The Medal and the Man

Back in 1984-1985 when I attended the Basic School, where the Marine Corps spends six months preparing newly-minted Second Lieutenants for service in the "Fleet Marine Force," there was a premium placed on trying to create a connection in the minds of my fellow Lieutenants and myself between the tactics we were being trained to employ in the wooded hills of northern Virginia -- single envelopment, double envelopment, frontal assault, etc. -- and the reality of combat. On several occasions we were afforded the opportunity to speak with decorated veterans of the Vietnam War, and get their take of what it was like to implement theory under fire. We were shown extremely graphic videos of Marines being killed and wounded so that we would acclimate ourselves to the reality of war. And while we took these lessons to heart, at the end of the day we were all convinced that our training would see us through any situation. We thought we were invincible, and that combat was the ultimate purpose in the life of a Marine. We punctuated this "lesson" with walking tours of various Civil War battlefields, and somber visits to the Arlington National Cemetery, where the remains of so many who had fallen in battle were interned.

On Thursday, September 17, 2015, I will return to Arlington National Cemetery to observe the funeral of Colonel George Murdock Connell, United States Marine Corps. George had passed away on April 14, 2015, at the age of 72. His death had come as a shock, since he was a larger than life individual who exuded vitality in everything he did. To those who only knew George in retirement, he came off as a jovial man with a passion for his family, life and living -- and the Marine Corps. But for those of us who served with him while he was a Marine, we knew a different person, one with a core of tempered steel who possessed high standards, moral and professional, that he held everyone to, regardless of rank or status. He was a great leader and, for me and the other officers and enlisted ranks who had the honor and pleasure to work for and with him, an even greater mentor. Colonel Connell will be buried with full military honors, befitting his status as a retired military officer, and as the bearer of our nation's third highest award for valor, the Silver Star. For someone like myself, who had been indoctrinated by the Marine Corps as an acolyte of war, that medal held particular significance, since Colonel Connell, having been awarded it, represented the living embodiment of everything I aspired to be as a Marine Corps officer. Only after getting to know George Connell, the Officer of Marines and the man, was I able to put that medal, and what it represented, into proper perspective.

I first met Colonel Connell in the spring of 1988. I was coming off a three-year tour of duty at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twenty Nine Palms, California, where I trained for combat with the pre-eminent enemy of our time, the Soviet Union. But in 1988 I found myself assigned to a new entity, the On-Site Inspection Agency, created to implement the provisions of the recently concluded Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev the previous spring. Although later I was to gain a greater appreciation and perspective about the mission I had been given, and the personnel who had been assembled to execute it (remarkable men and women who had served in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, when "Moscow Rules" meant something, with the Potsdam Mission, in East Germany, at a time when an American officer was shot and killed for getting too close to sensitive military hardware, or on covert assignment in Berlin, aboard missile monitoring ships in the Barents Sea, and remote listening outposts in West Germany), at the time of my initial assignment I was convinced that the Cold War was defined by a Marine expeditionary unit closing with and destroying the Soviet enemy through firepower and maneuver, and the rest of this activity was purely incidental. So when I initially set eyes on Colonel Connell, and noticed the blue, white and red ribbon of the Silver Star on his chest (along with a host of others, including the Bronze Star with valor device, the Purple Heart medal for wounds received in combat, and the Combat Action Ribbon), I was comforted by the fact that there was someone in the chain of command who understood the Marine Corps point of view.

I would have done well at the time to have paid better attention to the other ribbons pinned on Colonel Connell's uniform -- the gold, pale blue, white and red of the Defense Superior Service Medal, received for classified service conducted while assigned as the assistant naval attaché in Moscow, and the solid maroon of the Legion of Merit, awarded for similarly sensitive work done while the assistant director of the Naval Investigative Service, including the investigation and subsequent prosecution of Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree for espionage while assigned to the Marine Security Detachment, U.S. Embassy, Moscow. While every bit a Marine, Colonel Connell was also a consummate professional who possessed both perspective and drive, and was focused on mission accomplishment like no other. Our mission, as Colonel Connell emphasized to me repeatedly, had nothing to do with closing and destroying the enemy, and everything to do with successful implementation of a major arms control treaty. I could either get with the program, or get out (I chose the former.) The story of that mission, carried out under difficult circumstances in a remote region of the former Soviet Union, amid bitter political and bureaucratic infighting in Washington, DC about the wisdom of nuclear disarmament agreements with the Soviets, is for another time. But suffice it to say that those two other ribbons on Colonel Connell's uniform took on a whole new meaning as I was indoctrinated into the rarified world of national intelligence and national security by a man whom everyone treated with respect and deference because of the experiences contained in the back-stories to those decorations.

But Vietnam was never far from the surface when dealing with Colonel Connell. Shortly after my arrival at the On-Site Inspection Agency, a videotape began to make the rounds among the junior officers of a panel discussion aired on PBS showing Colonel Connell schooling American television news icons Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings on the ethics of a warrior. After listening to Wallace and Jennings disassemble about the proper role of an American journalist in a combat zone, including their personal views of a scenario which saw the journalists embedded with a hostile force positioned to ambush an approaching American military patrol (both Wallace and Jennings held that, as journalists, they had a higher duty to report the story, and not warn the approaching Americans), Colonel Connell was asked his opinion. His eyes narrowed, and his jaw muscles flexed in barely suppressed anger. "I feel utter contempt," Colonel Connell coldly replied. "Two days later they (Wallace and Jennings) are both walking off my hilltop and they're 200 yards away, and they get ambushed and they're lying there wounded. And they're going to expect I'm going to send Marines out there to get them. They're just journalists. They're not Americans." Colonel Connell stared the two men down. "But I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists."

There were a couple of things about that video which hit home for those of us who watched it. First was the uneasy feeling one got when seeing Colonel Connell tense his jaws and fixate with his gimlet eye. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of that look, as I have been, understands how cringe-worthy that moment was for both Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. Second was the unspoken relationship between Colonel Connell and the press which dated back to the time of the Vietnam War. Then-Lieutenant Connell was assigned to one of the most storied battalions in Marine Corps history -- 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9), also known as the "Walking Dead" for its high number of casualties -- the highest of any Marine unit in that war. Some 747 Marines and Navy Corpsmen from the battalion were killed while engaged in more than 47 months of combat.

Early on in then-Lieutenant Connell's deployment in Vietnam, in August 1965, a company (not his) from 1/9 was involved in combat operations in and around the village of Cam Ne. The Marines were accompanied by a reporter from CBS, Morley Safer (who went on to become a colleague of Mike Wallace at CBS's flagship program, 60 Minutes). The report Safer filed about the Cam Ne operations, which included footage of a 1/9 Marine using a "Zippo" lighter to set fire to the thatch roof of a Vietnamese home, became one of the most controversial of the war. The Marines involved felt that Safer had misreported the incident, downplaying the fortified status of the village and its environs and the fact that the Marines had taken effective fire from enemy combatants in the area. Needless to say, there was bad blood between the Marines of 1/9 and the American media which no doubt carried over into Colonel Connell's contemptuous attitude toward Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. In the video of Colonel Connell facing off against Wallace, one couldn't help but be drawn to the combat decorations on the former's chest, the Silver Star foremost among them, and wonder how the events behind those decorations shaped the man wearing them.

In the fall of 1990 I found myself back in Quantico, at The Basic School, attending the retirement ceremony for Colonel Connell. By this time I was a Captain, my assignment in the Soviet Union completed. The threat of war hung heavily in the air -- Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and I was involved in planning combat operations in support of the liberation of that country. I was once again drawn to the ribbons on Colonel Connell's uniform, spurred on by the unique nature of the retirement ceremony itself. The TBS student body had been assembled on the parade ground and, while in formation, Major General Matt Caulfield, the commander of the Marine Warfighting Center in Quantico who had served with Colonel Connell in the past, read to them the Silver Star citation for the award won by then-Lieutenant Connell in Vietnam. It was the kind of citation that sends a chill up and down your spine when you read it, and even more so when you hear it read before hundreds of young Marine Lieutenants standing at attention on the parade ground.

"When a Marine rifle squad came under intense fire and sustained heavy casualties from an estimated reinforced Viet Cong company," General Caulfield read, "First Lieutenant Connell daringly led a combined tank-infantry assault on the flank of the numerically superior enemy force."

I had heard similar tales of heroism before, back when the Marine Corps was trying to acclimate me to the "reality" of combat. But the lessons had not sunk in back then -- it took my personal interactions with George Connell to drive the point home. One of the first things I realized, sitting in the stands, listening, was that First Lieutenant Connell was, on May 21, 1966, only 22 years old. He was leading Marines who were even younger than he -- 18, 19, 20, 21 years of age. This has always been the case when a nation goes to war -- we place the greatest burdens on the shoulders of our youth. But it is a shocking reality nonetheless, especially when the one reflecting on that fact was, at the time, a 30-year old Captain who was still pondering how he might perform if called upon to serve in combat.

For George and the other Marines of Charlie Company, 1/9 Marines operating in Vietnam that day, combat was not a theory, but a harsh reality. The "intense fire" the Marine rifle squad in question was subjected to while on a "routine" patrol consisted of "rifle, machine-gun, mortar, and recoilless rifle fire from a reinforced Viet Cong company," as the Navy Cross citation for one of the Marines who died that day, Corporal Barry W. Duff, detailed. "The initial burst of enemy fire caused several casualties."

There was confusion at the time of this contact -- the journal for the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines noted that the "VC [Viet Cong] are moving," that "the squad is surrounded," and there were "four casualties...unknown if KIA [killed in action] or WIA [wounded in action]." Later the unit log recorded the observation, "Estimated 5 KIA, corpsman included."

There were six, in fact, from Charlie Company who died in that fight -- Corporal James Brophy, 20 years old, Private First Class Robert Cloutier, 18 years old, Private First Class John Goderre, 20 years old, Private First Class Chester Schapanick, 18 years old, and Corpsman Peter F. Mead, 19 years old. The sixth fatality, Corporal Barry Duff, who was 21 years old at the time of his death, had survived the initial exchange of fire. "Realizing that the casualties were lying fully exposed to the enemy fire," his citation reads, "Corporal Duff immediately moved to a small knoll overlooking the enemy and his wounded comrades. During the next half hour the enemy launched three assaults in an effort to annihilate the wounded Marines and capture their weapons. With complete disregard for his own safety, he repeatedly exposed himself to turn back the enemy's attacks with accurate rifle fire. Although wounded during the second attack when he was shot in the leg and knocked from the knoll, he gathered more ammunition and hand grenades and gallantly regained his position to protect his wounded comrades. He courageously held his position until mortally wounded while exposing himself to throw a hand grenade."

While Corporal Duff was fighting to save his comrades, First Lieutenant Connell, who at the time served as the Executive Officer for Charlie Company, "daringly led a combined tank-infantry assault on the flank of the numerically superior enemy force. Due to his quick actions," the Silver Star citation read, "the enemy was forced to shift their fire from the beleaguered squad to the tank and infantry unit."

Kenneth Whitehead, who served in a supporting Marine armor unit at the time, was present at the fight. "I remember that during the late morning of May 21st, 1966, a squad from C/1/9 made contact with the [enemy] on the west side of the Yen River opposite the village of An Trach," Whhitehead wrote in an online post. "Hard hit, they received support from two tanks and additional Charlie Company grunts [i.e., Connell's Marines] but they too were stopped."

According to Lieutenant Connell's citation, the tank advance was stopped by "difficult terrain." But the unit log for 1/9 notes that the tanks accompanying Lieutenant Connell came under hostile recoilless rifle fire, and one of the tanks was hit, wounding some Marines. Nevertheless, "First Lieutenant Connell aggressively continued the attack, routing the entrenched Viet Cong and personally killing six of the enemy."

"As battles go," Whitehead noted, "this was not one of the big ones. It only lasted seven hours, although it seemed like seven eternities at the time...things happened that day. Things I have never seen or experienced before or since. After I have seen life with a greater clarity and have a much better understanding of certain emotions."

These, too, were the experiences of George Connell. "Although painfully wounded by fragment in the neck and arm," General Caulfield announced to the Lieutenant's on parade, "First Lieutenant Connell directed the expeditious evacuation of the wounded, refusing evacuation for himself until his unit had returned to friendly lines. His courageous actions at great personal risk undoubtedly saved the lives of many Marines." Unspoken was the fact that George Connell's one-year tour in Vietnam had expired a month earlier, in April, and that he had volunteered to extend his tour so that he could have the opportunity to command a company of Marines in the greatest test his country could provide -- combat.

After the Silver Star citation was read, the TBS Lieutenants marched by in a pass and review for this American hero. You could see the pride they felt for this man as they marched by, and the pride he felt toward them as he watched them march. Anyone who knew Colonel Connell knew he wanted nothing more than to go back in time and join those young men on that Parade Ground, to do it all over again.

Following the retirement ceremony, I reflected on Colonel Connell's Silver Star Medal, and the citation that accompanied it, as I deployed to Saudi Arabia in the weeks prior to the start of the Gulf War. Anyone who has trained for war knows the uncertainty that exists on the eve of their first brush with combat, especially the gnawing doubts about how they will perform under fire. Colonel Connell had set a high standard. Fortunately for me, the war passed by without my having to be so tested, and what I saw of war made me realize how utterly wasteful the entire process is.

Later, when I started speaking out in opposition to an American invasion of Iraq, I wondered how George Connell, now in retirement, would react. I was interviewed on the Diane Rehm Show prior to the start of the war, and made mention that those who believed a conflict could be won by airpower alone should remember that there would be innocent women and children on the receiving end of that bombardment who would pay a very heavy price. Afterwards I received a call from George, who had been listening. I winced as he began to speak, imagining the tightening of the jaws and narrowing of the eyes that accompanied any disapproval on his part. "You were absolutely correct," he said. "These people who are pushing for war do not know the cost of what they are promoting. You did the Corps proud."

At that moment my fixation on George Connell's Silver Star passed. The Silver Star Medal was awarded to George at a very young age, and went on to define him throughout his Marine career. The man deserved the Medal, but earning that Medal nearly cost us the man, and those who knew and loved George know that he was, and is, defined by so much more than a bit of metal and ribbon, no matter the nobility attached to such. What George Connell accomplished during seven hours of intense combat on 21 May, 1966 proved that he did not lack for courage as either a man or Marine, and he went on to have a stellar military career. But the accomplishments of George Connell, the man, make even this distinguished service pale in comparison.

He married his wife of 48 years, Patricia, after returning from Vietnam, and together they raised two wonderful daughters, Catherine and Elizabeth, and were grandparents to two equally wonderful grandsons, Maximillian and George. The love of family was present in every aspect of George's life, and could be witnessed first-hand if one had the pleasure of his company, or vicariously, if one had the good fortune to receive the annual "Connell Christmas Letter," which exuded George's passion of life, family and good humor. If not visiting with his daughters and grandsons, or exploring new sights and sounds, both in America and around the world, with his wife, Pat, George could be found cruising the highways and byways of the eastern seaboard on the back of his motorcycle, or painstakingly researching a history of the battle of Gettysburg (George was a learned man, having received master's degrees from North Carolina State University in political science and the University of Southern California in international relations, and graduated from the National War College and the Institute for Soviet and East European Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.)

The military cemeteries of the United States, whether on American soil or foreign shores, contain the remains of men whom war has taken from their families. Any loss of a life is a tragedy, but the unfulfilled human potential that perishes as a result of war is doubly so. "Never a husband, never a father," a friend of 18-year old Private First Class Chester Schapanick lamented on that Marine's death along the banks of the Yen River in Vietnam on 21 May, 1966. Thankfully, even as his mortal remains are committed to the sacred soil of Arlington National Cemetery, we get to say something else about George Connell -- a peerless servant of his nation and beloved Corps and, more importantly, a magnificent son, husband, father, grandfather, mentor and friend. George Murdock Connell's life after Vietnam serves as a prime example of human potential fulfilled, one that should stand out as an example for anyone who seeks to put young men and women in harm's way, because on that fateful day in May, 1966, rather than die in battle like so many others, he lived.

And Oh, what a life he lived.