“I had just one regret this whole life of mine,” John Wentling has told people over the years. “I joined the Army instead of the Marines.”
For almost five decades, John Wentling has given much of his life to the Marines he did not belong to.
He sent his two sons and three grandchildren to the Marines. His father-in-law was a Marine. He served in Marine Corps advocacy groups and veterans corps. He is chaplain of the Olde English Leathernecks Marines group. In York County, John Wentling is everywhere Marines veterans are, and even wears the group’s red jacket as chaplain.
“But I was not a Marine,” this69-year-old, with the iron hands and hard jaw, said so many times to his family, and friends, and others.
“I had this job with the airlines when I was 19. I got drafted. The Marines wanted me, I wanted them, but they told me at the airline that if I served four years in the Marines, my job would not be guaranteed with the airline when I got out. So I took the Army.
“It’s the only damn regret I have in my life.”
Saturday at the Rock Hill American Legion Post 34, Wentling thought there was a ceremony for somebody else. He never misses a ceremony for Marines. He was told to be there in his red jacket.
He even gave the prayer as he always does. In the prayer Wentling spoke about his country, and his faith, and how lucky he is, all of us are, to live in such a place as the United States of America.
His voice rose with emotion about America, and service.
“I don’t know why we are here today, but I know that it is for a reason,” Wentling told the crowd that to a man and woman, knew the reason.
His wife, Pat, sat nearby. She held back tears as Pat can keep a secret, but this one had her about to burst.
Into the packed room walked extended family and friends. John Wentling mouthed the words to the guy sitting next to him: “What the heck is going on?”
From a side door marched in Wentling’s sons, James and Connor. Marines both.
John Wentling, who sent both these sons to war so that other people’s sons might live in freedom, stared at his boys as they marched.
“So proud,” said Capt. Connor Wentling, 35, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who is now a Marines recruiter for South Carolina.
“He is an honorable man and Marine,” said Master Sgt. James Wentling, 46, a Desert Storm and Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, of his father.
The two grandsons and a granddaughter – Derrick and Trevor and Sarah Wentling – marched in. All three Marines. Ages 23, 22, and 20, each beaming with pride at their grandfather who had pushed them to what they are today — Marines.
John Wentling, who has held the hands of dying Marines at hospice, who has spent 50 years wishing he was one of them, knew that the day was not for somebody else.
John Wentling cried as he stood among the Marines he was about to join.
A Marine talked about how in American history only 93 people, ever, in the whole great nation, have been honored with membership as official Honorary Marines.
The membership includes people such as Bob Hope, Gary Sinise, Jim Nabors, Chuck Norris and others not so famous, but who gave great service in the 239-year corps history.
The honor can only be done by orders of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, after recommendations from politicians and family and Marines and others. A Medal of Honor winner nominated Wentling, because Wentling had done so much for so many Marines.
Wentling composed himself and was administered the oath of Marines. Not a tall man, maybe 5 feet 8 inches, he seemed to touch the ceiling with his bald and sunburned head turned dark from years of sun cutting grass in his lawn care business. His trademark bushy moustache will soon have to be cut off as moustaches are not standard for Marines.
Wentling’s mind was not on his upper lip, which quivered a little bit. His eyes were straight ahead, except when he peeked at his family standing so tall, saluting him.
When the oath was over, Wentling yelled out “Ooh-Rah!” — the Marines Corps yell.
Wentling got a standing ovation. The applause was for service. It was for selflessness. It was for a man who had spent all his adult life trying to erase a decision he made that had haunted him, not because he did not love the Army, but because all he ever wanted in his life was to be a Marine.
Saturday afternoon, John Wentling, 69, became Pvt. John Wentling, United States Marine Corps.
“I have never been prouder in my life,” Wentling said.
A Marines veteran gave Wentling an honorary patch for sergeant. Three minutes and a promotion.
Wentling hugged his kids, and his grandkids, and told them how proud he was of them.
They hugged back, and the sons said to the father, the grandkids to the grandfather who had waited 50 years to hear the words: “Good job — Marine.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065