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.
I did well at boot camp, as I did throughout my Marine Corps career, in large part because my senses of pride and shame are closely interlinked. There is no mediocre life, as far as my self-worth is concerned; there can only be accomplishment or failure. I could either be proud of who I was, or ashamed of it. There has never been anything in between. So it didn’t matter if I was miserable. It didn’t matter if I missed home. All that mattered was getting what I needed to get done accomplished, and praying I’d emerge on the other side as the sort of man I’d be proud to say I was.
I think many service members struggle with these emotions as they traverse recruit training and the rest of the accession pipeline that imparts in each of us the skills we need to be of value to our units in the fleet. We struggle with self-doubt and with the feeling that we’d left our comfortable lives, and worlds, behind in favor of something we knew now to be void of battlefield romance. We weren’t heroes like we saw on TV. We were kids that got yelled at all day, who felt perpetually anxious and uncertain, and who would occasionally fold under the stresses of training.
As a squad leader throughout recruit training, I tried hard to appear unflappable, but I broke. One morning, I was called up to the quarter deck to be punished alongside one of the recruits in my squad for failing to get back on line in the time allotted. We ran through our push-ups, mountain-climbers, and side straddle hops for however long a punishment usually lasts and were dismissed, but as soon as I got back to place on line, the drill instructor shouted my name again. This time, the punishment was for another recruit in my squad failing to iron his trousers overnight. We did the same punishment exercises as the drill instructor called them out to us, and departed for our spots on line once again. The drill instructor would proceed to call my name three more times, each with another member of my squad for a violation that they may or may not have committed at some point in the last week, and until that fifth time, I handled my punishment exactly as I was supposed to. That last time, however, during the transition from push-ups to jumping jacks, I started laughing.
I don’t know why I was laughing. Every bit of my body hurt and my mind was racing. Under normal circumstances I think I might have even cried, but somehow the combination of stress and exhaustion manifested itself in hysterical laughter. The drill instructor, as you might expect, took that as a sign to up the ante and started barking orders faster…and I continued to laugh as I pushed, jogged, jumped, and pushed some more.
When it was over, I returned to my place on line, terrified that the drill instructor would call my name again. But he didn’t. In retrospect, I still honestly believe it was his attempt to break me of my detachment, to make me address the stress and emotion of the present tense. He could see the way I set myself to auto-pilot, and that’s not the appropriate setting for a Marine or a leader. He wanted to force me to look my present misery in the eye, and I think he was satisfied by the outcome.
In the years to come, I found myself reaching that point of delirium a handful of times. At one point, after a few days of no sleep and unrelenting rain in the field, my guys and I were digging trenches to redirect the flow of water away from our bivouac in the dark, using the headlights from our seven-tons to illuminate our workspace, and one of my Marines fell in a slump. He was exhausted—we all were—and as I opened my mouth to yell at him, laughter erupted from within me. I took a knee next to him, trying to talk through the laughter, and shouted to him and the rest of the team that “these are the stories we’ll be telling one day.” The laughter got me through it, and as my guys started chuckling at their own misfortune, we kept digging until the job was done.
When you’re digging those holes, or trying in vain to sleep for the few hours you get because adrenaline and fear don’t have a hard reboot button, or when you’re hiding in your garage so you don’t have to share the sadness and shame you can’t shake because someone mentioned a young man that died under your charge, the military seems like a pretty shitty job. When you have both feet in, you’re not proud of what you’re doing, you’re just doing it.
I got word that I was being medically retired while on the pistol range. I knew it would be coming—nothing in the Marine Corps happens fast—but I still somehow felt surprised. I spent the first few months I was out waiting to get orders to come back. It felt like I was on extended leave, and like I was still in. It wasn’t until my second semester of college, I think, that I finally realized I’d be going by “Alex” for the rest of my life. It had a weird and almost feminine ring to it despite some familiarity. I’m still not entirely accustomed to answering to it when someone yells it from across a room.
Over time, the pain of your service subsides. Those long nights in the duty hut faded from frequent annoyance to pleasant memory. I learned that I was right: Those times we spent together, exhausted physically and emotionally, were the stories we tell—the ones we laugh about together over beers or recount to the uninitiated when they ask about our service. Even the hardest memories, the ones of those we lost, eventually develop into an almost pleasant sadness, as we take to remembering the person more than their death.
It’s no surprise to me that many veterans cherish their time in service, while many of those still on active duty laugh at how “moto” we become. When I was at boot camp, there was no middle ground between pride and shame—I had to pick one. Fortunately for me, I chose the right one, and now as a transitioned veteran, I get to experience the pride I worked for.
Retrospect makes everything seem a bit better than it was. We all miss the “good old days,” whether they were high school, college, Iraq, or Afghanistan. For me, those good old days were when I carried with me an unflappable sense of purpose, when I was supremely confident in my ability to do my job, and when I had a team of Marines around me that, even if I didn’t like all of them, I knew I could trust. The good old days were full of hard work and the sense of accomplishment tough jobs carry with them. It was a time of certainty and getting up in the morning without my knees popping, back cracking, and a limp that subsides as I warm up. The best days of my life were the very hardest, and it’s what that says about me that awoke the “moto” Marine from its veteran slumber.
Not all veterans wear their service on their sleeve. For some, it didn’t serve as a defining experience. For others, it may have been a negative one. But for me, and for many of those we see seemingly demonstrating more pride in their service once it’s over, my time in the military gave me the opportunity to be the person I always wondered if I could be. It gave me the gift of certainty. I’m proud of who I am, and of what it took to become me.
Even if I’m still a little unsure about this whole “Alex” thing.