Serving in the military is often compared to being in college. It’s a logical comparison: Most enlisted service members join the military at the same age their friends are heading off to school, and both experiences shape the lives people lead thereafter. Both directions instill lessons and values, and each houses a unique culture that people can either buy into or feel stifled by—or, as is often the case, both.

I joined the Marine Corps a bit later than some. At 21 years old, I had already spent some time gallivanting around Alaska and California, dropped out of a private college in southern Vermont that had given me a scholarship and a handful of awards, worked interior demolition, and slung parts and wrenches for a racing company out of Connecticut. I joined the Marines in a hurry, as I’ve discussed in previous articles, and although I was certain that I had a burning, patriotic desire to serve my country, it was just about the only thing I knew for sure when I stepped on the yellow footprints at Parris Island.

The first time it occurred to me that I might have made a mistake was on the bus from the airport. The first time I was certain that I’d made a mistake was only a few hours later, when one of the guys from my hometown raised his hand during the “moment of truth” to state that he’d enlisted under false pretenses and would like to be sent home. The staff ushered him out of the classroom and I found myself alone in a sea of unfamiliar faces. I didn’t feel like the Marines I’d seen sword-fighting lava monsters in the commercial. I felt like a child that was in over his head.

I’m glad I didn’t take the easy route. I’m proud of my service, of the things I accomplished in uniform, and of the man the Marine Corps made me. But I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew was that I’d given up my entire way of life for a new one, but what that new one was remained utterly unclear to me. I recall wondering, one morning as we marched to chow, if the Marine Corps itself was going to be like boot camp. It seems like a stupid thing to worry about in retrospect, but at the time, so deep was my uncertainty that I worried that I’d never again get to sit on a toilet without having another adult man counting down how much time I had left from a few feet away.