• February 4, 2010
  • 15

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.

Semper Fidelis,
America’s 1stSgt

/ / / /


  1. Thanks to Gracie in San Francisco for asking a question that had never dawned on me to ask… This post definitely has put me in a good frame of mind to combat the Forces of Darkness on campus today ;p

  2. Fabulous retelling of your decision to enlist.
    There’s a lot to be said for the value of those years of yours in the wilds. Sometimes it takes a bit of processing before you know where you want to go.

  3. Good that you had the time to learn there is more to life than waiting tables and partying. But I wonder if you would have joined sooner if we still had the drft. Or would you have just rolled over and let the Army have you?

  4. Coffeypot shame on you.
    A’s-1Sgt may have been young but he was certainly NOT dumb. He knew without anyone saying it that if he put on Army Green it would have broke his Daddy’s Marine Blue Heart.

    Thanks Gracie for getting A’s-1Sgt to talk about what it took for the seed of knowledge of one’s inner-self waking up to what the possibilities of the future holds when good decisions are made.

    Thanks A’s-1Sgt for sharing your beginnings with us.

    Miss Em
    Austell, Ga.

  5. Red, let us know how that goes for you. 🙂

    admiyo, I’ve noticed that folks who join when they are a little older fare somewhat better most of the time. Of course, now days anyone under the age of 25 seems like a kid to me.

    Kanani, I tend to agree. I have also noticed that young men who have enlisted with no idea what they want to do with themselves many times know exactly what they want to do after at least a year in the fleet.

    Coffee, I will admit that right after high school I talked all the Army and Navy recruiters to see what they had to offer. Air Force recruiters never returned my calls, losers. But years later when I decided I was joining up I waltzed right into the Marine recruiting office.

    Miss Em, don’t worry about Coffey. They don’t let him out much.

  6. Great story. Your dad must have been incredibly proud.

    My little bro is in about the same situation you were in, 1SG, only worse because he doesn’t have a job. If I could just get him to join the military so he’d be earning money and have a shot at college, I’d be so happy.

  7. A’s-1Sgt

    N O W, you tell me ‘that’ because
    Tuesday we had a coffee/hot tea meet.

    Guess I DID get the ONE day that he slipped the leash and made the mad dash past all the guards.

    He blogged about “the Lurker” on his blog on Wednesday. He also warned everyone that I was thinking about blogging.

    Actually, it was more like a challenge that I couldn’t refuse.

    Now, I’m trying to figure out just how I am going to tell everyone those bits of interesting things that go on in my life without having the “Blog Police” come down on my head.


    Now that I DO know that
    ‘Coffeypot’ is far from being some harmless, friendly, ink-squirting “Squid” that is now land-locked and trying to escape his aquarium of boredom by instigating those who are being polite
    ‘Lurkers’ into a panicked case of Leaping before you Look toward the spot that he has chosen for you.

    All I can say is…


    Miss Em
    Austell, Ga.
    {snickers and smiles ;~} Thanks ‘Coffeypot’. Having a great time reliving my memories.}

  8. Your dad smacking the table and wishing he was younger. /heh I’ve felt that since 9-11.

    Today the Son&Heir got on the bus with the rest of 1st Bn, A Co. Plt 1007 and headed up to Pendleton to start Phase 2.

    It rained like crazy today in San Dog today. Looks like Grass Week will be mud week.

  9. Hmmm… Dr. Burke? “here, let me set that arm for ya, NO you don’t need no pain med…. just hold still!”

    haha…glad you’re a dragon slayer.

    ..and you know you’re dad’s smiling down at you. 🙂

  10. Saker, my advice is simply to tell him about your experiences and hair raising tales of high adventure. You don’t even have to twist his arm. He might come around.

    Miss Em, associating with Coffeypot is risky at best and a lady should always consider her reputation. 🙂

    be603, ah Grass Week. It was almost a break to be off of MCRD. Of course, the platoons are also out of sight of all the brass back in San Diego too. Things tend to get interesting.

    J, too true. Dr Burke tends to create business for other medical practitioners. I like to think I cure diseases of a different nature.

  11. Just first letter from Phase 2 today. He’s stoked to be at Pendleton and headed for the range. Let’s see if being the son of gun nut did him any good. 🙂

  12. It probably will. I never shot expert until about my third time on the rifle range. I said to myself: “Let’s try out all this mumbo jumbo the PMI taught us in boot camp.” Low and behold I shot a 242! I was now a ninja.

  13. Got his first letter since moving up to Pendleton. He’s stoked to be up there and have Phase 1 wrapped up.

    Sprained his ankle day before initial PFT so that took him well off his normal runpace but still managed a 277. Looks like his wasted days surfing and lifeguarding paid off with a max swim qual.

    Quite a few guys lost their MOS’s due to poor swim quals. He’s trying not to hope to hard for some their platoons “rocks” to drop out on the Pendleton hikes. Gotta do better at final drill, don’cha know. /heh. He’s got a shepherd’s heart but also is nothing if he’s not competitive.

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