Every veteran that has transitioned from the military to civilian life knows about the count down to their EAS (end of active service), to their “freedom.” Some of us started the countdown sooner than others. Some of us drove off base for the last time blasting punk music and offering a one-finger salute to no one in particular. Some of us had a tear in our eye for the memories and an upset stomach from the fear of the unknown ahead. Maybe both. But everyone knows about the magic of the countdown to that day.
There’s nothing wrong with the countdown in itself. It’s just part of the human condition to be excited about change, especially from the grind that military life can be. The countdown can keep you going on the toughest days. But I’m here to offer a warning to anyone that is in that position now: don’t let it consume you. Stay in the moment and keep doing your job, you’ll be glad you did further down the road.
I had some tough times when I was in the Marine Corps. I want to qualify that statement before I get too far into this: so did just about every Marine. On a spectrum of fortunate to unfortunate, I probably fall somewhere in the middle. I had my fair share of hardship–nothing more, nothing less. I’m only recounting my experiences in an effort to help anyone who might be going through something similar, not (just) because I’m a whiner.
When I joined the Marine Corps in April of 2006, I definitely did not know everything I was getting into. I signed up to be “enlisted aircrew,” which in my 19-year-old brain, meant being the door gunner on a Huey. I wouldn’t be a “grunt,” but I’d still see some action. What I didn’t do was read the fine print of my contract, which explained that if I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to be aircrew (I am not), I would become a mechanic.
When my orders got changed, I was disappointed, and a little intimidated by the idea of being a mechanic, since my experience working on cars as a kid consisted of getting yelled at for holding the flashlight wrong. I didn’t even know what a torque wrench was when I joined. Suffice it to say that I’m not mechanically inclined.
4 years, 8 months to go…
The next six months of school in Pensacola, Florida and Cherry Point, North Carolina went fairly well, because it was very little wrench-turning and it mostly consisted of book learning and written tests, which it turns out I am very good at (does something that lame even count as a brag?). By March of 2007, I was off to my duty station at VMA-211 to work on AV-8B Harriers in Yuma, Arizona.
I walked into a shop that had just returned from a very successful deployment to Al Asad in Iraq, and was almost entirely corporal or above. They were a tight-knit group that had a very strong grasp on the job, but perhaps not on training junior Marines. That’s not to put the blame on them. My attitude was entirely wrong for what an aircraft mechanic needs it to be. Paradoxically, I was so pre-occupied with my fear of breaking something on the $30 million jets, that I failed to really absorb any skills or tricks of the trade. Couple that with the fact that I was on night crew, not getting a lot of sleep and my first summer in the desert was taking its toll on me.
I couldn’t complete tasks that were simple for other maintainers. I couldn’t grasp basic concepts. I lost tools and materials (a big no-no in the aviation world since very small debris has the potential to take an entire jet down). The harder I tried, the worse things got. I was spiralling.
3 years, nine months to go…
One night, after getting berated for yet another mistake, the months of frustration boiled over and I put my fist through a wall in the shop. Instead of Gunny’s wrath the following Monday, I was simply informed that I would be FAP’ed out to Combat Cargo for our upcoming deployment. If you plan on Googling that, I suggest you spell it out rather than use the acronym for “Fleet Assistance Program.”
The Fleet Assistance Program is described in Marine Corps Order 1000.8:
“The primary objective of the FAP is to augment the manpower resources of the host activity so that it may provide adequate support to its tenant FMF units without degrading the FMF’s combat readiness.”
In other words, there are jobs in the Marine Corps that need to be done, but there either isn’t an MOS (military occupational specialty) for those specific tasks, or a unit simply doesn’t have the manpower needed to fulfill their duties, and fills the gaps with Marines from a variety of MOS’s to meet the “needs of the Marine Corps.” Often times, leadership chooses Marines to send to FAPs as an “atta boy” or a break from the shop, or because their contract will be up soon and it doesn’t make sense to train a Marine for a deployment they won’t be on. Other times, they choose the biggest “boot” (most junior Marine) or the biggest headache in the shop. I fell into the latter category.
At the time, getting FAP’ed out felt punitive, and I was bitter about it. Only in recent years when I’ve thought about it did it occur to me that, sure, my Staff NCO’s thought I was a screw up, but they probably knew I was a respectful and decent young Marine overall, and just needed a break from the shop. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way at the time. My attitude at that point had soured. Once we were underway on my first deployment, there really wasn’t much to do in Combat Cargo (I talk more about life on the boat here), but I avoided my shop like the plague. I made the unfortunate decision that being a bad mechanic was “future Tory’s” problem, and I was just going to focus on being a good Combat Cargo Marine (whatever that means).
This had predictably horrible results. I returned to the shop a corporal who had no qualifications and no idea how to do his job. My two friends that I’d gone through school with, as well as five or six “boots” new to the shop, were miles ahead of me. I was asking PFCs and lance corporals how to complete tasks that I should have been capable of a year ago. Leadership was fed up with me. At one point, even though it is generally accepted that you call anyone of equal or lesser rank by just their last name, my staff sergeant said I was to address all of the other corporals in the shop by their rank.
I was “the one” in the shop. I was the guy who just couldn’t figure it out and frustrated my superiors to no end. I started to isolate myself from everyone, even in the barracks. I went to work, went to the gym, and went to my room. The way I saw it, no one in the shop wanted to be associated with me, anyway. My attitude, my work ethic, and frankly my mental health, were at an all-time low.
2 years, 8 months to go…
Coincidentally, as the black sheep of VMA-211, I was sent off to our neighboring squadron of that exact name, the VMA-214 Blacksheep. “The needs of the Marine Corps” that I had felt screwed me over more than once already would actually end up being my salvation. 214 was very short on NCOs, and 211 was flush with them, so there was to be a shuffling of personnel. I was the obvious choice for my division chief, as it was an opportunity to be rid of me for good. Again, in retrospect, he probably also realized I needed the change of scenery.
I would love to tell you that I immediately saw this as the opportunity for a fresh start, but it didn’t happen overnight. I came into a shop that was full of E-3 and below, with only two other corporals and one sergeant. I went from an incompetent pariah to someone who was expected to lead. Perhaps only out of necessity, my new gunny looked to me to be an example to the younger Marines. My poisoned outlook began to clear up and I started to remember who I was.
Of course, who I was still wasn’t a very good airframes mechanic, but now when opportunities presented themselves, I jumped on them. I swallowed some pride and learned as much as I could from the junior Marines. I took over leading the shop in PT in the mornings before work. I got certified to operate a special crane that is needed for engine maintenance on Harriers. I became one of the best at towing aircraft in the whole squadron. In an MOS that already isn’t one of the more glorious in the Marine Corps, I was doing some of the less desired jobs. But the things I could do, I did very well. I had purpose and direction again. The countdown to EAS was still there, but for the first time in my career, it was on the back burner, and not the only thing keeping me going.
Not long before I went on my second deployment to Kandahar in Afghanistan, another opportunity presented itself. “Corrosion control” was another FAP within the squadron that was generally considered to be where every shop would send their boots and screw-ups. The corporal that was in charge was about to get out, so I volunteered to become its new NCOIC (Non-commissioned officer in charge). The job essentially consisted of washing and painting the aircraft, as well as opening up panels, preparing them for inspections, and “busting rust.” Not the most important job in the squadron compared with working on engines, hydraulics, or avionics, but someone had to do it. As someone who had gone through the wringer at my first squadron, I think my gunny saw me as the right guy to lead the squadron’s band of misfits.
I inherited a lot of problems from the corporal that had been in charge before me. I spent a lot of 14-15 hour days in the shop correcting many of the documentation mistakes and backlogged maintenance that had accumulated over months of neglect. The countdown was no longer to EAS, but to the Commander of Naval Air Forces (CNAF) inspection. This is the highest level of inspectors that a squadron sees, and if we did poorly, it was the kind of thing that would shut flight operations down and have everyone working “12 on-12 off” with no weekends for the foreseeable future.
My efforts were enough to earn me a “Bravo Zulu” (meaning “job well done”) from the CNAF inspectors, and a Navy Achievement Medal (NAM) from my squadron. Yes, the joke is that NAMs get handed out like candy in some units, but it was quite the departure from the Marine I had been for the first half of my career.
So what’s the point? Why am I telling you all of this? You’ll have great leaders and terrible leaders. You’ll have great days followed by days you wonder if life in prison might actually be better. Guess what? Civilian life isn’t much different. What I am trying to tell you is don’t fall into the trap of counting down the days and just drifting through, no matter what it is you’re doing in life.
I was lucky enough to get shipped off to a different squadron and get the jolt to my system I needed, and not everyone will get that opportunity. But if you’re reading this, understand that I really don’t know where I’d be if things hadn’t turned around for me in the Marines. The message might resonate with the military, but it isn’t just for Marines or service members.
It’s very easy to tell yourself, “Things will be different when I get out. I’ll be different.” But I am telling you, you’re lying to yourself. It’s a common misunderstanding in the civilian world that the military automatically transforms you and makes you a better, stronger, more disciplined person. The military can absolutely do that, but only if you let it. Just like in any other walk of life, the characteristics you need to be successful don’t just magically appear. Bad habits and a negative attitude will follow you out of the military just as easily. If the only thing you’re counting down to is the day you’re no longer in uniform, and not counting down to something–to a next step–you are going to be sorely disappointed when that day comes.
Do whatever it takes to find your place in your own little world. Adapt to the difficult times and challenges that will inevitably be thrown your way. Don’t just survive them, grow from them. Do something that you’ll look back on and be proud of. I’m grateful every day that I changed the path I was on and can look back with some pride and fond memories of my time in the Corps.