From my vantage point here in 2020, choosing to enlist into the United States Marine Corps way back in 2006 seems like an easy call. Back then, I was a college drop out slinging parts for a racing team and living in a tiny apartment with my then-girlfriend (now-wife) in a town I didn’t even like.
But at the time, it didn’t seem so bad. Sure, we were always broke, but we found ways to have fun. Sure, we didn’t feel like we had a successful future ahead of us, but like most 20-year olds, the “future” seemed like a far-off issue we wouldn’t have to deal with until we were faced with it.
But then my girlfriend got sick, and at the time, neither of us had health insurance. We were always strapped for cash, so she nursed her cold and kept going to work and before we knew it, she had landed herself in a hospital bed with pneumonia, a cracked rib from coughing, and hospital bills we both knew we’d never be able to pay for. By then, I was 21 and I suppose I was pretty fortunate that it had taken that long for me to finally really feel the weight of responsibility. The woman that I loved was sick, and I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I could do to help her.
That’s when I remembered SSgt. Burkham — the local Marine Recruiter I’d met with a few times a year or so prior. I’d always considered serving in the military, but like so many young men and women, I shied away from that frightening commitment in favor of the familiar comfort of my Good Will couch and collection of Playstation games. As I looked at my girlfriend in her hospital bed, not asking for anything more than some good company, I decided. It was now or never.
I was going to join the Marines.
Life comes at you fast sometimes.
I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with a few character traits that have served me well over the years, and one of them is commitment. Once I decided I was going to enlist, my decision was final. I called SSgt. Burkham and met with him that Wednesday. A few short days later on the following Sunday, Easter morning, I left for Parris Island. Life comes at you fast sometimes.
Unlike many of my peers, I’d spent no time as a Marine Corps poolie learning the ropes, and I arrived at Recruit Training armed only with a sense of purpose and the many misconceptions I’d gathered through two decades of pop culture consumption. SSgt. Burkham had done his best to school me up quickly, but he was aware of my time constraints. With my new wife’s health insurance guaranteed through Tricare upon my departure, it was up to me to do my part and earn my place in Uncle Sam’s favorite gun club.
I’d always been an athlete, from football in high school to rugby in college, so I was no stranger to the physical grind of training. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, were the emotional challenges of Recruit Training. With my wife on the mend and returning to her normal life, she’d send letters with pictures, talking about her time with friends and the parties she was going to. I read them with dismay, in a dark squad bay with a red-tinted moon beam, wondering if I’d made a long term mistake to solve a short term problem. I couldn’t know it at the time, but the choice I’d made had changed the entire course of my life for the better. But as I laid there in my rack, that bright future was tough to see.
While I did well in Recruit Training and kept my billet as a squad leader throughout eleven of the thirteen weeks I spent on Parris Island, my commitment to myself and to the Corps was already beginning to falter by the beginning of third phase. I worried that my new wife was learning how easy life could be without me there. I feared my brothers wouldn’t understand why I left. I thought about my mom, crying over Easter dinner, the day I caught my plane to North Carolina.
You’re going to be scared. Own it.
To be honest, I was scared of a lot of stuff. Boot camp was rough, and in my ignorance, I worried that the whole Marine Corps operated like the squad bays on Parris Island. I wondered if I was going to be any good at being a Marine, and because I’d enlisted in such a hurry, I wondered what job I’d have when I finally made it off the island. I hadn’t gone open contract, but I’d enlisted under a type of contract that allowed for a wide variety of jobs, from legal clerk to helicopter mechanic — and I knew I’d be placed in a role based on an ASVAB score I hadn’t seen yet and the needs of a Corps I didn’t yet understand.
At night, I’d sit up and collect my fears in my head, running through worst case scenarios and lamenting about each perceived failure I’d accumulated throughout the day. I was never quite as fast, as strong, or as capable as I thought I’d be at Recruit Training, and most of all, I was scared that I was wrong about myself–what I was made of, and who I really was.
When fear starts to pool in the back of your skull as you lie in bed, there are really only two ways to handle it: You can freak the hell out, or you can own it. Those are the decisions that make you who you are–not your title, your rank, your resume, or your Twitter followers–it’s the quiet moments, alone in your head that decide the fabric of your character. Finally, one night I swore a different kind of oath — one that was just to me. It was a promise that I’d keep going, come hell or high water. If I was going to be afraid of everything, I might as well grit my teeth and face it all head on.
In a genuine way, it was my fear that movivated me. I feared I wouldn’t cut it–so I decided to prove to myself that I could. I feared my wife would forget about me, so I decided to work hard at being the sort of husband she deserved. I feared I wasn’t good enough, so I squared my jaw and decided that even if I wasn’t, I could get there.
The challenges don’t stop after boot camp, nor should they.
Of course, I did make it through recruit training, and I’ll never forget spotting my wife in the crowd, beaming with pride, as my drill instructor handed me the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor I’d worked so hard to earn. A few months later, I was checking into my first duty station, terrified once more at the prospect of earning my place in the Corps’ most popular tourist destination, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.
I had ended being given the military occupational speciality of 0121, which was a role in personnel administration. My appointed place of duty was the IPAC, or Installation Personnel Administration Center. If you’ve never been inside an IPAC, imagine a sprawling corporate office filled with young men and women in cammies and you get the picture. It’s not exactly a recruiting commercial, but its necessary and essential work, and I had no reservations about doing my part, even if it didn’t lead to earning many medals.
Checking in is always nerve racking, but it’s particularly stressful your first time. You worry that your uniform isn’t perfect (it almost never is at that point), that your shop will be a nightmare, and as a rule of thumb, you’re scared of everyone with a bigger blob of black on their collar than yours. Fortunately, I had the benefit of great leaders right from the get-go, and it wasn’t long before I was off and running in my new position.
But the challenges don’t stop once you reach the fleet. Each promotion comes with a long list of things you need to do to secure the next one. Each Marine under your charge needs support, guidance, and at times, some stern words. By the time I was an NCO (non-commissioned officer), I’d come to understand that leadership is a two-way street and you have to manage your relationships both down to your junior Marines and up to those senior to you. We always used to say, Marines make mission, and that’s true–but the thing many don’t realize is that there are no shortage of missions in need of making. Every day you wear the uniform is a challenge, and an opportunity to once again earn the right to carry the title of Marine.
It’s not all hard times, but there are some. It’s not all tough days, but there are plenty of those too. What’s important is that you keep your honor clean on the good days and the bad. What’s important is that you remember that you’re a representative of something much bigger than yourself. What’s important is to remember that you decide who you are, quietly in your head as you choose to keep pushing.
The hurt is worth it.
Near the end of my time in the Marine Corps, I had to have a number of surgeries. I’d torn my knees up playing football and fighting on MMA teams out of Twentynine Palms, I’d torn my abdominal wall on a deployment that needed to be fixed with a metal screen, and so forth. My mind was willing, but my body had become a liability, so the Marine Corps decided it was time to send me home just after my fifth surgery, over the span of just two years.
At the time, I felt like I was losing my family, my home, and my identity. I was a Marine, first and foremost, and I couldn’t think of another career I was built for. So, as I departed from active duty, I chose to take advantage of the new (at the time) Post 9/11 GI Bill, and enrolled at Framingham State University where I discovered a newfound love for academia. I studied like a Marine attacks a hill, pouring myself into my studies and graduating summa cum laude in just two and a half years.
From there, I started working for a defense contractor and enrolled in graduate school. Soon after finishing my master’s, I was working as a beat journalist for a prominent military news outlet. It turns out, approaching education the same way we approach any goal in the military — with a strategy in place and motivation to spare — worked pretty darn well.
And today, I run Sandboxx News — a site dedicated to shining a light on the nobility of service, to giving a voice to military families, and to becoming a resource for the military community at large. I’ve had my work read aloud by Senators in public hearings, talked veteran issues with movie stars, and written for a long list of publications… And while I’d love to tell you that it was my writing, my work ethic, or my networking skills that made it possible (though each of those may have helped) there’s one very specific moment I can credit my career in writing to: That night I laid awake in my rack on Parris Island, promising myself that I wouldn’t quit.
If you’re on the cusp of going after something bigger, something better than what you’re doing now, I know it’s scary, because I’ve been there too. But from my vantage point, some 14 years after I made the promise to myself to stick it out on Parris Island, I can tell you that it’s worth it. You’ll struggle and you’ll hurt sometimes, but that’s part of what makes serving this great nation so important. Our struggles strengthen this country. Our hurt solidifies our bond to one another, to the nation, and to our cause.
Some people may prefer the familiar comfort of their couch and Playstation games, but if you ask me, sometimes the hurt is worth it. Besides, the couch will still be there once you’re done.