In the fall of 1983 I transferred from my artillery unit at Camp Pendleton to an infantry unit because my First Sergeant wanted me to go overseas and “experience the real Marine Corps”. I was a non-commissioned officer and would be joining this unit for the last 8 or 9 months of my contract. They were prepping to go for a 6 month tour in Okinawa and South Korea.
I was excited but my Mom was nervous. I let her know all would be well because it was just training and these were American military bases and it was peacetime. Mom was a worrier though, which was allowed because her last son who went overseas did not come home.
Whenever I think of my time in the service I think of this time. I took USO tours to see the island and visit World War II memorials. I went out with friends for authentic Japanese culture and dining and dancing. We went to the beach. We went to the movies. We worked out. We had fun.
Then we went to South Korea for training exercises. It was hard. I went 2 weeks without a shower while out in the field. I slept on the ground and tromped through the snow. I ate C-rations, cold spaghetti, beans and weenies but also the coveted canned peaches. When back on base outside of Pohang we had showers but they were in tents outside in the 30 degree weather. It would come blasting out scolding hot then stop as the pump regrouped. Then it would repeat. You could hear screams “Aaaaahhhh ouch ouch ouch” alternating with “Brrrrr brrrrr come on, come on!!!” Lets just say it was an experience.
I got to go to Seoul for a 3 day pass twice. I went skiing with my buddy Doug. We went out to clubs, restaurants and shopping. It was a blast. Koreans liked Americans and they loved Marines. I even signed my first autograph there for some school kids. A local policeman came out of the office to have his picture taken with me.
I spent my first Christmas away from family there. A group of us gathered around some ammo boxes as the snow gently fell and we listened to Bing Crosby on our cassette Walkman while sipping hot chocolate out of canteen cups.
Back on Okinawa I had a couple of custom suits made for me, bought a stereo and continued to work out. We also continued to train and stay on base because for 3 months we were the unit that would be called up in case something went down on that side of the world. During one outing I saw a Lance Corporal sitting on his rifle. I told him to get off. He didn’t move. I did. Straight for him and grabbed him by the collar while screaming in his face, “When I tell you to move you do it!!!” We did drills on getting to the armory to draw weapons and to the airstrip ASAP. We stayed in uniform and kept our gear packed but nothing bad happened.
The point is it was a great experience. I got to see a part of the world I would never see again. I made friends and memories and in 1984 no one hated us.
As I’m writing this my son, Levi, is in the air somewhere over the Atlantic headed to Afghanistan. His Marine reserve unit got called up and they are going over for a 6 month term. He is in an infantry unit as well and they will be guarding a military base there and keeping watch over civil servants who venture into town to train the locals.
The difference now is there are plenty of people in the world who hate us. That makes me nervous and I have to push the fear down and put on a brave face and trust that his training and his brothers in the unit will see him through. He will also be spending his first Christmas away from family over there.
I wish he wasn’t going but I understand why he is. I really hope he has a good experience like I did. This has the potential to make a great memory and forge a lifelong bond with his brothers. But this is not a time of peace and it also could turn south very quickly. So I have to watch him go and wait and, like my Mother, worry a little till my son, the Marine returns.
The day he left for boot camp a couple years ago I put on my old dog tags to show him that in that small way I would be standing with him. I knew that he would change while there and the next time I saw him he would be one of “us”. A United States Marine, one of the few, the proud. And we would always have that in common. He would not only be my son but also my brother. Every time I moved throughout the day there would be a slight ‘clink’ from the metal against my chest and I would be reminded of him and what he was going through.
But now with him leaving again it felt different. He was going into hostile territory. He wouldn’t be signing autographs. He would be watching the back of his brother and hoping he would do the same. I didn’t say much about it other than to tell him to be brave and show courage but don’t be stupid.
We went to his reserve unit for family day just before he left for 3 months of training in preparation for overseas. Mom and the little boys hugged him goodbye. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my dog tags. I tried to speak but my voice was gone. I looked at Laurie for help as if she had it. She didn’t. I swallowed hard. Levi said, “You doin’ the dog tag thing again?” I nodded and cleared my throat. He continued, “It’s a good thing we are wearing sunglasses” as tears ran down his cheeks and mine.
I pulled the same dog tags over my head that I wore 34 years ago and felt the full weight of my words, “These don’t come off till you come home.”