by William R. Miller

A few years ago I was strolling with my wife through a fall festival in a small Kansas town. I was wearing a red ball cap with an eagle, globe, and anchor logo on the front. I noticed another man with a similar hat as he passed us in the crowd. He stopped, turned to me, and said, "Who were you with?"

"1st Marine Aircraft Wing, MASS Duce [Marine Air Support Squadron 2], Dong Ha on the DMZ [demilitarized zone], '68-'69. You?" I answered without thinking.

"2/5 [2d Battalion, 5th Marines], Hue City, Tet '68, Semper fi," he said and walked on.

"Who was that?" my wife asked.

"Just another Marine," I said. Just another Marine, what an understatement I thought.

At other times that day, I saw a cruise jacket, a sweatshirt, and two more ball caps all representing the Marine Corps. I saw the emblems of no other Service. Since then I have become more aware, and I have noted that I see Marine Corps bumper stickers and rear window decals, not Army. I see Marine Corps flags outside homes, not Air Force. And I see Marine caps and jackets seldom Navy.

I started counting, and I actually see about 20 Marine symbols to each display of the other Armed Forces. Yet, the Marine Corps is still the smallest of the Services. Could it be that "once a Marine, always a Marine" is true? Could it be that there is a greater pride in having been one of the few?

For the last 5 years I, too, have asked the question, "Who were you with?" I have always gotten an answer; no one has ever asked, "What do you mean?" Marines understand the question. A few times the ball cap has represented a son or daughter. But even their parents know the units with whom their children are serving. The pride of their being with the Marines is also in the parents.

This year, at the same festival, I met four Marines. One young man said he spent the Marine Corps birthday, 10 November 2004, in Fallujah with 1/3; the second had helped the 2d Marine Division take Kuwait City in 1991; and the third served with me in Vietnam, only farther south at Chu Lai in 1970. But the one that I remember the most was the man in a worn, faded cruise jacket, walking slowly with a cane, and being passed by the crowd.

I walked to his side, slowed to his pace, and asked, "Who were you with?" He stopped, turned, stood up straight, and looked me in the eye. "5th Marine Division, Iwo Jima, 1945," he said. A chill went through me and I knew I was in the presence of a history maker. "Thank you," I said. He smiled and said, "You?" As we talked I told him that I had been an air control officer in Vietnam and that my son had just completed three tours in Iraq with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2. Then before I knew it, he was thanking me. He continued to tell me how much harder it is today to tell who the enemy is and how much he admires our young Marines.

Today I teach biology at Baker University in Kansas, and I often tell my students that they have not yet had history happen to them. They do not remember Pearl Harbor or know what happened at the Chosin Reservoir or even where to find Con Thien on a map. At times I get to tell them about Marines whom I have met and the history they helped make. But still it is hard for them to understand what an injured Army captain I met on China Beach meant when he told me, "The most beautiful sight in the world is a Marine F-4 rolling in hot with snake and nape."

These events are not just part of history; they are history. Had their results been different, the world would be different. "Who were you with?" says more than "Where were you when . . . ?" or "What were you doing when . . . ?" It says participant not spectator. It says Marine.

So the next time you see an eagle, globe, and anchor on a hat or shirt pocket ask the simple question, "Who were you with?" Listen to the answer of a unit, a place, and a time and think about that moment in history. But more than that, listen to the pride saying, "I am a Marine."

Dr. Miller served with the 1st MAW, Marine Air Control Group 18, MASS-2 in Vietnam from 1968-69. He is currently working in the Department of Biology, Baker University, Baldwin City, KS