Stories of our brave Marines teach us what it means to be truly selfless

On a typically beautiful Southern California day in March of this year, First Lieutenant Cameron West of 3rd Platoon, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment rolled his wheelchair up to the podium in front of a crowd gathered for his battalion’s family readiness meeting. With a determined look, he deliberately halted the wheelchair several feet from the podium, stood on his one leg and hopped confidently to the microphone.  West gave the crowd a wry grin and, in his characteristic good humor, introduced himself, “You Marines on the left side of the room can call me Lieutenant West and all you beautiful ladies and people on the right can call me Cam.  I live in Oceanside and I’m open for visits,” he said.

His words broke through the anxiety in the room, and the crowd laughed with him. For many people, our wounded warriors are a startling reminder of the sacrifices made and the toll that a decade of combat has taken on America’s youth. These warriors embody the best of American spirit and resilience.  Sergeant Major Carlton Kent and I, typically accompanied by our wives, visit our wounded Marines and sailors as often as we can, and each time, we come away amazed by their determination, adaptability and can-do attitude.

On Oct. 14, 2010, while his unit patrolled the main road through Sangin, Afghanistan, West was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) that severed his left leg. The explosion killed one Marine in West’s unit and injured another Marine and a Navy corpsman.  While a corpsman tied a tourniquet around what remained of West’s leg, from his position on a litter West kept his composure and continued to lead his Marines.  West directed his men to maintain security and warned his combat engineers to be mindful of further explosives that might be present in the area.  

In his address to families at Camp Pendleton, Calif., four months after he was wounded, West focused on the remarkable things Marines are doing in Sangin. His inspirational remarks described early signs of victory in that volatile region. He spoke of schools, roads and bridges that had been constructed; of farmers planting wheat instead of opium poppy; of government gatherings; of the training of Afghan soldiers; and of the Taliban that had been captured or killed. West also appealed to the families to be mindful of the impact their words have on deployed Marines when they converse on the phone.  He colorfully described the realities of limited telephone access ­— one phone per 200 Marines — and what those few short minutes together on the phone mean to him and his brother Marines. West’s anecdotes about Afghanistan and his recovery at home with his supportive parents by his side brought smiles and tears to the faces of the audience members. His words were not those of a man who dwells on difficulties, but those of a man who faces each challenge with pride, optimism and courage.

After West spoke, another Marine from the same battalion addressed the crowd.  Staff Sergeant Guillermo Tejada lost both of his legs above the knee when his patrol encountered an IED on Nov. 11, 2010.  Like West, Tejada continued to lead his Marines throughout the subsequent firefight and two-hour casualty evacuation.  

During the family readiness meeting, Tejada spoke about what it meant to serve alongside the Marines of his battalion in Sangin and how he missed his brothers who were still in harm’s way.  He told the families how proud he and his wife, Veronica, were to be members of the battalion’s family.  The day of the family readiness meeting was the first time Tejada stood on his new set of prosthetic legs.  Addressing two corporals from the battalion who recently recovered from wounds and were preparing to return to Afghanistan, Tejada emotionally told the audience that he wished he could return to Afghanistan with them and finish out the deployment with his brothers.  

I share the story of these two Marines because it captures the remarkable courage and resilience of our men and women who choose to wear the uniform of any of our armed forces.  The story of our wounded warriors is one of sacrifice, selfless service, indomitable spirit, determination and fidelity. Our nation places our freedoms and hopes for a more peaceful world on the shoulders of these brave, young men and women who serve without complaint in dangerous places far from home.  Our Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, coast guardsmen and military families have been tested over this past decade at war, and they have measured up in every regard and been equal to every challenge.  They have kept faith with their oath to defend the American people, and it is our duty as a nation to honor their sacrifices and keep faith with these noble warriors and their families — especially those who have been injured or fallen in combat.  These young heroes represent the highest qualities of service to our nation and to its people.  Let their example remind us all of what it means to be truly selfless and just how much the human spirit can endure, accomplish and overcome.

Gen. Amos is commandant of the Marine Corps.