SUNDAY EVENING HYMN
There are three stages of boot camp: Before boot camp, during boot camp, and after boot camp.
Before boot camp I felt out of shape. During boot camp I felt like an exhausted puddle. After boot camp I felt like a gladiator. ‘Gramma, ‘ as I had been dubbed, went from eeking out 7 barely-regulation push-ups in 2 minutes to manhandling 46 of them. I wore a sleeveless dress for the first time in my life when I returned home and looked at the muscles in my arms as if they were attached to somebody else’s body. They were such a strange sight. Since I was already an odd platoon member due to my age, I didn’t share with anyone during boot camp how much I enjoyed it. I kept that and my hymn singing under wraps. The way I looked at it: I had just been paid to get into the best shape of my life, I had grown a backbone, and I had a newfound camaraderie with 63 fellow uniformed Americans–a bond formed through blood, sweat and tears; the kind of bond you don’t get anywhere else. As well, when one’s mettel is tested and one passes, there’s no doubt about it–it’s quite a nice feeling.
Given my career as a fifth grade teacher, unlike my comrades who went straight from boot camp into their months-long military occupational training schools (MOS), I went straight back to my elementary school–King of Grace Lutheran in Golden Valley, MN. I was 33 and had decided to pursue Officer Candidate School. MN offered an 18-month program that allowed me to attend OCS once a month and continue my teaching job in-between. The Fall school year started seven days after I returned from boot camp and, even though I wasn’t ready, I was ready.
Waiting for me was a class of eleven boys.
It didn’t take one moment of contemplation for me to name this class “The Fifth Platoon.” And, I didn’t have to ask any of the boys if they wanted to learn the Drill & Ceremony movements of soldiers. On Day One I started teaching them. They took to it like it was their second language. Each morning began with rising as a group, performing a facing movement toward the flag at my ‘command’ (I say that loosely since I have the gentle voice of a librarian) and saluting it upon the command “Pre-sent Arms.” I can’t count the number of times the vision of these 11 boys standing in full salute as they recited the pledge brought tears to my eyes.
Each day was peppered with marching in platoon formation, a very efficient and quiet way to move a mass of people from Point A to Point B. Eleven boys made a perfect 2-Squad platoon, led by one Platoon Sergeant. After a few weeks of hearing me call the commands, I started assigning a platoon sergeant per week based on leadership qualities that started to emerge. One might assume this was an envied role. Not so. I learned many things in the military, but perhaps one of the most important lessons was this: Getting anything done requires two elements–Good Leaders and Good Followers and the best Good Leaders emerge after having spent time being really Good Followers. Several boys never reveled in the post of Platoon Sergeant and that was fine with me. Medal of Honor recipients who were ‘only’ members of a Squad fill hundreds of pages with their citations of bravery, for the very reason that an important position is never a predictor of who will do an important act.
At the end of a recess break, the Platoon Sergeant would call ‘Fall-in.’ The ten others would rush to assume their squad lines and we’d ‘count-off.’ Other commands they learned were ‘dress-right,’ stand at-ease,’ ‘about-face,’ ‘parade-rest,’ ‘forward-march,’ ‘half-step-march,’ and ‘platoon-halt.’ These basic commands enable a Platoon Sergeant to lead a group anywhere he wants. It didn’t take long for them to become a tight group of marchers. There was a creek nearby the school that we would often visit during warm weather. When I gave them the choice of marching to the creek in formation or walking to the creek like normal kids, without fail–they chose marching. It was a proud day for me to hand over the duty of cadence caller to Brian, a natural leader. I assumed the open position in his squad and he marched us to the creek like a seasoned soldier, calling my favorite cadence–“Everywhere I go. . .there’s a drill sergeant (school teacher) there.”
Each day was also peppered with push-ups. For a typical classroom infraction like being tardy, a missing assignment or disruptive behavior, they always had the option to redeem themselves with a typical classroom consequence or push-ups. They chose push-ups. Always. In the beginning of the year, I did the push-ups alongside the offender. By the middle of the year, other boys would get down and push alongside their comrade. By the end of the year, classroom infractions rarely occurred, but when they did, the offender was always joined by the rest of his classmates. While it was apparent they were impressed with their librarian-esque teacher’s regulation push-ups, more impressive was that I don’t recall ever requiring anyone to push alongside their comrade. They naturally began to support each other. They had become a faithful, loyal and altogether unforgettable “Band of Brothers.”
There is something about every child that makes them special. And all classes have their memorable dynamics that set them apart from other classes. The bond between the boys in this class was felt and unique. It was an inspiring mix of humble leaders, and team-oriented followers. I would find myself envisioning the role each of them might play in a future assignment in service to their country:
Scott, the gentle giant, would be the 1st SGT in charge of a company. His troops would know he would never ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself and if faced with the choice of saving his own life or giving his life for his troops, without question, he would choose the latter.
Mason would be the squad leader upon whom everyone would depend for comic relief when things got serious or when someone felt they simply couldn’t go on. Every military unit needs a “Mason.’ Frankly, every institution of life needs a ‘Mason.’
Luke would be a squad leader upon whom everyone would depend for having good ideas to get them out of terrible situations. He had the brain of an engineer and one just had to look at his eyes to know he was inventing the next great idea.
Sam would be ‘Radar’ from M.A.S.H., right down to the round glasses that made him look 15 points smarter than everyone else next to him. He didn’t miss a detail and even though he was quiet, the other boys depended on him for information.
Jeff would be the battalion chaplain. From Day One of his fifth grade year, when we would bow our heads for prayer at the end of devotion, I couldn’t help but notice the sincerity in his expression. His faith was evident in his stories, in his conversation and thru his keen conscience.
Brian would be the Company Commander but the respect he would have from his troops would not be from his rank as an officer. It would be because of his duty performed as a soldier. He would be what they call a ‘soldier’s soldier.’
Alex would be the Battalion Commander, responsible for the welfare and logistics of several companies. You’ve heard of the phrase ‘full plate.’ That’s what Alex had been given; the ability, beyond his own personal courage, to communicate a vision and engage others to strive for the same.
Jeremy would rise thru the ranks simply because he would be unshakably dependable, no matter the moment or complexities of a mission. He was an inspiring rule follower and influenced his classmates to do the same.
Justin had people-smarts already at age ten. He would be the kind of Platoon SGT that would have known something about the personal lives of every member of his platoon. It would be to him that men would entrust their letters to their loved ones prior to a dangerous mission.
Simmers (Jeff #2) would be the Navy Medic assigned to the company. His small stature would never be noticed because of his reputation as a giant among men for his fearless and dogged pursuit to keep his comrades alive.
James, the class rebel, reckless and impulsive, would be the first soldier to throw himself into harm’s way, without a moment of hesitation and with complete disregard for self, if it meant his brothers-in-arms could be saved.
Clearly, these fifth grade soldiers were unforgettable. Twenty years later, I didn’t have to dredge up a grade school yearbook to remember their names.
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In recent weeks I’ve designed two special cards for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Special Ministry to Overseas Service Members. With Armed Forces Day coming up, they are preparing a support effort for these soldiers. What an honor to be a part of this mission. As I searched for the background that would shine ‘light’ on our nation’s Colors, I was reminded of another fond memory of my ‘Fifth Platoon’ days–this one recounted for me in a letter by the father of one of my former ‘platoon’ students.
He and his fifth grade son were on their early morning paper route. His son, a creative dawdler, was trying his dad’s patience and not being very efficient or speedy. His father had chided him several times to pick up the pace and finally decided to take some papers and do the other side of the street on his own. At one point, thinking he had left his son far behind, he looked back. Through the gray dusk that was just beginning to give way to a sunrise, he saw the silhouette of his son standing at the foot of a flag pole. The flag was lit and gently blowing in the wind. His son had dropped his bundle of papers and stood with eyes raised, saluting.
That warmed my heart and ignited a flame for country that burns steadily in the engine of my soul, underneath the frenzy and hectic of my civilian life. If I had played any part in helping to kindle this young man’s sense for country–I thank God for the profound privilege it was.
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It would be hard to ignore the military analogies one could lift from Hans Brorson’s beloved hymn “I Walk in Danger All the Way;” hence, the reason this hymn seemed a perfect fit for one of these special cards. Besides the use of military terms peppered throughout, the good-natured melody plods along over hill and dale like a resolute, rucksack-carrying soldier. I like to think he wrote his verse about ‘Angels’ especially for soldiers in harm’s way.
And yet, while our earthly freedom, purchased with the blood of soldiers, is important, it still pales in comparison with our spiritual freedom purchased with the blood of our Savior. And while it is a privilege to be counted in the ranks of soldiers whose collective efforts resulted in protecting our nation, it is much more magnificent imagining the legions of angel troops–deployed by the Lord–who outrank us all as Protectors of Soldiers.
My 10-year-old Fifth Platoon soldiers are now 30-years-old. I haven’t worn a sleeveless dress for two decades and a beautifully lit flag rustling in an evening wind remains a steadfast reminder of a school year not soon forgotten.