I was seventeen and concluded my life was going nowhere. My grades were terrible and discovered that at the end of my junior year of high school, no matter what I did, I would not have enough credits to graduate with my class. My choices were dwindling, and I desperately wanted to get out from under my parent’s roof, and especially away from my abusive father.
A friend was an air conditioning technician and made great money. When we got to talking, he shared it was his MOS in the Army and got a job immediately after he got out. He clarified, “MOS, Military Job Specialty.”
A spark was created in my mind. What I needed were job skills, and the military could give this while solving my immediate problem, getting away from my father. I looked up the closest recruiter in the yellow pages and hopped a bus within an hour. I had called ahead, and when I arrived, Staff Sargeant Bagely, a squared away looking guy in a uniform greeted me with a “hello” and a vigorous arm pump of a handshake. I shared what I heard from my friend and wanted to join the military as an air conditioning and heating technician. Without hesitation, we sat down, and he started going through the paperwork to explain everything. The first thing he asked, halted the entire process. When do you graduate high school?”. I sheepishly replied with my pathetic story about not having enough credits to graduate. He put his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “Since you will not be getting your high school diploma, you’ll need to get a GED.” He shared. “There’s nothing I can do to get you further along until you accomplish this first objective.” He said in a military tone staring right at me. “How bad do you want this? Nothing worth doing is easy, son,” he added. He repeated, “How bad do you want this? And what are you willing to do to get it?”
I asked, “what do I need to do to get a GED?” “What you need to do to get your GED comes second. Do you want to get into the Army and get some job skills or not?” He said in a more fatherly and stern tone. “Decide this first; then, I’ll help you get it done.” “Yes, sir, I want to join the Army,” I replied. “Hey, dumbass, he pointed to his upper arm on his uniform, these are strips, don’t call me sir. Call me, Staff Sergeant.” “Yes, Staff Sergeant, I will get my GED,” I replied more sternly.
“That was the correct response!” He barked back.
That evening I told my father I wanted to join the Army, but since I was 17, he would have to sign for me to get in early. He said bluntly, “I’d be happy if you just did anything.”
The next morning, he drove me to the recruiter’s office and signed the papers. When I wasn’t paying attention as we were leaving, I think he thanked the recruiter for getting rid of me.
It all seemed to happen too quickly. Before I knew it, I was leaving for boot camp, backing out of the driveway in the recruiter’s car with my parents happily waving goodbye, and my German Sheppard, Buck, wagging his tail, wanting to go with me.
Boot camp was somewhat challenging intellectually, and I was able to pretty much got lost in the heard of my platoon, but the physical challenges started almost as soon as I met my Drill Instructors. I had a severe injury a couple of years before joining and severed all the tendons and ligaments on the inside of my forearm. Everything was tied back together in knots, which prevented me from bending my wrist and outstretching my hand entirely. I compensated by doing push-ups on my knuckles. Another problem was that I had almost no feeling or strength in my index and middle finger and couldn’t grip them around the bar when doing pull-ups. I found several creative ways to conceal my limitations when we exercised in groups and during our physical fitness testing. I knew how to hide out in a crowd.
Unfortunately, a week or so before graduation, I was called out by one of the drill instructors who had been giving me the stink eye off and on for weeks. He gathered a couple of other DI’s into a circle while they looked over at me and compared notes. They called me over and told me to do some pull-ups. After I counted out to about six reps, one of them yelled, “Hey hero, what’s wrong with your fingers? Get on the ground and gimme some.” He commanded, which meant, give me some push-ups. He then took me through the familiar drill. “On your back, on your feet, on your back, on your feet, on your back, on your feet, mountain climbers, mountain climbers, bend and thrust, bend and thrust. Faster, faster. On your feet! Lock it up!”
He walked up nose to nose to study me up close. “I’m going to ask you one more time private fuck up, what’s wrong with your hand and your fingers? Why are two of them sticking up when you do pull-ups, and why are you doing push-ups on your fists? What is wrong with your left hand?”
I snapped to attention, “Sir, I hurt my arm, Sir!”
“Did you go to sick call to report it?”
“No, sir,” I yelled back at him while staring straight ahead.
“Show me!” He yelled as the other DI’s closed in around me.
I rolled up my sleeve, and when he saw my scar, his eyes got big, and he became furious. “What in the fuck is that nasty ass scar?” He yelled loudly right in my ear. “You mean to tell me this is a pre-existing injury? Before you joined my beloved Army, you piece of shit!”. “Uh, yes, sir!” I replied. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, “Your ass is coming with me!”
We fast marched straight over to the medic nearby, and he yelled to all within earshot, “process this low life piece of shit out of my sight and out of my Army. He had a pre-existing injury before he joined, he’s all kinds of fucked up, and he ain’t graduating with his platoon. Goodbye, private asshole. Go home to your momma; we can’t use your broke ass.” As he simultaneously made a sharp about-face and marched away back to the platoon.
I was in shock. What in the hell was I supposed to tell my father, was the only thing echoing in my mind. It was like I screwed up again and was going to have to answer for it. I was instantly depressed and miserable at the thought of facing him. I almost didn’t go home, but I had nowhere else to go. It took about a month of out-processing before I got back to Phoenix. I couldn’t even muster up the courage to call him for a ride, so I took a bus. When I got home, I was so ashamed, I knocked on the door instead of walking in. He answered with my mom standing nervously behind him and just stood there, glaring at me. He wouldn’t even shake my hand. “Couldn’t even make through Army boot camp,” he said in disgust as he stood in the doorway, blocking the entrance. He was a Marine, Korean War Combat Veteran, and he didn’t think much of me choosing the Army in the first place. I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder, turned, and walked away.
For about the next year, I slept on and off, in the front yard of my friend’s house next door, and when I thought I could get away with it, I crashed in an old trailer on the side of my parent’s house. After about a month of being completely miserable, I decided to see what it would take to somehow get back in the military if I could. It seemed hopeless, but since I was not even on speaking terms with my father over all of this, I thought I had to give it a shot. Somehow, I could find a way to heal my hand and wrist enough to prove I was fit enough to rejoin.
My request was not taken very seriously at the recruiter’s office, so I asked to be bumped up the chain of command to the review board. I was immediately informed by the officer in charge, in a dismissive and uninterested tone, “A medical waiver would be highly unlikely since you have already been separated on a medical discharge.”
“Highly unlikely?” To me, this meant, not impossible, but highly unlikely. There was a slim chance, and it was all I had to work with, so I decided to go for it. I bugged the living hell out of them and made a good impression until they started to show some willingness to give me some hope. I found myself stretching and using my hand and wrist to regain a good amount of flexibility. Good enough to camouflage the weak strength in my fingers, which still lacked feeling in them.
The day of truth came in the form of a letter stating my medical exam was finally scheduled. All of those persistent conversations with anyone and everyone involved in the review board paid off, I said to myself.
I took the initiative in the first few moments with the doc to declare, “My injury was not completely healed when I joined before,” I said confidently, “I was told by the doctors during separation it would be a while before I could demonstrate that it was.” I figured that being completely confident and congruent was my best shot,” And it worked. I was so matter of fact, the doc simply said “well, let’s see how you do” and then walked to a pull-up bar and told me to get to it. I cranked out about 20 dead hang pull-ups and had a little trick to keep my fingers down of pressing the edges one on top of another, and it kept them tightly pressed on the bar to make it appear I had a solid grip. He then had me to a couple of sets of 20 push-ups and other various flexibility exercises.
When we were complete, he simply looked me in the eye and said, “good job, we will let you know in a couple of weeks.”
About a month later, I received a letter stating I was issued a medical waiver and eligible for reenlistment.
I sat on the news for a good couple of weeks thinking about the second chance I had been given, and whether I should simply reenlist and not tell my father or to give him the good news immediately.
While I was considering my options, I ran into a guy who was the older brother of one of my friends growing up. “Holy Shit! What the hell happened to him?” I asked myself. He was bigger, much more muscular than I had remembered. Super short buzzed haircut, dark tan, wearing a cool looking collard shirt with a map of an island across the front and big, bold letters “Phillippines.” He was on leave from the Marines and man he looked tough as nails, no shit! He rolled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo of an eagle, globe, and anchor, which is the Marine Corps emblem, with the letters U. S. M. C. underneath.
A vision of my father as a Marine at his age in an old picture I had popped into my mind, and simultaneously, an energetic charge hit my body like a bolt of lightning. “Holy Shit! I could do this!”
I decided right then and there. “No way I’m going back in the Army, I’m joining the Marines.”
My internal compass kicked in when I discovered that I wanted to pay the price to earn the title of “Marine.” I didn’t care about job skills, I wanted to be tested and I wanted to know for myself I could do this. It was the first time in my life when I had a vision of who I wanted to become. There was a new, energetic quality to the entire experience of envisioning a bigger and tougher, badass version of myself that would scare the living shit out of everyone on a long list of bullies who terrorized me, including and especially my father. The thought of my father fearing me drove my conviction that I had to do this. I imagined him marveling over my transformation while secretly fearing the moment when I would come for my retribution.
And as sure as retribution is infinitely, far beyond rage, that day would come.