- Whether we like it or not, those who wear and have worn their country’s uniform are in a business filled with adversity
February 17, 1998 will be 10 years since Colonel William R. Higgins last breathed free. A United States Marine for over 20 years, his final military assignment was as a United Nations peacekeeper in the Middle East. One morning, while trying to ensure the safety of his men, he was captured by Hezbollah radicals.
During his time in captivity he was interrogated and tortured, and a year and a half after he was taken, his inert body was seen on television screens around the world, hanging by the neck. It was to be more than two years later — December 1991 – that my husband’s remains were dumped on a Beirut street, to be buried on hallowed ground at the National Veterans’ Cemetery at Quantico, Virginia.
Whether we like it or not, those who wear and have worn their country’s uniform are in a business filled with adversity. Fighting wars and keeping peace is the most difficult and demanding of jobs. Rich and I, both career Marines, knew and accepted that.
We understood the duty to country which causes a man or woman to risk his or her life to try to make a difference. My husband used to have a small plaque on his desk which said:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight; nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety; is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
My husband fought two tours in Vietnam and lived. It was on a United Nations peace keeping operation in southern Lebanon in which he was killed. Today’s “new” kinds of conflicts are called “Operations other than War.” Even now as we have our forces on alert in the Persian Gulf, we must accept that there have been and will be others killed or captured in these “Operations other than War.”
I have learned some hard lessons in the last ten years. One of those is that even though American service members may wear the blue beret of the UN, they still wear the American uniform. If killed or taken captive, they will be treated as American service members.
American men and women in uniform go into harm’s way for the same reason their parents and grandparents did yesterday — they believe they are doing something important for their country and that America will come after them when they fall.
When American service members are captured, they must be treated by us as “prisoners of war,” not “hostages.” A “hostage” is a civilian caught in the line of fire, and held for some sick political or financial reason. Service members are held because they represent to those who would harm us, all the perceived weaknesses of democracy. When servicemen or women are captured they behave as prisoners of war, not hostages.
They live day by day by the Code of Conduct:
“I am an American, fighting in the Armed Forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense….I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”
Because Colonel Higgins’ country always considered him a “hostage” and never a “prisoner of war,” there were never any demands of international rules of treatment, no Red Cross visits, no insistence on medical care or humane treatment, no POW medal to signify what he endured.
The State Department, not the Defense Department, had the lead. That meant diplomacy, not military might. It meant no retribution, no retaliation, no rescue.
That had to do with the perceived political sensitivities of civilians being held at the same time, but let’s not ever forget we owe a special debt to those who go into harm’s way because of their unique bond to this country.
Whenever and wherever we commit American service members, we must acknowledge they will be subject to those who would harm them, whether in combat or terrorist acts.
We must ensure that:
1. This country has a clear, unambiguous, and achievable goal in taking this drastic step.
2. We are prepared to defend our men and women in uniform with all our will and with all our might when they fall.
3. And we do not send a peacekeeper where there is no peace.
Please do what you can to ensure that your elected representatives understand these points. Explain to them that a military man and woman, when taken for the country he or she represents, is a prisoner of war, not a hostage. A posthumous, official declaration that Col. Higgins was a prisoner of war would not only tell his family and friends that his sacrifice was indeed appreciated by his country, but more importantly would ensure that the brave men and women who proudly step up to take his place in future conflicts will not be abandoned by the land of the free and the home of the brave.