Part 4 of “My time in the Corps”

Chapter 4: Making it and standing out

By the time I spent a couple of months at my unit, I had turned into a pretty good Marine. Or at least a decent one.

During that time, we deployed to the Mojave Desert for some brutal training. The Marine Corps has a base there (Twentynine Palms) that’s one of the largest training areas in the country. It’s so large that you can practice large-scale attacks with live fire, including tanks, mortars, artillery, and airpower.

It’s probably the closest you can come to real combat in a peacetime environment, and to this day, Marine units deploy there for a month of training prior to being sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I’m assuming I proved myself to those around me during that month because when we returned, I was made a fire team leader.

A fire team is four Marines, so if you’re in charge of one, you’ve got three people under you. (A squad is three fire teams.) Promotions to fire team leader are competitive (as is everything in the Marine Corps), so presumably I did just enough in our one month of desert training to rate being promoted to fire team leader.

I was decent at running and shooting well, I could hold my own in a fight (which matters for your standing in a platoon, since horseplay is constant). I was also pretty strong on my “knowledge,” which is what the Marine Corps calls mastering the details your job. This includes remembering everything from knowing the precise range of your M-16 to how to treat a sucking chest wound to how to drill a platoon, keeping them in step and looking sharp.

I lived in books, which was no different than when I was as a kid, except now I was reading Marine Corps manuals in between Tom Clancy novels. I’m not sure why I enjoyed studying manuals so much, but I was so excited about my career that I absolutely wanted to be the best.

But while running, fighting, and reciting knowledge off the top of my head wasn’t a problem, there were two things that I wasn’t good at. The first one was humps, which is what the Marine Corps calls forced marches. These are basically really long hikes with all your gear. Believe me, the packs were heavy, plus you had your flak jacket, web gear, helmet, and rifle. These were usually six to twelve miles long, but could go as high as eighteen or even twenty-five, which was the maximum distance expected by the Marine Corps in a day.

The pace is three miles per hour, which doesn’t sound too bad until you’re walking in sand, mud, or loose gravel. And the weight doesn’t sound too bad until you’ve gone a couple miles. The pack weighs usually about forty to fifty pounds, plus you’ve got a nine-pound flack jacket, eight pounds of gear in your harness (canteens, magazines, etc.), and a five-pound helmet. Top all that off with a seven-pound rifle.

That was our typical load, but if it was cold weather, the pack weight would soar to eighty pounds or more because you needed more layers and your insulated sleeping bag.

Given that I weighed 123 pounds when I hit the Fleet, that sixty to eighty pounds felt a whole lot different to me than it did to a guy who weighed 180. Shorter guys like me also had to contend with the fact that we had shorter strides, which meant we had to walk faster just to keep up!

As you’ve guessed by now, I hated humping! Most Marines did. They quite often pushed you mentally to your limit and beyond, and you didn’t want to fall out of one. There was probably no faster way to lose the respect of your peers than to fall out of a hump and have to ride in the Humvee that followed. Not only were you shamed for such a thing, but often if you failed to complete a hump they would force you to do a remedial hump on Saturday, when you were supposed to be off. Seriously, no one wants to do a hump on a Saturday in a group of just a few guys.

Humps were easily one of my biggest fears in the Marine Corps. We would learn about an upcoming one sometimes as much as six or eight days in advance. Immediately, I’d start worrying about it. I’d plan my meals and hydration, which pair of boots I thought would work best, you name it. Every single thing I could think of to help me not fall out. I always tried to plan out every single detail that would help me make sure I survived the grueling event. If we were in the field four or five days prior to the hump home, I’d make sure I saved snacks for energy. I’d also make sure I kept at least one pair of socks clean and ready for use on that sole event. I’d even pack foot powder to cut down on how many blisters I’d get.

These little things don’t sound like much, but they gave me a small edge.

Besides all the planning and mental preparation, I also exercised like a demon when we weren’t in the field. At night, if we were back in the barracks instead of the field, I’d do heavy pack runs to further condition my back and shoulders. Carrying a load I could barely shoulder was one of my greater fears, so I constantly tried to work on my weakness, piling more and more in that pack to carry around at night.

I always had the mentality that if I pushed myself on my own (at night or at the gym) harder than our officers would ever be able to, then they’d never be able to break me on a hump or field op. Of course, I got mocked a fair amount for my pack runs (probably rightly so, since I’m sure I looked like a complete moron). But I always figured the ribbing by my friends beat letting them down and suffering the embarrassment that would have gone with falling out of a hump.

My second big fear was jumping up to reach the high bar on the obstacle course. I was so good at all the obstacles and rope climbs that you must traverse, but I always worried to death about that eight-foot-high bar on the second obstacle.

I’ve mentioned in earlier chapters that I’m vertically challenged, but I also am blessed with an inability to jump high. So pretty much every time I managed to leap and grab that eight-foot high bar, it was a miracle.

A few other Marines couldn’t reach it, and most of the time, you were allowed to have another Marine run up and put their knee out for you to jump off from. But I couldn’t bring myself to go asking for help. That seemed beneath the kind of Marine I wanted to become in my mind, so I constantly worked on my jumping.

Usually, after my pack runs, I’d swing by the obstacle course and practice running up and leaping to reach that bar. It’s funny in hindsight how much I worried about grabbing that silly bar, but you don’t want to lose face in the Marine Corps.

In many ways, a Marine squad or platoon is like a gang. Even if you’ve got rank on your shoulders, it means nothing. You are judged on a daily basis for your competence, toughness, and ability to keep up. You start falling out of runs or humps, or not being able to do the obstacle course (some guys struggled with other obstacles, which I could do with ease), and you’d quickly be noticed and usually given some attention that you didn’t want from your fellow Marines.

That attention would usually start with encouragement, some tips or advice, and even the offer to help them train on that one thing on their off time. But if a Marine refused that help and didn’t fix their shortcomings, it would quickly turn into verbal harassment and worse. Our leaders always told us we were only as strong as our weakest link, and we took them at their word. We brought plenty of harassment and pain to those who couldn’t keep up.

Clearly, as I hope I’ve explained, I worked a lot on my weaknesses (humps and jumping up to reach that eight-foot bar). But I not only worked on my weaknesses, I also focused on what I was best at: knowledge.

Ever since childhood, there are few things I enjoyed more than reading. Knowing that a love of reading was probably my only true strength, I poured my focus wholeheartedly on my one skill. I read manual after manual that the Marine Corps had published. These were dense, dry things, which were not much fun to read even if you enjoy reading.

But as I learned about advanced tactics and strategies well beyond my rank and paygrade, I knew I was honing the one ability that could help me stand out. I may have been short and unremarkable, but I knew I could read and study circles around most Marines. That’s where I poured it on and worked super hard to magnify my strengths.

Two things primarily drove me forward: fear and ambition.

I feared falling short and I truly wanted to be the best. (Still do.)

These things, the fear and the desire, are what helped me stand out and be a pretty good Marine. And standing out allowed me to do some pretty exciting things during my enlistment. Standing out got me assigned to a coveted position alongside Force Recon, which I’ll explain in a later chapter. It also led me to earn Marine of the Quarter for the entire 2nd Marine Division, which I’ll also explain later. Finally, I managed to earn the rank of Sergeant, which is not something that’s easy to attain in the field of infantry within a four-year period.

Each small victory over my weaknesses (getting good at humps and never missing the bar) led to something even greater, but if I hadn’t put in the time and work as a newly minted PFC (Private First Class), none of them may have happened.

Would a Marine who needed to be helped up over the bar or couldn’t complete a strenuous hump have gotten attached to Force Recon? Probably not.

Now flip the question to your own life.

Will you get promoted at your job when you’re not good at certain aspects of it?

You know the answer to that. No, you’re probably not going to get promoted unless you’re well rounded. Sure, you’re good at the rest of it, but you need to be working on whatever part of yourself or your job that you’re not good at.

You want to reach the next phase in life, right? Good. Let’s get to work. (And if you answered “no” to my final question, you need to go look at your wife and kids and see just who you’re impacting. It also helps to imagine and dream some, thinking of just where you might end up if you can push through your current level.)

I think we should all be reaching for that next level in our careers and in our lives. Maybe you’re a great manager at work, but you lose your temper easily. Well, you need to work on that. Or maybe you’re great at most of your job, but you’re weak at math. Same thing: you need to work on that.

Maybe you’re good at saving, but don’t know much about investing. In fact, you’re scared to. Same advice: you need to work on that.

We all have weaknesses and we should all be honing and improving them. This isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. Sometimes, you’ve got to do a gutcheck.

So do a gutcheck, and if you can plow two acres but are only currently plowing one, then I respectfully say that you’re letting yourself down, you’re letting your family down, and you’re letting your community down.

Want to fix it? You already know how. Recognize your weaknesses, work on them, quit your half assing, and pick up the pace. I’ll meet you at the top.

Lessons learned

Work on your weaknesses so that you’re not below standard. This will take some hard work and probably be something you have to do on your own time, but it’s worth it in the end to do so.

Also, don’t share your weaknesses.

I hated humps and worried about that high bar, but I’m not sure I told many people. Probably, with the exception of my closest three or four friends, they had no idea I feared either of them.

When it came time to do the obstacle course, I tried to be the first in line to go. Same thing on humps. Sure, I hated them and worried I might not have the strength to finish them, but I didn’t show it. As we were putting on packs, I’d be the saying, “This isn’t anything. What’s eighteen miles? They can’t break us.”

I tried to always be motivated and fired up (and loud), so I would enter every event that we faced as full of piss and vinegar as possible. With my night runs, if someone asked (other than my closest friends), I’d tell them I was training so I could make the cut to join Force Recon, a really elite unit in the Marine Corps.

I’m pretty sure most guys in the barracks saw my night runs as simply Mitchell being Mitchell. You know, the silly motivated guy who wanted to be the best. They probably had no idea that it was Mitchell worrying he couldn’t complete an upcoming hump.

The takeaway here is don’t mention to your boss what you’re not good at. You might be right on the cusp of a transfer or promotion. Instead of talking about your weaknesses, fix them. And when you’re assigned work involving them, go enter it with good cheer. Tell your boss you’d be glad to take that math-related assignment on.

End of sermon. You know what to do now. Fix your weaknesses and magnify your strengths.

I hope this somehow inspires you in your own life. I want to encourage you that no matter where you are in your journey, and no matter what weaknesses you may have, you can overcome them. You can double the effort you’ve been putting into something or do additional research until you’re comfortable with it.

I was constantly asking Marines who had a reputation for being great at humps what their secret was. Some said just take it one step at a time. Others said just focus on the pack in front of you. Still others said to sing a song in your mind, keeping yourself distracted.

I utilized all these techniques and others, especially when I was panicking and struggling to catch my breath. (It can be hard to breath with all that weight pulling down you.)

Just like me, you can go from being the kid who’s bullied in high school to being labeled the best Marine in an entire division. Have some faith in yourself. You’ve got this.

(You can read Part 5 here.)

Semper Fidelis,

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.

Part 3 of “My time in the Corps.”

Chapter 3: Snakes in the grass

Let’s lighten things up a bit. We’ve had two heavy stories, so let me share a hilarious one with you. (Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them!)

This story involves my first ever field op with my new unit. I was super nervous for two reasons. First, I was the new guy and I did not want to make any mistakes. I just wanted to hide among all the others and not screw up too badly.

Secondly, I was nervous because I knew this would be a tough field op. One thing you learn in the Marine Corps is that each step of your training is tougher than the prior.

So you leave Boot Camp thinking that was pretty hard, but now you’re a Marine. Unfortunately, you learn in School of Infantry that everything is much harder. Your packs are heavier and the distances you must travel are much greater.

Then you arrive to your unit, which is called the Fleet (short for Fleet Marine Force). Whereas you have spent three months in Boot Camp and two months in School of Infantry hardening your body and trying to learn the art of war, Marines in the Fleet have spent years mastering and perfecting war. They are ready to deploy on a moment’s notice to either the fleet, from whence they get their name, or by air to some distant land.

The safety parameters in the fleet are much smaller as well. By the time you arrive in the fleet, this is no longer a game. If it ever was.

Your unit is often on air alert or preparing for an upcoming deployment, which usually happens every two years. You find yourself watching the news more, because you know it’s your unit that could be called up.

Thus, I went into my first field op fully aware that I would be tested, and certainly under close scrutiny from the long-time vets of Third Platoon, Alpha Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment.

Any mistake I made on this field op could cost the Marines of Third Platoon their lives if this was the real deal. My squad leader, a tall intimidating presence, make sure myself and the other new Marines realized how important this field op was.

“This isn’t like the School of Infantry,” he warned. “In the fleet (Fleet Marine Force), we do shit exactly how we’d do it in war. ”

There will be absolutely no talking under any circumstance is. We will only be using hand and arm signals. Just like war.”

He was referring to how in the School of Infantry, you will sometimes pause in the middle of a patrol so that an instructor can point out that you are too close together. Or to spread out. Or should have watch the road longer before crossing it. Whatever teaching point you failed to achieve. In the Fleet, you let the field op play out and then debrief at its end.

This field op was focused on patrolling. We were all cammied up

it would be running security patrols around our patrol base, as well as patrolling and trying to find an enemy force that we were going up against. This is real fun stuff if you’re not brand-new and so nervous that you’re about to die.

And of course, as was my luck, the new guy from Tennessee was ordered to be the point man, one of the most stressful positions on a patrol. The point man is the lead man, and you are responsible for seeing the enemy before they see you.

I could not believe I was being put on point on my very first patrol. Talk about a stressful dress rehearsal? My squad leader, who was an excellent Marine, told me before we stepped off, “Remember, under no circumstances are you to say a single word. Not a single word.”

As if I weren’t nervous enough. You see, hand and arm signals that you use in the fleet are often different than the ones you learn in the School of Infantry. Many of them overlap, but not all of them.

Besides worrying about hand and arm signals, I was also worried about where we were going. I’m sure the squad leader showed us on a map or route, but I was so new and nervous that I hadn’t paid well enough attention. Furthermore, I never dreamed I would actually be point man.

If you are not point man, a patrol is easy. You just follow the man in front of you, keeping the correct spacing. But now all that pressure had been placed on me.

I’ve now set the stage for the story, so let’s begin. We stepped off and were moving through a creek bed.

Creek beds can be good to move through in a patrol, because you are in the low ground and it’s often overgrown with vegetation. This thick brush provides great cover and concealment.

My squad leader had told me before the patrol started that I was to follow the creek bed and at the right distance, he would point in the direction we needed to go. That’s how we ran things back then. The number two man kept an eye on a compass as well as the pace count. Remember this is in the days before GPS was prevalent. All we had to get us where we were going was a map, a pace count, and an azimuth from our compass.

A note about maps. It sounds easy not to get lost when you have a map, but when you’re in thick woods, without hills or roads to determine your location, you must keep a perfect pace count and azimuth direction. Otherwise, you will absolutely get fuzzy about where you actually are. (Sure, you can walk to hit a road, but you’re trying to master war and avoid such rookie moves.)

As we moved on our patrol, I desperately tried to stay quiet, watching my steps, while also keeping my eyes up and looking around for an enemy patrol from another platoon.

Every few steps, I would glance back at my squad leader to make sure I was doing nothing wrong. As well as to make sure we were not supposed to head in a different direction. Each time I looked back, I got the impression he was not happy with our pace and I should be moving faster. I tried to do so.

We moved a little further when suddenly I see a large black object squiggling away for me. You guessed it: it was a massive black water moccasin. Easily over two feet long and thick as your wrist in the middle.

Certainly the biggest snake I had ever seen out in the wild up till that point in my life. We had been briefed on water moccasins in School of Infantry. We’ve been told they were poisonous and often aggressive and that we should stay the heck away from them.

My heart was already racing and I was just thankful it was moving away. I glance behind me and my squad leader looked furious that I had stopped. He raised his hand and gave me the move out hand signal several times, clearly pissed that the short guy from Tennessee was holding up the patrol. I nodded, took a deep breath, and tried to compose myself.

Get with it Mitchell, I told myself, or this guy (or maybe Smith) is going to kill you when the patrol is over.

I went to take my next step and that’s when I saw the black object by my feet. Yes, a second black water moccasin, just as big, was curled up and ready to strike, just a foot or two from my left leg.

You can’t even put a number on how fast my heart was pounding. We were weighed down with a ton of awkward, heavy gear, and I knew there was no way I could jump back and not be bitten.

I have no idea how I managed to not leap back and scream. I guess we can credit Marine Corps discipline and my incredible fear of my squad leader and Smith.

After the snake and I had a terror-filled two or three second stare down, I realized my best chance was to slowly — read very SLOWLY — step backward.

I may have moved slower than I had ever moved in my life, but I slowly lifted my left leg and took a half step back. And then I slowly moved my right foot back a half step.

Once I was back a good five or six feet, I looked back at my squad leader and pointed at the snake. There is no hand and arm signal for snake, so I pointed at it and use my right hand to make a squiggly movement. He was a good fifteen yards back, so I knew he couldn’t see it. Plus, it was laying behind a log, half out of sight.

My squad leader was trying to decipher my hand and arm signal, while also looking at me like I was an idiot. He raised his hands in a “huh” look of questioning, and I pointed at the snake again, then repeated the squiggly hand signal.

He looked confused for a second, nodded, and gave me the move out signal several times, impatient at my delays.

I nodded and made a good five-foot circle away from the water moccasin. I also managed to immediately get back in the zone.

Who knows? Perhaps the adrenaline shot had my senses on high alert. But I was so focused, looking around for the enemy and watching where I stepped. Definitely watching where I stepped after encountering those two snakes.

I had spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid, growing up as a pretty serious deer and squirrel hunter. And though I hated be on point for my first patrol, I was also pretty confident that I could sneak up and see the other patrol before they saw me.

I was precisely in such a state when the the loudest screams I’ve probably ever heard erupted behind me.

“Shit! M*therf*cker! Holy shit! Oh my word!”

I turned in time to see my squad leader jumping and screaming like you wouldn’t believe. He even threw his rifle down, which is just something you never do as a Marine.

It was at that moment that I realized he hadn’t walked around the snake. Or understood my hand and arm signal.

I stood there, sheepishly watching him as he was bent over, hands on his knees, other Marines running up to check on him.

“What was it?” one of them asked.

“It was a f*cking snake,” he snarled. “It damn near bit me.”

After probably thirty seconds, he collected his wits enough to demand, “Mitchell, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did, Corporal,” I said. “I gave you the hand signal.”

I repeated the squiggly hand signal I had passed back to him.

“I thought you were asking if you should keep following the creek,” he said, shaking his head in exasperation and still breathing hard. “That thing nearly bit me.”

Several squad members were looking at me with anger-filled eyes.

“It nearly bit me, too,” I said. “I saw the second one crawling off, stopped for a moment scared out of my mind, then went to take another step, and BAM, saw the curled up one a foot or two away. That’s when I pointed at it and gave you that signal. You had said not to talk, so I didn’t know what else to do.”

Several of the squad members were eyeing me at that point, and it was on that day that I later learned I had earned the first bit of respect from them. Some of them were from the city and probably even more scared of snakes than I was. And then the squad leader’s reaction and breaking of silence had probably caused him to lose more face than he ever wanted.

I felt completely terrible about it and apologized numerous times. He really was one of my favorite squad leaders in the platoon (or that I’d ever have) and I’d soon learn when his replacement came in just how bad a squad leader could be. But that’s a future chapter. And a far less funny story.

Lessons learned

There are four main lessons that I took from this humorous (after the fact) event.

First, I think you need to be careful if you’re in a leadership position about how strong and adamant your orders are. While I understood the need to practice patrolling at a higher level where you avoided talking, there are clearly times when it’s probably necessary. Had he been bitten, it could have been bad. Water moccasin bites can even prove fatal, and we were miles and miles away from roads or emergency care.

But in all the instructions he provided before we stepped off, the primary thing I remember was not to say anything under any circumstances.

The second lesson is a counter to the first. If you’re the one being ordered to do something, there are times when you need to defy that order. I have wished a hundred times over that I had walked back to him, risked his wrath, and whispered that there was a pissed-off snake up ahead that wasn’t budging. (Water moccasins are notorious for being aggressive.) More than anything else, it bothered me that he had lost some face that day. I really liked the guy (still do) and I know what it’s like to be in a leadership position and lose face (you’ll see in plenty of my future stories).

The third lesson I took from the event is no matter how low in rank or status a person is, they may know something that you need to know. Just as I wish I had walked back to him, I’m sure afterward he wished he had walked up to me when the new guy was giving some crazy hand-and-arm signal that made no sense. Such a move would have prevented the entire event from happening as well.

The final thing I learned is don’t rub it in. I’m sure I could have bragged about being brave and keeping my composure, and I could have re-enacted his reaction many times over in front of other Marines. But that would have not only been wrong, it would have been a major lie. The only reason I kept my composure is because I feared him and Smith more than I feared that snake. I also wanted to earn their respect, not go running back to him like some straight boot (newbie).

Furthermore, he was well liked by the other Marines, so if I had shared this story behind his back (or even in his presence), I would have been undermining a man who was well respected. He was nearing the end of his four-year term and he rated the respect that such an accomplishment (and his rank) carried.

Believe me, it’s no joke surviving four years in the infantry. So many get injured or can’t hack the stress. Many go AWOL (called UA, Unauthorized Absence, in the Marine Corps) or find ways to be transferred into something less strenuous.

So to summarize:

  • Be careful about overly strict instructions, if you’re in charge.
  • Be willing to speak up and defy what you’re told from above, even if you’re brand new.
  • If you’re in charge, listen to those below you (no matter their status or level). They may be seeing something that you’re not.
  • And never gloat or rub in something that you’re lucky enough to pull off. (No one likes an a**hole and I promise you that you won’t get far by acting in such a way.)

Semper Fidelis,

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.

Part 2 of “My time in the Corps.”

Chapter 2: The phone call that turned me into a man

The second most memorable moment in my life occurred merely a couple of hours after standing up to Smith. (If you missed Part 1, you can catch it by clicking the link.)

Let’s quickly get to that story. (You can watch the video or keep reading!)

If memory serves me correctly, I think I had told my parents I would call that night after checking in with my unit. I had driven eight-plus hours and, after all, I was finally supposed to be happy. Let me explain what I mean by that.

They had gone through the same setbacks I had with Boot Camp and School of Infantry. Each were supposed to be the bliss I had been searching for when I signed up and left home. Each had proven to merely be a milestone along the journey.

I mean, sure, I enjoyed parts of Boot Camp, but I had told them I’d hated how badly we were treated. Who wouldn’t? BUT, School of Infantry will be better, I said prior to leaving for it. I’ll actually be a Marine and won’t be treated completely like shit.

Well, it turned out that School of Infantry wasn’t a whole lot different than Boot Camp. it was eight weeks of brutal, tough training — much more difficult than Boot Camp, which surprised me — and we were still treated like lower-than-life boots (newbies).

But I had ended it by telling my parents, “Now, all the super sucky parts of being a Marine are over. They were just trying to train and mode us in Boot Camp and School of Infantry. Now, finally, they’ll treat us like real men. Like real Marines.”

I truly assumed before packing up to drive down to 1/8 that the enjoyable part of being a Marine would begin at my unit. No more getting screamed at constantly. No more having to wait on taxis to leave base!

I, like every other young Marine, had gone out and bought a new vehicle. Nearly every Marine takes the money they earn while in Boot Camp, which you can’t spend during those three months, so it accumulates nicely, and uses it as a down payment on a vehicle.

Car dealers love service members. It’s a guaranteed payment for them because if you fail to make your payments, they’ll just contact the Marine Corps and garner your wages. And they know you’re going to have a guaranteed job for the next four years!

In my case, I had a brand new ’96 Chevy S-10. It was red and four-wheel drive! It was amazing and I felt like a king driving it.

I mean, I had my truck, I had my new five pounds of muscles, and I was a Marine! Who wouldn’t want to marry me?!?!

And I knew before checking into 1/8 that I’d not only get to own a vehicle and have the right to drive it on base, I’d also finally get my own room!!

Just me and two other guys! No more open squad bays with sixty dudes sharing just a few showers and toilets!

I was a full-scale Marine now! And I had left home with such euphoria in that green pair of Alpha’s!

But you just finished Chapter 1. You know what happened. I’d just learned the Alphas were a sick joke, which attracted harassment like a substitute teacher in a school of unruly kids.

I’d also met Smith. And I knew he’d be coming back to kick my a** when he and his buddies returned from drinking in a few hours.

It was in such a mood that I called home that night. I had barely managed to put down some food for dinner, as I had no appetite.

I was convinced that Smith would return with all his friends and we would return to our conversation about how I’m not accepting a beer is an insult to someone from Kansas.

With such thoughts in my head, I trudged to the phones out near our barracks. I called home and my Dad answered.

He was in a good mood and couldn’t wait to hear my report about how great things were. But he caught on quickly but on was not well.

I managed in my dejected mood to explain the situation.

“Dad, I’m pretty sure when he gets back, they are going to beat me up pretty bad.”

Even now, I can’t imagine how painful it must be to be a parent and have your son call home and inform you that in a few hours, he is going to be severely beaten. Possibly, even hospitalized, by a dude who had a reputation for sending people to the emergency room.

After a few moments, my Dad said he wasn’t sure what to say. He said he would be praying for me — he’s deeply religious — and that I would have to do the best I could. That he had no idea what advice to give.

I think it was at this point, following some long pauses, that I mentioned that I would call him tomorrow and tell him how it went with Smith in a few hours.

He paused for a moment and finally said, “Now son, you know your Mom and me weren’t in favor of you joining.”

This was very true. They had wanted me to go to college, and I had begged and begged them to sign the papers allowing me to join the Delayed Entry Program, in which I sat for an entire year. To make this clear, this means at the end of my junior year, I had met with a recruiter and convinced my parents that I was dead set about joining the Marine Corps. That I had no interest in college. And that a full year in the Delayed Entry Program would allow me to meet monthly with the recruiters and get a headstart into my career.

What’s just say that 20 years later, I now see things from their perspective. It is crazy to allow a 17-year-old kid to convince his parents that he wants to go ahead and sign up, so he can go to Boot Camp while he’s still 17. (By law, you have to be 18 by the time you graduate Boot Camp.)

But I had been relentless with them and they had reluctantly signed the papers.

Now that same boy was calling home and saying how bad it was, same as he had said about Boot Camp and School of Infantry.

My Dad continued, “I know it’s tough and I know it’s scary, but you can’t keep calling home every night and upsetting me and your Mom. There’s literally nothing we can do and it hurts us to hear these stories.”

It was probably a good thing that my Mom wasn’t on the phone, because I would not have wanted her to know about the Smith guy and the trouble I was in, and I also think had she been on the phone, she would have said something to prevent my Dad saying what he said next. And believe me, I needed to hear these words.

I’m not sure how he said it, from a strength perspective so to speak, but my Dad said, “You need to not call us for a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. We love you, but you’re going to have to work this out yourself.”

I managed to hold my tongue, tell him I loved him, and get off the phone without saying something stupid. But I was so angry. I felt betrayed. Cut off. Kicked in the face.

I told a few of my friends and they were shocked as well. But let me tell you, in the weeks and months and years that followed, I became convinced that there was nothing he could have said that was better than the words that came out of his mouth.

He was absolutely right. I had wanted to join the Marine Corps, they had advised against it, but ultimately supported my wishes. What more can you ask from a set of parents?

It was also true that my mother and sister dreadfully worried about me all through Boot Camp and School of Infantry.

What I was doing was completely new. My family has only had one member ever join the military, so we had no experience regarding expectations, how things would work, or anything. My uncle had served in the Navy, but other than that we didn’t know much about serving in the military.

And I know it was super tough on my Mom to have her only son not only join the Marine Corps, but insist to the recruiter that he be placed in the infantry.

I had heard from my sister, a couple of people at church, and some family members, that my mother was worried sick about me. Almost 24/7. I think it’s safe to say that she wrote me about as much as a mother can write a son while I was in Boot Camp.

Clearly, my Dad had probably seen this affecting her health (her first bouts of seizures were just beginning), and he had probably realized it was time to turn me into a real man.

That phone call, more than anything else, turned me into a man. I was 18 years old, I was a Marine, and it was time to take that final step of growing up and become a man.

I need to add here that I have discussed this phone call with my Dad in recent years, and he does not remember it. Not even in the slightest. So maybe some guiding force from above was guiding his words, which I so desperately needed to hear. Or maybe I misinterpreted greatly whatever it  was he truly said.

But I know I am not making it up. Or at least not how I remember it. I can remember exactly which phone booth I used. I can remember wanting to swing the plastic handset against the metal plate of the phone until it crashed into a thousand pieces. I can remember stomping back to my barracks room, feeling completely abandoned. Honestly, feeling so angry at my Dad that I could breathe fire.

But my Dad did what a great Dad should do. It’s the circle of life. It’s the mama bird pushing her babies out of the nest.

I shudder to imagine the pathetic wimp I would have been had he said, “Yes, please call us tomorrow to tell me you are all right. Please call us as often as you can.”

And I could have. I could have called them every single night that we weren’t in the field. (Honestly, a few guys — a very few — actually did.)

That single, brutal message from my Dad culminated a nearly perfect upbringing. I was raised so well and couldn’t have asked for a better father.

And whatever toughness I possess, you can be certain he’s responsible for putting much of it in there.

Lessons learned

Here’s one thing I’d like you to take from this story, which I’m sure seems at least a little jarring.

I know life is hard and cruel, and that we all get knocked down by adversity and money problems, but you’re impacting your kids, and those around you, every single day, whether you realize it or not.

In my Dad’s case, he fell thirty-eight feet on a job site accident and landed right on his head in a rock pile, crushing three vertebrae in his back. (They had been given hard hats, but his fell off in the air.)

This happened when I was just a young boy and it was a miracle he even survived. But he broke his back and was told he’d be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. He refused to accept that diagnosis.

Year after year, he fought to improve, and eventually he was pushing around a walker. He still had a massive back brace that encased his entire upper body from the hips to just under his armpits. It helped support the rods they had placed in his back.

So many people told my Dad he should sue the company he worked for. That he could own them because they hadn’t provided a safety belt for him and a coworker, who were working on a roof. But my Dad refused. He believed they would hold a job for him, and even I thought he was wrong on this; even as a boy. Why would a rock quarry company bring a man back who couldn’t do a thing after being bedridden for months?

But he believed them and never sued. And before long, he had dropped the back brace and moved to a four-legged cane. But he still had a big plastic boot that ran up to his knee. His foot was partially paralyzed and he needed this artificial support.

Many months later, he had shed this as well. And eventually, he shed the cane.

Just as incredible, the company brought him back, letting him work in a weigh station doing some administrative work. It wasn’t long until he was running heavy equipment again.

Here’s the thing. Through this all, my Dad never really said a thing. I NEVER remember a rah-rah speech, where he said, “Son, you’ve got to be tough and never give up.”

Nope. He never said it. He’s a man of few words, but I heard every word that he never said.

Matter of fact, in all my years with him, I can’t recall a single time that he complained of his back hurting. Never.

But I remember numerous times that my Mom told me and my sister that she’d wake up in the middle of the night, finding him wide awake beside her in serious pain but never saying a word. And when she’d ask, he’d lie and say he just couldn’t sleep, but that he wasn’t in pain.

My point in relaying this story is that you, my lovely reader, are impacting those around you with your actions. And with your words, too, but your actions speak far more loudly.

My Dad could have blamed the company, or life, or even God. He did none of those things. He always counted his blessings and was grateful to have survived.

He always had this optimism that the company wouldn’t get rid of him. And they haven’t to this day, despite four different mega-corporation buyouts. Trust me, he works so hard — the man is a maniac about work — that no sane company would ever get rid of him.

Thankfully, he passed that work ethic to me. Or at least part of it, since I can’t work nearly as hard or long as him. Either way, I’m eternally grateful he showed me this toughness and work ethic.

You see, I can imagine a different outcome.

What if he’d have blamed the company or life? He could have crushed every dream I ever had by such an attitude.

Or he could have sued the company, made a million or two, and taught me that all the bad things that happen to you in life are someone else’s fault.

Instead, he fought back from a massive setback, kept his job, and has been richly rewarded with work and long-term friendships. (Seriously, he loves to work, and he’ll tell you that if you don’t enjoy your job, try not working for a year.)

So to sum up this too-long tell about my Dad, I can’t emphasize enough that complaining about life is killing your kid’s dreams. They see and hear everything. And they believe it.

The second major lesson is support your kid’s dreams, no matter how outlandish they seem.

I was crazy enough to think I could write novels as a kid. My Dad or Mom, neither of whom went to college, could have said that dream was crazy. (It was and still is, quite frankly!)

They could have said I needed to plan on getting a real job. But they didn’t.

And as I said earlier, even when their son wanted to do something they couldn’t fully support — joining the Marines — they eventually embraced that dream. (For instance, they proudly attended my Boot Camp graduation, whereas they could have said, “We let him join, but we don’t have to support his foolishness.”

I went into Boot Camp a pretty tough hombre. I had the bullies I mentioned in Chapter 1, forcing me to lift weights and study martial arts. I had my Dad’s example, of laughing at life’s cruelty and persevering to overcome it.

But that one call on that night after my near-fight with Smith is what sealed it. That was the final vertebra in my backbone.

That was the reminder that he had suffered his pain in silence and I should as well. (Within reason.)

That was the moment I remembered, “My Dad’s a total badass, so why aren’t I?”

And in the months and years that followed, I would think of just how hard it would be to say such words to your son: “You need to not call us for a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. We love you, but you’re going to have to work this out yourself.”

I don’t have any kids, but I’m honestly not sure that if I did I’d ever be strong enough to ever say those words. But here’s what I want to share with you: if you’re a parent, you need to say those words.

If your kid gets in trouble at school or with the police, they need to pay the price. I’m not saying be totally cold. Maybe the first time you try to get them out of trouble. But if not the first time, then certainly the second time: let them pay the price.

My parents told me all kinds of valid concerns about why I shouldn’t join. Did I listen? Of course not. But I learned from that day forward that I should listen better. And that when you make a decision, you better be ready to bear the consequences.

I wanted to be a Marine. Actually, I wanted more than that. I wanted to be guaranteed infantry in my contract, despite a high ASVAB score that could have gotten me in intelligence, where my recruiter begged me to go. My recruiter, probably wisely trying to assign some hard-to-fill spot, had not only pushed intelligence, he went even further and said there were no infantry slots available.

Think of that? No infantry slots in the Marine Corps. I’m assuming he believed I would cave and sign up for intelligence.

I didn’t. I went and met with the Army two different times and nearly signed up for guaranteed infantry slot with them before the Marine recruiter “miraculously” found a guaranteed infantry slot. Trust me, I’m a determined, hard-headed individual, just like my Dad, and I usually don’t quit until I get what I want.

But for all my stubbornness, I had gotten my wish. I was an infantry Marine, but now I had to deal with a guy named Smith.

An important note here, regarding the phone call. Not every parent reacts the way my Dad did. During my four years on active duty, some parents received similar phone calls as I had made and some of these parents scrambled, calling Congressmen to complain about various things and working to get their sons out of their contracts. Sometimes it even worked.

But do you have any idea how those Marines were mocked, harassed, and laughed at afterward? And even those whose parents succeeded, I’ll bet you the Marines themselves bear a shame to this day. Or perhaps they blame everything that goes wrong with them as someone else’s fault. That would be an even heavier sentence.

So parents, be strong for your kids with your example. And teach them that life has consequences. Both our good actions and our bad ones.

Every day you are impacting your kids. Whether you’re a mother or a father, you need to show them strength. Through the pain they see you pushing through, through the hardships they see you battling, they are feeding. You are their best example. And you don’t need to be giving speeches. You need to just be battling and working hard.

Don’t whine about things such as the TV or the evils of the internet or whatever political party you despise. Instead, go throw a ball with them or take interest in their drawings or whatever hobby they enjoy.

I still remember my Dad coming home from work after long days and not even taking his boots off, but immediately going outside to throw ball with me. (I used to love baseball.)

I don’t know about you, but when I used to get home from my day job, all I could think about was eating and getting out of my clothes into something comfortable. He didn’t have time for that because it would get dark soon.

That lesson alone (of throwing a ball, along with taking me to batting cages on many Friday nights) taught me that if I wanted to be great, I was going to have to practice and put in the hard work.

Just as importantly as hobbies though, make sure you take interest in your kids’ grades and schooling. Stop whining about how math is taught now or whether teachers give too much homework.

Tell your kids that their grades matter. I’m so glad my parents did, and that they gave my sister and I money for our report cards when we did well. We both earned scholarships and completed college — the first in our family! She’s smarter in that she became a CPA, whereas I thought journalism or fiction writing was the way to the big bucks! But the point remains: your children are watching you and listening to what you say.

I know life is tough. I know we all get tired. But literally, the life of your child is in your hands. And I’m not just talking about short-term safety. I’m talking about their lives and earning power for the next sixty to seventy years. Don’t doom them to failure. Don’t allow them to believe that dreams can’t happen.

Be strong, show them tons of support, and don’t be afraid of a little tough love. I think I’m living proof that it’ll pay off, no matter how hard headed they are. : )

Finally, before we end this segment, let me also say that a lesson I took from this is that we should limit how much we share. From that phone call that night forward, I’m not sure I ever really shared how things were going with my parents.

I didn’t want to put that burden on them. And I think if you’re in the military, you should do the same. Don’t mention you’re in nasty combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Tell them your zone is quiet. Because really, what can they do? Why add loads of stress and worry to them.

Same thing in the civilian world. If you’re an adult facing bankruptcy or something terrifying, don’t share that to your bedridden grandparent. You can mention life is tough right now, but cheer them up. Build them up. Tell them the story about your daughter doing her first recital. Or your son making his first tackle at peewee football. Even better, bring some photos! And some good food as well.

The world is a cruel enough place, and life is hard enough, without dropping your burdens on your friends and loved ones. They’ve already got enough to carry. Don’t add more. Instead, aim to remove some of theirs and spread some good cheer. One word of caution. Obviously, you can take withholding too much information too far. And I’m very guilty of that.

But I’d rather err on the side of withholding than in adding weight to someone who might be considering starting that side business or going back to school. It takes so little to change a person’s perceptions. Don’t be the one who keeps someone from going after their dreams.

In closing, be strong, show your kids tons of support, and don’t be afraid of a little tough love. They’ll thank you for it later, even if it’s the last thing that they want to hear when you initially say it. : )

Semper Fidelis,

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.