Touching History: Why Scars Matter

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He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day.”

William Shakespeare, “Henry V”


Last year I sat with a crusty, 93 year-old Marine from the Battle of Iwo Jima. I asked him frank questions about Iwo. He was Irish. He answered me back frankly. In more ways than one, the battle was still with him.

“I have some of the island still in me.” O’Malley told me in a thick Massachusetts accent. Extending one of his hands to me, aged, but massive and strong, he said, “See those two black spots? That’s sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima.” The Marine allowed me to touch the spots with my fingers. A doctor had once offered to remove them, he told me, but O’Malley had responded with a firm no! “I earned that!” For 73 years he had carried those pieces of black volcanic ash in his hand, a memory of the most defining days of his life. There was no way they would be removed now.

This wasn’t the first time a veteran has showed me his scars. Once, another Marine friend had taken my hand and put it to his temple. “Feel that,” he said. “That’s shrapnel from the jungles Nam.” 

And at a monthly breakfast group one morning, an Army vet stretched both his arms out over the table and pointed out to me the lines he had running up from his wrists to elbows, “June 6th, 1944, on Omaha Beach,” he said matter-of-factly. “I held my arms up to cover my face from the bullets. Good thing I did because otherwise my face wouldn’t look too pretty.”

“It never looked pretty,” kidded another D-Day survivor from across the table.


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As most kids are, I think, growing up I was fascinated by scars. My brothers [and sisters] always hoped our scratches from outdoor play would turn into scars, and when they didn’t, we solved that problem by drawing them in with permanent marker. Maybe not the best idea. But it sure looked good.

As adults, we each carry internal scars of battles we’ve fought. Some of them we are proud of, others we are content to keep hidden deep in our hearts.

But why do scars matter?

I think Shakespeare hits the nail on the head in Henry V.

“Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars / And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day.””

There is nothing like an external scar to show the world that you fought hard and conquered. In the Japanese culture, there is a practice called, kintsugi: A piece of broken pottery is repaired with gold, not only renewing the life in it, but adding value by celebrating and showing pride in it’s “scars.”

I consider it a treasured privilege to be shown a veteran’s battle scars. Something very personal is transferred. And I become custodian to a moment from 75 years in the past.

When I took that crusty Marine’s hand and felt his scars, I could feel a battle that took place 51 years before I was even born. I was touching history.


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Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors: Home from the Islands

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I arrived home from traveling all over the Pacific Islands with 7 Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers, who fought and spilled blood there 74 years ago.

It was a magical 10 days.

Sponsored by the Best Defense Foundation, we stood atop Mt. Suribachi and watched a Marine point to where he had landed on February 19, 1945. We walked along the side of Suicide Cliffs in Saipan and listened as a former Army Lt. Col. and Green Beret explained what it was like to see hundreds of misguided natives willingly throw themselves over the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of the Americans. And we picked up pieces of the tarmac on which the Enola Gay made her famous voyage, changing the course of history forever.

Even as I write now, I am getting chills up my arms.

There is obviously much to tell. For now, I will give you a sampling of photos, with hopefully more to come in the future.


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Rondo Scharfe. 16 year old Coxswain at Iwo Jima. His landing craft was hit just as he approached the beach. 17 of the 36 Marines on board were immediately killed. Rondo's sternum was split open, his front teeth were knocked out, and his nose was broken. In the chaos, and not aware of his injuries except that he had a huge pain in his chest, Rondo kept telling himself that, "16 was too young to have a heart attack. Just too young to have a heart attack." Before he bled out, someone grabbed him and pulled him ashore where he was saved.

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Fred Harvey, USMC, landed on February 19, 1945 with the 5th Marine Division. He made it 7 days before being seriously wounded after taking 3 Japanese grenades in his foxhole. Fred was evacuated off the island and spent the rest of the war in a body cast in hospital. Later on, Fred received the Silver Star for his bravery during a night patrol early on in the invasion of Iwo, when he was left to defend himself and a wounded comrade after being ambushed by the Japanese.

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Same Flag, 14 Years Apart:

On top of Mt. Suribachi with Iwo Jima Survivor Fred Harvey, 5th Marine Division. Fred and I are holding the SAME flag that my brothers brought to Iwo Jima 14 years ago, when they were 10 and 12 years old. So grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for making this special moment possible.


More to follow shortly…

Iwo Jima Sand

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For those who have asked: Yes, we still have Iwo Jima Volcanic Ash available when you make a tax deductible donation to Operation Meatball. The ash was collected on the 70th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima (March 21, 2015) and can be found here:

Iwo Jima Sand (Volcanic Ash)

Description

☆ Black Sands of Iwo Jima ☆

One of our favorite things to collect when we visit a special battlefield or historical spot is to bring back a small rock, a bottle of dirt, or a vial of sand. This sand (which is actually VOLCANIC ASH) was collected off the Invasion Beach: RED of Iwo Jima on the 70th anniversary of the battle. As you probably know, this sand is very rare since Americans are only allowed on the Island once a year during a special commemorative ceremony for the Battle.

**I have included photos in the gallery from my most recent trip to Iwo, and each vial of sand comes with a certificate of authenticity.**

The Iwo Jima sand comes in a mini glass vial with a cork stopper and is packaged in a small brown box with padding.

Bottle height:
Height (with Cork): 1 3/4"
Width: 3/4"

Back to the Island

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When I went to Iwo Jima in 2015 with my dad, it fulfilled a dream I'd had since I was 8 years old. It completely changed my life, and I was pretty sure that my first time there would also be my last time.

But next Monday, I will be helping escort 6 veterans (including one of my dearest of friends) back to Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. I'm still waiting for reality to hit. But I am deeply grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for this opportunity to re-live those childhood dreams all over again and in the company of such heroes.

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Consequently, I have been studying like a madman in preparation. I feel like the word "excited" is an inadequate one to describe how I feel about returning to Iwo and making my first trip to Saipan and Tinian. The history of these islands is one that I feel so deeply connected to.

Iwo was my first introduction to WW2 when I was 6 or 7 years old. And some of the first stories of war I ever heard were from veterans of Saipan who described what it was like to watch the poor brainwashed natives take their own lives by jumping the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of what they had been told were "cannibal Americans."

Over breakfast one morning, a Marine (*see endnote) showed me a picture of the first Japanese he ever killed and the cave where he was wounded by a grenade. Another one showed me the volcanic ash that was still in his hands.

I have shared tears with hearty Marines who were making their first return to the battlefields; some of whom had left an arm, a leg, and hardest of all - their best friend.

But it wasn't just a rollercoaster of hardcore memories that makes my connection so deep. Along the way, I was a adopted by this special group of fighting men and given a second family. My Marine Corps family. All these extra uncles who declared I had to run any boyfriends by them for approval first, swore to protect me (in various forms of Marine Corps terminology), and were there to help me through some pretty rough times.

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Going back to Iwo is pretty personal to me. More than the dress blues (which are gorgeous btw), more than the battle facts and statistics - because honestly, none of the adopted uncles are statistics to me - my Marines are living, breathing human beings who went through hell, but still managed to go on and live normal lives.

So what is the word I’m looking for to describe how I feel? Grateful? Heart-full? Thoughtful? Exuberant? I don't know. For now, just consider these words to be the placeholders until I do find the right one.

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** Note: The story of that Marine and the photo is not a story of the glorification of death… rather it is part of a beautiful story of forgiveness. When the Marine showed me the photo (one his buddy had taken), he was still angry with the Japanese. He had 70 years angst and bitterness built up that was coming to a climax. By showing me the photos, he was trying to share his story and find clarity in the mental conflict he was still fighting. He needed answers. All week I spoke to him about this, and others did as well… tskaAnd incredibly, the day we went to Iwo Jima, he was able to go up to a Japanese veteran and shake his hand. It was the first Japanese man he'd been willing to talk to since the war. The rest of the trip following that, he was happy and light-hearted. A month later, he passed away. I think he had finally found the deep peace and forgiveness he needed.