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THIS RECRUITA Firsthand Account of Marine Corps Boot Camp, Written While Knee-Deep in the Mayhem of Parris Island
By KIERAN MICHAEL LALOR
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Kieran Michael Lalor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Decision
Monday, March 20, 2000
I had been setting deadlines for myself to decide whether or not to go to the recruiter's office for weeks now, but I kept breaking them. My latest deadline came and went Friday. But this morning I was going out to my car before work and I saw a neighbor wearing a Marine Corps bulldog t-shirt identical to one that I got for Christmas when I was eight years old. When I saw this, I knew it was a sign and I finally decided that today would be the day I would go to the recruiter and begin the process of enlisting.
After work, I went to the Poughkeepsie recruiting station and spoke with Sergeant Hackert, a short but solid guy with a small, blond, military-style mustache. Sergeant Hackert, who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, gave me the whole ooh-rah, gung-ho pep-talk. I sat impatiently in his neatly organized office adorned with recruiting posters extolling the virtues of Marine Corps service. There I read brochures about the Marine Corps and fielded questions from Sergeant Hackert about my background to determine whether I was qualified to enlist. Then I watched a video about boot camp and spoke with Gunnery Sergeant Collins, a wiry guy, well over six feet tall who I estimate is in his early thirties. He is the man in charge of this particular recruiting station and used to fly aboard Marine Corps One, the helicopter that flies the President. He flew with both Presidents Bush and Clinton. This bullet on his resume impressed the hell out of me and was a reminder that it is a Marine that salutes the President when he lands at the White House. I am sure the subconscious correlation that the Commander-in-Chief surrounds himself with Marines is why he mentioned it.
I have been seriously considering enlisting in the Reserves for months. I decided once and for all to do it after I saw the guy with the t-shirt this morning, but there was something that gave me an uneasy feeling while I was visiting the recruiters and especially after I left. You know that feeling you get in the middle of your gut when you hear really bad news, like someone you know has died? I've had that queasiness non-stop since I left the recruiters at 6:30 pm. Just before I left, all of these recruiters dressed in their khaki uniform shirts and bright blue pants with the distinctive red stripe were congratulating me for making this decision. I guess all of the handshakes and back slapping left me feeling a little trapped. I went in there looking for information, not necessarily to finalize my commitment to go to boot camp this summer. But here these guys are, praising me for enlisting, which I'm sure is designed to do just what it has and make me feel locked in. I am scheduled to take the physical and the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test in Albany on Friday.
I am concerned that my students at the high school where I teach might find out about my plans because two of my seniors have already enlisted with these same recruiters. I don't want any students or other teachers asking me questions or wondering why a guy with a college degree in his second year of teaching high school is enlisting in the Marine Corps. I have not even told the school that I am not coming back to teach next year.
Not too many men stick around for long in Catholic education because it doesn't pay well. Most of the young men teach a couple of years and then either go work at public schools or move on to other careers. Plus, Karl Luther, one of the few men who has taught at the school for a long time, has made it his mission to make my life miserable for most of the two years I've been here. He tried to bully me out of participating in a union-organized "sick-out" my first week of school because he was an administrator trying to quash the union. Despite his unlawful union busting tactics, I participated in the sick-out and my name has been on his shit list ever since. Because of all these dynamics I don't think anyone at the school will be shocked that I'm leaving. That I'm enlisting in the Marine Corps will undoubtedly come as a surprise.
In case you're wondering, the reason I chose the Marine Corps is a simple one. On and off since I was five years old, I've wanted to be a Marine. My dad was in the Marine Reserves and my brother was an active duty Marine. I went to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) six years ago thinking I was going to be a Marine officer and flirting with the idea of enlisting in the Reserves after my freshman year. My dad wasn't crazy about me enlisting in the Reserves back then, and I was eighteen years old and in military school. Now I am twenty-four, I've been a high school teacher in the two years since graduating from college, and he probably will think it is really ridiculous. I know I'm going to feel that I have to defend this decision to everyone I know and they are all going to think its weird or a bad idea or that I have low self-esteem or some bullshit like that.
Anyway, there are a lot of reasons why I am doing this. The primary reason I enlisted is a patriotic desire to serve this great country that I have had for as long as I can remember. Serious thoughts about enlisting began again in January when I went to Washington DC over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. While in D.C., I saw the new Korean War Memorial. Etched in dark black marble beside large silver statues of soldiers dutifully slogging through a cold Korean winter, are the words "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE." These four words made me start to wonder if I had been freeloading and enjoying the prosperity of America without meaningfully contributing to it. This rekindled the desire I've had since I was a kid to pick up a rifle and serve my country.
At parades and on the Fourth of July I always feel like I can't be patriotic because I never served my country. It sounds ridiculous even to me but I can't help feeling this way. It's not that you have to have been in the military to be a patriot; it's just that I have always wanted to do it, so I feel like I have some unfinished business.
Another reason for enlisting is the fact that there is still a big part of me that regrets leaving VMI. VMI is a military college in Lexington, Virginia. When I was there for two semesters from 1994–95 it was the last all-male military college in the country. About a year after I left, the Supreme Court ruled that an all-male, state-run college was unconstitutional. I went there for my freshman year and endured what is called the "Rat Line" where the upper-classmen who run the Corps of Cadets dominate your life. I left, frankly, because I didn't care to live such a regimented lifestyle with classes Monday through Saturday and lights out at 11:00 pm. I was doing push-ups and getting screamed at by upperclassmen while my high school buddies were doing keg stands and chasing girls.
Adding to my decision to transfer from VMI to a normal college was finding out at Christmas that my dad had cancer. I hated being in Virginia at a school where you couldn't have a car until you were a senior and needed formal permission from a Colonel to go home to see your sick dad. While I was at VMI, my dad had a couple of big chunks of his lungs removed and went through chemo and radiation treatment. Eventually he got better and his cancer is a distant memory. Even though it was a very close call it always seemed inevitable that he'd beat it. Old Marines are hard to kill.
I also have some practical reasons for enlisting, such as the boost military service might give my application when I apply to law school. On the less practical side, I still hold the unrealistic and very immature dream that I might be able to play college football in law school and enlisting will help me achieve that. A twenty-five-year-old walk-on who hasn't played organized football in almost seven years is a little less ridiculous if he is a Marine who recently graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Training. Plus, the Reserve G.I. Bill will provide me with a little income to make it easier to pursue my law degree. Although I don't talk about it, in twenty years I might want to run for Congress or something. If I do, I don't want to be one of those guys criticized for never having "worn the uniform." He might be exaggerating or flat out bullshitting me, but Sergeant Hackert told me today that one-third of Congress served in the Marines, or maybe he said a third of Congress served in the military; I can't remember.
Maybe it was because I had four or five cups of coffee, but I left the recruiter with a weird sense that I had just made I huge mistake that I am going to deeply regret. In the four hours since I exited the recruiting station I have continued to have this feeling that I did the wrong thing. I need to talk to my parents to get my birth certificate and high school diploma to complete my enlistment package but I am embarrassed that they will think this is a foolish decision.
I keep trying to remember if I had these same thoughts when I was deciding on VMI. I don't think I had these reservations then because I was too naive or young or dumb or all of the above. I actually thought my year at VMI would make this decision a lot less of a big deal but I am worried about a lot of things. Will I be homesick like I was at VMI? Am I still in good enough shape to do this? Am I going to be absolutely miserable for the twelve weeks of basic training and the ten weeks of infantry school? Is it going to suck spending one weekend a month and two weeks a year drilling over the next six years of my life? Is there a chance I could be activated and sent to war? Should I become an officer even though I would have to be on active duty for four years? If you said to me this morning, "You are going to be very unsure that this is what you want to do after you go to the recruiter," I would have thought you were nuts. But before VMI, I would never have thought I would get homesick down in Virginia and I was more homesick than anyone there.
I am supposed to check in at the recruiter's office tomorrow to see if everything is "good to go" but I'm dreading doing it because I am afraid taking that next step will bring more doubt. I also know if I don't do this I'll regret it forever. At every parade when I hear the Marine Corps hymn I'll feel like more of a pansy than I already do. Every July Fourth I will feel more unworthy to be patriotic than now. Every time I see a war movie I'll hate myself for wussing out twice, at VMI and now. Actually three times, because four years ago when I was a sophomore at Providence College I went to the recruiters and took a practice ASVAB test. I never went any further than that because I didn't want to give up my summer of hanging out with my friends.
I'm hoping that a night's sleep will remove all the nagging pessimism. However, I know when the lights go off and I am all alone in my bed, today's decision will consume me. This feels like the biggest decision of my life but it shouldn't. It's only six months active and then one weekend a month. I still can't get over the fact that I'm this worked up about it. I feel like it's a done deal and there's something bad that they are not telling me and there is nothing I can do about it.
I'm also afraid that if I back out, the recruiters will tell the kids in my class who are enlisting. Having my students find out I signed up then backed out would be a hundred times worse than having them find out I was joining. I'm probably just overreacting and I'm going to read this tomorrow or down the road and be embarrassed by what a drama queen I am being.
Friday, March 24, 2000
I went up to the Albany, New York MEPS (Military Entrance Processing) last night with my recruiter and took the ASVAB Exam. It was a pretty easy test. There were some weird questions like "name that tool" with a picture of a screw and you had to pick which tool went with it. No problem. But some of the questions were very technical about mechanical things that I knew nothing about. This type of question pretty much kicked my ass because I am the least handy person alive. Overall, I'm sure I did pretty well: the test is designed to see if you are smart enough to get into the USMC not M.I.T.
After the test, the other enlistees and I were shuttled to a hotel in Troy, NY, which is about fifteen minutes outside of Albany. We had dinner on the government's dime in the hotel restaurant and then went to bed. At 4:30 this morning we got up, ate, and took a van back to MEPS for the physical. This had to be the most boring day of my life. "Hurry up and wait" is often used to describe military life and it perfectly describes my day at MEPS. Basically, you wait online to get blood drawn then rush to a never-ending line to take a piss test, then a flexibility test, and so on. This goes on all morning and half the afternoon.
Eventually we got to the only bright spot in the day. They put us all in a fancy mahogany room with an American flag and the flags of all of the military branches and we swore to uphold the Constitution and all that good All-American, apple pie stuff that I love. Pledging to serve my country, surrounded by pictures of Elvis Presley, Ted Williams and other icons swearing into the military, made this horribly tedious day worth it. At around 4:00 pm my recruiter picked me up and drove me home.
Thursday, March 30, 2000
When he was in the Marine Corps, my brother Patrick sustained a horrible broken leg while working on the flight deck of a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. He and some other Marines were unloading a cannon off of a helicopter and Pat's leg got pinched between a forklift and a trailer hitch. When he stumbled, the weight of the cannon shifted and came crashing down on his leg. He had to have a series of surgeries and had metal rods inserted into his legs and eventually got medically discharged. His leg has healed and he still plays tackle football on Thanksgiving and works a physically demanding job. However, I think my mother associates enlisting in the Marine Corps with my brother's injury. This is one reason why I have put off informing my parents about enlisting.
Another thing that makes me hesitant to tell my parents about joining is the fact that my decision to go to VMI after high school was sort of an unspoken compromise between my mother and me. I was thinking of enlisting right after high school but somehow ended up on the path toward a military college. I only applied to two colleges: VMI and the Citadel, which is a military school in South Carolina comparable to VMI. By selecting VMI as my college choice, my mother got what she wanted in that I was going to college and earning a degree. I got what I wanted because I was working toward a commission in the Marine Corps.
My decision to leave VMI and chart the course I have taken in the intervening five years, in effect erased any worries my mom had about me joining the military; until now. It is not that she is anti-military. In fact she is a great patriot and was extremely proud of my brother's Marine Corps service. It is just that she is a mother who is worried about her son. I know my mother well and I'm sure when she gets used to the idea she will be extremely supportive. Still I'm not in looking forward to making the announcement.
Saturday, April 1, 2000
It took me almost two weeks, but today I finally told my parents about my decision to leave my teaching job and enlist in the Marine Corps. As I unveiled my plans, tears welled in my mother's eyes. While my mom tried to convince herself that it was an April Fool's joke, my dad, after quietly absorbing the initial shock, was very supportive. He enthusiastically asked questions about when I'd be shipping to Parris Island, what changes there were to boot camp since he was a recruit in 1962, and what he could do to help me get my affairs in order before I go. My little sister Meghan, a junior in college, happened to be home when I dropped the bombshell and asked if I was "having a mid-life crisis at age twenty-four?"
On the surface my decision appears to be immature and irrational but I know it is something I have to do. I have only told my parents some of the more practical reasons for my decision, like the G.I. Bill for law school and stuff like that. The core of my decision is the desire to fulfill a boyhood dream, follow in the footsteps of the generations of American men who have served in the Marine Corps and exorcise the demons of VMI.
Anyway, I feel good that I have broken the news and have gotten it over with.
Excerpted from THIS RECRUIT by KIERAN MICHAEL LALOR Copyright © 2010 by Kieran Michael Lalor. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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