Fifty years ago today I met the loudest, meanest, tallest and angriest man I ever encountered, a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego whose anger stemmed from the fact that a four-eyed wimp like me had dared to join his Marine Corps.
That DI -- whose name is lost in the mists of my mind -- and others at MCRD turned that four-eyed wimp into a reasonably tough Marine, in a process that slimmed down the fat, bulked up the thin, toughened the weak and turned us into a cohesive unit that, among other things, marched with the precision of royal guards.
I then headed for infantry training at Camp Pendleton where instructors that were only slightly less angry taught me how to be a grunt by exposing me to the joys of sleeping in the rain and crawling through barbed wire as a .50 caliber machine gun fired perilously close over my head.
I learned one key lesson at MCRD and in infantry training: Never, ever, no matter what happens, give up.
I then joined an infantry battalion at Pendleton, the 1st Bn, 5th Marines, where the Never Give Up lesson stood me well. There, as a field radio operator, I carried an 80-pound load on my formerly wimpy back up and down what seemed to be every hill on that 200-square-mile base.
I spent my high school years as a bookish wimp, and at Pendleton I learned to love living on the land for weeks at a time, sustained by what I carried on my back, though I always made sure to have a book tucked in my pack.
MCRD, infantry training and the 1/5 prepared me for Vietnam. I landed with the 2nd Bn, 9th Marines in July 1965, and “never give up” took on a whole new meaning.
I left the Marine Corps in April 1967 -- primarily because an MOS of radio operator was synonymous with the word target -- but I consider those four years the defining time of my life. The grounding in comradeship and the true meaning of “Semper Fidelis” still resonate today.
I served at a time in our history when many opted out and protested. But I have no regrets, only warm memories and deep friendships forged by slogging one step at time over sometimes hostile terrain.
The Marine Corps taught me that service and comradeship indeed have their own rewards, summed up in one of my favorite quotes on the topic:
“Service gladly rendered, obligations squarely met, troubles well accepted or solved with God's help, the knowledge that at home or in the world we are partners in a common effort, the well understood fact that in God's light all human beings are important, the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return . . . These are permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living for which no amount of pomp and circumstance, no heap of material possessions, could possibly be substitutes.”