Second Chances

This is the third in a series depicting the author’s experience in Marine Corps boot camp; the story continues just after the “recruit” is injured in training and is given two choices.

After discovering I had popped a hernia during the third week of boot camp, my drill instructors quickly shipped me to the nearby naval hospital for examination.

The next morning a Marine Corps major strode into my ward, which I shared with several others--collectively called the “sick, lame, and lazy”--and stopped at my bed.

Now understand, to a “boot private,” a Marine Corps major is a lofty being, a member of the Mount Olympus club. The only other major I had run into thus far in my three-week Marine Corps career had chewed me out for rendering a totally inadequate salute.

So I scrambled to get out of my hospital bed and come to as good a position of “attention” as possible under the circumstances. But the major put his hand on my shoulder, lightly pushed me back, and said, “At ease, recruit, don’t get up.”

“Sir, aye, aye, sir,” I said, having learned that as a recruit, the first and last word when addressing anybody but another recruit was “sir” or “ma’am.” I tried to resume at least a respectful sitting position of attention, which wasn’t easy to do with a hernia.

A Fork In The Road

“Recruit,” the major said in a quiet and friendly tone, “you have a hernia, and you need surgery to fix it,” confirming what I already suspected.

“You have two choices,” he said casually, as though he was giving me a choice between mashed potatoes or French fries.

“You can go home today and have this surgery with a civilian doctor of your choice, and not have to come back. The Marine Corps would release you from your contract. You could stay home and carry on with your life. What would you think of that?”

At first glance, it sounded great. No more trash can-banging wake-up calls at zero-dark-thirty by drill instructors who loved their work. No more two minutes to shave and shower with 40 other guys, all at the same time. No more “duck” meals, where you “duck” into the chow hall, inhale a plate full of food, then “duck” back outside to do max pull-ups.

Sitting in that hospital bed, this choice was appealing.

“Sir, what’s my other choice, sir?” I asked hesitantly.

“You can stay here, get the operation, and we’ll send you back to a medical rehabilitation platoon until you’re mended, then send you back to a new platoon on their third week of training, and you can become a Marine,” he said, stopping abruptly and looking me dead in the eyes.

“What’s it gonna be, recruit? I don’t have all day.” His tone had changed dramatically.

I was faced with a Yogi Berra moment. Yogi said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I didn’t realize at the time my decision would define me from that point forward.

Do I take the easy way out and go home, where I would probably regret quitting? Do I take the hard way out and go back to 10 more weeks of hell, which I would probably regret at some point?

I could see the major wasn’t going to give me much more time.

“Sir, I’ll stay,” I said, as every inch of my body and brain screamed, “What did you just say?!”

I had taken the fork. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the choice had been made.

“That is a good decision, son,” the major said, his voice now smooth and friendly again. “You will come to understand that you just made a man’s choice, not a boy’s.”

So I stayed, had the operation, spent a month on light duty, and then was assigned to a new platoon three weeks into its training.

Hitting A Wall

On the day I joined my new platoon of about 40 men, they were running their first time through the Marine Corps obstacle course, a gut-wrenching series of walls, ropes, hurdles, logs, and other torture devices to test agility, strength, and tenacity.

Anyone who has had an earlier form of hernia operation is aware that a month after surgery, one is still sore, still tender. I was, but I didn’t think the drill instructors (DIs) would really care, so I got in line to run the obstacles.

I did fine on the first few, but when I approached the 7-foot-high wall where I had to pull myself up and roll over it on my belly, I stalled.

On my first try I hit the wall at a run, getting halfway up, when my recent surgery began screaming at me. I dropped down, ran back a few paces, and drove toward the wall again, slamming into it and pulling up. No good.

I did this several times until one of the DIs noticed me and yelled, menacingly, “What the heck (not the word he used) is your problem, recruit? Are you having a darned (not the word he used) bad day?”

He ran over, prepared to urge me to keep trying. He asked, “Who the heck (not the word he used) are you?”

I gave him my name. He said, “Where did you come from?” I told him.

“What were you in the hospital for?” I told him.

“And you’re trying to run the obstacle course the first day back? Are you (expletive) crazy? I like that,” he said with a smile. “Can you finish this course, recruit?”

“Sir, yes, sir, I can,” not really sure I could, but believing that trying would be better than being screamed at by this banshee.

“Go around the wall and finish the course,” he said. I did both.

Afterwards, the same DI pulled me aside and asked, in a normal tone and with seemingly genuine concern, “How are you feeling?”

“Sir, OK, sir,” I replied.

“You did good finishing that course,” he said. “Not everybody would have even tried. But I don’t want you to end up back in the hospital, so if you’re hurting, you let me know, understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” I said, knowing that it would be a cold day in hell before I admitted more pain. I was going to finish what I had started, and I didn’t want another injury to stop me. I was in this for the long haul.

After a week or so, I had forgotten about my surgery and was back at full throttle.

While in the hospital, I received some helpful advice from a gunnery sergeant who was recovering from surgery. He told me that boot camp was like Little League or any sports game--there were rules, and once you learned to live by the rules, you could have a good time.

And so I did.

Next month: Earning the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email