Silently Refreshing the Tree of Liberty

Written By: Brian Gilman, Colonel, USMC (Ret.), WQW Executive Director, October 2020

In a 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith, John Adams’ son in law, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson’s words came to mind yesterday when I took a phone call from a Warriors & Quiet Waters (WQW) board member. Chris Oliver called to tell me about his friend’s nephew, a U.S. Navy SEAL, who was grievously injured in a training accident. Chris was seeking information on how he could connect his friend with another national Veteran Services Organization that provides financial assistance for combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured service members. Chris followed up in an email with a link to the injured SEAL’s Go Fund Me page where I saw pictures of the Warrior in a hospital bed, bruised and wearing casts on several of his limbs. As I looked at the pictures, Jefferson’s words rang true.

Given my nearly 27-year career as a U.S. Marine, and my current role as WQW’s Executive Director, Jefferson’s words are never far from my mind. In fact, during my last active duty posting as Marine Special Operations Command’s Chief of Staff, I saw daily reminders of the risks and sacrifices that our U.S military service members face every single day. These daily reminders included the SITREPs (situation reports) from the Marine Raider formations that are continuously deployed in harm’s way across our globe. They included the briefings where I’d hear of the thousands of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Special Operations Forces who were deployed globally in support of our National Defense. In my prior posting as the Commander of the Marine Raider Training Center, I was intimately familiar with the high-risk training that our Marines conducted every single day in preparation for their upcoming deployments.

Twice during my last year in the Corps, these reminders were tragic and harsh. The first came in August 2019 when Marine Raider Gunnery Sergeant Scott A. Koppenhafer was killed in action leading his Marines in a combat action in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. The second came only seven months later when two Marine Raiders, Captain Moises A. Navas and Gunnery Sergeant Diego D. Pongo, were killed while leading the clearance of a tunnel complex of Islamic State fighters in southern Iraq.

What makes these reminders even more tragic is that the vast majority of our citizens had no idea these Warriors gave their last full measure of devotion in defense of the freedoms we all enjoy every day. Sadly, while fact-checking the details of this post, I learned that 25 Warriors have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our Nation this year. Yet, among the constant chatter of COVID-19, the Presidential Election, civil unrest and pop culture, news of their sacrifice is lost in the noise. Most likely, only their families, their comrades, and their local communities know of their sacrifice.

But that’s why I love Warriors so dearly. They don’t serve for recognition of their sacrifice. They serve to pursue a higher purpose, to take the hard road, to join a community of like-minded patriots, and to make a difference in a way that less than 1% of Americans will ever know.

But let’s not forget – we sleep peaceably in our beds at night because rough men and women stand ready to silently refresh the tree of liberty on our behalf.