Sometimes, my stories or articles might lead some to believe that I’m cool.
This probably isn’t one of them.
Two years ago, I was a full-time college student just out of the Corps. I was attending school in Framingham, Massachusetts, a few hours south of my hometown in Vermont, affording me the opportunity to take sporadic trips back home to my old stomping ground and interact with the folks that knew me before my days in uniform.
Everyone that serves hears the rumors about training changing you. Friends of friends whisper about America’s service members shipping off to boot camp to become desensitized to killing and indoctrinated with military programming. Most of us agree, that although we do come back from boot camp with a newfound fear of everyone and everything that may outrank us, the people we are remain the same. We may have picked up some new words in our vocabularies that don’t make any sense, we may have a slightly more skewed sense of humor, but ultimately, we’re the same old us, just with a fresh new paint job. I, like many veterans, see my post service self as a best-case scenario. The Alex I was before I shipped off to Paris Island had very similar values, but was a bit of a punk. I came back changed, but overwhelmingly the same. The values are still there, but the punk kid has long since faded away in favor of an “old-timey” appreciation for responsibility and commitment, and to be honest, I thought that was all that changed.
That is, until I was contacted on Facebook by an old high school friend about the Polar Plunge. This annual event is held all over the country, wherein people raise money through fundraising for the Special Olympics. Participants enlist sponsors, then on the day of the event, they jump into a hole cut into the ice of a frozen lake. The jump is largely symbolic, as the donations have already been collected, but the event is intended to create a sense of community while demonstrating the value people place on the program and the young Americans that participate in the Special Olympics.
One of my best friends growing up had a sister that regularly participated in these games, and when it was suggested that I make the drive up to Bennington to participate in their local polar plunge, I immediately signed on. Our team, which I was under the impression was rather sizeable, had set our sights on being the single highest fundraising group at the event, but as it was only a few days away, I had my work set out for me to in order to pull my financial weight.
Then my old friend (who happened to be female) got to the final detail she had neglected to mention before drafting me onto her team: in order to raise a maximum amount of funds, the entire team, regardless of gender, would be doing the plunge wearing women’s lingerie.
She presented this idea as though she expected me to go running for the hills at the mere prospect; I was, after all, a dude that doesn’t carry himself in a manner that would lead one to believe I’ve got experience trying on lady’s underwear. I am not one to judge anyone’s outward display of masculinity (in public) but I can appreciate her hesitation. There was certainly a time in my life where I would have flatly refused to wear such a ridiculous outfit to raise a few bucks for charity.
The Marine Corps, like all branches of the service, has a unique way of humbling you. I distinctly recall the day my best friend picked up Staff Sergeant – finally, he was a member of the Staff NCO community, a real boss, with some real authority (at least in my young corporal mind). Then I saw our company Gunny approach him and say, “You pulled Christmas duty now that you’re our boot staff NCO.” Boot being a derogatory term for “new guy” – here I’d thought he’d graduated into the echelons of seniority, but the reality was that, among these more senior leaders, he was still an unproven kid.
It doesn’t matter what your rank is, nor does it matter what your job is. There is always someone who outranks you. There is always someone who can out-tough you. The military taught me that my personal sense of value wasn’t based as specifically on personal accolades (though they do still matter), but the real sense of accomplishment I sought was that of mission accomplishment, of my team winning. As much as I might appreciate a medal or pat on the back, what I’m working toward is a victory for my fire team, squad, or maybe my polar plunge team.
Sure, I’d be embarrassed, but there’d be plenty of guys there that would be just as embarrassed, and the angle was a good enough novelty to raise some real money. I went to Walmart and hurriedly sifted through the clearance rack in search of a nightgown that would fit on a six-foot, two hundred and thirty pound man, all the while terrified that another customer would approach and begin sifting for her own oversized nighty. I survived the purchase, drove home, slid the most embarrassing piece of attire I’d ever wear on and took a picture for the Facebook page. Alex, your old football buddy, the man who left to join the Marines, was now in pictures on the internet forever, in women’s underwear.
It took only two days for me to become one of the highest donation recipients for the event. It turns out, my old Marines and old friends alike thought the prospect of me sacrificing my self-respect for a good cause was worthy of chipping in a few bucks.
I felt pretty good about my fundraising totals, and was excited to see the rest of the team and what kinds of ridiculous outfits they would have on. I had chosen a fairly conservative slip that permitted me to wear my usual boxer-briefs and retain at least a shred of humility, but knowing my old rugby buddies from the north, I half expected to see some heavy-set men in thongs parading about for the sheer joke of it. I was utterly wrong.
My wife and I rode up to Vermont together, spending the two hours talking about how much she was looking forward to seeing me do such a silly thing and how great it would be to see the rest of the old crew making fools of themselves as well. When we arrived however, I learned that my natural assumption that everyone would be down to make a fool of themselves for the sake of the “mission” was more of a military mindset than it was a civilian one.
My lingerie team, it turned out, was not quite as large as I expected. In fact, I had only two teammates, and they were both women. The event had dozens, or possibly even hundreds, of people in attendance, many of whom came in creative or interesting costumes for sure, but I was the only adult man in attendance that have come in a pink nighty. I had driven two hours to wear women’s underwear in front of the people I went to high school with.
A decision had to be made. Was I a man of my word, that truly valued the team over personal embarrassment? Or was that just something Sergeant Hollings preached about to younger guys in safety briefs. The decision was an easy one.
The local fire department used an oversized circular saw to cut a hole through a solid foot of ice near the lake shore, then removed enough of it to open up an area of frigid Vermont water that was about the size of half a regulation swimming pool, extending all the way to the frozen solid sand of the lake shore. The participants were split into groups to allow people the space needed to enter the water, have a few fleeting seconds of panic, and escape to the heated tent nearby to fend off hypothermia. My small team and I unzipped our coats and dropped them near our bags before sheepishly walking together toward the starting line.
Thank God my teammates were women in lingerie, otherwise some of the crowd may have even been looking at me.
The old Alex that still resides comfortably inside my head, the guy people feared I’d lose in training or on deployments, panicked. My pale Irish complexion betrayed my embarrassment and kept my face a dark shade of red as we milled about, waiting our turn. Alone in my mind, I wondered if my older brother would see the pictures. I wondered if someone would tell my dad that his Marine son was our parading around in women’s underwear. I’m not suggesting that adult men don’t have the right to do so if they wish, but in my family, I feared it would be tough to explain when Thanksgiving came around.
Then it was our group’s turn to take the short jog into the icy waters. The announcer called our team name and the names of the other teams that were grouped with us through the intercom. The crowd that had gathered around the lake cheered as they did at the start of each relay, and for a split second, not a single one of us moved.
In that brief instant of inaction, the old Alex that was full of fear and self-doubt faded into the background and the Marine in me took hold. Those friends of friends were right, I hadn’t come back the same guy I was when I left. Instead of disappearing into the back and letting one of the other folks take that first step, instead of positioning myself in the middle of the crowd to hide my outfit and shame, I stuck my right arm up in the air, yelled like we’d been given the command to attack the hill, and took off running for the icy water. My teammates, who deserve the real credit for dragging me out there and selling me on lingerie as a theme, were immediately by my side and without so much as a single active thought, I found myself neck-deep in water so cold my lungs panicked and refused to suck in another breath.
I wasn’t in the water for long, but another Marine trait immediately reared its head as soon as my body went into cold-induced shock. I treaded my way to the back of the group and waited and watched as each member splashed a bit and then stumbled numbly for the shore. Once I was sure everyone was safely making it out, I joined them, internally certain that I needed to be the first one in and the last one out, even though, in truth, it really didn’t make a difference.
Serving in the military does change us; some more than others, but as the new generation of American patriots ship off for their respective boot camps, let me be clear: it doesn’t change who you are. You gain a better perspective of how unimportant your ego can be, you gain a better appreciation of what it means to give your word, and you learn that sometimes it’s better to value the team over your own concerns.
The service will change you. It’ll make you better. It’ll give you the strength to do things you never thought you could.
It turns out I just had to wear some women’s underwear in public to realize it.