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I remember what it was like to wake up on my 18th birthday. I opened my eyes, took in the warm air and sweet sunshine of the Nashville summer, rolled out of bed and went downstairs to be greeted by the elated smiles and cozy love of my family. "Today, you are a man," the world had told me all of my life. It didn't say that to my grandfather. No, it kicked him down and beat it into him, beat it into him with every stinging ounce of pain and fury that it could muster. On Feb. 19, 1945, the world mustered everything.
The violent deaths of everyone in his platoon, the piercing scream of bullets and mortars, the blood-soaked uniform that sloshed and spattered with every step: These were the presents that the world gave to my grandfather on his birthday. His cake: two hand grenades in his foxhole. His own blood now pouring into the black, volcanic ground all around him, Pvt. James A. Brown decided that he would not let himself die. And so, with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in every part of his body, he crawled back to the shores of Iwo Jima, thinking only of what he would do for the world were his life spared.
To this day, I have never heard my grandfather complain about the unceasing, unbearable pain that the more than 500 pieces of shrapnel still left in his 85-year-old body cause him. In fact, he hardly ever mentions his time in the service. When I was young, I asked him once why he joined the Marines. He told me simply, "I just did it; we all did." It took me many years to appreciate just how incredible that response was. There was no motive; there were no second thoughts. You fought for your country because it was your duty. You'd be hard-pressed to find such commitment, such honor in today's world. It's awe-inspiring, and it's truly extraordinary.
It is not, however, my grandfather's harrowing tale that inspired me to join the military; rather, it is the undying resolve, the enduring honor and the universal respect that he commands as a result of his sense of responsibility and his experiences that have molded me into the man that I am today. Somehow, being born into the Great Depression, surviving the horrors of World War II, raising a loving and prosperous family, and dedicating your life to the completely selfless betterment of others makes you something more than a person. Indeed, you become an ideal. You become an icon. You become a hero. In a world ravaged by war, oppression, crisis and disunity, never before has there been a time when such unselfish leadership, dedication and compassion are so direly needed. I live my life by these principles in the hopes that through my service, I can do as he did and change the world for the better.