EDITOR’S NOTE: Your regularly scheduled podcast has been pre-empted by the Marine Corps’ birthday and Veteran’s Day and will return at it’s usually scheduled time next week. In its place, I humbly offer up a piece I’ve previously written, but cleaned-up for the occasion. I am also in China on business and the lack of access to all Google services and generally slower ‘Net makes it impossible to edit, move, and manipulate files, so the timing is fortuitous.
As galling as it is to admit now, The Truth is I actually wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot.
Like many young men of my era, I saw “Top Gun” in the late ’80s just as I was about to apply for college. I fell for it – Hook. Line. Sinker. (Cue “Danger Zone” bass drop in).
I was fortunate, as the son of lower middle class, blue collar parents – and that is a generous characterization for mom and dad’s sake – that I competed, and was selected for, an NROTC scholarship in early 1987. (“Kelly McGillis, here I come! Whoo!”)
After showing up to Boston University and getting inducted, we got on a bus and headed to the Naval Education and Training Center (NETC) Newport, RI, for about 8 or 9 days of “Indoc.” I had no idea what that meant as the bus pulled away from the curb on Commonwealth Avenue and I waved to my parents from the window. Because of a fall birthday, I was still only 17 and my parents had to sign on the dotted line alongside my name.
Seconds after we pulled away, the nice young gentleman in the Navy Summer Whites, our Midshipman Battalion Commander, who was so solicitous to my parents, told us to “sit up straight and shut your mouths. There will be no talking on the bus…” Oh, shit, I thought. Really? I prepared to nap for the next two hours because, as it turned out, I lived not too far from Newport, so I knew exactly how long the ride would be.
“…And no sleeping!” yelled the Bn CO before I could even shut my eyes. Well, this sucks, I thought. Of course, I had no idea what I was in for – the sucking hadn’t even begun in earnest. But hey, if this is what it takes to be a fighter pilot, I’m all for it, I thought. Then the bus got to Newport… where the Marines were waiting.
I didn’t know any Marines. I didn’t know anything about Marines. I knew from commercials they had pretty slick uniforms – and that was about it.
When the bus stopped in front of Nimitz Hall and the doors opened, GunnerySergeant Dempsey stepped on. I thought I was pretty tough…but he straight-up fucking scared me. He was a few inches over six feet and he wasn’t what one would call “lean.” He had to be two-twenty, I would guess. Dip in his mouth and Smokey the Bear (campaign cover) – the mark of the DI – on his head.
He spoke slightly above a conversational tone, but he might as well have had a bullhorn. I could hear a mosquito buzzing against the back window of the bus. Like most “boots” who first meet their drill instructor, you never really forget what they say. It might not be exact, but boy, it sure feels like it:
“When I give you the command to fall out, you will get off my bus…” I wasn’t sure how it had instantly become his bus…. it looked like a standard school bus – but I wasn’t about to argue the point: “you will get your gear, get off my bus, fall in on line on the instructors you see there, as fast as you can… you understand me?” He had a distinct southern twang.
There was a murmuring of “yeses”, and “yessirs” and the like. He started to grin… like the Grinch.
“Ohh, no no no, midshipman, I said, ‘DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!?!!'” His meaning was not in doubt.
“YES SIR!!” We screamed. At least, I did, and I couldn’t hear my own voice so I assume everyone else did, too. Then he paused for moment…
“Move.” There was an explosion of bodies and seabags as a busload of prospective college freshmen all tried to simultaneously NOT BE THE LAST ONE OFF of the bus. I never looked back.
Colonel James “Stretch” Donnellan, USMC, was my first official mentor in the Marine Corps. He was a senior in college then, a midshipman just returned from Officer Candidate School in Quantico. He was six-foot-five-inches and two-hundred-five pounds of lean sarcasm and New Jersey Irish. He was my platoon sergeant for the next 9 days. By day three, I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt, I would not be a Navy pilot… I would be a Marine. This last is important; notice that I didn’t say, “I would switch to join the Marine Corps.” I wanted to be a Marine like nothing else I had ever wanted.
One day weeks later, I was pondering something Jim had told me and I turned to my best friend, Jeff Prowse, for an explanation. Jeff was my sounding board for all things Marine. He had been a prior enlisted sergeant in the artillery (A, Battery, 1/12 in K-Bay) before getting a scholarship to college and becoming a mentor to all of us desiring to be Marine officers. We used to jokingly call him ‘the 23 year-old freshman.’
We were walking back from our ROTC building on Bay State Avenue and I had a question bothering me.
“Jeffie, Donellan reamed me when I called the emblem an EGA. He told me, ‘it isn’t a fucking EGA, or Marine Corps Emblem…It’s the Marine Emblem.'”
“True enough, there stud. Just like it’s not the Marine Corps’ Hymn.”
“Nope. It’s a hymn about Marines, not the Marine Corps.” I was thoroughly baffled.
“Listen,” he continued, “the Marine Corps is an organization with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., or Arlington, Virginia, or wherever the fuck. Marines are the people who stand watch, go to battle, and win this country’s wars or die trying. That song isn’t an ode to Headquarters Marine Corps – it’s for Marines. Likewise, he may be a bit of a stickler on the emblem, but same deal. It’s a Marine Emblem, not the Marine Corps’ emblem. Different thing.”
I never forgot that, especially since Jeff and I would go together to get our Marine emblems tattooed on our shoulders – while we were instructors awaiting the new batch of freshmen to come to Indoc a few years after that conversation. Circle of life.
Roughly fifteen years later I was in the Marine Corps Reserves and found myself in Afghanistan doing some work for our country in the hunt for bin Laden. I was living not far from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. There were a variety of odd cats and dogs at the base I was at: lots of Special Forces guys, some Navy SEALs, comm guys, and some intel officers, among others. Very few folks wore conventional uniforms and everyone had a beard – myself included. As a security measure, it was useful if you had to go off base. You could dress in Afghan clothing and drive in local vehicles without attracting attention. It was the early part of the War, before the bureaucrats showed and fear of casualties drove operations.
“You got any satellites?” I looked over at the handheld GPS on the dashboard, but couldn’t see anything because of the glare from the sun.
“Nah, man. Nothing yet.” My driving companion leaned forward and looked up into the clear blue sky, as if he could see the satellites that were supposed to keep us in touch with U.S. forces in our Area of Operations (AOR, in military slang). Scott was not his real name, but then again, I was using an alias, too, so we were known to each other only by fake first names… yet there we were, two Americans in the middle of the high desert of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, driving a Toyota Hilux truck, trying to figure out how to get back to our base.
“I’m gonna cut through that pass and see if we can get some reception on the other side.” He grunted “Mm” in reply while working on the Sony Toughbook that was held onto the dashboard in front of him by bungee cords. I maneuvered the truck over the uneven ground and up the steep grade through a saddle between two higher peaks on either side of us. I drove cautiously because there wasn’t a road for a hundred miles in any direction and a flat tire, a seemingly benign event back in the States, could cost us our lives out here. If that sounds exaggerated, it is not. There we would be no calling triple A, nor would we be able to hitch a ride, nor did we want to risk the delay that fixing a flat out in the open would entail. We were a long way from anything friendly.
Nature itself seemed hostile and was enough to give one pause. The mountains in Afghanistan are severe. Eventually, the Hindu Kush range continues eastward into parts of China and Nepal and becomes the Himalayas. I glanced left and right at the peaks as we passed through them, over the hard, sun-baked dirt and scrub grass.
“Here we go…” I said brightly as a small valley spread out in front of us. I saw a road heading west. Scott looked up from the computer screen at our surroundings. I could see a slight upturn to his mouth under his scraggly beard. I let the truck follow the contour of the terrain down the side of the hill and kept my eyes peeled. This is a prime place for an ambush, I thought.
The truck rambled along around twenty miles an hour, perhaps less, my eyes scanning back and forth, then up to the ridgelines that surrounded us. Nothing. More quiet than anywhere else I have ever been on Earth. Desolate. I imagined we were the first human beings to ever have seen this-
I slammed on the brakes, sending Scott forward. He didn’t curse. He was reaching for his M4 as he looked up.
I just nodded my head. Thirty yards in front of us, we could see the little flags in the ground, red and white, in neat rows, some rows completed, some not. Some entirely white, others a combination of red and white. It was part of the extensive United Nations mine-clearing effort in Afghanistan; I had driven us into an old Russian minefield and we were fully in it.
We didn’t know much about each other, but we knew enough. I knew he was married, but no kids. He never said it, but I knew he adored his wife. You find these things out in the smallest of ways when you are at war with someone. But most of all, I knew he had been an enlisted Marine in a previous life. When we first met he had sniffed me out, too.
“I heard you were an ‘O’ before?” he said when we shook hands. I knew that the troops sometimes called us “zeroes,” as a joke referencing the letter “O” in front of our rank, so I appreciated that he called me an “O” and not a “zero.” For example, I had been a Major, the fourth progression in rank for officers, so I was an “O4” in Marine parlance. He had been an E4, for “enlisted,” and thus that backbone of leadership in armies from the dawn of time, a Corporal.
Scott looked at me while the truck idled and then turned around and looked behind us. I knew exactly what he was thinking. We were both Marines and we had the same training: you drive into a minefield, one guy gets out and walks to the back of the vehicle and then attempts to help guide the drive by backing out over its existing tracks.
“I don’t think I can do it, Bro.” I looked in my side view mirror while he looked in his. I thought of Scott walking backwards, trying to direct me to back up and me watching him get vaporized in my rearview mirror.
“Yeah…me neither, man. You want me to try?” I asked. That last part was said by rote, borne out of my obligation as an officer. The thought of doing it made my stomach flip-flop and for a moment I felt like I was going to completely evacuate my bowels into my pants. I hoped against hope he would say no, but I didn’t want to be a coward.
“Not really,” he said, looking around us. The truck burbled. It was eerily quiet, except for a warm, gentle breeze coming over the peaks, and the sound of our engine.
I had four daughters back home, but they were eight-and-a-half time zones away. For a moment I wondered if I died, would they have some instantaneous sense of it? Would they awake with a start from their dreams, as if they sensed a disturbance in The Force? Was there some psychic, faster-than-light connection that would let them know I had died? Or would they spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to their father, with no one ever being able to tell them how I had simply vanished from the Earth? No one, including us, knew where we were.
I could see the road, perhaps fifty yards ahead and to my right, just on the other side of those flags…
…And then I had a moment of madness. I started to think about whether I should gun the engine, or go slowly, or, or, or… I was paralyzed by the thought of running over a mine and being blown to pieces.
Scott’s hand was on my shoulder – firm, strong. He grabbed me and looked straight ahead.
“You got this, Man. Fuck it. Let’s go.”
“Any particular way?” I asked and he pointed to where I was looking.
“Over there looks good.” I looked right. It was the closest route to the road, but didn’t go near the flags. Of course, the whole area looked like the perfect setup for a minefield. Fucking Russians… the Cold War had ended while I was training to be an officer and now I was going to die by the goddamn Russians anyway.
He looked at me again and nodded; I could see just barely see his eyes behind his Oakleys.
“You got this.” Then he sat back and waited for me to go, a slight, tight smile on his face. I set my eyes forward, looked anywhere for the slightest clue in the dirt that might tell me if I was going to die, put the truck in gear, hit the accelerator, and off we went, into oblivion.
There was no celebration on the other side. No great yelp of joy. We had driven fifty yards, maybe more, not much less, in perhaps ten or fifteen seconds. I felt the adrenaline dump and it left me washed-out, as if I’d just spent the night gambling and drinking in a casino and lost my entire paycheck, but then won it back, and managed to escape even.
There was no time to celebrate. We both knew we were a long way from home, were going to be returning to base in the dark, and needed to keep our wits about us. It would be an ignominious death to survive a minefield crossing, only to get ambushed and killed on the way back to safety. We were still way out in “Indian country,” to use the old (rather derogatory) slang that marks much of the vernacular of soldiers at war – as it ever has been and ever shall be. “Political correctness” does not exist outside the wire or beyond the line of departure.
We made it back to base safely; and we had a lot more silly adventures together, “Scott” and I. I recently found out when making inquiries among friends that he didn’t survive the war, my fellow Marine. So, on this day, November 10th, the Marine Corps birthday, right up against Veteran’s Day as always, I thought I would honor him by telling what it really means to be a Marine: about the shared sacrifices, about the bond that comes from having been through the fire in which Marines are forged, and how it transcends anything to do with HQMC or the “Marine Corps” or rank structures or even DD-214 discharge certificates.
That is why it is called a “Marine Emblem” and “the Marines’ Hymn.” On this, our 244th birthday, I say: Fair winds and following seas, my friend. Thank you for giving me courage. The world is the less for your absence and I will raise a glass for you.
For Jeff, Jim, Major Greg Quilty, Tommy Lyons, my drill instructors, Commanding Officers, the Marines whom I was privileged to lead and serve with – and so many more who came before, bequeathed us a legacy to live into – who all taught me what it means to a Marine, a man, an officer, and what it means to believe in something transcendent, I owe you a debt that can only be repaid with my best efforts to live up to that legacy.