On Keeping Men Alive

Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Home of the “Mighty Third Infantry, Rock of the Marne.”

I always find it interesting as I drive through the gate onto post. As the contracted gate guards check my ID and verify the registration on my car, they give a subtle smile, a military signal to move-out, and call out “Rock of the Marne” just before I drive away.

The Third Infantry Division has a proud heritage. Originally activated in 1917, just 8 months later its soldiers found themselves sent to combat in France distinguishing themselves as the only division not to retreat at what became known as the “Battle of the Marne.” German soldiers later nicknamed the division the “Rock of the Marne” for having stood like a rock along the banks of the Marne River when all others retreated in the face of an enemy onslaught finally overcome by the Third Infantry’s stand.

Just inside the gate visitors are drawn to an imposing display of mechanized vehicles of the Mighty Third Infantry soldiers; the Bradley fighting vehicle, a Paladin artillery vehicle, and an Abrams tank, with a Cobra helicopter positioned above them all, symbols of power in a world where that sort of power is deemed necessary for control these days.

On the far side of the grassy field behind the massive display of weaponry is a small outdoor theater of seats where units gather for award ceremonies and such. At the center of the theater is Rocky, the Disney-created bulldog figure standing strong as the mascot for the “dog-faced soldiers” who are the Third Infantry. The word on post is that when Rocky was first unveiled it was in full male splendor. Unfortunately the commanding general’s wife at the time didn’t take too kindly to the natural display of testosterone and promptly demanded that Rocky be neutered. A welding unit complied with the order and Rocky was allowed to stand, although perhaps not quite so proudly, his smile a little more sheepish.

Every morning that soldiers are not deployed, the sound of the “Dog-Faced Soldier” fight song echoes across post as the units form for 6 am PT (physical training) and the sun slowly rises over the horizon.

“I’m just a dog-faced soldier
With a rifle on my shoulder
And I eat raw meat for breakfast every day.”

Just behind Rocky’s theater stands the new headquarters building for the Third Infantry. It is an imposing structure with iambic columns, marble trim surrounding three stories of brick and windows stretching the length of a football field all capped off with a bright green metal roof. Construction crews have been working for over a year on a headquarters building which dwarfs the one it is replacing; a World War II era design of clapboard and shake now hiding in the Georgia pines amazingly left standing as its replacement takes shape.

Not far beyond that is yet another building still under construction, the one which causes me to think more than any others about war, peace and the consequences of being a dog-faced soldier upholding the “Rock of the Marne” image in a world where power should be derived from those able to restrain themselves the longest before pulling out the biggest guns, but where the guns are now poised to destroy any hope for peace when the foundations so carefully laid by past generations are crumbled in an instant for the greed of a leadership putting materials before humanity, illusion over substance, death over life, designating medals of burnished gold to exaggerate the honor.

An enormous brick box, with few windows and another bright green metal roof, its one distinguishing aspect is the pristine white steeple pointing sharply to the sky like a lightning rod beckoning the presence of a higher power to grant redemption and instant healing for questioning soldiers looking for answers when the haunting ghosts of the reality of war come creeping into their consciousness unwilling to be denied. Is that the answer; a building, a steeple and a prayer?

Just a half mile down the road is Warrior Walk ­ 320 Redbud trees serve as a living memorial to this war’s contribution of over 300 honorable dog-faced soldiers who have now given their lives in combat. Seeming testimony to the fact that the sacrifice of the 35,000 dog-faced soldiers who had died before, lost its meaning on the day our leaders lost their courage, and neutered their souls by believing it was the strength of war machines that could give them true power over those who only wielded swords.

Only a few short months ago the command at Ft. Stewart announced the grand opening of “Rocky’s” night club. What had once been a family sports center now became a full-fledged bar established on post to give soldiers a safe environment in which to drink their troubles away when the prayers didn’t work and the steeple lost its power.

The regulations for visitation for non-military personnel were relaxed when the sun went down and Rocky’s opened, and on-post privileges no longer required a stop at the visitor’s access building as long as cars were licensed, drivers were licensed and heading to Rocky’s for a drink and more. To commanders, there was no point in giving soldiers a place on post to drink if there were no girls at the bar ­ so the bar was opened, the rules relaxed and I wonder how many notice the steeple as they drive on past neutered Rocky standing a little less proudly on guard before the behemoth of office space replacing the once commanding headquarters for the division that had refused to back down from its stand at the banks of the Marne.

Just before driving out of the back gate onto the road leading through the training grounds of the Mighty Third stands a flashing neon sign proudly announcing “185 days since our last driving fatality.”

The training grounds of Ft. Stewart belie their true purpose. Rifle and artillery ranges are carefully hidden behind walls of tall Georgia pines. For every road marked “off limits to civilians” there is another marked “landing area” leading to the peaceful banks of a slow moving river full of catfish, bream and wildlife safe in the refuges acting as barriers to the real purpose of the land. On almost every red-clay dirt road is a marker pointing to a cemetery lined with protective fencing, dating to the early 1800’s or sooner; the only remaining testimony to the small civilian towns devoured by the progress of a warring nation.

One mile down the road in a cutaway that once was forest, is the first billboard of almost thirty ordered erected by the installation command.

In the clearing before the sign I pull off of the roadway and turn off the lights. A small herd of deer feed in the moonlight, just near enough to the safety of the trees to scamper quickly if someone approaches too closely. The stars overhead seem to go on forever in the darkness and somewhere a giant owl calls out ­ wisdom from nature wondering when we will finally understand.

I glanced up at the boldly lettered sign:

“Don’t Drink and Drive, We Want Our Soldiers Alive.”

We’re spending millions of dollars on a new headquarters for our military machine and millions more on a building with a steeple whose purpose is to help with the aftermath of the destruction that military machine creates.

The training ground for the “dog-faced soldiers” lies in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary lined with over 100 cemeteries memorializing a time when communities lived where Abrams tanks now patrol.

Three more soldiers died in combat today.

Rocky’s nightclub is in full swing, and a neutered cartoon dog stands with his weapon at attention guarding the gates to the home of the Rock of the Marne.

“Don’t Drink and Drive, We Want Our Soldiers Alive. ”

“185 days since our last driving fatality.”

Three hours since a soldier died in a war for which there was no need.

MONICA BENDERMAN is the wife of Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a ten-year Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq and a year in prison for his public protest of war and the destruction it causes to civilians and to American military personnel. Please visit their website, www.BendermanDefense.org to learn more.

Kevin and Monica may be reached at mdawnb@coastalnow.net