This #OperationSong spotlight is on “He Took My Place” by Veteran Gary Lima who served in the Marine Corps as a sergeant and the Army as a major. Gary served during the Cyprus Conflict in 1974 as part of a Marine helicopter unit and later had a full career in the Army, from which he retired at the rank of major.
Gary had been preparing to act as part of a Marine operation to rescue Americans that were under threat due to the conflict on the island. However, when he was preparing to leave with the rest of his men, Gary was told he would be on crew rest and needed to find a replacement. A 21-year-old corporal with 30 days left of his deployment agreed to replace Gary in the helicopter for the rescue. The helicopter and the corporal never made it back.
Gary wrote, “He Took My Place” for Veterans and anyone struggling with PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Gary said efforts like Operation Song had helped him confront and cope with his PTSD and guilt and wanted to share his struggle in the hopes of helping others deal with theirs. Gary said that he hoped his story could make people ask themselves, “Why carry a ton of guilt, when that’s not yours to carry? Why not live?”
The song opens with a soulful piano prelude detailing a traditional Navy “last supper,” harkening back to the Normandy invasion and foreshadowing the melancholy tone of the song to come. The piece continues on with light guitar and a slow pace that carries the listener dreamlike and surreal, like how Gary described it himself, through moments just before a mission.
When Gary approaches the young corporal and asks him to be his replacement, the melody starts to build. This neatly encapsulates rising guilt Gary was just beginning to feel, and would continue to feel far into the future. The chorus then arrives at a crescendo, mirroring Gary’s internal struggle and allows the listener to sympathize aurally with what Gary feels emotionally.
The second verse details Gary’s recurring dream in which he is attempting in vain to save his men from their watery grave. The tone becomes angry as Gary puts blame on his gunnery sergeant who had made him stay and on himself. However, this tone becomes soothing as Gary explains through his lyrics that he has found forgiveness and peace through his deep belief in his Christian faith, potently comparing the sacrifice of Christ to that of the corporal.
Upon his return from Cyprus, Gary attended college where he eventually joined Army ROTC. After college, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in an armored division. Gary would go on to reach the rank of major before retiring from the armed services in 1996 and returning home to Nashville, Tennessee. There he worked in state emergency management for the State of Tennessee before retiring. Gary said that he still struggles with aspects of his PTSD and other service-related issues, but has made incredible strides in his recovery through treatment and efforts like Operation Song.
Operation Song is a non-profit based in Nashville, Tennessee that partners professional songwriters with veterans, active military, and their families to help them tell their stories through song. Since 2012, they have written over 600 songs with veterans of WWII to those currently serving. They hold weekly workshops in Middle Tennessee and sponsor events and group retreats throughout the U.S. Those who serve need no musical background, only the desire to tell their story. If you are interested in learning more about Operation Song or hearing more songs, please visit: http://www.operationsong.org/.