The U.S. military’s primary responsibility is national defense.
That core obligation at times requires the use of destructive, even lethal force.
Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, memorably put it this way nearly a quarter century ago during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm, aka the Gulf War:
“Soldiers are trained to kill people and break things.”
Variations on that “kill people and break things” theme have been echoed by assorted folks in and out of uniform.
For instance, right-wing radio star Rush Limbaugh relentlessly repeats that wording, though he strongly disapproved of Republican Powell’s support of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential runs.
But while our military must occasionally unleash devastating wrath, and always make it awesome capabilities clear (peace through strength), those aren’t its only crucial missions.
And though Americans should and do differ on where and when to send our armed forces into harm’s way, and what they should do once they get there, all of us should share pride in their remarkable, far-reaching humanitarian efforts.
We also should remember that the risks of military duty aren’t confined to combat.
A harrowing reminder of that reality hit home hard here Tuesday when a U.S. Marine relief helicopter lost radio contact while on an errand of mercy in Nepal.
The UH-1 Huey, carrying six Marines and two Nepali soldiers, took off to take aid to earthquake victims in the Dolakha district near Tibet.
Among the Marines on board was 29-year-old Crew Chief Sgt. Mark Johnson IV, a 2003 graduate of Stratford High School in Goose Creek serving not just our country but humanity in a non-martial manner.
A devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, killing more than 8,000 people. Another major quake, at 7.3-magnitude, struck on Tuesday.
Then more bad news struck on Friday when searchers found the scorched wreckage of that Huey. Marine Gen. John Wissler, the commander on the ground, offered this grim assessment:
“It is unlikely there are any survivors at this time.”
Thus, barring a miracle, as of this writing it appears that Sgt. Johnson is dead.
Yet our nation’s commitment to helping those in desperate need lives on.
Sgt. Johnson joined a long line of Americans from all five military branches (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy and Marines) who have rushed to the rescue when disasters occur around the world.
A small sampling from the last five years are timely relief operations after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, rampant flooding in Africa in 2014 and this year’s Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
A few of the many such missions that included personnel from Joint Base Charleston:
Over the last two years, reservists from the 315th Airlift Wing have delivered huge amounts of medical supplies, food and other vital material to flood victims in Haiti, El Salvador, Panama and Honduras. Last August, a C-17 from the air base was part of a humanitarian airdrop to Iraqi civilians cut off by Islamic State fanatics.
The Virginia Beach-based Seabees (U.S. Naval Construction Forces) also have an impressive “Can Do!” record of building — and rebuilding — in the wake of ruin.
And yes, our armed forces, from here and elsewhere, have provided critical assistance after U.S. natural disasters.
Of course, these humanitarian missions expend not just manpower — and womanpower — but taxpayer money.
So concerns are routinely raised that when limited military resources are diverted into costly relief endeavors abroad, that could compromise the core responsibility of national defense.
Meanwhile, our armed forces still walk a perilous, wide-ranging beat as world cop.
Hey, as Spider-Man knows, with great power (as in our unmatched military might) comes great responsibility (as in serving as the planet’s humanitarian superpower).
It’s not just good diplomacy by our military men and women, who really are the good guys.
It’s the right thing to do.
Sure, we’ll take all the help we can get from other nations.
But we’re still No. 1 in the global emergency responder rankings.
Back to a Stratford grad’s heartbreaking-but-inspiring example: As today’s front-page story reports, Mark Johnson wasn’t just a brave American putting his life on the line for victims of large-scale tragedies in distant realms.
He was a Boy Scout who loved the outdoors and played trumpet.
He served two tours as a helicopter door gunner in Afghanistan.
He was a son, then a husband and father.
In a story on Thursday’s front page, Stratford teacher and coach Scott Ruggles offered this admiring recollection of the goal-oriented student:
“He liked to challenge himself; he wants to be the best, and the Marines are the best.”
And when our nation’s warriors save lives in the noble cause of compassion, that’s America at its best.
Frank Wooten is the assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.