Four impressive young men slipped into the row in front of my wife and me at church a couple of weeks ago.

All-American in appearance and demeanor, their closely cropped haircuts suggested that although they were dressed in civilian attire, they were active duty members of the military. I discovered later they were Marines.

I gave them the once-over and perceived them to be buddies who were "about to get (their) worship on" as Christian recording artist Jamie Grace puts it in her hit song, "It's a Beautiful Day."

Boy, did they put me to shame.

They were young, probably between ages 19 and 22, and as I sat in our church's huge worship center I felt painfully uncomfortable and humbled. My conscience was stricken.

I remember when I was in the Army decades ago. I'd go with my military brothers — the closest pals I've ever had in my life — on excursions off post every weekend. I was in the same age category as these Marines.

But we never went to church. That would have been our last possible destination. Instead, we'd cut loose at bars or nightclubs, visit an occasional museum or attend a ballgame. I acted like a self-absorbed twit. I had no time for the Lord.

But these young men chose God. Good for them!

I didn't begin to take an interest in things spiritual until a decade after my military service. Looking back now, I wish I'd come to faith sooner. I could have avoided many headaches.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

During my 36 months on active duty, I went to church exactly one time. That was during basic training, and I used my sacred appointment as a means for getting away from my company and avoiding irksome military details like kitchen patrol or policing the company area.

I went to church once during my 18-month assignment in Korea, but not for a worship service. Instead, I went to the base chapel to attend a lecture delivered by noted author Pearl S. Buck. She discussed creative writing. The then-74-year-old Buck was enchanting, but I sat in that chapel for the wrong reasons.

I desperately needed to spend time with the one who knows me better than I know myself, and he kept nudging me to do so, but I wasn't buying it. I was awash in things of minor significance.

These four young men with the buzz cuts were an inspiration to me.

Like this reprobate a half century earlier, they could have chosen to be almost anywhere. But, unlike me, they elected to worship God rather than self. That shows remarkable maturity.

One young Marine — a redhead with a body builder's physique — obviously felt at ease in church. He robustly sang the worship choruses and lifted his hands in praise. Two others were slightly subtler in their responses, but no less focused on the insights expressed in the teaching.

The fourth Marine? Well, I'd guess it was his first visit to a service at an evangelical church. He appeared ill at ease. He didn't sing, didn't take sermon notes and stared stiffly ahead. Clearly, he was determined to survive an ordeal.

I hope he comes back.

His bodybuilding buddy had doubtless coaxed him into attending. I learned while I was in the military that your buddies hold a very significant sway over your actions and decisions. Sometimes you're coerced into doing things you'd never do on your own. That was perhaps the case with the reluctant Marine.

After the church service, my wife, Hedy, and I spoke with the guys. She told them she'd be praying for their safety. I know her; she will.

They were appreciative.

As we looked into their youthful faces, we were mindful of the fact that they aren't all that much older than our 15-year-old grandson. Were he visiting a church far from home, we'd hope that someone would offer him prayers and good wishes.

We owe Americans in uniform our deepest affection and gratitude. They belong to us all.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.