It’s been twenty years and three months since I was rushed out of a bus aboard MCRD San Diego and stood on the yellow footprints. Twenty years ago today I was coming up on the end of my boot leave, getting ready for SOI in Camp Pendleton, where I’d stand camp guard in Area 52 for a few weeks while waiting for a class to open up. Come November 28th, it will be 20 years to the day that I checked into Charlie Company, 1st battalion, 8th Marines and met my first team leader to the hoots and jeers of senior Marines screaming, “Fresh meat for the grinder,” and “send one to my room!”
At that time, there was a lot of uncertainty in where I was, and if I even wanted to be there. The low peg on the wall, the boot. Still not free to be and subject to the whims of my superiors. No real authority, and barely owning the title. The games continued for a time- yeah, some would call it hazing, but I call earning your place- but they were never unbearable. Some quit even then. One guy I went to SOI with (in fact, this Marine of which I speak is the only reason I completed the night nav course) got out on a failure to adapt. Another just up and left one night, to be picked up just before our first deployment by the MPs at his home. Most of us stayed, earned a spot within the company- became brothers (kid brothers, but brothers nonetheless) of the senior Marines who took us under their wing.
It’s all a fading memory now. Snapshots in the mind, reinforced by the real snapshots we took with our cameras when in the field or at the barracks or while on leave or liberty. I can remember some of the more prominent voices from those early days. Gunny Raeburts libbo speeches that always ended with, “wear a Kevlar” to his recounting of surviving a real helicopter crash in the ocean, and why the helo dunker was so damned important (I never did get to do it- couldn’t tread water long enough). Standing at the POA in front of my room mate at the time (now a representative for his state) saying “I salute you” while we saluted back and forth for having the temerity to jokingly salute one another and get caught.
The white glove inspections of the inside of our lights switches and duct work by an over zealous Sergeant. Folding my underwear and T-shirts into 6”x6” squares (ironed flat of course) and arranging all my hanging clothes on the hangars so that they were exactly two fingers apart. Sleeping under my poncho liner in my PT gear on an already made bed so that I could just smooth it out in the morning and get out to the daily run. Getting dinged on a field day inspection for having but a single pube in the toilet (man’s gotta pee). Having certain items “accidentally” visible to distract the inspecting officer or SNCO with (some people used Playboy, others Hustler).
Ever put your room outside? I have. It’s not fun- especially when you live on the second deck… Or was that someone else? It doesn’t really matter. It happened to someone, and to the Marines, it’s all one big mushed up memory. Like standing before our platoon Guide while deployed and telling him flat out, “no” when he asked me to make another damned firewatch/phonewatch/garbagewatch/hatchwatch roster for 14 people to stand. The look in his eyes, like all the switches had just been thrown at once and he literally didn’t know what to do. I didn’t buck the system. That was my first time. I think I earned some platoon cred on that one. We had one watch instead of four as a result. Sooo… I won?
<Him, with boombox> “What time it is?” <I look at my watch> <Him, closing eyes, and shaking head like the freaking Dude he is> “No, Uher… <He presses play button on boom box> “IT’S PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME!” Where he got the boombox and a tape with that song on it in November 2004 southern Fallujah I have no freaking idea. But he did, and I will never forget that moment.
But the ambush, the assault on the Mayors complex, the “Fallujah 500” and “Fallujah Sprint for your life or die” and the countless houses we cleared- to include that mansion with the chandelier we smashed (had to check it for weapons you see)- it’s all fading, but visible. Like a fog composed of time and my own fallible memory is slowly ecluding the memories, contorting the facts and details, merging one event with another. My history, unwritten, slowly disappearing to time itself as has happened to countless warriors throughout the ages. As will doubtless happen to countless more in the future. That history, that ever present if fading portion of who I am, is more important to me than all the years before.
I don’t really remember high school. I vaguely remember the crushes, and the game nights with my first real friend- scratch that, my first real brother from another mother. I do remember getting beat up and that day being the last I cried. But aside from that, nothing then really matters that much to me.
I like to say that I grew up in Davenport Iowa, but was raised in the Marines. As much as I hated it sometimes, I loved it even more. I miss it like a man might miss his arm. I miss the brotherhood. The times singing in the back of Humvees, or sleeping in hailstorms across the ocean. I miss the smell of LEjeune (yes… I do… I know… It’s awful). I miss the early morning runs with the wolf pack. I miss being a part of a family that would not just die for me- but kill everything within a twelve block radius to bring me home.
In sickness and in health, and good times and bad. It’s the oath you take when you get married, but for us, it was an oath we acted on every day. Sometimes with less grace than you’d expect (or not). Tough love, brother to brother, was how we solved problems. That or high explosive rounds and overwhelming fire superiority- but I repeat myself. We were invincible- even when we weren’t. We were macho- even when we weren’t. We didn’t give a fuck (but really, we did and still do, though we’ll never admit as much).
And in those twenty years I haven’t let go, nor will I. There was a thing that happened- sometime between stepping on those yellow footprints and the birth of my first kid that solidified in me a deeply held desire to see that my kids get the same freedoms and chances I had. That desire is rooted in who the Marines made me- or rather, what I let the Marines make me. For my family, I’d walk through an eternity of hell if it’d buy them ten more seconds of breath. Those bonds I built with my brothers in arms- the lessons I learned about being a decent (if broken and unreadable) human being- are still strong in me, even if the memories of how I got there are a little hazy.
And twenty years after becoming a Marine in title, I think I really have attained the title in spirit as well. There was a lot of soul searching, and figuring myself out, but I got there. The passionate love of my nation has been replaced by the comfortable enchantment that one has with a good wife of many years, and the overly moto Marine has tempered into a patient warrior with that boot camp “KILL!” resting quietly in his heart for when it’s needed.
I’ve been “out” for over eleven years now. My best friend and second “brother from another mother” recently retired after putting in his twenty. Finally, I don’t just understand the term, “fight with a happy heart,” I feel it. It’s an odd feeling, getting where the DI’s wanted you so long after they had their chance.
And to be totally honest- I love it.
Just like I love all my fellow Devils. I miss all of you, and I won’t trade the fading memories and the scars for anything.
Semper Fi, brothers.