Heroes in Uniform
Anyone who raises his right hand, vows to defend the U.S. Constitution, and wears the country’s uniform knows in the back of his mind he may be called to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.
The unique nature of military service fosters a special camaraderie among brothers and sisters in arms that can never be replicated in civilian life.
Many Legates have served in their nation’s military with distinguished careers and have completed several combat tours. A few recently shared their military experiences with Legatus Magazine.
Larry Merington remembers being in a business meeting in early 1991 when his secretary, her face pale-white, knocked on the door and told him he needed to take a phone call.
Merington, then a young fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, picked up the Pentagon official’s call who notified him that he was being summoned to active duty, and would report to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield (later called Desert Storm).
A few weeks later, Merington was dropping bombs on Iraqi military targets.
“It’s a very serious thing to know that you control life and death,” said Merington, 63, the president of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter.
Merington retired as a colonel from the Air Force Reserve in 2007 following a 30-year career in which he spent about five years in active duty for combat tours in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Today, Merington is a CEO and a married father of one child.
He has been a member of Legatus for 10 years, and is part of a tight-knit fraternity of fighter pilots who have served their country in some very dangerous settings.
“There is no such individual as a warfighter who thinks war is the solution,” said Merington, who embodies the reluctant warrior ethos of the U.S. military.
Merington completed 50 combat missions over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, where he flew the A-10 Thunderbolt, affectionately known among ground troops as the tank-killing “Warthog.” He was tasked with destroying Iraqi armor and scud missiles.
A few days after the war ended, Merington and some of his comrades drove into Kuwait City to survey the bombing damage when a Kuwaiti man drove up, got out, walked over to Merington and fell to his knees in tears. Through his sobs, the man said, “Thank you.”
“I told him, ‘This is what we do. We are a liberator, not an occupier. We’re not a conquering force. We’re happy to give your country back to you,’” Merington said.
Merington later flew combat air patrols over Bosnia in the 1990s and served as a wing commander in Afghanistan and the Middle East after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He helped to destroy Taliban forces and was part of the early hunt for Osama bin Laden.
About 10 years ago, he was offered a promotion to brigadier general but turned it down to spend time with family. He is now dedicated full-time to his civilian career, but every now and then, Merington will encounter something that brings his military memories rushing back.
“I wish I could take that feeling, bottle it in some kind of elixer, and inject it into those in my company so they could fully understand what it’s like to really trust someone with your life,” Merington said.
Civilian law to war combat
Walter Zink was the rare Army general who knew firsthand what it was like to be an enlisted private in an infantry line company.
Zink, a member of Legatus’ Lincoln Chapter, was about 21 when he enlisted in the Nebraska Army National Guard. He became an infantry rifleman, a “grunt” in a mechanized infantry brigade.
“My uncle was in the Army. My parents didn’t have military experience, but were always involved in community service,” Zink said. “I guess I always felt that service was part and parcel of our family ethic, and part of the responsibility that goes with citizenship.”
Zink, 70, subsequently became an officer. He retired in 2008 as a two-star major general after almost 40 years in the military. Toward the end of his career, Zink spent considerable time on active duty — about 40 weeks a year — as a commanding general in charge of training combat units that were deploying to Iraq.
In 2004, Zink was also mobilized to Iraq, where he was stationed in Baghdad and oversaw training and the preparation of combat units for their tours in the country.
Deploying to a war zone is stressful for active duty personnel, but being called up to war creates significant upheaval for citizen-soldiers who have full-time civilian careers and families they see every day.
“I was fortunate in that I was practicing in a civilian law firm where we had 30 lawyers and they could take up the slack on matters I was handling,” said Zink, who retired from his legal career in 2011.
“It was a stressful time. You have to wind some things down, and coordinate your civilian employment activities while taking care of your military responsibilities,” said Zink, who added that his wife of 47 years, Carol, was his “hero” in how she managed the homefront.
Zink said his Catholic faith “grounded” him in the basic principles of right and wrong, and helped him to have a moral center as he discharged his duties toward his military superiors and subordinates. His faith also provided comfort in difficult circumstances.
“When you’re in a combat zone, you never know what’s going to happen,” Zink said. “Having my faith assured me that if something happened to me, there was a life hereafter, and as long as I was trying to follow God’s course, that was the best that I could do.”
There is never a convenient time to be mobilized, and deployment to an overseas combat zone is nerve-wracking, but Zink emphasized that he is proud and has no regret of his active-duty time.
“It was one of the great opportunities of my life to be able to serve with our men and women in uniform,” Zink said. “To see us all participate in a cause bigger than ourselves, in that sense, I very much value my military service and the service of others.”
Dream of the Marines
U.S. Marine Col. James Herrera wanted to join what he calls the world’s finest fighting force back when he was in grammar school.
“It was a calling,” said Herrera, 52, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter in Orange County, California.
Herrera’s 35-year career in the Marines has recently reached its end. Readying for retirement this past June, he’d been looking forward to post-military life.
“It’s always bittersweet, but I’ve been preparing for this for a couple of years,” said Herrera, who is chairman of a local independent Catholic school and volunteers in several ministries.
Herrera was about five when he immigrated with his parents to the United States from Ecuador. Because he was 17 when he enlisted, his parents had to sign off on the paperwork. They agreed, on the condition that he would get his college degree and become an officer.
“I loved the Marines. I loved what I was doing, and I figured the better way of serving was to become an officer,” said Herrera, who was a sergeant when he received his commission. Having been an enlisted man helped the troops better relate to and trust him.
“Marines accept you a little bit quicker. They see that you’ve walked in their shoes, so there’s that initial rapport that’s already embedded,” Herrera said. “Having gone through boot camp, I was a machine gunner in the infantry, and I shared a lot of the same hardships, which helps out a bit.”
Herrera served in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom as a company and brigade commander, leading the I Marine Expeditionary Force from 2012 to 2015. He was involved in counterterrorism operations, was a military trainer and instructor at the National Intelligence School, and served in several high-level national defense and intelligence roles.
A devout Catholic, Herrera sees the Marines’ ethos as being similar to the virtues of the spiritual life — mainly fortitude, humility, integrity, work, detachment, and compassion.
“As Marines, we have a lot of pride, which can be a double-edged sword. You need humility,” Herrera said. “My faith tells me that yes, you can be proud of what you do, but make sure you do it for the right reason, for the greater glory of God and for His people.”
As he transitions to civilian life, Herrera eagerly anticipates future opportunities, including the possibility of joining another local board of directors.
“I’ll see what else the Lord puts in front of me.”
Former Air Force Chaplain tends dupage ‘soldiers’
Monsignor James Burnett wore two hats as a Catholic priest and an active-duty U.S. Air Force chaplain.
“Sometimes they’re in conflict, like when you have to go out into the field rather than stay behind and hear confessions,” said Monsignor Burnett, 72, who retired as a U.S. Air Force major in 2000.
During his 20-year Air Force career, Monsignor Burnett counseled and provided moral support for military personnel and their families. He celebrated Mass in the field, heard confessions from fighter pilots, and helped military couples re-adjust to each other after long separations from deployments.
“You’re ministering at all times, trying to address the needs of those on base, whether they were there as dependents or whether they were flying off to God-knows-where for God-knows-how-long,” said Monsignor Burnett, current chaplain of Legatus’ DuPage County Chapter in Illinois.
A priest of the Diocese of Davenport in Iowa, he was a young priest in a rural parish in the late 1970s when he met an Air Force airman at a friend’s house. The next morning, the airman gave him a tour of a nearby Air Force installation, and showed him the base chapel.
Monsignor Burnett said he had a desire “to see the world,” and after “a lot of thought and prayer,” he asked his bishop for permission to be a full-time military chaplain. His bishop agreed, and Monsignor Burnett was on his way to receiving an officer’s commission and his first assignment at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.
After a year of asking God whether he had done the right thing, Monsignor Burnett said he found his calling as an Air Force chaplain.
“I was there to help people, those in uniform and their families,” he said.
Legates who have served in the armed forces speak of how crucial military chaplains are there.
“The men and women are looking for guidance on right and wrong. They’re often wondering if they’re doing the right thing and asking if they’re violating their conscience or God’s laws when they’re called to go into combat,” said Walter Zink, a retired Nebraska Army National Guard major general and member of Legatus’ Lincoln Chapter.
“The role of the chaplain in combat is phenomenal. Masses in combat are some of the most touching and moving liturgies you’ll see,” said Larry Merington, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve fighter pilot and president of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter.
Monsignor Burnett was stationed stateside and in Europe. He was deployed to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for a four-month joint task force mission, and for a year-long remote tour in Greenland, where he said “you had to look south to see the Northern Lights.”
“It was literally on top of the world,” he said. After he retired from the Air Force, Monsignor Burnett became the chief of the chaplaincy service at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Chicago for 16 years, where he oversaw 10 chaplains, and realized that attention to detail and the organizational skills he honed in the military were quite important.
Today, Monsignor Burnett is retired from that role as well. He now lives in Darien, Illinois, and helps out in four parishes by celebrating Mass, presiding over funerals, and doing marriage counseling.
“Every day is different,” he said. “Ministering in the moment is what it comes down to.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.