Living far and away from the rest of the world, the peaceful life on our islands can be like Never Never Land. We truly live and work in a paradise, but there is a responsibility to each other and to the greater good of our fellow Americans. As weeks turn into months, and seasons into years, many of the Marco Beach Boys have served in the armed forces, many have not, but understanding the need to help one another goes straight back to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
One day, a single mom and a dear friend offered the comment, “My son Chris is having problems. After graduating from high school, he is beginning to hang out with the wrong crowd. He has a job, but he is often late for work. I try to keep him on the right path, but he seems to be wandering. I wonder if you could talk to him.”
My dear friend is and was Mary Quinton, and her son is Chris Quinton. After our discussion, I found inspiration by remembering my uncle Eugene Fields. Uncle Gene served in the US Army for 25 years. He was wounded by a Japanese sniper in World War II. He served in Vietnam, Turkey, and Germany as a Sergeant Major. After the army, Uncle Gene served again by teaching economics in a high school troubled by rough neighborhoods, poverty, and violent crime. The lessons taught in economics might have been Gene’s official position for the distressed high school, but the life lessons he taught from the US Army changed many lives that still remember him today. This was the example and lesson I wanted to share with Mary’s son.
One night, during the summer before September 11, 2001, we were all having dinner at a favorite Marco restaurant. When the girls were talking, I moved my chair closer to Chris and spoke softly, “Have you ever thought about joining the Army or one of the other armed forces?”
Chris shook his head “No” and went back to his salad.
I continued as a conspirator. “My uncle joined when he was about your age and he traveled around the world. The Army was very good to him and he loved it.”
When the waiter came and delivered the entrées, I tried again. “If I were you, and had a chance to do everything over again, I would join tomorrow. I have no regrets today about not joining because everyone who trained me as a captain was either Coast Guard, Air Force or Army. I really think I owe everything I have now to that military discipline and the good moral standards that I learned from my mentors.”
The next day, Mary called and told us Chris drove to the recruitment center in Naples and joined the army. A month, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, Chris was in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and his mom Mary was a nervous wreck.
A few months later found Chris in Iraq with the battlefield nickname of Sniper-4. Like my Uncle Gene, Chris was a towering 6-foot-four inches and a lean mean fighting machine.
After more than a year from our Beach Boy tableside chat on Marco, Chris had no idea that “the adventure of a lifetime,” would find him far from Marco, and the advice of a Beach Boy, as he was pinned down in a firefight with nowhere to go in the middle of a rough neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq.
“We were on a routine nighttime mission to capture insurgents,” Chris recalled. “Every night before we went out on a mission, we were given the names and addresses of possible ‘Bad Guys.’ My Job,” Chris smiled with the thought, “was to kick in the door of the Bad Guy’s house or apartment. I was the biggest guy, so I would kick in the door for my crew and go in first—and we were in within seconds—but we all knew that every household in Iraq was allowed to have one AK-47 fully automatic assault weapon. That was a scary thought, knowing that the ‘Bad Guy’s house you were breaking into had at least one machinegun waiting for home defense.
“One hot night, with everything smelling like equal parts of poop and garbage, and this was usual, we blocked off both ends of the street of the ‘Bad Guy’s address with armored vehicles. We had a checkpoint at both ends and did not allow civilian traffic to pass because of possible car bombs and suicide attacks. Everything was going according to plan, until we heard a shout and then the racing engine of a car breaking through the closest checkpoint. When everyone saw the car was a threat, we all opened up with our weapons, but then everyone on both sides of the street in the apartment buildings opened up on us from the rooftops. Everything was suddenly clear. We had been set up and everyone knew it—especially the Bad Guys shooting down at us from the rooftops.
“We tried to return fire, but we were pinned down and overwhelmed. I remember being in the middle of the street with no cover, with tracer rounds flying everywhere and thinking… this is it. This is it. I’ve had it. Then suddenly, an armored vehicle roared up, a door popped open, and I was up, running, and behind the armor and safe. There was a girl atop the armored vehicle operating a machine gun. She was unstoppable as she unloaded that heavy weapon up toward the rooftops. She saved us—there can be no doubt. She climbed up to give everyone on the ground covering fire. As we began to escape down the street and the bad guys opened up again, a new column of our guys with armored vehicles began rolling up from the other side like John Wayne in a western. That’s the way it was on one hot night in Iraq that none of us will ever forget.”
No greater sacrifice can be made than to go to war on behalf of freedom. Veterans of the Armed Forces understand this concept as average citizens cannot. A non-military person cannot truly imagine what warfare is like. No film can accurately portray a wartime scenario because quite simply, the elements of adrenalin, emotion, self-preservation, and self-sacrifice cannot be envisioned by anyone who has not shared a battlefield. Veterans share a bond unlike any other, and when that special day, or series of days, or that one moment that can never be forgotten rises out of the past, Veterans look to each other for support and to their communities for a unique understanding.
In our lives today, our police are under attack. A person who had never dressed in a uniform and pinned on a badge cannot understand what it is like to be a marked target. Just like Chris in Iraq, or the brave young woman who saved him and others, no one in uniform can know what the price will be for the next tour of duty.
Special thanks from this Marco Beach Boy to everyone who has worn or is still wearing the uniform of a police officer or any member of the US armed forces. On this weekend before Veterans Day, please take a moment to thank everyone who has served or is still protecting us today.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books. “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder: the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.