Old Corps, New Corps

This is the fifth in a series depicting the author’s experience in Marine Corps boot camp. The story continues just after the “recruit” is injured and returns to training, but with a different platoon.

I have enjoyed relating my boot-camp experiences over the last four “LBWA” columns, and I hope readers have enjoyed them too, but you might ask, why?

Why should it interest someone in parks and rec or a related field?

Well, because it’s really about the youth in America. Many of today’s youth need more of what the Marine Corps represents: honor, courage, commitment, heritage, camaraderie, and service.

I have heard many distinguished Marine leaders talk about their experiences on youth-sports teams and how they prepared the players for the type of teamwork required in the Marine Corps, and in life.

The Marine Corps is a young organization: 63 percent of Marines are 25 or younger, 82 percent are 35 or younger. The true power of this band of brothers and sisters is mentoring, a word that most parks-and-rec professionals are involved with in one way or another.

Marines don’t call it mentoring; it goes by the more pithy term “leadership,” but is essentially the same. The “Old Corps” has a sacred obligation to pass on the lessons of experience to the “New Corps.”

The Old Corps is essentially that other 18 percent from 35 years old to, well, 85 or 95 or 105, because “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

The Marine ethos is different from that of other military services, and possibly from any other group in society. Many have tried to capture that spirit in words, but generally it’s like capturing a wisp of smoke in your hand. Just as you think you’re about to capture it, the wisp curls around and escapes.

But it is a sense of belonging to something much larger than the individual. It’s about putting the “me” behind the “we.”

It’s the same type of attitude a youth-sports coach tries to instill in his or her young players … hopefully not as enthusiastically as a drill instructor.

Lead The Way

I worry about our youth because many don’t receive mature, adult direction in this digital, decentralized, quickly changing world, where we worry more about what’s happening in the moment, or the immediate future, and not what has happened in the past.

Lessons of history are sadly lost on the majority of people, young and old, in today’s society. But, as we have learned so many times in the past, a society that forgets the mistakes of its history are doomed to repeat them.

The recreation environment is arguably one of the last places in society where youth can obtain some direction. Youth sports and other activities provided by parks-and-recreation professionals teach some of the basics like teamwork, goal setting, and preparation.

The Marine Corps, like the recreation field, is not a perfect organization; over the years there have been issues. Marines are, after all, a reflection of the society from which they come. But one thing the Corps has been consistent in is accountability.

Mistakes happen. Bad things happen. Errors in judgment happen. But covering up an incident should never happen. When a mistake is made, those responsible should be held accountable, including and especially yourself.

No excuses, no short-cuts. Admit the mistake, dole punishment where it’s needed, make adjustments to fix the problem, and move on.

President Ronald Reagan once said, “Some people spend a lifetime wondering if they have made a difference. Marines don’t have that problem.”

Pride For Life

A friend of mine was a Marine in World War II, attaining the lofty rank of Private First Class during his brief but eventful tenure from 1942 to 1945. As a member of the “Greatest Generation,” he was among those fabled Marines who landed on the Pacific beaches in actions that led to the defeat of Japan, and set a standard that Marines still emulate today.

He left the Corps after his tour was up, earned his law degree, and became a very successful lawyer in Atlanta.

I lost count of the number of times he recalled his experience in the Corps and how he credited it with any success he had later in life.

Then one day he called and told me he was dying of cancer and wanted my wife and me to help him arrange his funeral. He wanted to be buried in his dress blues and asked that I work with the funeral home to make sure his uniform was perfect.

Here was a man who could claim a dozen or more major accomplishments in his life, but the one he held most dearly as death approached was his title, Marine.

There are no words to adequately explain that type of pride. And he knew I would arrange his funeral well, and do it with honor.

It would not be the last time I did that.

A few years ago, I invited a WWII veteran to be the guest speaker on Memorial Day in our town. In his mid-80s, he was trim and lively, and gave a humorous and touching talk about his time in the Corps during WWII.

About a month after that, his daughter-in-law called to tell me he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had little time left. She asked for my help in getting him a dress-blue uniform because he never had one, but wanted to be buried in it.

So I helped obtain the full uniform and, in the process, discovered he rated the Purple Heart (for injuries in combat), but had never received it.

Again, words fail to adequately describe how I felt in watching this now-frail man in his last days, supported by his son and grandson to stand for photos, dressed for the first and last time in the Marine dress blues he had so perilously earned decades before, with his Purple Heart pinned above the other ribbons he had earned.

Earning The Title

Year after year for 236 years, young men and now young women have continued to fill Marine Corps ranks in war and in peace. Since 1975 to today, they have all been volunteers. A draft did not require them to join. Many of them joined a delayed-entry program when they were still in their last year of high school, or while going to college.

I recently made a trip back to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, this time as a father bringing my 17-year-old son there for the first time. He has expressed a desire to be a Marine. (Go figure, I wonder how that happened.)

I feel pride mixed with fear. I am proud he wants to take on that challenge, but this is a dangerous world for a Marine, and this is my boy. I know the heartache of telling a parent the worst news a parent can ever receive, and I can’t even conceive of the pain in hearing that news. I don’t ever want to be that parent.

As I traveled with him around the base, I saw the faces of these recruits. They were so young, but not much older than my boy. They were not so long out of Little League and youth football.

Oddly, they looked like the recruits in my old platoon from 1976.

They all graduated from high school because the Corps doesn’t accept anything less. They were last year’s sports stars, couch potatoes, nerds, or just regular guys and gals. Most were good students who could have gone on to college or a trade school or done nothing for a while and lived off their parents.

But they chose to be here, knowing--as did the Marines of WWII--that Marines today stand a better-than-average chance of seeing combat, even if they only serve one four-year enlistment.

I talked with some of them, asking why they were here. The answers were not what you might expect.

Some said they wanted to serve their country, others because a father or brother or uncle served in the Corps.

One young man said he’d wanted to be a Marine since he was five.

One told me he joined because people had labeled him ADHD, telling him he would not be able to make it through boot camp. He was here to prove them wrong, and with only one week left, he would do it.

None of the recruits said they joined because they needed a job or were looking for a paycheck.

Becoming a Marine is not a job; it is a quest, a way of life, a members-only club that only a small percent of Americans will ever know or understand. According to the old adage, “If it was easy to be a Marine, anybody could do it.”

As I listened and watched them train, I was overcome with hope for American youth. As long as there are men and women like these who are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe is right about America, there is hope.

I spoke with parents and family members who were there to watch their Marine march across the parade deck. There are as many stories as there are graduates.

One mother, confessing she never thought her daughter would be able to make it through boot camp, welled up with tears and couldn’t talk anymore.

One dad, a fellow Marine, talked about his graduating son, and I saw the same pride-fear emotion that I felt.

One 16-year old boy wearing a “My Brother Is A Marine” T-shirt told me he is joining the delayed-entry program as soon as he turns 17, with his parents’ permission.

On graduation day, my hope soared higher when I witnessed thousands of family members who had come to watch their Marine march past. The transformation in their young man or woman was amazing. I watched several parents walk right past their son or daughter, looking for the timid, unsure youth they knew, but discovered instead a tall-walking, respectful, self-assured young American.

Why have I taken my time to write these columns, and yours to read them? Because these young Marines, and members of all of the other military services, are important. They stand prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us can continue to enjoy the freedoms and privileges too easily taken for granted.

Many of the protected may never know the great sacrifices of the protectors. If these young men and women are brave enough to stand between us and the wolf at the door (and there are wolves out there!), we must be brave enough to support them up or at the very least show our appreciation.

Next time you see a young man or woman in uniform, please take the time to thank them for their service. It is a small gesture that doesn’t cost anything but a moment of time, but will mean the world to them.

Semper Fidelis!

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 cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

Bryan BuchkoComment