The freedom we celebrate today as Americans, of course, isn’t free. It’s a debt paid forward by brave men and women who, in times of danger, run toward the sound of guns. United States Marines are known for this gallantry, and my friend Rye Barcott, who served in the Marine Corps, is no exception.
Rye is one of a group of men I train with regularly. I’ve written of the Campos previously, of the guys who have changed my life. Rye is one of those guys.
A quick word of caution to any civilian thinking about exercising regularly with a Marine: it’s hard on the ego. They do pull-ups with maddening nonchalance, and can run for, as we say in the South, a month of Sundays. But they’ll make you run with the swift.
This is important to me because “Run with the Swift” is my family’s unofficial motto. It’s how I encourage my daughter in tennis matches, when she battles by playing up a level. I say it to my son for reassurance when he chooses a heavy course load in school. So it was kind of inevitable that I’d be drawn to someone like Rye.
Yes, he pushes me to train harder, that I might keep pace with him on distance runs. But that’s not what really matters. Rye pushes me to be a better man, that I might keep pace with him in the fine example he sets. I’ll get to that more important part below, but first you need to know a little more about my friend.
Rye is one of those guys who saw the larger picture very early on. The saying “youth is wasted on the young” is itself wasted on men like Rye. Since college, he’s been running to the sound of guns.
While an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – which he attended on a U.S. Marine Corps NROTC scholarship – Rye visited Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. He wanted a firsthand understanding of the ethnic violence that he’d face in uniform.
Rye didn’t just write a paper on what he saw. In 2001 he co-founded Carolina for Kibera. What started out as a youth center and medical clinic in a ten-by-ten foot shack is now a major non-governmental organization affiliated with his alma mater. Rye spoke proudly about it this past May in Chapel Hill, as UNC’s commencement speaker.
After graduation Rye served five years on active duty, attaining a captain’s rank and leading Marines in Iraq, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa. In 2012 he reflected on his dual missions of fighting war while waging peace.
"It Happened on the Way to War – A Marine’s Path to Peace" is a first-rate piece of writing, but don’t take my word for it. Take Bono’s, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s, both of whom appear on the book’s jacket.
These days Rye hears the sound of guns not abroad but at home, in a country paralyzed by political polarization. In 2017 he co-founded With Honor, a super political action committee, with political commentator and fellow veteran David Gergen.
With Honor’s mission is simple: to increase the number of next-generation veterans in Congress, and fix America’s broken politics.
The candidates that With Honor supports pledge to put principles before politics, and carry themselves with the same civility, integrity, and courage that they brought to military service. They commit to monthly meetings with a member from another political party, and to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation at least annually.
In their current deployment, these veterans are once again called to put aside differences and come together -- from many, one -- for our country’s greater good. It might be just what America needs right now.
So back to those important lessons my friend Rye taught me, the ones beyond the fitness. Three morals stand out in importance.
First, you don’t have to be a Marine to run to the sound of guns. Yes, Rye did it as Marine, but he also did it before and after deployment, in Kibera and in Congress. Running to the sound of guns is not so much a battle tactic as the mindset of a mission-oriented life. The trick is to choose the right mission, one worthy of your life - perhaps your Faith, your Family or your Country.
Second, the sound of guns is heard not only on the battlefield. It is heard wherever hatred is sown, and we run to that sound whenever we answer it not with more hatred, but with love. The sound of guns, sadly, can be heard all around us these days. We just need to listen.
Third, the point of all of the physical training that anchors our friendship – the goal of being strong – is to protect the weak. Rye’s life is a testament to a beautiful sentiment Saint Francis de Sales put this way - nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.
We all should have a friend like Rye, a happy warrior who makes you run with the swift. If you have one, be thankful. If you don’t, find one as soon as you can. And remember, someone else is looking up to you for that same kind of leadership.
That’s what I learned from Rye Barcott, my good buddy and a fine American. I’ll thank him here -- fittingly on Independence Day -- since I doubt I’ll ever catch him in a footrace.