Since its founding on Nov. 10, 1775, the United States Marine Corps has written its own story, compiling account after account of uniquely American service, sacrifice, and valor. To celebrate their legacy, Marines and friends gathered at the MCAS Miramar parade deck for the traditional Marine Corps Birthday cake-cutting ceremony.
After the Color Guard march and National Anthem, Maj. Gen. Michael Rocco, Commanding General 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, greeted two platoons at attention on the parade deck and Marines seated in attendance with “Happy birthday!” He then applauded those who had worked so hard to give honor to the event, including the band and chaplain, who offered a rousing invocation.
Rocco said that birthday celebrations are a time to reflect on Marines who aren’t with us today. “Maybe they’re forward deployed, or maybe they’ve given the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a day to remember them, to recognize them.”
Rocco asked his Marines to reflect on one name in particular, “Sergeant (Bradley W.) Atwell.” In September 2012, insurgents breached security at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, and set fire to a flight line of Harrier jets. Atwell was a Harrier mechanic who proved to the noblest degree, ‘Every Marine a Rifleman.’
“Whether you’re working on aircraft, flying aircraft, working in the accounting section, whatever it is, you’re a Marine,” says Rocco. “I guarantee you Sgt. Atwell, on that fateful day, didn’t realize he was going to be involved in direct combat, but he was, and subsequently killed by the insurgents. It is moments like this, days like this, you reflect on who we are as a Marine Corps.” (Lt. Col. Christopher Raible was also killed in the line of duty at Camp Bastion.)
With remembrance in mind, four stoic Marines marched the cake (which signifies the birthday) to Gen Rocco and Col. John P. Farnam, Commanding Officer MCAS Miramar, and several Marines at attention. The sword used to cut the cake symbolizes leadership. “We pass the cake to the oldest Marine to represent that tie to our past, and then we pass that cake along to that junior Marine,” states Farnam, explaining why this is so important to Marines.
“Some will say, ‘You don’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you’ve been.’ … For me, our past gives us perspective. There’s things we see and bump into now, that we’ve been to before — that we’ve dealt with before. As long as we understand that, and the change in context, we can apply those lessons from the past and make better decisions today — make the Corps better today.”
The cake-cutting ceremony and other traditional observances were formalized in 1952 by the then-Commandant, Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. Since then, it continues to be a yearly celebration, not just at Marine Corps stations and bases. “Everywhere there’s a gathering of Marines, they’re doing some similar event, all stopping at the same time to think back, to remember and recommit,” says Farnam.
According to Farnam, “commitment” describes the character of a Marine.
He talked about the Corps’ past successes. “Every battle that we’ve ever been involved in, the outcome is assured — it’s just a function of getting there. The way the Marines are, we know we’re going to make it happen. But the Marine Corps is more than that. You see the Marine Corps in humanitarian assistance, you see us in disaster relief. You’ll see us making friends in countries when there are not conflicts. We’re out and engaged — that’s the forward-deployed piece of us. We’re at the point of conflict or at the point of disaster when it happens. And that’s really our secret. A Marine is not really happy unless he’s deployed somewhere.”
Rocco reminded Marines to remain ever-vigilant and to “reflect on the Sgt. Atwells over 239 years of history that we have serving this country — to be ever-ready when the nation is the least ready.”
The cake was marched away, the colors retired, and the Marines’ Hymn, “The Halls of Montezuma,” rang in the ears, promising to rattle every patriot psyche, as the platoons were dismissed.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about you or not about me or none of us individually,” said Farnam. “It’s about our corps, and really, beyond that, it’s about our nation and Constitution. As long as we keep that in perspective and remember what got us here, we’ll always be on target — we’ll always do the right thing.”
For a few moments, the right thing is remembering — tasting sweet traditions, instead of dust, sweat and gunfire.