When I think back to my time in the United States Marine Corps, I recall a saying in boot camp when the day wasn’t going our way, “Ours is not to wonder why, ours is to do or die.”
I know now the words were borrowed and then gently mangled and altered from Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, published in 1854 regarding a key battle during the Crimean War. Strangely enough, as with the original poem, for us the “to do or die” wasn’t melancholy or a death wish, it was merely a matter of fact relating to a sense of duty.
I never saw combat during my six years of service, so I have much greater appreciation for my brothers and sisters who served during war time. And based on my perception, I haven’t always been comfortable acceptation the appreciation of people thanking me for my service. As the years have piled up, I am getting better at it, but I still feel more comfortable thanking others.
The path to joining the military is rarely a straight line. My guess is I was voted least likely to volunteer for service by a number of high school peers, but for others it was no surprise.
I’ve always had an inordinate amount of love for my country. Baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet was all me. I was a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout, and I grew up in an era when saying the Pledge of Allegiance was said everyday before classes started at school. My dream job throughout most of my first two decades on the planet was to be President of the United States. History was my favorite subject and we certainly got a heavy dose of the U.S. narrative in my primary and secondary school years. Since my family had few financial resources at the time, I considered a path to President for someone like me would require some military service.
However, as high school graduation grew near, my focus switched to education, in particular an eye on English for journalism skills or history for teaching skills. After signing up for college, the very modest first semester bill in 1983 dollars was 550 bucks. I had about four hundred in my bank account, which was quite a bit for me from working for my Dad. I asked him about some college money help and the family accounts were in worse shape than mine.
That fateful graduation weekend, one of my classmates had signed up for the Corps. And as any smart recruiter knows, where he can find one Marine, there could be more. Staff Sergeant Swain showed up at my friend’s graduation party. Beers, ah yes, back in the day of the 18-year old legal drinking age, and hot dogs on a sunny spring day in early June. He wore his dress blues, and he hit a group of us with the “what’s next?” question. I didn’t have a good answer. He tossed me a business card, and by August 8th of that summer, he sold me on joining the finest military organization the world has ever seen.
In other words I had absolutely zero clue what I was in for.
The recruiting posters looked cool, my recruiter had an answer for every concern. Sign up, go train for three months and attend a vocation school and just like that, I would be a Marine.
At four in the morning of October 10, 1983, my first sleepless training day, I was seriously questioning my decision. As in, what in the literal Hell was I thinking?
This was after a flight from Denver to Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. I was told it was a beautiful city, but I didn’t discover the city until decades later. All I saw of San Diego was the dirt in front of my face. We boarded the bus at the airport and as soon as the door closed, a Marine Corps Drill Instructor began to inform us about who our asses belonged to. It was in a booming, command voice laced with finest curse words, and we all pretty much understood and believed completely he would stomp our guts out if we refused to comply.
Once we arrived at our destination a few moments later, we ran off the vehicle and onto the famous yellow painted footprints on the ground to transform us from a mob into our first formation. And we had ten seconds to comply. From there, it got a lot more interesting. We marched into a warehouse, and were then required to ditch all of our civilian clothing into a box. Standing naked in line for government issued underwear was not in the recruiting posters, but there I was.
Having my head shaved, I knew about that part, the shocker was to see the giant hair piles next to the chairs, no time for clean-up, time was of the essence. Eventually, my newly issued seabag was full of clothes, and the box of my personal belongings went into storage for the duration of my stay. In those few hours, I wasn’t called Marine. I was called just about every other bad name or nickname and some I hadn’t ever imagined.
Within a few weeks, a mere flick of a light switch moments before Reveille sounded, and 50 recruits from Platoon 3105 could be up, fully dressed, combat boots and all, inside of three minutes and in a perfect dress-right-dress formation.
Our Senior Drill Instructor was a dark green Marine Sergeant and still one of the humans I respect more than any other. And by dark green, the USMC is all one color, green, we’re just different shades of green. Yes, it is semantics, but a good way to ultimately think of the Corps, as one color. It didn’t make racism vanish, it simply served as a reminder of the importance of the unity of the Corps when race issues flared up.
By the second phase of boot camp, we were occasionally called ‘recruits’ instead of many of the dirty words I would add to my salty vocabulary during my time of service. I learned how to assemble, take apart and reassemble my M-16 rifle. I learned how to fire it accurately from 500 yards away. I learned how to shoot a .45 pistol, and threw live hand grenades. Then on to live fire exercises, night time tracer round fire, patrols and marching up steep hills with 80-pounds of gear on our backs. I learned just how awesome the firepower is of a single Marine Corps squad. It was brutal, but then again, it was getting to be kind of fun.
By the end of the three month span, I had missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. I understand other branches of the military allow for time off during their initial training. For us, one of our favorite USMC among acronym adjustments was ‘U-Suckers-Missed-Christmas’. Another all time favorite of mine was Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children.
There really is something inherently misguided to go through what Marines choose to go through. The crazy bond that begins in boot camp, continues on to the next job, and I imagine the next war, next battle, next horrifying experience.
I didn’t see combat, but was always certainly ready to go. Peacetime war-games were silly, and most of us enjoyed mocking the process. They were more like sleep deprivation drills and cold field showers. But earning that title of U.S. Marine certainly gained a brotherhood that has had my back since the day I signed up.
The hardcore mentality of the Corps invites a number of challenges from civilians who love to find out how tough Marines ‘really’ are. One night out on the town, I was hanging with a buddy and five drunk kids decided they were going to teach us something. Instead, a group of Marines from across the bar, guys I had never met or seen before, escorted our new friends outside of the establishment.
There were a few of those cliche off duty violent moments that I don’t recommend, yet somehow added valuable life experience. Including what places not to go, what not to drink and adding diplomacy to some conflicts is actually a real option.
I’ve avoided legal trouble twice, due to the fact I was a Marine. As someone in military intelligence (yes, yes, everyone’s favorite oxymoron), a single arrest, regardless of the outcome would result in me losing my job. Instead, I was given some lovable extra chances due to working for Uncle Sam.
Being a Marine is now a part of my DNA. I grumbled and complained about the hurry up and wait world, bad chow and sleepless nights, but I ultimately loved my time in uniform. To quote a line from the violent war film Fury, “Best damn job I’ve ever had.”
My time in was during relative peace. I’ve never been more proud of the current volunteers who become Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, as the world is far more dangerous than ever before. Good people continue to step up, sign up and serve. The Veterans Administration is unable to get close to serving the physical and mental needs of our combat wounded, the suicide rate for veterans is 22-per day or one every 65 minutes. If you are a Vet who is struggling in any way or you know of one in trouble, please contact Veterans Crisis Line.
I’ll always be grateful when people thank me for my time in service, it was something I think I was born to do. My heroes are the wartime and career service members, like my brother Jeff, a U.S. Army, Iraq War veteran. Hug them all if you can, or remember them well this Veteran’s Day.