I stood on the steel staircase landing and looked out over the river, which had seemed impossibly big when I first saw it. The brackish, heavy air stirred around me and carried with it the scents of heat, of humidity, of mud and gently decomposing vegetation. It was, for me, the smell of the Corps.
A trivial errand had brought me to DMO, which stands for “Distribution Management Office.” It was one of those ever-changing acronyms in the Marine Corps–it had been TMO, or “Traffic Management Office” for as long as I could remember. It had the same function now as it did before, which was taking your military orders and translating them into a government contract for a moving company, so you could be moved as painlessly as possible. Perhaps at one time it was staffed by Marines, and moderately efficient. Now it was staffed mostly by civilians, which I viewed with a healthy distrust. Most, I’m sure, were diligent and hard-working…but the Marine spouse who I’d spoken to earlier, and who set up my move, had received me like a bad cold and lectured me in a voice both whiny and severe about the limitations of my particular move.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my check-out sheet–on which I was required to get her signature–when I had first seen her, which meant today’s trip to this dilapidated brick building. The steel staircase felt like a patch, added recently to cover some defect in the original building. An apt metaphor for DMO itself: a sad, uneasy hybrid of the Marine Corps and the vast, suffocating apparatus of support that grows like fungus on the military organization.
The first time I saw the river, I stood on sweltering asphalt outside Bobo Hall. I had just stuffed some 1500 calories in my face while Drill Instructors screamed and strutted all around me. Terrified of their attention, I bolted my food and ran outside to the comparative safety of my place in formation and my “knowledge,” the little read handbook I had to read in every spare moment not occupied by instruction. As I meditated intently on Lieutenant Bobo, who to cover the retreat of his Marines had jammed the severed stump of his leg into the dirt of Vietnam to stop the bleeding, and who won the medal of honor for it, I noticed that this “river” flowing past was tremendously wide. Wider than the Columbia River, by far. Nearly as wide as Lake Washington.
The pungency of the air contained many memories. There is a particular smell to Virginia–maybe just to Quantico–that is known to every Marine Corps officer. A smell that reminds of early mornings and aching chests after a run, or the slimy cool of the Quigley, or the itch and suppression of a flak jacket, vest, and pack in the treeline. It reminds of Drill Instructors with massive arms and veins popping out all over their neck and face as they scream, of taciturn Captains exuding contempt and disappointment at another failed attack, of the heavy numbness of pack and rifle and road and the back of the Marine in front of you, which sets in and carries you through the hours of a forced march.
The overwhelming feeling of being yanked back to the very beginning, of returning to where it all started, is gone. I am back in my car, and irritably searching for a parking spot near the IPAC (Installation Personnel Administration Center, a sweatshop of administration Marines struggling to handle all the administration problems of tens of thousands of other Marines assigned to Quantico). In the back of my mind, I’m wondering what other memories I’ve buried.
I’m trying to control my astonished wonder at the ghostly green nearness of the mountains. They slide by, fast and deadly, invisible unless I swing my goggles at them. Then they are dangerously close. But I’m conscious that it is my friend in the other jet, struggling to earn his qualification, and we need these attacks to go well. So I drop my gaze under my goggles, watching the displays. Weapons page, set. HUD to the left DDI. I glance to my left and see the other aircraft zip through two small mounds, level with us. I frown. I know we, the wingman, are supposed to stay above our lead for safety. But my pilot is also the flight evaluator, an experienced and outstanding pilot. I wonder, as I nervously flick my eyes between the HUD, the approaching desert floor, and the lead aircraft slowly rising above us, if my pilot is maneuvering to look at something, or to test the other aircraft, or simply is holding a more disciplined altitude than the relatively inexperienced lead. Am I imagining, or is the ground getting closer? How close are we? Wait, I can’t tell. The altimeter says 2,160 feet. Without thinking I say, “RADALT to the HUD.” Suddenly G-forces come on, and we angle upwards. The RADALT alarm sounds our proximity to the ground as the pilot adjusts it. The altimeter, showing 2,230, instantly switches to 240. There’s an instant of nausea, as I marvel that we were flying less than 300 feet above the deck with absolutely none of the safety precautions in place to prevent a collision with the ground, if for but a few seconds we fail to pay attention. Then I realize we’re coming up on the target, and I hurriedly bring up the Litening Pod display on the right. Over the ICS, I hear my pilot say, “RADALT to the HUD. Thanks.”
I joined the Marine Corps chiefly to be free of my parents’ financial support. But a latent streak of romantic adventurism awakened as I arrived on that hot, humid asphalt in the summer of 2003. There was the icy, nauseating fear of the drill instructors, but also this strange exhilaration in the company of my fellow candidates. We were doing great things, in our own way–hiking distances, and performing tasks, and learning things that only days before had been unimaginable. And the sea stories of the prior-enlisted, or the drill instructors (delivered in the form of harsh instruction) made me hunger to travel and take this wonderful, small world of right and wrong, good and bad, of exertion and mission to exotic places. There was the middle east, where the battle of An Nasiriyah had concluded. There were stories of the DMZ in Korea, the Central Training Area of Okinawa, and rumors of Afghanistan. There was more heat in Camp Lejeune, and mountains in Camp Pendleton, and I wanted to see it all. I was in love–and I have remained so until the very end.
One thing true of Marines everywhere is their consciousness of history and tradition, from leathernecks to cake ceremonies, Belleau Wood to Frozen Chosin, and always the revered names of our antecedents like Bobo and Barnum and Chesty. Marines, when prompted, will talk for hours on the lineage of the “blood stripe” on their trousers or the origin of the phrase “Gee-Dunk.” I know all the old histories, too, and will no doubt repeat them more often as an veteran than I ever did as a Marine Officer. But I think the real well-spring and deposit of tradition lies in the time-honored Marine institutions that remain, virtually unchanged, into our modern times.
I shivered. The biting wind mocked both the desert-pattern windbreaker I wore as a “warming layer” and the magnificent desert mountains rearing all around. It was just before dawn, and the sky was beginning to lighten behind the ridges. Twenty-five yards in front of me, a row of man-shaped targets quivered, and between them and me strutted the campaign-covered marksmanship instructors. We waited for the sunrise, which promised warmth and would allow us to begin shooting. I wasn’t looking forward, however, because there was something oddly familiar about this situation. It wasn’t deja vu, but something more like finally seeing a building you’ve only before seen in pictures. I recognized this.
Then suddenly I remembered. E. B. Sledge had been here, had described it in his World War II memoir With the Old Breed. He had described this whole institution: the unspoken expectation of marksmanship, the cold, the weapons, the instructors, the targets, the pits. He might have been to this range, actually, for he described the remote Camp Eliot which still existed, a mountainous wilderness of hiking trails now sitting under the approach path to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Before the modern Marine Corps, before helicopter flight, before Iwo Jima and his own battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, before and Khe Sanh and “The March Up” in 1991, Private Sledge had qualified on the timeless ranges of the Marine Corps. Just as I was doing.
A study of history, too, shows that this legacy runs further back than 1942. The two regiments of Marines who went to France in 1918 were reluctantly included by the Army because Congress knew they were already basically qualified soldiers–they had essential marksmanship training, essential training that was reduced for the Army’s conscripts in order to more quickly field combat units. It’s likely that the Marine doughboys of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood knelt on the same hard ground with their Springfield rifles, re-fought their grandfather’s civil war battles just as today’s Marines re-fight Vietnam and the early battles of the long war in the Middle East.
The general rubbed his hands briefly together in a nervous gesture that could have been his transition to a new topic, a physical equivalent to saying, “um.” But I detected some glee in the movement, and so readied myself for a joke. And I was not disappointed. “When I was a young Lieutenant in the late seventies,” he began, “my platoon lived up in Camp Margarita on Pendleton. And we lived in these really crappy barracks. There was a single squad bay, with a partition at one end for me and my platoon sergeant’s desks. It was crumbling and dirty, no matter how many times we field day’d the place, and the showers were always backed up and the toilets never worked. And being a conscientious and enterprising lieutenant, I filled out the chit every Friday specifying the discrepancies and requesting maintenance to come to fix the plumbing. One day, as I was dropping the chit off in the Facilities section, the gunny who was there said, ‘hey wait a minute, Lieutenant.’ I turned back and said, ‘yes, gunny?’ He motioned me close–” the general made a comical beckoning motion–“and said, ‘now I like you, Lieutenant. You seem like you’re really trying to do the right thing here. But I gotta say, those barracks you’re living in are condemned. They’re scheduled to be replaced in the next five years, so nobody’s going to spend any money to fix them at all.’ And he pointed to a drawer, where I could see every chit I’d ever written neatly filed.” The general paused as an appreciative chuckle swept through the Lieutenants. “Well, I went back and continued writing my chits, but I was a little satisfied to know that there would be new buildings soon.” He paused for a second. “Fast forward to the early two thousands, when I became the CG of 1st Marine Division. Shortly after I arrived back on Camp Pendleton, I drove up to Camp Margarita to see the new barracks. By then I was wise enough not to be surprised when I saw the same old crappy, crumbling barracks standing there.” A muted laugh from the audience. “But I parked my car and headed into the same old squad bay to find a Lieutenant sitting at the same desk behind the same partition, doing some paperwork. He jumped up quick when he saw mygeneral’s star, but I calmed him down–” another muted laugh–“and asked him how the Barracks were. ‘Well, sir,’ he replied, “the toilets don’t work and the showers are always backed up! I write a chit every Friday after field day, but I’m told…'” Here the general paused for dramatic effect, with the air of an impending punch line, “‘that these buildings are scheduled to be torn down in five years and new ones built in their spot!'” The laughter was loud and long.
The amazing thing about the Marine Corps is this vital continuity of experience, the feeling of being part of something meaningful, with roots in the past and a mission for the future. Generations of Marines have field day’d crumbling buildings and ships, and written chits that were ignored, and felt the lash of a salty, scornful, authoritative tongue on their sincere efforts. Generations of officers have struggled to care for their Marines who are coping with substandard living conditions, and have with secret pride rejoiced in the Corps’ preference to spend money on training rounds and field rations rather than cushy barracks with serviceable plumbing. The great work of the Marine Corps, to win battles and make good citizens, continues in the small details and virtues that are comical, and ridiculous, and the very lifeblood of the military.
In the gathering darkness I watched them line up in the LZ. The shouts and complaints, audible in the still air, told of their exhaustion. Steam rose from their necks and faces, and I shivered. Forcing myself to be still, despite the lack of warming layers (which I had conspicuously stripped), I waited until the student platoon commander told me they were ready “to step.” Hoisting my pack smoothly I took my spot at the front left of the column, and started walking.
By now it was dark, and large flakes of snow were falling. I could feel their despair behind me. Despair is not too strong a word, because after their first wake-up-and-full day-of attacks in the field, they were beat down. Bad. I knew how they felt–the sweat, clammy and gritty with dirt but now freezing, the shaky legs and ankles, sore from walking up and down and alongside hills all day. It didn’t help that I was marching them past their quarters in Graves Hall, whose windows shone with warm light. There was despair dragging behind me as the dark closed in, and the sad and terrible finality of falling snow extinguished any hope of warmth and light. I had been through it all before, and I knew why ancient people worshipped the sun.
But the despair was born of fear, and baseless fear at that. Soon, I knew, we would arrive at our next LZ, and the snow would keep our sleeping bags dry in the freezing air. I knew we soon would be happily bivouacked. And so I strode remoselessly on, swinging off the paved road on to gravel. Here the carefully constructed model officer I projected to the world fell apart, for I tripped on a pothole and face-planted, with 80-odd pounds of pack helping to drive the point home. Almost immediately, the students had picked me up and were asking if I was okay. I growled at them a thanks and continued to stride, angry and embarrassed but otherwise unhurt. After several paces I commented to my student platoon commander that at least I gave them something to use against me at Mess Night.
We tramped across the wooden bridge, and climbed raggedly up Cardiac Hill. As I strode away from the top, I heard murmurings behind me that swelled, slowly, until someone finally yelled, “stop!” I stopped, turned around, and asked who had fallen back. The students, in huddled postures, told me the name of the two Marines who hadn’t kept up, and again I felt their despair clutching at me. The night was cold, the woods were close, and two of their peers were lost somewhere behind. Angry at their weakness, I told my student platoon commander to keep the platoon there, and I took a squad leader with me back down the hill. Eventually I found my Marines, struggling and slow, morale as bad as I’d ever seen. They were uninjured, however, so I told them to continue after us and I walked back to the main group.
Some packs were off, the quintessential expression of defeat for students. I ignored the questioning (pleading?) glances, took my place at the head of the column, and began walking. There was a sullen scramble behind me to pick up and begin again. But it was easy going from here, as the road was flat, and soon we’d turned in the treeline. The slow Marines had caught up. The trail endd at another LZ, where there were other platoons and some vehicles, engines humming comfortably. I had my students take off their packs and sit on them, and talked briefly about the next day’s event. Then I let them go make up their sleeping positions. Before lying down, I checked in with my firewatch Marines and chatted briefly with the Marines who were still awake.
From my sleeping bag, slowly warming up with my body’s heat, I finally appreciated the beauty and the stillness of snow, delicately outlining every branch and quieting the world. After that night, I never felt any fear or despair in my Marines, and I hoped they learned the lesson: with a Mission to accomplish, and Marines to lead, they can get through anything–or rather, certainly through harder trials than a snowy night hike.
For nearly nine years (thirteen if you count my time in ROTC, which most don’t, but which seemed quite military to me at the time) I have loved and served this institution. I have shivered in wet foxholes, and soaked in coffee to stay awake through the small hours while preparing some report or another. I have honed my skills at air-to-air combat and close air support in readiness for conflict, used some of the same Quonset Huts at Iwakuni as the Marines who occupied Japan in 1945. I have suffered the disappointment of my peers and superiors and (worst of all) my Marines, and have taken joy in our shared successes, and I have grown up. Grown to know that I could truly give to a marriage, truly give to my children, truly face danger and difficulty and uncertainty and yet do something constructive.
I have many sea stories to tell and re-tell in nostalgic moments to come. The Naval Service still holds sway over my heart and the thrill of new, dangerous places is only a memory away. But I have found a greater love in my wife and child, and a hitherto unknown desire for peace and quietude. So it is time to hang up my uniform. I taste, one last time, that particular air of the Marine Corps: brackish water and effort and heat and the joyful burden of scrutiny and responsibility. I look out at that river which started it all, the strange brown river as big as a lake and a visible sign that home was far away and I was, then, somewhere completely different. It was exciting, terribly exciting, and I followed that excitement a lover.
But now, with happy memories, it is time to go home.