BY YM/SGT. MAJ. MEGAN LYNCH – National Young Marine of the Year 2019-2020
Thirty-six days, 70,000 U.S servicemen, 7,000 lives lost, and 26,000 wounded people made Iwo Jima one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater during World War II.
The Young Marines program has created an environment in which Young Marines across the nation have been able to see firsthand the island where this battle took place. In an overwhelming one-day trip, Iwo Jima left me with a respect and knowledge of the struggle those men faced 75 years ago.
Every year, 10 Young Marines and an Adult Volunteer are selected to attend the Iwo Jima remembrance ceremony on the Island: six Young Marines take this trip because they each have won the title of Young Marine of the Year (each winner representing one of our six divisions); two of our Young Marines are the Jimmy Trimble scholarship winners; and the last two are the national executive director’s pick and the current National Young Marine of the Year. The Adult Volunteer of the Year is also honored with this trip.
The Young Marines have had the honor of engaging in this remembrance trip since 2004. Through these years, youth and adults alike have gained unique experiences that impacted each differently and deeply.
“While the experience of traveling to Guam and Iwo Jima was truly an amazing journey, what made this trip unparalleled to any other was the opportunity to experience it with the veterans who lived through those battles,” said Jason Asbill, National Young Marine of the Year 2003-2004. “To hear the stories firsthand was humbling. To trek across the island unhindered by enemy forces was breathtaking (both literally and figuratively). To see the camaraderie of the veterans, not only among allies but former foes as well, was inspiring.”
“Visiting the Island of Iwo Jima was one of the quietest experiences of my life,” said Angel Orozco, the National Young Marine of the Year 2017-2018. “No one lives there, and no one was speaking when we were there. I was able to reflect deeply on not only the horrors of the battle but on how what happened on that small island changed the course of the war and the world. It was beyond humbling.”
The clarity of the indescribable event, known as the Battle of Iwo Jima, has been imparted on all who walk in the shadowy boot prints of the men – boys, really – who fought for freedom.
The greatest impact of this experience is interacting with the veterans who fought on this island. When asked about her experience with a particular veteran on the trip, the 2019-2020 Division 2 Young Marine of the Year, YM/Sgt. Maj. Macie Ross, said, “Mr. Gil is an amazing man with an incredible life. His life stories are something I will always remember, and I will cherish the week I had the opportunity to escort him. Although I only knew him for a week, he taught me that no matter what you are going through, you can always look on the bright side.
“He also taught me that you can’t give up when one thing doesn’t go your way. You have to be resilient in everything you do. Just because one thing knocks you down, it doesn’t mean you have to stay down. Get back up and give it everything you’ve got.”
Escorting the veterans around Guam and Iwo Jima gives Young Marines the opportunity to hear their stories firsthand and live history through their eyes.
“Students learn about history through textbooks in school,” said Kayla Colacion, the National Young Marine of the Year 2018- 2019. “However, I learned more about Iwo Jima talking to these veterans than I ever did in my classes.”
Although the responsibility of the Young Marines is to escort the veterans, in all honesty, they escort us. Their historical stories, meaningful insights into life, and their friendly natures made each of us feel like family, which is the true meaning of escort: protectors and guides.
The Young Marines program is home to many people who served in our United States military. One of our largest supporters, Gene Overstreet, the 12th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, who took this same trip in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, expanded his thoughts about the Young Marines having the opportunity to attend this once-in-a-lifetime trip. “I think it’s great that we take our Young Marines there,” Overstreet said. “But when you go there and you see it and you feel it, it is a sight, sound, and smell you’ll never forget, because you know what happened there. When Young Marines go there, and they hear the stories, they get the opportunity to talk to actual Iwo veterans who were on the island. They remember that. I think it’s important to teach them that history. It is important to know where we came from to know where we’re going.”
Col. Bill Smith, USMC (Ret.), the Young Marines chairman of the board of directors, also spoke of our legacy when he said, “If you’re going to be a Young Marine, you need to understand your heritage. The raising of the flag on top of Mount Suribachi was the picture that summed it all up. It took six men to raise that flag, and it took teamwork. It isn’t a monument to one person; it is a monument to a team. It took teamwork, leadership, and discipline to take that island. That photo is an embodiment of the Young Marines. The Young Marines is about looking forward.”
Both Overstreet and Smith agree that Young Marines should appreciate the history and understand its importance so as to never repeat what happened.
“Every Young Marine who makes this annual trip treasures the experience,” said Col. William P. Davis, USMC (Ret.), national executive director and CEO of the Young Marines. “They learn history from those who made history. Truly it’s a once-in-alifetime event.”
In my personal experience, I gained something I never imagined I could: a true understanding of compassion, forgiveness, and appreciation of one another. Spending just six hours on the island was enough to realize just how lucky I am. These men spent 36 long, bloody days defending and protecting their brothers in arms and their nation. Now, 75 years later, these same men come back to the island to pledge their peace, and to honor and remember all those who lost their lives on those fateful days.
One of the most extraordinary parts of the trip is the remembrance ceremony. Although the speeches and actions were blessings to witness, the thing that had the most powerful impact on me was the band’s performance. Both American and Japanese musicians stood under the canopy playing music throughout the ceremony. The bands intertwined and played the same notes on the same instruments, and with one another.
Like the band, the World War II veterans sat looking at one another and at their past enemies in a completely peaceful setting. No anger or resentment are left over. It was there that I saw both sides had fought a battle for the same reasons. For home. It was this experience that left a deep impression to be forever ingrained in my heart.
Young Marines are the only members of a youth organization who have been welcomed on the island for the annual ceremony. Only 10 teenagers are allowed on that island that one day a year. Ten teenagers earn their way to the top, and they are rewarded with a trip that gives them a story so unique and so humbling that they leave with immeasurable gratitude.
I believe all Young Marines who were in attendance gained a newfound respect for the veterans of our nation and for all they sacrificed. Although we may not have a lot of time left with these veterans, their legacy lives on in our freedom.
The Young Marines is a national nonprofit 501(c)(3) youth education and service program for boys and girls, age 8 through the completion of high school. The Young Marines promotes the mental, moral, and physical development of its members. The program focuses on teaching the values of leadership, teamwork, and self-discipline, so its members can live and promote a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.