Mine was not to wonder why…

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.

Ambassador For A Day

The Marine Corps for me was many things, but it was never boring — despite six years of mostly peacetime service.

One day, a tiny contingent of Marines represented all of the United States.

And we didn’t screw it up.

As a military intel guy, one of jobs was keeping an eye on the bad guys, in case things took a turn for the worse.  And to keep up with potential foes of God, Country and Corps, we had to study a lot, to keep up on potential threats.  New weapons, troop build-ups, conflicts in areas of interest, which sounds cool, but it was a lot like school.  A lot of time in rooms with no windows looking over information, photos, reports.  A desk job on a lot of days.

The only thing tougher than a desk job, was a desk job in Hawaii.  We were on assignment from our  unit to support Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific at Pearl Harbor.

Yes, a very rough assignment, but we Marines are fairly fearless, and the work needed to be done. So, of course, we obeyed our orders and worked away in the windowless buildings, researching and reporting while the sunshine remained a workplace daydream. On Fridays, we were allowed to wear our Deltas, basically the khaki short sleeve shirts, dress blues trousers with the dress blue white cover (hat for you civilian types).  Basically, it was a common look for recruiters in the peacetime era.

In other words, we looked good. We looked official, and maybe from a distance we looked important to the untrained eye.

After work we headed back to the other side of the base and there were always some interesting ships parked along the docks near our barracks.  One ship in particular caught our eye.  We’re intel guys, it is the type of thing that should catch our eye.  It was patrol boat sized, built with U.S. steel, an old hull frame from World War II era but it had some very new weapons on it.  High tech electronics, that we identified from France, German missiles on the side, and we couldn’t quite figure out what we were looking at.  By our estimates, this thing could sink half of a fleet before anyone knew it was there.

We had to know more.

We walked around to get a closer look and saw the ship’s colors, it was from Thailand.  We were leaning in to get a closer look and we were not the only ones doing some investigating.  Suddenly, the three of us looked up and there were many hands on deck looking back down on us.  I thought maybe I was breaking some kind of rules by getting that close and doing a threat assessment of their impressive tiny warship.

They started to yell some things not in English.  I was sure I had done something wrong.  I was the highest ranking jarhead on the dock, a sergeant at the time, so any trouble belonged to me.  I waited at the bottom of the ramp for someone to chew us out or ask for identification.  Someone raised their hand with what is likely the universal sign to stop or halt.  We stopped.  And then the weirdest thing ever happened.

They piped us on board.

To back up a bit, Marines are indeed a branch of the U.S. Navy, but other than being the fine fellows who drive the boats (yes, Navy vernacular prefers ships, Marines use other terms as an annoyance) to take Marines to war.  However, we knew enough that being piped on board is reserved for Captains, high ranking officials, very important persons.

This could be the only time in history a few enlisted knuckleheads were formerly piped on board.

While being piped on was pretty cool, and we did the double take to see if anyone else was around, but this was still potential trouble.  We were unarmed, none us knew any Thai and we could still be violating a number of protocols way above our pay grade.

We ignored all that and went on board, of course.

Normally, we step on board and salute the flag, and then the officer on deck, but there were no U.S. flags  in view, so we made due and saluted the dude with the boatswain whistle, because we owed him that much.  We were greeted by a eight or nine Thai sailors, all just wearing white T-Shirts and white dungarees.  Whoever was normally in charge of this ship was not around.  We didn’t see any officers, but someone in full uniform was on the bridge, and he appeared to be the equivalent of a U.S. Navy Chief.

We got a full tour, mostly of pointing, nodding heads and smiles.  To this point, none of our hosts was any more proficient at English than we were Thai.  I tried to ask questions about some of the equipment, but they were either really smart and decided not to give away info or merely had no idea what I was asking.

We ended up in the galley, it was tiny, maybe enough room for eight people, but as our hosts were curious, about a dozen people were squeezed around a tiny table.  They made us dinner.  We tried to say no thanks, shake it off and head back up, but they were very insistent.  So we ate.  I had never had Thai food before, and really nothing as authentic as that day, and it was amazingly good.

Communication was still primarily smiles, nods of yes or no and the occasional high five.  And the words “Jesus Christ” fell from the mouth of one of our hosts.

“Excuse me?”

“Jesus Christ,” he repeated, and then he pointed at a silver cross that I was wearing that had moved to the outside of my uniform during all the ladder climbing tour earlier.

“Oh, my cross,” I realized. “Yes, Jesus Christ.”

He then pulled a Buddha necklace out, and described it as such.

“That does look like a little Buddha,” I awkwardly replied.

He then switched to hand gestures and offered a trade.  I was reluctant at first, I’m not always the best theological representative, but the cross on my chest offered some comfort during my time in the Corps.  I then handed over my cross and in turn received a Buddha necklace.  We each put on our new gifts.

I asked him if he knew any more English, other than Jesus.  He shook his head no and then said, “A little.”

I then went into a long series of hand gestures that would have made any park mime proud to describe their ship and tried to ask what enemies is this meant to fight?

“Vietnam,” he said.

Better English than I thought or my mime show was spot on.

I should have known our current allies may inherit some of our problems, so it made sense, but as I understand it, those skirmishes ended about a year after I was on this ship.  It was tough looking boat.  Maybe it made a difference.

Now it was getting dark, and we saluted our way topside and prepared to leave.  I looked back to thank my trading partner, but he was tearing up and his eyes were fixed on my new Buddha.  I took it off, he shook his head no and tried to push it away.  I insisted.  He took it back with a smile and started to take off his new cross.

“You keep it,” I said, “thanks for all the good company and good food.”

Can I get a head nod?  Yes.

My fellow Marines shook some hands and we felt like we had accomplished something.  We weren’t sure what, but it felt good.  And then they played the pipe whistle once more, just for grins based on what we could see, and we disembarked.

They were waving goodbye, we simply gave them one more sharp salute. Waving wasn’t really our style.  We then began our did that just happen conversation on the way back to the barracks.  We may have broken some rules, we weren’t sure.  At least we represented well, and made some new pals.

Ambassador for a day, fan of Thailand for life.

More Than a Good Day to Shop

Ah, Memorial Day weekend.

The first long weekend of spring, the promise of warmer days ahead, vacations and as I got older, it was a signal for bargain shopping time. All of those meanings throughout many years were all Memorial Day was for me.

I’ve been fortunate, my brother returned from his 14-month assignment in Iraq for the U.S. Army.  Not everyone gets back, and I understand that now.

I didn’t always get it.  I signed up for the military and still didn’t get it when I was putting that pen to paper.  Of course I knew the potential ultimate sacrifice anyone may make during their time working for Uncle Sam, I had just not thought a whole lot about those who came before me.

Sure, I talked a good game as history high school student, yet reality shifts during those days I was learning what it was to earn the title of United States Marine.  And yes, those drill instructors will call you everything else under the sun but you don’t get the honor until graduation day.

Boot camp is its own world.  There are no days off to hang out in town like they showed in some older movies.  There was no television during those three months.  Sometimes newspapers could be read a few moments on Sunday mornings, but really the outside world vanished for most of my time there.

Except for one Sunday.

Up until that particular day, Sunday mornings were the one bit of respite we were allowed during training.  We did laundry, got to read our mail and we got to go to church.  It was presumably a choice, but our senior drill instructor strongly encouraged everyone to go, as there were plenty of options to choose from.  Catholics, Protestants and those of the Jewish faith primarily, but they had one additional formation for ‘other’ and those guys got to hang with someone as close to their beliefs as possible.

For me, the youngest recruit in the platoon, I very much enjoyed marching to church each Sunday.  I leaned very hard on my faith during that duration and in particular, the day we heard the news.  Again, without much of a news source, we didn’t expect an update during the homily, but it did involve the Marine Corps.

I knew something was up when we got there, the clergy were generally upbeat, but they were somber.  They told us 220 Marines had been killed the day before in Lebanon. It was October 23, 1983.

Understandably, there was an audible gasp from the recruits.  As it should be, it was the most Marines lost in action in a day to that point since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

I couldn’t imagine what had to have happened for so many to fall.  I didn’t have to wonder for very long.

The quiet march back to the squad bay ended with a strange sight – all three of our drill instructors were in full uniform, waiting for us.  On Sundays, we never saw more than one D.I. And they were more than unhappy.

Our senior drill instructor, a man I think could conquer Russia in single combat, was wiping a tear away from his eye.  There were nine names on the chalk board in  what was called the ‘classroom’ part of the barracks.  It was just some open floor space next to the ‘hut’ or office where the instructors would sleep.  We were told to sit on the floor, as usual in a classroom gathering.

Sergeant Sheriff — even his name fit the job and the Corps — pointed at those names on the board.

“You think this shit ain’t real?” he began.

He then explained these were names of the kids that were here just a few weeks before us.  They were recruits he trained, Marines he made.

They were dead.

They were among the Marines lost in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission during a time of civil war there.  It was done in a way and by people we are all too familiar with in today’s world.  It was a truck bomb that crashed the gate and killed Marines who were sleeping.  The group that ultimately took credit was the Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran to fight for their interests in the region.

I for one always understood what I was signing up for, although that reminder served as excellent motivation for our entire platoon.

At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, everyday was Memorial Day. Well, every base I ever served as well.  Taps is the old bugle song played every day at dusk to remind us of the fallen.  An appreciation I respect now, more than ever before.  All assume the same risk, but not all of us make it back.

Way more than a shopping day, it is just one more chance for me to be thankful of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Memorial Day has meant much more to me since that Sunday morning.

Absolutely celebrate our freedom with barbecue and fireworks whenever possible, but a thought or two for those who provide and maintain it is always a nice thing.

Tales of an Irish Rogue

In all, my six years in the United States Marine Corps were served during a comparatively quiet time in history.  We certainly packed up and went where we were told and when, but for a couple exceptions, Marines stayed out of trouble in the mid 1980’s.

Well, not all of us stayed out of trouble.

One of my favorite former Marines was only in the Corps during my first two years of service, yet he left a lifetime of impressions during that span.  And as the modern world of blogs go, I’ll alter his name a bit in case he wants to write his own stories. Or in case the statute of limitations has not been reached on some of these adventures.

We will go with the name Mac.  And with that kind of nickname, it narrows the choices to either Scottish or Irish American heritage. The title today gives it away. Besides I’ve always considered myself bit of an Irish rogue as well.  I recognize the stereotype.  He was quite literally a fighter with the full on Irish temperament.

I had been in the Marine Corps about nine months when I first met Mac.   Three months of boot camp plus six months of training for my military occupational specialty or MoS.  And my job of course, was everyone’s favorite oxymoron – military intelligence.

I loved the job.  It included a top secret security clearance and some of the most important work I’ve ever done.  Although, right after graduating from intel school, the first assignment appeared fairly mundane, until I met Mac.

He wasn’t the tallest or strongest person I met in among Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (my favorite of the many uses for the standard USMC initials), but Mac was the toughest.  Apparently he played hockey in his spare time, and I believed it.

A couple days out of intel school, I got my new orders and jumped on a plane to Cherry Point, North Carolina.  It was August, 1984, with emphasis on the month.  Summers in the southeast can be a bit hot and humid.  I stepped off the last plane of the journey at midnight, and the humidity was downright oppressive and hostile when accompanied with a 9o-degree temperature.

It was a two week war games effort involving several thousand Marines.  We took to the field and the conditions for sleeping outside in the south should not have been a surprise, but it was unpleasant at best.  Sweating every hour, the nights were just as hot as the days, the mosquitos were doing their level best to eat us alive.  The field showers should have been a relief, the freezing cold water was kind of nice, but the drains didn’t work. It became an exercise of will to see how long one could deal with standing in a foot or so of mucky, muddy water to rinse off. We worked twelve hours on, twelve hours off, and I’m not sure I slept at all the first week there.

Our unit sent four enlisted men and two officers to support this operation.  We would look at images pulled off of cameras from old F-4 fighters, refitted to observe the developing situation on the ground during the op.  We worked intel for one side of the war games, and another intel unit worked with the other side.  Again, pretty mundane as it was very easy to spot and identify equipment and troop movements and write up reports for our side of the war game.

So, for our particular shifts, I worked with Jeff, a friendly enough guy, but he had been in a while and he was even less excited to be there.  The other team that was stuck working together for 12 hours a day were Nelson and Mac.  Our officers, of course, were not living in the field with us, they had rooms at the nearby base.  We didn’t see them that much, except for the occasional briefing to show them what we found.

Ten days into the operation, those same officers saw that us enlisted guys were less useful to them without any sleep.  They found us a barracks room at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry point.  The first night in the tiny room with four ancient bunk beds felt like a four star resort.

Based on our previous shift work, it was also the very first time all four of us were in the same room at the same time.  Nelson had been promoted to sergeant just before our journey to North Carolina, which made him the senior enlisted person among us.

Apparently, he had been reminding Mac all week long about his status as the top dog.  There was quite a bit of tension in the room, as the other three had been in the unit nearly four years together, and one person bragging about rank did not sit well with Jeff and Mac.

They all decided to blow off some steam and head over to the Non-Commisioned Officer Club or NCO club.  I was the FNG (f’n new guy) and was not yet an NCO.  I was exhausted anyway and sleep was my favorite option.  And fall asleep I did about 15 minutes after they left around 2000 hours, or 8 pm.  A series of loud voices and noises woke me at 2400 hours.  I am sure of the time, because I needed that information for the official inquiry the next day.

Jeff and Mac were drunk.  At that point they were happy, exhausted drunks.  Jeff was in the lower bunk, Mac’s spot was on the wall near the door.  A light shined into the window from the parking lot.  I had been too tired to care, yet it bothered Mac and Jeff.  Mac asked Jeff to close the window blinds so no light could enter the room.

Jeff obliged, but as I noted, he was drunk.  There was one obstacle in his path to the window blinds.  It was Nelson’s bed.  Jeff jumped on top to reach the cord, but he shifted his weight to the far side of the bunk and the whole thing tipped over with a crash.  The pillow and bedding went in opposite directions.   I suddenly recalled the great pride Nelson had taken in making up his bunk as well as he did in boot camp.  A weird bit of bragging, but that is what the guy loved to do.

Drunk Jeff did his damnedest to repair the mess.  But it was an epic fail, as nothing was tucked in, and it basically looked like a pile of laundry gone wrong.

The three of us went to sleep, for about one half hour, and then our senior NCO returned home.  And he was unhappy.  He began yelling at all of us, certain that we had purposefully destroyed his perfectly made bunk.  Part of his assumption was correct, none of us liked him.  But as Mac pointed out, no one did it on purpose, it was an accident.  He was calm and collected, and he suggested Nelson remake his bunk and get some sleep.

Nelson was drunk too.  He would not let it go.  The accusations got worse, and then they got personal.  He once again bragged about being the highest ranked person in the room.  He also advanced the claim that he was a better Marine than Jeff and Mac and his promotion was evidence.

Mac flipped back the covers, stepped out of his bunk, stepped within an inch of Nelson’s face and with a quiet force and a low voice he said, “I don’t care what your rank is, if you don’t shut-up and let me sleep in five seconds, I’m going to knock your ass out.”

Nelson waited three seconds before starting to speak, it just meant he was going to miss his new deadline.  By the fifth second, Mac kept his promise and he knocked Nelson in the jaw and he fell to the floor. Mac went to sleep.  We all woke up hours later to find that Nelson had filed charges against Mac for the brief scuffle.

Each of us was called into an office by our two officers to provide our observations of what happened the night before.  I was the key witness in the eyes of the officers, as Jeff was good pals with Mac, and Nelson’s version of events was vastly different than theirs.  I was going to be the tie-breaking vote in a very close decision.  I knew two things at that early stage of my Marine Corps career, I really enjoyed Mac’s instant justice the previous night, and good Marines don’t whine or throw their new rank around. I did what any good intel guy would do in that situation.

I lied.

I explained I was awaken from my slumber twice at that point, which was true.  I recalled drunk Jeff accidentally thrashing Nelson’s bunk.  And then I heard arguing, but did not see the punch.  By the time I looked up, it was all over.  They were not buying my perspective.  Captain Young in particular saw something in my body language, probably the same tell that kills me in Texas Hold’em, but he knew I knew more.  I held my ground, and signed my statement.

I must look like one of those folks who tells the truth all the time, because Mac looked at me like I was the next one to get punched.  He asked me what I told the officers.  I sat down next to him and said, I told the truth. He grimaced and started to throw a few choice swear words in my direction, and I said, “The truth is, Nelson is an asshole. He deserved what he got.”

From that moment on, Mac and I were pals.  And strangely enough, I earned a great deal of respect from Captain Young that day as well.  I think everyone knew the truth about Nelson, but they did have to ‘officially’ investigate the incident.

And this was only the first adventure with that Irish Rogue, who kept things pretty darned interesting for peacetime in the Marine Corps.

Peacetime, another one of those oxymorons.