Here’s Part 1 of “My time in the Corps.” It’s a series I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so here’s the first episode.
I’m hoping these prove to be some quick stories that are enjoyable, and which provide some lessons for both the Marine Corps and life in general. (At the end of each one, I’ll share some lessons I learned from the event.)
With that, let’s roll! (Note: You can watch the video and save your eyes, or read on below if you get sick of my voice and face! lol. Both the video and blogpost below are the same.)
Beginnings: Checking into my new unit (and facing my toughest adversary)
I want to begin this series by talking about one of the most memorable moments of my life.
I’ll skip talking about Boot Camp or the School of Infantry which followed, since there are many books and television shows about these experiences. My impression is that the public has a pretty good idea of how they work. But just as importantly, nothing really stood out from those two events, so why don’t we just jump to the good stuff?
And for me, checking in to my new unit was one of the most memorable days of my life. I know, that’s a bold promise, but you’ll see in a few minutes.
Let me first set this up, though. Checking into a new unit as a “boot,” or brand-new Marine, is a very intimidating thing. All Marines know that going in, but I was stunned at how truly tough it proved in my case. I pretty much landed the perfect storm of how you hope your first day at a new unit doesn’t play out.
In my case, they were probably about a dozen or fifteen of us new guys (sorry, boots!) checked in on that day. I didn’t know any of them well, so I felt very isolated.
For those who don’t know, in the Marine Corps you are required to show up to a new unit wearing your dress uniform, which is called your Service A, or “Alphas.” Alphas are this obnoxious, dark-green uniform that you almost never wear while serving. Most Marines on base are wearing their cammies.
So, if you’re wearing your Alphas, you stick out like a cat trying to sneak through a crowded dog boarding kennel. And just like dogs would be barking and lunging against the fence if a cat walked down the hall, so, too, are veteran Marines yelling and threatening you as a boot showing up to check in.
The barracks for my company were in a u-shape, so you’re walking by literally a hundred or more men on the catwalks, on all three sides of you, screaming and cursing.
“Look at those f*cking boots!”
“You’re mine, motherf*cker!”
“We’re going to kick all of your asses!”
It’s incredibly intimidating to be marched into an open square with that many men taunting you. Each barracks is three stories high and it’s truly a lot of men standing on catwalks barking at you and watching your every move.
You arrive to the unit thinking you’ve made it. You’ve completed boot camp, earned the title of Marine. But then you’re told you’re not a real Marine until you’ve finished your infantry training or been taught your special skill.
You complete that training, which is always tougher than boot camp, and show up thinking you’ve finally made it. You’re allowed to own and drive a vehicle on base. You assume you’ll soon be making great friends with your platoon. And instead of any of that, you’re greeted with a hellacious welcome.
You know, deep down, that you’ve probably made a huge mistake signing up, but it’s too late. You’re wearing this goofy uniform, you’re lost on new base that you don’t know, and you’ve got some cold sergeant marching you around, doing a seemingly great job of hitting every barracks in sight so they can get their digs in, too!
Of course, you have no rank on your sleeves or any ribbons on your chest. There’s literally nothing to protect you. You’ve been to boot camp and School of Infantry. Big deal. So has every man screaming their lungs out at you.
And each of them has been standing too much duty, cleaning too many weapons and rooms, and they can’t wait to get you in their platoon and pile the work on you.
My group of new guys arrived at Alpha Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marines on a Friday, if memory serves me correctly.
I don’t remember much after that march in with all those guys screaming at us. All I remember about the early part of the day was that it was very long, with us waiting outside of many offices, and that we even had to march to chow (lunch) together. Also, that it wasn’t until after five (1700) before we were released to our rooms, where we again had to walk up in our Alphas and be yelled at by salty Marines.
There’s only one primary thing I recall about the entire day, and that’s this: watch out for Smith.
Let me explain.
I had been assigned to Third Platoon, so I was constantly asking those who were dealing with my paperwork about my new unit. Third Platoon was going to be my home for the next four years, so I wanted to learn as much about it as I could.
I am a natural worrier, and I figured I would rather know what to expect then continue with the uncertainty.
One thing kept coming up about Third Platoon.
“Watch out for Smith.” (This is not his actual name. I want to protect both him and every other Marine I mention in this series, so no actual names will be used.)
Consistently, with every person that I asked about Third Platoon, I was warned about a guy named Smith.
“He loves to drink and fight, and not necessarily in that order,” said one admin corporal.
Several people recounted that this Smith guy had seriously hurt a guy in a fight a few months earlier. Had been drunk, hit him with a big piece of metal, and put the guy in the hospital.
One Marine told me he was a lefty, so in a fight he had a huge natural advantage given that most guys aren’t used to fighting lefties.
I also learned he’d been a state champion wrestler from his home state. Trust me, if you know anything about fighting, you know that wrestlers are some of the toughest people out there. You don’t want to fight someone who spent three or four years wrestling in high school. And you certainly don’t want to fight someone who’s been a state champ at wrestling.
Needless to say that by the end of the day, I knew I’d be fine in Third Platoon as long as I avoided this Smith guy. And, of course, that’s about the time we found out what rooms we’d be staying in, and you guessed it: Stan was going to be roommates with Smith and some other guy.
That news hit me like a ton of bricks, but what could I do? I was exhausted, still carrying around a sea bag and heavy duffel bag, and I just wanted to get out of that uncomfortable dress uniform.
I trudged up to my room on the third floor, carrying all that weight and probably more dread than I’m effectively getting across to you in this story. I open the door and wouldn’t you know it, there’s an audience. There’s six or eight guys in the room. They’re in various forms of dress — from civilian clothes to being half-changed out of cammies to being shirtless.
This wasn’t odd. At a barracks after the working day is over, guys walk around half-dressed all the time. Usually shirtless and in a pair of shorts and shower shoes.
That’s how these guys were dressed and in keeping with the other tradition of a barracks after working hours, every single one of them had a beer in their hand. It’s impossible to describe how much alcohol is consumed by mostly eighteen and nineteen year old men, who are away from home for the first time without parental guidance.
Let’s just say it’s a lot. Think back to your college days and multiply the drinking you saw there by double. Or quadruple. Because believe me, we didn’t have women around to distract us. And there wasn’t homework or some upcoming project you needed to worry about.
There was nothing but a bunch of guys, a whole lot of boredom, and a ton of beer.
These guys in this room were well on their way toward getting hammered because Marines will often drink a lot before leaving to hit the town. This strategy saves a ton of money.
I stood in the door looking at all these Marines, who were already rowdy and having a good time. They start chiding me as the new boot and how they’re going to destroy me. And how I’m too small to be a Marine. And does my Mom know where I am?
In fairness, I’ve always looked really young. And I’d just turned eighteen and I was probably 5’5” at that time. I remember exactly what I weighed because I went into boot camp weighing 118 pounds and I was so proud that I graduated three months later weighing 123 pounds. Five pounds of muscle, I’d tell anyone who cared to listen.
So, standing in the door of what is clearly the place to hang out for Third Platoon is the smallest Marine they’ve probably ever seen. And it turns out no one tells Smith he’s getting a roommate.
My first impression of him told me all the warnings about him were accurate. He was shirtless, in shower shoes, and holding a beer. And he had these cold, tough eyes. He was probably 5’10” and a hundred and eighty-five pounds. Lean and strong looking.
Not the the biggest guy in the platoon or even in the room, but he seemed to be the alpha by a long shot. And he had this edge and anger to him. You could just sense it and see it.
I knew standing there, with all that gear, that this guy would destroy me in a fight. Despite my years of martial arts training and a ton of lifting, this guy would absolutely obliterate me.
I knew it. He knew it. The whole room knew it.
The room is still ribbing me about various things, but I enter it and drop my gear. There are three bunks and they tell me I’m getting the top bunk bed, which I expected. I throw my gear up there feeling a lot of eyes on me.
Smith tells me to sit on his bunk, which seems odd, but I comply. And as I’m sitting there, he goes over to his refrigerator and grabs a beer. He carries it over and hands it out to me.
There’s just one problem: I don’t drink. I had seen alcoholism cost a man his family and life when I was growing up and I was completed terrified of alcohol. (Still mostly am.)
“Have a beer,” Smith says, holding the beer out for me.
“I don’t drink,” I manage to mutter.
That merited plenty of cat calls from the audience and when it quieted down, Smith says, “Everyone drinks in the Marine Corps. Take the beer.”
At this point, he’s been holding it out for fifteen seconds. He’s probably already pissed I haven’t accepted it. And you can feel the tension growing quickly. I’m so scared that I can’t even look him in the eyes. My elbows are leaning on my knees and my heart is pumping 180 beats per minute. I’m looking down and praying this situation somehow ends quickly. And peacefully.
“Take the beer,” Smith said, a slight edge to his voice.
“I don’t drink,” I say again. My voice is low. I’m scared. This is not some big-time act of courage.
Smith leans down, looks me in the eye.
“Look, in Kansas where I’m from, if someone offers you a beer and you don’t accept it, it’s considered an insult. You really don’t want to insult me, do you?”
He’s got this creepy smile and the entire room is watching us both. They’re itching for a fight and egging Smith on.
I manage to say, probably stuttering, “Smith, I’m not trying to insult you, but I don’t drink.”
The room erupts in oohh’s and aahh’s. Several are already screaming at Smith to kick my a**.
Smith is looking deep in my eyes trying to judge me and take a measure of just what he’s dealing with. I’m ashamed to say that I’d already looked down to the floor again, but I was trying so hard to not set him off. I just wanted to be left alone.
Smith says, “I’m going to lay this beer right beside you on the bed. You’re going to drink that beer by the time I get out of the shower.”
He walked away and toward the room’s bathroom, which had a shower. All the guys were going out drinking and dancing when it got later, I had heard one of them mention.
I’m not sure what I should have done, but I picked up the bottle and walked it over to the fridge. I placed it in as respectfully as I could.
The catcalls from the room started exploding at that, and Smith turned from the bathroom to see what had happened. He grabbed the beer back out of the fridge and lay it by me again.
“Listen,” he said. “I don’t care if you drink that beer or pour it down the drain while I’m in the shower, but when I come out, that bottle better be empty.”
Smith said it with such confidence that he was nearly to the bathroom by the time he finished saying it.
Much of my life up till that point, I’d been bullied. I’d literally once had my lunch money taken in high school by a drug dealer, who I knew carried a gun. I’d once had my backpack thrown out a fourth floor window.
All my life I’d been bullied. And going to the Corps was supposed to stop that once and for all. Yet here I was on my first real day as a Marine, being mocked, bullied, and threatened.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I say as lowly and non-threatening as possible, “Smith, there’s no point in taking a shower now because when you get out, you’re going to have to take another.”
The room erupted in taunts and jeers. Marines were yelling for Smith to kick my a**. I still couldn’t even meet his eyes and I’m certain my hands were shaking.
Smith walks over and stares at me. I’m still too scared to meet his eyes, but he had to see that I was serious. And I knew that if he laid a hand on me, I’d fight him until I couldn’t move another limb in my body. I’d fight him through the entire night, and well into the next day. Whatever it took. I was that determined, but I was also scared out of my mind.
I’m assuming Smith saw something, even though I wouldn’t meet his eyes or get to my feet. Finally, after the longest few seconds of my life, he grabs the beer off the bed, and says, “You’re lucky we’re leaving soon, but we’re going to talk about this when I get back tonight.”
He puts the beer back in the fridge and heads for the shower. The room is still taunting me, telling me I’m in really deep sh*t now. That Smith is going to kill me when he gets back. Lots of stuff like that. I keep sitting on his bunk, my head down. I in no way wanted to antagonize any of them.
Eventually, they filed out of the room and I think I threw on civilian clothes as fast as I could, basically running from the room so I wouldn’t be in it when Smith got out of the shower.
I went to get some fast food and to call home, which is what the next chapter is about. That phone call home would change my life.
But that moment. That moment of standing up to Smith will always be one of my proudest memories.
A new Stan was born that day. One that had been in the making for quite a few years. But he was born that day and I can’t tell you how grateful I was that I passed that test somehow.
Since I’m sure you’re wondering how this story with Smith ends, it’s pretty anticlimactic. He returned that night super drunk and I was already in bed. He threatened to kick my a** but I wouldn’t respond. He eventually passed out, but not before promising to deal with me the next day.
The taunts from him continued for days and days, but he never actually punched me. And I never tried to stand up to him too directly or embarrass him too badly. I told several Marines that I knew that he could whip me, but if he did too badly, I’d hit him in the face with an etool one night when he was sleeping.
I think I probably half meant it. And I’m sure word got back to him and he decided he’d best just leave the little crazy dude from Tennessee alone.
Eventually, we ended up at least halfway getting along. I’d like to think he ended up respecting me.
There are several things I think you can learn from this.
The first one being an obvious one. You have to stand up for yourself. Not only will it stop the harassment, but it will also gain you respect. And possibly even a friend.
The second one is that no matter how bad your situation is, you should embrace and accept it. I was so scared going through high school. I lived and breathed martial arts, and often couldn’t sleep at night I was so afraid of the next day and what might happen. When this happened, I’d get up and start training right in my room. In fact, my mom once caught me awake in the middle of the night, covered in sweat and practicing my kicks.
She asked me what I was doing and why I was up so late, but I lied and didn’t tell her about how much I was being bullied. I didn’t want her carrying those thoughts.
I also lifted a ton of weights, and this bulk plus my ability to fight well paid major dividends in the Marine Corps, as you’ll soon read about in later episodes.
I wish I could have told myself when I was a kid that these bullies were preparing me for something greater. I’m almost thankful for each and every one of them. Without them, I’m certain I’d have never won Marine of the Quarter for the entire 2nd Marine Division. Nor would I have reached the rank sergeant in four years (no small feat in the infantry).
So, back to the lesson, if you have a terrible job situation or family situation, think about how it’s forcing you to grow. And how it will lead you to all new levels.
My final lesson is this: “Don’t be afraid to be different.”
I almost never drank and I never got a tattoo. (Name one infantry Marine who hasn’t done that. They’re almost non-existent, I assure you.)
Amazingly, after a few months of trying to make me drink, everyone stopped. And even scarier, I was suddenly super popular!
I was probably the only guy in the company who didn’t drink and everyone wanted me to go out with them as a designated driver. The number of Marines I dragged back to base or got out of fights in those four years is a pretty scary number.
And most of those I served with will never forget me, just because I was that guy who was different and didn’t drink.
So, I say don’t be afraid to be different. Or to stand your ground on what you want or don’t want to do. Believe me, by taking such a stand, you’ll make a name for yourself in no time at all.
In defense of Smith
A couple of quick footnotes to this story are probably worth sharing.
First, I’d about bet that Smith doesn’t even remember this story. It wasn’t even a big event for him. Just another boot checking in and just another day of him taunting those around him.
It’s also crossed my mind in reliving this memory that maybe I was the one who escalated the situation by refusing the beer. Maybe if I had just drunk it, we’d have become great friends and the platoon would have immediately accepted me.
But having said that, and really re-examining it, I don’t think this was the case. Given how much he taunted me in the weeks that followed, I think we were headed toward a showdown no matter what. I just got mine out of the way by standing up to him on that first night.
I’ll also add that I can’t really be angry about what he did. In the years that followed, I did the same thing to new guys.
I harassed and threatened numerous boots who’d just checked in. Not to make them drink a beer, of course, but to let them know that they were new, they were lower than dog sh*t, and they’d be doing exactly what we told them to do in the coming months ahead. I had quite a reputation by then, which you’ll read about in future episodes, and many boots probably heard stories about watching out for that crazy guy Mitchell in Third Platoon.
Even sitting here twenty years later, I’m not sure if how he acted (or how I acted in the years that followed) was right or wrong. I think part of what’s happening is you’re testing the metal of a man. In the Marine Corps, you are training for life and death situations. So you want to know what kind of man has just joined your platoon.
But I think even this lesson applies to the civilian world. When you get a new job, you’re being judged. From the first day, people are watching you.
Did you show up on time? How are you dressed? How do you handle it when you’re told you have to work late? Or on the weekend?
Even if you’ve already been at a company for years, if a new person is hired or a new boss arrives, you’re judged no differently than if it were your first day.
So, the question is, “How are you measuring up?”
Are you on your way toward a pay raise or promotion? Or are you deadweight pulling everyone down.
Just a few things to think about. Shake off the times you’ve fallen short in the past and resolve to up your game from this point forward. I think if you do so, you’ll see a payoff that makes it completely worth it.
That’s it for Part 1. Here’s the link to Part 2. : )
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Enjoy my writing or videos?! You can leave me a tip at this PayPal link. : )—————————
Stan R. Mitchell, author and prior Marine, is best known for his Nick Woods Marine Sniper series, which has remained in the Top 100 on Amazon for more than three years. The series has also been picked up by Audible.com for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.