I still remember the first time I visited an American Embassy. It was 1979, in Brussels, and I was helping a colleague renew a passport. We walked into the lobby, and saw behind the glass the finest sight you can lay eyes on: a U.S. Marine, standing guard over the embassy. We were in our 20s, had been overseas for about a year at the time, and were a little homesick. Seeing the Marine Security Guard brought back all our finest feelings and memories of home, the devotion to duty and honor, and the sacrifices that have made America safe and strong.
Later, in my career as a diplomat, I had occasion to walk past Marine Security Guards every day as I reported to work. I never forgot what I had felt so many years earlier, and never stopped feeling a surge of pride in our country every time I saw them. They were always professional and courteous, but never left any doubt that they were capable of carrying out their assigned duties.
At the sergeant’s order the Marines immediately formed a defensive perimeter, throwing themselves on the ground behind the bags . . . .
Every U.S. Mission is guarded by a detail of Marine Security Guards, or MSGs. According to the Department of State, “The primary mission of MSGs is to protect U.S. citizens and property as well as to prevent the compromise of classified U.S. Government information under a range of circumstances, including hostile assaults. They respond immediately to crises large and small, including demonstrations, bomb threats, fires, nuclear/biological/chemical threats, and facility intrusion attempts. As such, MSGs stand as a solid line of defense for American diplomacy.”
When I was stationed in Yemen in the 1990s, an Embassy colleague was visiting friends in Atlanta. The cab driver who picked him up from the airport asked him where he had just arrived from. He answered “Yemen,” expecting the driver to ask what and where that was, which was the usual response from Americans in those days. To his surprise, the driver said he knew Yemen well, and had once lived there.
It turned out he had been the Gunnery Sergeant in charge of the MSG detail at the American Embassy in the former South Yemen, when the U.S. and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen broke relations in 1969. He and his Marines were the last Americans to leave the country. He told of arriving at the airport fully armed, carrying the diplomatic bags that held the code ciphers and other highly classified materials that they had been unable to destroy. This was at the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union would have done anything to get its hands on U.S. diplomatic ciphers.
At the Aden airport, as the nine Marines were walking across the tarmac to their military plane, they were met by an armed company of about 140 soldiers with a full Yemeni colonel in command. Probably acting on the orders of the resident Soviet commissar, the colonel told them that they would be allowed to leave the country, but that they must leave behind the bags with the classified materials. The Gunney refused, citing the prior agreement between the two governments; but the colonel said he did not intend to honor his government’s agreement, and that the bags must be left behind. As he spoke, the Yemeni company assumed an offensive stance, aiming their weapons at the Marines as the colonel demanded that they surrender their arms and the bags.
At the sergeant’s order the Marines immediately formed a defensive perimeter, throwing themselves on the ground behind the bags, aiming their weapons at the Yemeni company. The sergeant noted to my friend, “I had my rifle pointed directly at that colonel’s heart,” and said they all expected that they would die within a matter of seconds. But when they had said “death before dishonor,” they meant it.
After several tense seconds that he said seemed like an eternity, the colonel backed down, and gave the command to let them pass, with their arms and the classified material. They boarded their plane and were glad to leave alive, having done their duty and defended their honor and the honor and security of the United States. They had their orders, and they followed them faithfully.
I think of that story every time I attend a Marine Corps Birthday Ball, or see a Marine Security Guard standing post, or take visitors to watch the Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks at 8th and I in Washington. On this Marine Corps birthday, I think of my wife’s grandfather fighting from island to island in the Pacific, and of her father flying a carrier-based Marine F-9 Panther over Korea, and of all the forces of Marines in battles throughout our history. But I also think of the Marine Security Guards, and remember that every Marine is a rifleman, and that a Marine is, indeed, always faithful. Happy Birthday, USMC.