I’m originally from New Hampshire. The town that I grew up in has a population of 10,000 within thirty-four square miles. I grew up in the woods. We had cats for pets. Life was safe and we were complacent.
One month out of high school I left for Marine Corps boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina. Sweltering heat, 100 percent humidity, sand fleas, a wool blanket on the top bunk above a feisty New Yorker and wooden trunk. This was home from June 15th 2007 until October 5th. A home without movies or music and where on occasion one must piss into their own canteen in order to discreetly make it through the day. This place is unlike anywhere you have ever seen. On paper it looks like a prestigious training facility that pumps out disciplined Marines ready to hit the fleet. It’s a little different on the ground. To sum it up, the only reason grass grows on that island is because it is watered ever-so-frequently with sweat and tears from recruits. My mind often wandered to home, New Hampshire, and what my family was doing. The house would have little activity going on. The neighborhood would be quiet. On occasion a dog could be heard barking somewhere up the street or a car would pass.
I would be home for ten days and then be bound for Jacksonville, North Carolina. Explaining this to my mom I was met by her counter-argument that I must be mistaken, and that Jacksonville was in Florida. I returned fire exclaiming that I was well aware of that, and that this particular Jacksonville only existed because of the large Marine Corps base there. Some of its residents call it the armpit of America. Hookers and con artists are prevalent. I have personally seen a pregnant midget stripper. Again, a place like you have never seen before. My stay here was brief, and my time was mostly spent training. Home, again, became a top bunk, again, over the same New Yorker. We are still friends today. Again, my mind wanders.
I would be home for Christmas 2007. I did not know it at the time, but Christmas for the next two years would be spent with a different kind of family, and most certainly in a different place. Home, not just in physical location, but also in a deeper meaning, was going to change for me.
After Christmas I flew to Oahu and on New Years Eve 2007 I was welcomed aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii with a barrage of glass beer bottles, catcalls and threats of physical violence. This was expected. We had heard the horror stories of new guys getting hazed as soon as they hit the fleet. We had been told about a Marine who was duct taped between mattresses and then thrown off the third deck. I was told he was okay. All of this did not make the experience any easier. I welcomed in the New Year with the lights out in my room as I watched movies on my laptop, all the while doing my best to remain silent. The men outside were animals, drunk and enraged, best not to draw any unwanted attention to myself.
Our unit, First Battalion Third Marine regiment, began our nine-month work up, our preparation for our upcoming deployment to Iraq. We would travel to the big island of Hawaii for several weeks of training, followed shortly by the Mojave Desert in California. We continued our training over the months. We seldom stayed in our barracks rooms. The concept of home became a group of people instead of a physical location. Home was where your team, your brothers, were. This varied from a pop up tent to a hole on the side of a mountain. When we arrived in Iraq it became tin mobile homes and mud huts. Again we were on the move so often home often times became obscure, and fell again on the men you served with. Home on Thanksgiving 2008 was spent on the side Main Supply Route Michigan- a major highway in Iraq used by coalition forces. We spent four days, 96 long hours, in a whole on the side of the road. A massive wall of sand and rock ran parallel to the highway and we were positioned on top of it. Four days of baking hot temperatures during the day, which then fell below freezing with the setting of the Sun. One hour of sleep was followed with two hours of watch. For each hour I was allotted for sleep achieved perhaps 30 minutes of actual rest.
We came back from Iraq and started our training cycle again. Marines were discharged and others were chosen to join the platoon. We retained about one third of our original platoon. The rest were newcomers. Nine months came and went by quickly and all of a sudden we found ourselves overseas again. Home in Afghanistan was a tent for moment, a mud hut the next. Our base was Man Bear Pig, named after a creature from an episode of South Park, and it accommodated approximately 20 marines. It would vary from 18-25 Marines. Sometimes we needed more men out there to keep up patrols. Our home, realistically, became our adoptive parents- the men of Bravo Company. We spent our entire deployment working with the same group of about 200 people. Out of the 200 Marines we worked directly with the same 120 men as squads and platoons would cycle through Man Bear Pig. We grew tight. We were family. My team, eight men including myself, was pulled back to the Battalion headquarters for a few days of administrative work and pending missions. We were gone 48 hours before Bravo Company requested, arguably demanded, our team to come back to their area of operations. We were the best in the business and Bravo Company felt safer with us around. When Bravo Company lost a Marine in combat we grieved with them. I had been assigned to Bravo Company before I tried out for the sniper platoon. I loved these men. Each loss came with a colossal weight, carried on the shoulder of each man that survived. We would lose five Marines on that deployment. Five more, in the years that followed, would succumb to suicide or alcohol or drug overdose.
We came home in June 2010 after seven months in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The lives of the men in First Battalion Third Marines would never be the same. We didn’t know it at the time, but we all had changed. I would like to believe the change is primarily for the better, but these days I am unsure.
My last days in the Marine Corps were spent at the same barracks I had lived in upon first arriving to the island. Mackie Hall. Back to a life of no air conditioning, sporadic water temperatures, broken glass and blood on the carpets, and shit creek hanging out the back. I speak in confidence for a handful of people when I say that we wouldn’t have had it any other way. We felt like we had just moved back home. There was a bittersweet feeling to it all. We were all excited to get out and start our new lives; some would become military contractors, others would go to college and a handful had no idea what they wanted to do, they just knew that they were getting out. Our careers started in these barracks, it was fitting to end them there as well.
Most of us were ecstatic about the closing of our military careers. Some would leave island in a few weeks, others in the months that followed. Then there were those that decided to stay in the Marines. Ryan Jensen, my best friend in the Marines, decided to stay in and would transfer to the 7th Marine Regiment out in the Mojave Desert. He had attended school before the Marines, but didn’t quite fit. He was not stupid by any means, and standing at 6’3” 230 pounds it wouldn’t be wise to insist that he was. He fit well in the Marine Corps. Some people, once enlisting and completing their first four years, should never leave the military. They have found a system that works for them. More strongly, I believe that some people cannot mentally accept the changes that come with reverting back to a civilian lifestyle. It’s a long and arduous path, riddled with confusion and lack of understanding from those around you. The failure to adapt typically concludes along the lines of crime, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. We didn’t know how tough the transition would be.
I remember sitting on the third deck in the barracks looking out towards the mountain range. The mountains shot out of the ground and reached for the sky. There is a hike on this range called The Stairway to Heaven. 4,500 stairs straight up. A cold Bud light in my hand and I was surrounded by the best friends I would ever have. The sun was beginning to set as it dropped behind the mountains in a fiery red glow. I will never forget the sky and sunsets in Hawaii. The light reflected off of the water. I remember the warmth of the sun on my skin. You lay on the beach as the sun said its goodbyes and thought about being back overseas. You drive these thoughts from your mind. You try to be in the now.
We kicked back in our chairs and looked out at the view, casually drinking our beers. We wondered how we were so lucky to get to this point. We had made it through two deployments, stepping on IEDs that didn’t blow up, and rounds whizzing by our heads. We lived a life that a fraction of a single percent of Americans will ever experience and we had survived. It was during these days that I saw several of my friends for the last time. They would later fall victim to PTSD. They would self-medicate, overdose, or outright commit suicide. A good friend of mine, Dane Freedman, decided to take his own life two and a half years after leaving the Marines. He shot himself in the chest in the back of an SUV while sitting next to his girlfriend in an Outback Steakhouse parking lot. He got a fresh haircut and bought a new pistol that morning for his exodus. Trey Jablonowski hung himself in the barracks almost a year ago. That was on Mother’s Day. These were our last goodbyes and we didn’t even know it.
I left Hawaii on June 16, 2011 and flew into Logan International Airport in Boston. That was almost four years ago. Since then I have lived in Florida, Massachusetts, Boulder, and even Australia for a temporary stay of five months. I look forward to starting a career somewhere else, where, I am unsure. I want to start a family in the not too distant future. I want a home again.
When people ask when the last time I was home, I struggle to answer. What is the appropriate response? My parents live in Florida, my brothers are in California and Massachusetts. The Marines I served with are scattered across the nation. And here I am, passing time in Boulder. I can feel the bullshit answer making its way up my throat. I don’t lie, but I don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes the company you keep don’t rate to hear the truth. More often than not I don’t share certain truths with friends, or even my family. Certain truths stay among my Marines. What’s one more lie to an acquaintance.
I keep the real answer to myself as I utter some irrelevant date. I think to myself. I look back at the best four years of my life. I guess the last time I was really home was June 16th, 2011. I am still struggling to get back home.