- February 4, 2010
Ask America’s 1stSgt : Edition 1
Gracie from San Francisco writes: “So – 1st Sgt. – did you ever say – and I almost hesitate to ask – why you became a Marine? Knowing your writing style – I’m afraid I might be hung out to dry for asking that question – but – why did you? And, why not something else – like being a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman or a butcher or an actor? Was it ‘YES!! – I’m going to be a Marine? Or were there other equally important choices looming on the horizon at that time?”
The alternative was to stay in boot camp. Forget that!
I suppose I can trace this way back to ancient times during the Vietnam War. My mother was pregnant with me and it was the night before my father shipped out to Vietnam for his third tour.
That evening they watched a John Wayne movie called Sands of Iwo Jima. In retrospect this not the best film for an expecting mother to watch before her husband marches off to war. If you haven’t seen it know it is one of the few movies where John Wayne is killed storming the beaches with the World’s Finest United States Marines.
As my dad left the next morning my mother rushed to the door weeping: “If John Wayne could die, YOU COULD DIE TOO!”
Dad confidently turned back toward the house: “I’m coming back,” then he stalked down the sidewalk with his sea bag and woe to any communist heathens who crossed his path.
I was born while he was in country. When he came back he scooped his baby son up in his arms and I promptly barfed all over him.
By age four or five, Dad was a SgtMaj. Marines would approach me and make comments like: “There’s the next SgtMaj!” or “When are you joining up tiger!” These men were all hardened Vietnam vets motivationally growling like lions grooming a cub.
One day Dad sat me down in the house and said: “You know, you don’t have to be a Marine if you don’t want to.” This is the same man who, when I came home from preschool one day, asked what I had learned. He listened with tears streaming down his face as I recited the “Pledge ‘llegiance“.He always said I stopped to think about it for a moment then announced: “Okay Dad, I don’t think I want to be a Marine.”
Usually I tell people from that time until about a week before I walked into the recruiter’s office I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. But I’d be leaving a few things out if I left it at that.
By the time Dad retired when I was 10 he had spent 33 years in the Marine Corps. Tales of his time in the service was the stuff of Arthurian legend to me. When the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed in 1983 he was positively hostile he wasn’t still in the Marine Corps. When the Desert Shield rolled around he had been fervently against the war. This surprised me as in my mind’s eye he was a flint eyed, thin lipped, man killer.
One day I came home to find an American flag flying grandly in front of the house with a yellow ribbon tied to it.
“What’s up with that Dad? I thought you were against the war?”
“Well son,” his flinty eyes shined at me. “I guess I’m just gungy.” I don’t think I quite understood him at the time. I do now. The why no longer mattered. Marines were in harm’s way; you could get hard or get out.
That night on the news the talk was about the impending invasion of Iraq. I remember my father ripping his wide belt off as if he we getting ready to beat someone with it.
“If we’re gonna go then let’s go!” he shouted slamming his belt on the coffee table. “Damn, I wish I were a few years younger.”
As for me I was going to school part time at Honolulu Community College and then got a job waiting tables at a 50’s diner in Honolulu called Rose City Diner. I had hair down to the middle of my back and an earring in my left year. What a dork.
The more I worked the more money I had. The more money I had the better I liked it. Soon work was more important than school and I dropped out. I was also having far too much fun than is healthy for the average human. What was important was when the next party was.
One day my dad and I were walking through downtown Honolulu when he noticed some Marine recruiters walking out of the Federal Building.
“You know, you’d look pretty sharp in that uniform son.” I recall rolling my eyes and thinking it was highly unlikely I would do something so foolish.
“It’s not a bad life.”, he said and dropped the subject. It was the first time he ever even hinted about joining the Corps since telling me I didn’t have to join if I didn’t want to when I was five.
At that time the group of friends I hung out with was a diverse spectrum of people with aged anywhere from 16 to 36 years old. A couple of older guys I worked with were both in their mid to late 30’s. One a waiter and the other a bus boy. I always thought they were cool because they had some funny stories about stuff they had done.
One night I remember having a small satori or moment of enlightenment. We were working and it dawned on me that they were both about 16 years older than I was and still doing the same kind of work. Did I want to still be waiting tables as a 36 year old? One guy was the stinkin‘ bus boy for crying out loud. He worked for me!
Shortly thereafter unseen forces began to conspire against me. I had a falling out with some friends culminating with my moving out of the apartment we shared. My mother had gotten a job with DOD schools as a nurse so my parents were moving to Germany. Another satori as I realized all my high school friends were getting ready to graduate college soon while my homeless behind had accomplished nothing and was going nowhere.
I am convinced m 61 year-old father did back flips the day I told him I had been talking to the Marine recruiter. By contrast, my mother, who had been a Navy nurse at Balboa Hospital during the Vietnam War, was in tears again. She had seen legions of wounded Marines come through the hospital during the war and the thought of her baby lying gut shot in some foreign land worried her to no end.
When I made the decision to enlist it wasn’t to follow in any one’s footsteps. I like to say that joining the military was my idea as it really hadn’t occurred to me in over 15 years. But when it came time to pick a particular branch, do you really think it was much of a contest?
Eighteen years in and you know what?
It’s not a bad life.