I enlisted in a hurry. I had been living with my girlfriend for a while and working as a parts slinger for a racing company out of Connecticut while she split her time between taking school photos and manning amusement park rides. None of our jobs came with health insurance, so when she got so sick she had to be hospitalized, I decided it was time for me to grow up and take responsibility for the life we had together. I called the local recruiting office, whose recruiters I had spoken to a few times over the past few years, and asked when I could ship out if I signed the papers that day.

“If you don’t care what job you get, you can leave Sunday,” was Staff Sergeant Burkham’s response. I hung up the phone, proposed to my girlfriend, and drove to his office. Four days later, on Easter Sunday, I left for Parris Island. We had intended to elope before I left for health insurance purposes, but decided it was better to give our families a chance to be involved. I returned home three months later to find her, recovered and beautiful, waiting to marry what little of me there was left after recruit training.

A hundred and fifty-five pounds of newly graduated Marine (with my brother Earle)

While many Marines spend time preparing for the challenges of boot camp before they go, I found myself utterly unprepared and uncertain. I’d always been a football and rugby player, never a distance runner. I’d also always been a leader, so although I found myself struggling to keep up, I made it a point to struggle at the front of the line, matching my pace with those who were stronger than I was. I was a squad leader throughout boot camp, not because I was more physically fit or capable, but simply because I was willing to hurt however much I had to in order to succeed. Despite not arriving with a whole lot of fat to expend, I lost 30 pounds during my short stint on Parris Island, and I arrived at my first duty station, Twentynine Palms, California, weaker than I had ever been in my adult life.

Because I was a few years older than most of my peers and was far more prone to idealism than your average PFC, I had both maturity and a willingness to throw myself into the culture of the Corps. Just a few weeks after I arrived, I was recommended for meritorious promotion to lance corporal (E3) and had a chance to appear before the battalion sergeant major to be assessed. I readily beat my three opponents in uniform inspections and Marine Corps knowledge and drill, only to fall hopelessly behind the competition in physical fitness scores. My second-class score was insufficient to earn me the promotion, so I would need to beat my own personal best and earn a first class in order to attain a new set of chevrons. To this day, I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed that I managed to squeeze out seven whole pull-ups before my three-mile run and abdominal crunches, barely squeaking by with a first-class score and a new rank to match.