Honor. Courage. Commitment. Those are the core values of the United States Marine Corps, and they are what drew me to that particular branch of the U.S. Military as a young 16-year-old kid. Well, that, and a cool commercial with a young man going through an obstacle course and attacking a giant fire monster with a sword before transforming into a Marine standing at attention in Dress Blues. I had to wait another year until I was able to ship off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for Bootcamp, but at the ripe old age of 17, I was standing there on the yellow footprints, and willing to prove myself in order to become a member of the Marines and participate in their hallowed traditions.
Twelve years later, and I had conducted four combat tours as an Infantry Unit Leader to Iraq, one to Afghanistan, served three years as a Combat Instructor and a couple of years as a Military Advisor working with foreign militaries and Navy Seabees and SEALS. I will never forget the first time I had to bayonet fight three men at once in order to earn my Black Belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and the intense elation I felt after conquering my opponents. Quite a few experiences for a man to have all before the age of 30.
One of my least-favorite stories that always seems to get a laugh out of whatever audience I have is the time when I had just returned from Iraq in 2003. Our entire Battalion of about 800 Marine Light Armored Reconnaissance Infantrymen was lined up single-file outside of a Quonset hut (the metal half-domed buildings you see around military bases that kind of look like old airplane hangars) in Twentynine Palms, California. It was July and was about 120 degrees that day. We all had our charcoal and rubber-lined MOPP suits on with gas-masks on our faces as we went in 20 at a time to get the living daylights thrashed out of us by several very large Sergeants in the intense heat and smoke.
You could hear the yelling and the sounds of bodies being thrown up against the metal walls as the trainees were put through the rigors of stress-inducing exercises in order to elevate their breathing. After making my way to the front, one of the Sergeants grabbed me and said (not very politely), “Hey, Stretch! Go find a suit that fits!” I’m 6’5” and my suit only came half way down my arm. After finding another tall Marine who had finished and was hacking his liver up, I got back in line at the very end. Finally, it was my time to go in with the last three Marines. We step in, and the Gas Leader asks us very politely to shake our heads and do a couple of jumping jacks, while the two Sergeants stand at Parade Rest. All of a sudden, it’s over and I’m out in the sunshine.
The first of my three companions takes off his mask. It’s the Battalion Commander. The second removes his, and it’s the Battalion Executive Officer. The third Marine sheds his mask and it’s none other than the Battalion Sergeant Major. Finally, I remove my mask, and lo and behold, it’s Private Adams! “GET IN HERE!”, yells the Sergeant who grabs me up, throws my mask outside, slams and locks the door, and then begins to have me conduct more physical training without a mask than seems humanly possible.
After baptism by fire in combat, the gas chamber was one of my first training evolutions in the Fleet Marine Force. I actually served with that Sergeant for two more years and loved the guy. That’s one of the things I miss the most about the military…the camaraderie. As a leader, half of my days were spent training with rockets, missiles, machine-guns and patrolling tactics. But the other half was taking an 18-year-old hillbilly from Tennessee and an inner-city Marine from Detroit and teaching them how to do a budget, tie a tie, or be a good father. And I was only 21 at the time!
Much like the feel of your rifle, the love for a fellow brother-in-arms is something that is never forgotten. It leaves an indelible mark on your soul and serves as a beacon for others who have been initiated into the gun club of the U.S. Military Services. It is especially strong amongst those who have actually been to war together and come out on the other side as refined steel tempered in the fires of combat.
Of course, I had the privilege of learning what it felt like to get shot and blown up a couple of times, too. None of the things I endured were as difficult as the challenge of being away from my family for months and months. Even when we weren’t forward-deployed, we trained so much that it was as if I saw my family only a few times each month. And in reality, that’s not far off the mark.
All too often, we here in America forget that the sacrifices that our military service members make is not only the intense physical suffering of training or combat, but the emotional and familial tolls that they must endure. Having personally experienced enemy gunfire and explosions hundreds of times and missing the birth of my daughter, her first steps, or my son’s first tooth, I’d choose to endure the combat a dozen times over.
Not all experiences overseas are terrible. I was once able to meet Robin Williams and watch him perform in Iraq for an hour. He was quite a bit shorter than I realized, but certainly packed a big character in that small frame. I was able to watch the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, as well. Not too bad of a gig for a 20-year-old who hadn’t seen a woman in four months. And we got to receive care packages from family, churches, scouts, and other people who cared for the well-being of the young men and women who were forward-deployed. You have no idea how far a pack of baby wipes will go when you’ve not showered in three months (at least).
As Independence Day is near, take the time to remember the young men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, be it far away or in the local National Guard Unit just up the road. Some Veterans come home with a few visible injuries. Some come home with some injuries that can’t be seen. And others make it home as the refined steel, better than ever and more appreciative of the luxuries Americans get to enjoy. You’d be amazed at what a simple handshake and a “thank you for your service” does to a young man or woman’s spirits.