I enlisted in June 2006 after completing my junior year of high school. I was 18. My parents didn’t take my decision too well as they had expected me to graduate and proceed to college like most high school kids. I had been weighing my options over the course of several months- attending college to pursue a degree or enlist. If I chose “Option A” I would more than likely attend the University of New Hampshire- paying in-state tuition and studying business, like my father intended, while drinking and chasing girls.
Option B would almost inevitably lead to one thing: War. At the time it was almost a sure thing that if you enlisted into the infantry you would find yourself overseas, more than likely Iraq. One path was neatly laid out and the outcome was fairly predictable- graduate middle of my class and begin searching for a job. It is a pretty safe bet that I wouldn’t have taken my classes seriously until late in my junior year, in which case I would panic and try to boost my GPA before graduation in hopes of finding a run-of-the-mill manager position after college. The other path was grey at best. Most of what would lay ahead of me was unknown. The likelihood of deploying was high, but that was all that I knew. The mystery of the unknown and the thought of where the military lifestyle would take me excited me.
I knew I wanted to do something special- something different. I had nothing against being in the general infantry and being a grunt, but I wanted more. I thought about trying out for Navy SEALS but was worried about what might happen if I were to wash out, having been warned by others that if I failed I would be a cook. I considered army special forces as well, but if I didn’t make that I would end up as an army grunt, which didn’t sit well with me. Without speaking poorly about the US Army and its infantry, they seemed to take just about anyone. I was worried about ending up in an infantry unit with men of what I could argue are of lower caliber. Then I visited the Marine Corps Recruiter. At the time there were no Recon contracts guaranteeing me a spot to try out, but the worst-case scenario I would find myself among men who wanted to be in the shit. Marines have been known to be rowdy, raunchy, violent, bloodthirsty professionals, the best of the best, and the first to fight. If I didn’t find myself in a recon unit I would find myself surrounded (ideally) by those who enlisted to be grunts knowing they would deploy and fight. The Marines have a higher standard for enlisting than the Army as well, requiring a higher ASVAB score. After considering my options I decided to enlist with the Marines.
I left the small town of Amherst with my recruiter and headed to Boston for MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) to jump through the hoops that came with enlistment. I took the ASVAB test and scored relatively high and passed the physical with flying colors. My parents got wind of what I was doing and demanded that I come home. I had told them several times that I planned on enlisting, but my words must have fallen on deaf ears or been disregarded. When I returned home from Boston my parents were livid. As I recall they didn’t speak to me for at least a week. The only words that were exchanged between us seemed to be lines like “dinner is ready” and so on. It was summer time and I felt like an outcast in my own home, so I left for warmer waters and stayed with a friend and his family on a lake house an hour north.
Ryan Bishop, a friend who I would stay in touch with over the years took me in. Ryan and his older brother Chris grew up one town away from me and we met while ski racing for Pats Peak, a tiny ski hill about a 45-minute drive from town. I drove up to Lake Massasecum where the Bishops had a small lake house and they took me in while things blew over. I spent several days with the Bishops waterskiing, wakeboarding, swimming, and ignoring the phone calls from my parents. I told them I was leaving for a few days, and figured the time away might do us some good. Ryan and Chris asked me why I was enlisting and what my plan was. Like any other 18-year-old who had just enlisted I had a hard time formulating the words to describe what I had felt. I still do. I explained that even though I came from a middle-upper class white family I still felt an obligation to serve. I explained that the military would pay for school later on down the road, which would save my parents the trouble of having to pay for three kids to attend college. Most of the replies were cookie cutter answers that were easily accepted and just as easy to regurgitate when someone asked why I wanted to serve.
The real reason for enlisting, for serving, for laying it all on the line, is much harder to put into words, but I will do my best to explain it to you now.
My freshman year of high school I read a book called Night by Elie Weisel. At 109 pages it only takes a handful of hours or so to read and I have yet to come across a book that has impacted me as greatly as this text. The book is a true account of a young Jewish boy who was rounded up with his family and neighbors and taken to Auschwitz. He narrates the story and talks about watching his mother and younger sister being taken away from himself and his father. They are led to a furnace and he never sees them again. His father dies later in the book as the prisoners are forced to flee from the concentration camp and the stragglers are shot. He lost his entire family. Elie says,
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Many times I ran Elie’s life in the concentration camp through my mind. I pictured the silos with fire rising from the tops, the smell of burning flesh creeping up my nose to the point of gagging, the ash then falling down onto my skin, knowing that this is the remains of those who were led like catting into the furnaces, the night sky burning bright from the bodies of those unable to fight for themselves. I imagined my family in that position- my mother holding my little brother in her arms as they cried, my father reaching out for her as they are torn away. I imagine watching my mother and little brother being forced into a furnace- praying that they would at least be shot as opposed to being burned alive. I imagine trying to survive in a concentration camp with my father and older brother- riddled with despair. I imagine watching my older brother and father dying of starvation even after the allied forces have rescued us from the concentration camps. I dread the thought of having to live after surviving such an event. I cannot comprehend that feeling of loss or helplessness, nor can anyone else who has not been through that kind of horror. The mere thought of witnessing this kind of vent sends shivers down my spine and leaves me short of breath.
After reading that book, and imagining that kind of horror, and what may be taking place in a land far away from the safety of my home, led to my enlistment. Plenty of people may argue that those times are over and that these scenarios are unrealistic. In 2015 if you watched the news you would see that ISIS, or the Islamic State, has recaptured key cities in Iraq, and are beheading and executing locals that don’t support their cause. I guarantee you, the evil that existed in WWII can be seen today in the face of a different kind of enemy. Unfortunately it is my personal belief that as long as there is man there will be conflict, where there is conflict there is hate, where there is hate there is war, and where this is war there is evil and suffering. I don’t believe we, as a race will ever be free of such conflicts. But that’s just me.
As of 2007, when I left for boot camp, the united states military had an entirely volunteer fighting force- there was no need for a draft to find the manpower necessary to fight two wars on two fronts. What this means is that those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan did so willingly, knowing the consequences that may lie ahead. From what I have been able to research I have found that about 1,380,000 Americans were serving in the military as of August 2007 out of a population of about 301.2 million. If my math serves me correct that means about .5% of Americans were serving in August of 2007, or about 1 in every 200 people. Out of my graduating class of 225 students I was one of two, the other being a good Friend Nick Puppolo who enlisted in the Army, following in his brother’s and father’s footsteps to become a Ranger. Another classmate, Alana Phaneuf, went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy and become a pilot. Several others attended ROTC and I am unsure of where their careers took them, but I am almost certain that they did not deploy. To keep things simple, three out of 225 students took decided to serve, and only two, Nick and myself, enlisted as grunts, trigger pullers. If you were to try and do a similar breakdown in other cities and towns across the US the findings would certainly vary, but in the end the numbers sit around 1% serving in the military, and even less serving in the infantry, during a time of war where deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan are almost a certainty.
The reasons why men and women enlist vary, and we always hope that they enlist or commission with the best of reasons in mind. Some choose to serve to escape financial debt, because their lives where going down a path that could lead to jail or death on the streets, and some decided to serve to avoid jail time. What is even scarier is that some people even joined because they wanted to kill, legally, or at least that is what they claim. The last reason is definitely rare, but having heard it from the mouths of some psychos I can assure you that those kinds of people are out there.
Having been out of the military for four years now I can say that I do miss it. Not the bloodshed that comes with deployments, and I definitely don’t miss burying my friends (even though this still happens). I do miss the camaraderie that came with being in the service. Everyone’s reasons for enlisting may vary from one reason to another, but their reason for fighting was almost always the same. We fought for each other. When the rounds start coming down range, impacting on your left and right, whizzing by you and your friends, you fight and return fire to protect those around you. You strap up your flak and lace up your boots, you chamber a round as you walk outside the wire, ready to do violence, in hopes that you can help bring home the guy fighting on your left and right.
As a Marine in a sniper platoon I felt that I carried a heavy burden to protect all the guys I fought with because I could see and engage the enemy further off than they could. On countless occasions my mission was to provide over watch, sometimes called “guardian angel”, for the guys on the ground while they patrolled or searched houses. Our weapon systems allowed us to see what they could not, and in turn, kill those that they could not. But there is a flip side to that coin, one that most people don’t think about, and that is the intimate relationship that comes with such power.
A machine gun or mortar team can engage the enemy from hundreds of yards away, and even a grunt rifleman might be able to hit the enemy as far as 500-yards away if he is lucky, they won’t see the enemy the way snipers do. When they engage they will see the enemy fall if they are lucky, but they will not see the detail that we see. When we take a shot, depending on the distance, we can see every movement the enemy makes. We see his last facial expressions right before the bullet strips their life away. We may watch someone bleed out on the ground as they call for help from their comrades. If we are in a hide site we may watch the enemy for a period of time, making sure that they are indeed a threat, before taking a shot. We may watch a man leave his house and wonder- did he tell his wife that he loves her? Did he hug his son one last time? As we watch through our scope he becomes our world, and nothing else matters. We watch and we wait. If and when he goes to plant an IED, or pick up a weapon to fight, he becomes the enemy, and we choose to take his life so he doesn’t take one of ours. If we let him live, and he kills a Marine, that is one more family that is destroyed. One more casket to fill and one more flag to be presented. When we leave the wire and go out on patrol we become the most dangerous thing for miles. When we chamber a round we are ready to do violence to save those that we care about. Whether this is right or wrong depends on what side of the fence you the reader find yourself on. In the eyes of the family who we just stole a husband, a father, a son, a brother, from, we are the evil ones. But that is war, and there must always be a winner and a loser, a killer and a victim, a hunter and the hunted.
One day while I was with the Bishops we went to a rope swing that was along a riverbank. Ryan and I were joined by his cousins, who also lived up on the lake, and we took turns throwing tricks off the rope swing. After some time a woman and two kids arrived hoping to get in on some rope swing action. We stepped aside to let the kids have a go. I remember watching as one kid went to let go of the rope, his legs flailing as he let go of the rope, which then wrapped around his leg just below his shin. The kid came down and violently hit the water. The water level was at his chest and he was unable to free himself. The woman began to scream for the child, who continued to flail, begging for someone to save him. In a heartbeat I reacted and I sprinted down the hill, with Ryan and one of his cousins right behind me. I dove into the water disregarding the rocks that littered the shoreline. I swam to the boy and raised him above my head and out of the water. Shortly after Ryan arrived and freed the boy’s leg. He was crying as we carried him to shore where the woman joined him in tears. “Thank you so much!” she uttered through her sobs. “I don’t know what I would have done if you boys weren’t here.” I explained to her that it was nothing and that we were glad to help. The woman took the two boys and left the rope swing, no doubt that they had their fare share of fun for the day. As we stood in awe of what had just happened Ryan took a moment to reflect. “Man you were on it, you just sprinted down the hill, dove in, ignored the rocks, and saved that kid’s life,” he said. I reminded him that he was right behind me and that he had done the same thing. “No man, I hesitated, I ran because you ran, and I stopped at the shore line and waded into the water. You put your safety aside to save him. Damn man, that’s why you’re going to be a great Marine.”
I look back on this event often and wonder how much it ties into who I am today. While studying in Australia I saved some other kids from drowning at an unpatrolled beach I was surfing at with a friend. It would seem my position of over watch, guardian angel duty, supersedes my career in the Marines and has carried on into my civilian life. Maybe that is what I miss most about my time in service, the responsibility of looking after others.
Ryan Bishop drowned, tragically, while canoeing at night with some friends on April 28, 2011, only a month and half before I was discharged from the Marines. He was an outstanding athlete and the idea of him drowning didn’t sit well with me. I assume something else had to have happened, possibly being hit on the head with an oar or something, that prevented him from being able to save himself, and not him drowning due to poor swimming ability. The friends he was canoeing with didn’t realize he was missing until they swam to shore and by then it was too late. I don’t feel a sense of fault by any means as far as not being there for him, but I do feel that his friends are partially to blame. When the canoe capsized it became every man for himself and they booked it for the safety of the shore. Nobody took the time for accountability, nobody stopped to get a head count, and nobody stopped to see if Ryan was swimming to shore. The individual mindset led to Ryan’s death. That is what separates men like myself from most civilians- putting the lives of those around you before yourself. Life in the civilian world is a lonely place, and you only realize it once you’ve left the military, your friends and those around you no longer have your back.