The Gift of Freedom
By BJ Bennett
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Every soldier has a story at home, even if it's one they, at times, have to put on hold.
Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some tall. Some small, some wide. Take a peak under any family tree this time of year and it's completely natural to get lost in the possibilities. Plaid, paisley, ribbon and bows; they garnish boxes like the shine on a frigid night's star. Presents fill the room, then, on Christmas morning, the laps of loved ones. It's a similar scene in houses across the country.
Most of us will smile right through the greetings and grandparents this holiday season, our eyes fixed on what lies underneath the tree. Others will spend their time spanning the horizon, keeping trouble, and sometimes those they care about most, at bay.
"Having been stationed overseas, it's always a great reminder about what America is all about. Your thoughts are always back home on what's going on at Christmas, but you also remember that you are out there for a reason. That reason is obviously to make sure all of those back home are safe," explained Major General James E. Livingston, a retired 33-year Marine Corps veteran who was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1968. "It gives you a real purpose for being out there. Your memories are back home, but even though you are away it makes you feel good because you know you have a purpose, being able to defend this great country."
For members of the United States military, a volunteer force full of individuals well-versed on the consequences going in, joining all but confirms a reservation for time missed overseas. Though being away from who they love isn't what anyone wants, it's what our men and women in uniform relentlessly prepare for. In essence, it's what they sign up for. In the hearts and minds of many serving, that selflessness is a deep-seeded emotion that has long since been stirred. The individual motivation may be different. A collective magnanimity is shared across the board.
"That perspective of mine sort of goes back to my parents and how they instilled in me the values of always being concerned about people. I think that translated itself to my position and my service in the Marine Corps. You never lose sight of those values that are instilled in you when you are young," Major General Livingston acknowledged in an interview on The Fan Sports Radio 103.7, ESPN Radio Coastal Georgia. "Serving in one of the military forces just really makes you feel good about what this country represents. Anytime you can serve in uniform, it's a great feeling because you are in payback mode. For all of those people who have gone before to make the country great, maybe you can make a lasting contribution also. That inspires all of us to serve and sacrifice."
Livingston, in his youth, graduated from Lumber City High School in southeast Georgia in the late 1950s. After initially attending North Georgia College and State University, a senior military institution, he transferred to Auburn University to pursue a major in civil engineering. Upon graduation, Livingston was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. After being promoted to captain in 1966, he initially served as the commanding officer of the Marine detachment onboard the USS Wasp. He soon joined the firefight in Vietnam.
There, Livingston distinguished himself with "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty". He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism, the highest military distinction a soldier can receive. Dating back to 1861, there have been only 3,459 individual recipients. In reflection, the Major General doesn't necessarily remember what, rather who, when his mind wanders back. His thoughts will always be on the everlasting gift they gave.
"The actual award was the result of an action in 1968 during the Tet Offensive during what was called Post-Tet. The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, my unit, I was the company commander of echo company. The North Vietnamese were trying to shell off the supply line for all of the northern bases along the northern part of what was called Old South Vietnam in those days. We ran across the whole North Vietnamese division and were engaged in a very difficult engagement for almost three days," Major General Livingston recalled." During that time period, of the Marines in that 800 Marine Battalion, all were either shot or killed except for about 220 of them. In my company, I lost 100, either killed or wounded. It was a demonstration of the exceptional quality and commitment of young Marines as they were part of that operation."
Major General Livingston now wears a ribbon only the Commander-in-Chief can award. From the day it was pinned around his neck, Livingston has believed he is merely the representative of a bigger group, the frontman for a much bigger cause.
"When I went to Washington to get the award back in 1970, when they put the award around my neck, the thing I remembered most was not about Nixon giving me the award, but about the service, sacrifice and loss of all of those young Marines who were with me in 1968. Being one of only 79 recipients still alive today, I try to wear it, not only for them, but also for everyone in this country. It's not a reflection of me, it's a reflection of them," Major General Livingston admitted.
As he travels coast-to-coast today speaking to military personnel and civic organizations, Major General Livingston carries much more than just the weight of the famed brass, bronze and gold around his neck. He carries with him the legacies of many brave and stoic men who never got a chance to fulfill their own.
"I wear it with a lot of pride so I try to remember what they represented," Major General Livingston stated of his former peers. "That medal sort of ties me back to them and their lives. I always tell people this when I give speeches, these were 18, 19 and 20 year old young Americans who gave their lives on the battlefield and paid the ultimate sacrifice for the greatness of this country. They never had the chance to be fathers or grandfathers. I hope that medal represents a little bit of their life."
At 72 years old, the Georgia-native is the quintessential American soldier. Relatively unassuming, humble and gracious, Major General Livingston constantly defers credit and is quick to share praise. His perspective is one we all must hear. Even then, it's one we can't fully comprehend. His words are the expressive embodiment of those who give up their own sovereignty so that we can so casually appreciate ours. Like the armed servicemen and women who have long stood and will continue to stand alongside him, Major General Livingston refuses to step out of line.
"I don't, in any way, sense to posture myself. I don't want them to distinguish me from any other American," he stated of how people may perceive him. "What I take a great deal of pride in is whatever contributions I made to the safety of the country. But also, the opportunity to serve and watch these great Americans go into harm's way and defend this country."
Today, there are U.S. military personnel in roughly 150 countries around the globe. Members of the armed forces serve these stations year-round. Mission aside, young men and women are there this holiday season working towards a greater good. Their offering to those they encounter: hope.
"All you have to do is go all over the world and see how other people live to know how great this country is. But also, how we project that greatness. Think about the people in the world today who have freedom because of their service and sacrifice," Major General Livingston explained. "Just millions of people today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Germany. Just think of the people who call themselves free because of this service and sacrifice. That's the greatness of this country and the greatness of those who serve. None of them brag about it or talk about it and I think that's just a further portrayal of their greatness."
Every soldier has a story at home, even if it's one they, at times, have to put on hold. Intertwined in that tale are seemingly innocuous hobbies and interests that have been fought for, indirectly, for generations. Interests oftentimes taken completely for granted by most are just a small part of what every American hero leaves behind.
"I'm a War Eagle guy and my wife is South Carolina. When Auburn plays South Carolina, we have to put a DMZ through our living room. I'm a big sports fan," nodded Major General Livingston, a Tiger alum. "I really always enjoyed sports, I never was terribly good myself but I always enjoyed sports and what they meant. You learn a lot about yourself playing sports. They help people grow and become stronger individuals so I am a real proponent of the sports programs."
Christmas is one of the few times we, as a society, give without asking for anything in return. We buy presents, share our time and turn our heads and reach for change at the ringing of a nearby bell. It's a humble recreation of the holiday's holy beginning. Between it all, have stood soldiers away from their homes, but close to their posts, since the nation's inception.
Sifting through presents this holiday season, one should stand out above the rest. It won't be wrapped or have a special place under the tree. It won't come from family, friends or a tinsel-touched department store. The gift of freedom comes straight from the heart.