A unique mystique . . .

4802076860_ce7d2a1221_bLegionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in French Guiana were transported on September 11 to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to help with rescue and clean up operations following Hurricane Irma. I would bet that others were on high alert as Maria turned toward Guadeloupe and Martinique just days ago.

I heard the news reports of France’s quick response, and I was once again entranced with thoughts of this band of men with a long history, a somewhat dubious reputation and a unique mystique.

Somehow, the desert and the sea always figured in my childhood dreams, along with a thirst for adventure, the appeal of colorful uniforms, and the sound of military marches.

The French Foreign Legion

This elite fighting force has always held inexplicable fascination. I once had a romantic notion that I could run away to North Africa and be a Legionnaire. 4566626508_a28b277564_bI pored over pictures of the bearded Sappers with their white kepis and leather aprons, and I listened endlessly to traditional marches, and to Edith Piaf singing “Mon Legionnaire” and “La Marseillaise.”

Strange, I know. But, truth be told, the same things thrill me today,

I wanted to know someone who joined up. I fancied myself fitting in to the hard life, seeing the world, and participating in endless adventure.

There is at least one major problem, however. First and most important, it seems, is that I was born female and, to this day, the Foreign Legion is a men’s club. Only a men’s club!

Actually, one British woman joined during World War II and served with distinction in North Africa. There have been no others.

And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.

In fact, it thrives. The Legion has changed, but it is still an elite force. Only about 1000 men are admitted to the ranks each year.

Here’s how it works:

First, if you are male, between the ages of 17 1/2 and 39 1/2, you must get yourself to the door of a Foreign Legion facility within France. Literally, you must knock on the door of the Centre de Preselection in Paris or at the gate of Legion Headquarters in the hills above Marseilles; or at one of nine “recruiting offices” scattered in cities throughout the country. They are officially open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 6550986765_d4ae3024d0_b In truth, however, showing up during normal daytime business hours would be wise.

Potential recruits must have valid documentation from their country of origin, either a passport or government-issued ID, and a verified copy of their birth certificate obtained within the last six months. Aliases and anonymity are no longer an option.

And they must not be on Interpol’s wanted list!

Although it is expected that recruits will arrive with three sets of underwear and socks, sneakers, personal toiletries, and between 10-50 Euros, those who make it in the door are immediately provided food, lodging and uniforms.

That’s it; nothing else matters

Well, almost nothing else: Language doesn’t matter; there is no requirement to speak French. Marital status is unimportant: All recruits are treated as single men. There is no discrimination on the basis of citizenship, background, race, religion, education, training, previous military service, profession or expertise.

There are some “must nots” and some “should nots.” Among prohibited items are knives, weapons of any kind, and keys — no vehicle or personal house keys are allowed! Large amounts of cash, credit cards, jewelry and other valuables are highly discouraged. Cameras, personal computers and electronic devices must be left at home or abandoned.

Recruits must take IQ and personality tests, must pass sports and fitness tests, and must meet specific medical and physical standards. Only about one in eight candidates is accepted.4566623898_3897607b2f_b

Within a few days, those who “survive” an initial interview at a satellite center will be enlisted and transferred to one of the Legion’s two pre-selection centers, either in Paris or in the south of France. Finally, those who make it through the three to 14-day pre-selection testing are transferred to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne to complete the rigorous training process. And it is rigorous.

The initial commitment is for a five-year enlistment, and the entire pre-selection and selection process spans up to five weeks. After that there is training, and more training, then perhaps specialized training. And then duty assignments; often within France today,  sometimes in French territories, but truly all over the globe. The Legion has fought not only in French wars and in two World Wars, but in most of the world’s hot spots, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

This year, on July 14, I watched with fascination as the new French president and the new American president beamed with pride as the Bastille Day parade along the Champs Elysees in Paris reached its conclusion.  As always, a detachment of Legionnaires participated and, as always, this unique fighting force constituted the final unit in the parade. The marching cadence of the Foreign Legion is measured and impressive (88 steps per minute rather than the normal 120) and a fitting finale to a day full of military pomp and tradition. 7467186668_61d2457d6b_z

The mystery and the magic of this special force still exist. The Pioneers with their leather aprons and axes seem throwbacks to another era as they march with pride and precision; and the band sounds the familiar somber beat.

But, across the globe, other Legionnaires stand ready, as necessary, to don their fatigues and get to work to put a devastated island nation back together. Or to fight, if called. It’s good to know they still exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, visit Uniforms, History, or 2016 News.

All Photos via Flickr (1) Brian Farrell, 2010; (2 & 4) Marcovdz, 2010; (3) Maglegion, 1993; (5) Archangel 12, 2012

 

A time to be silent . . .

When the tourist buses leave, quiet descends and shadows begin to fall over the battlefields. A hush falls over the land, and it’s hard not to speak in whispers. It is also difficult to fight back the tears. Gettysburg is a stark reminder of another time, when the air was filled with smoke and cries echoed on the wind.

At least that’s how I imagine it. And those were my feelings last year in Gettysburg. The land was beautiful then, alight with the new growth of young grasses waving in the breeze and flowers blooming in the sun. And monuments. The monuments are both small and grand, sited haphazardly, it seems, on plots of ground that must have great meaning to the survivors of the men who fought here.

It’s a somber place in the late afternoon as the sun begins to move low over the western horizon. Battlefields are always somewhat difficult to visit. Civil War battlegrounds are especially sobering. They are smaller than expected, making it easy to imagine facing an enemy up close and personal and terrible to think about that reality.

The fields of Gettysburg, though, are expansive; the hills roll on into the distance; split timber fences delineate the fields, defining various encounters between Union and Confederate forces, and even driving through the area takes time. I felt compelled to walk among the monuments, to read the inscriptions, to wonder about the units they honored, and to think about the men who died on that ground.

Battlefields have a peculiar pull, no matter where I encounter them, and I have walked silently among the ghosts on battle plains across the globe, from the Little Big Horn to the beaches of Normandy, from the Golan Heights to Glorieta, New Mexico. I have also meandered among the headstones of military cemeteries in this country and in other nations, wondering about the lives of the men buried there, and about their survivors.

I always come away from battlefields with a sense of wonder that no matter how bloody the battle, the earth itself recovers from war relatively quickly. It is much more difficult for the people.

So today – Decoration Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868 – at 3 p.m., the traditional hour of remembrance, I remember that battle fought long ago in Pennsylvania, and all the other battles of the Civil War and the wars that followed. Whether it’s now called Memorial Day or Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, I like to think that we are moving toward a time when battles will no longer be the way to resolve differences, when our children’s children can walk confidently into a future that only honors servicemen and women who died long-ago.

I thought about all of that yesterday as I enjoyed burgers and bratwurst, potato salad and apple pie with a small group of friends. It was a long weekend, after all, and it’s always good to be with friends and to share good food.

But today, because this is the real Memorial Day, I once again remember the fallen soldiers and those members of the armed services who still are called to give their lives in the service of their country.

The Civil War took more lives than any other this country has fought. We can debate, from the comfort of our time a century and a half removed, the issues that led to that war and that provoke other wars, but we cannot deny the consequences. And we must not forget that good and noble men fought on both sides. Warriors have left grieving families in all the battles since. It is good to pay homage to sacrifice like that.

Now, more than ever before, it seems imperative that we learn from our past. We can then move on to the task of writing the future the way we want it to be.