men who have fought and died to preserve the United States? It’s terrific that we have a day set aside to pay tribute to those men. And I don’t mind that we celebrate by doing uniquely American things – backyard barbecues, trips to the beach, baseball games. But I wondered, when Tuesday comes will my fellow countrymen remember those who ensured that the backyard barbecues could continue?

A little earlier today, I went to the neighborhood bodega. It was a routine trip to pick up a few items needed for my own backyard barbecue. Like many veterans, I have a “Pride Hat.” You may have seen one perched on a veteran’s head – a baseball cap on which are pinned his campaign ribbons. Mine is nearing retirement. It’s 14 years of service are evidenced by its faded color and the only thing keeping it together are years of starch used to block it. As a result, I only wear it on special occasions. Today being one of those occasions, I wore it on my walk to the bodega. On my return trip, a neighborhood kid – maybe 6 or 7 years old – stopped me and said, “Were you really in the Army?” I smiled and said, no, I am a Marine and we’re better than the Army. The little boy sat on his bike for a minute, seeming to take in this bit of information. The he stood, and said “Thank you” before pedaling off down the street.

I shed a tear. In fact, I’m still shedding a few as write this. Because I have my answer. For as long as children like this can find my service honorable, they will keep the flame of liberty alive. In so doing, the most important thing we can do as Americans is to remember and honor the sacrifices that so many brave men have and  will endure. We will continue to live as Americans, preserving our republic as the beacon of freedom and liberty for the rest of the world.