My younger brother, who is all 0f 18 years of age, graduated from high school in the first week of June. Looking at him made me realize for the first time how young I was when I enlisted in 2005.
When I graduated in ’05 my friends were preparing for summer vacation, pool parties and barbecues, all of which would be chased by the ultimate freedom of attending college and being independent. They would learn, meet new people and enjoy arguably the most fun and exciting chapter of their lives.
Three weeks after walking off that podium in a blue cap and gown, my circumstances landed me not at a college campus or a pool party but on the dreaded yellow footprints of the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. My hair was shaved with a savage quickness that left bleeding cuts in my head, my shoes were replaced by combat boots that caused severe blisters for weeks, the t-shirt and shorts I arrived in were replaced by Marine Corps issued cammies and several days later I was issued a rifle that I would learn to shoot with, sleep with, drill with, love, loathe and clean till it shined like silver.
In the delayed entry program you burn with passion to become a Marine, but all of that zeal can not make up for what you lack in foresight. Prior to boot camp you prepare mentally for being gone for 3 months, but neglect to realize they physically own you for the next 3 years and 9 months. In the resulting years, whether deployed or on active duty, you will miss birthdays, holidays, births, deaths, weddings, graduations, time with family, time with friends and everything in between.
To many service members, serving is just a job. Even though it may land them in Iraq, Afghanistan or on the deck of an aircraft carrier it’s just what you signed up to do, it’s normal. So when people thanked me for my sacrifice, I never really knew what that meant. I understood the premise of the comment, but what did we sacrifice? Now at 25 and several months removed from the Marine Corps, I finally have an outsider’s view of not just the military, but that period in my life. I have come to the remorseful realization that people were thanking us because they understood that we were giving up time in the prime of our lives that will never be returned.
Looking back, I became frustrated and confused with myself because of my inability to predict how fast and young we would grow up. Between enlisting at 18 and being released from active duty in their early to mid-twenties, these former high school graduates –now multi-tour veterans–have experienced more life and death while carrying more responsibility in just their teen years than some men will carry their entire lifetime. Guys get out with broken marriages, aches and pains that normal 20-somethings shouldn’t have, memories that won’t subside, possible loss of limbs or mobility and immense grief or guilt over fallen brothers. Pride in one’s service is often the biggest reward for veterans, but even that can be lost during still quiet moments when doubt creeps into the mind like a thief, replacing conviction of service with self doubt over it’s cost.
Although in times of weakness I question my service being worth anything to me personally, the Marine Corps will forever in my mind remain hallowed ground. It was the only place where on a daily basis I walked among men who would just as soon kill for me as they would die for me. It is an organization that is unparalleled throughout the history of man and I am blessed and cursed to have been a part of it.
The perspective gained on life by giving it away and seeing it taken from others has provided me with the keenest sense of how much “right now” matters and that I can not afford to be bitter over lost time. More so, I have realized I never want to take for granted time with my family, a dinner with my friends, a beer with the guys, a kiss from my girlfriend, a sunset, an early morning, a late night, time at the gym, a run on the basketball court, school work, reading a book, a long shower, air conditioning, running water, watching the game or just simply sleeping in. It all means so much more to me now than it did before the yellow footprints and high school graduation.
Despite our tattered minds and bodies we can not fall prey to feelings of anger or guilt due to the high cost of serving. Our responsibility as veterans is to honor those who did not come back by living our lives with fervor, confidence, humility and compassion. By committing daily to be kind, loving, forgiving, passionate, calm, quiet, thankful, helpful, strong and respectful is to understand that by getting the most out of today, you ensure your sacrifice of time, and our buddies sacrifice of life will never be in vain.
Yours Truly – DH
Freedom is not free, but the United State Marine Corps will pay most of your share. – Ned Dolan
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