A milestone remembered

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The day passed and, although it was a milestone, I didn’t remember it until a few days later. Fifty years had passed — a lifetime. And so much depended on the milestone day and so many changes came from it.

I was not a good student in high school. I loved high school but I was simply not committed to doing what it took to get good grades. There were two schools on my radar. One was Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia and the other was Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee. Both were Methodist schools and both fielded football teams.

Early on, it became obvious that I could not afford either and neither offered football scholarships for a full ride. The third choice was East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., and I knew that all I had to do was have a high school diploma and take the ACT and I could get in. And that’s what I did.

The problem is that, once I determined that I would rather just enjoy high school than study, I failed to establish study habits. I managed to get through the first quarter with one C’s, two B’s, and an A, but the next quarter saw me drowning. In fact, I was in serious danger of flunking out.

Flunking out meant two problems: (1) the wrath and disappointment of my father and (2) the military draft. My number in the draft lottery was 16. If I left school the draft was a sure thing.

But there was one solution. ETSU was a strong supporter of the military. If I presented military orders, I could be withdrawn from school passing (whatever my grades might have been) and I would receive a tuition refund for that current quarter. It was a test in European History that made the decision for me.

I sat for the exam on a Tuesday morning and, facing the fact that I was going to bomb on the test, I left the classroom and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I waited while they cut my orders and then went back to the university to withdraw. I then had to go home to tell my folks what I had done.

Two days later, I boarded the bus for Parris Island, South Carolina. It was the first time I ever saw my father, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, cry. Early in the morning on Friday the 13th of February, 1970, I stepped off the bus and onto a set of yellow footprints.

My life, as I knew it, was over and the next 13 weeks were the most challenging I had ever faced — and worse than I had ever imagined.

And, yet, those 13 weeks changed my life. I did things I thought I’d never do — never could do — and I gained something that I thought I already possessed: discipline. I was a good and “squared away” Marine and stayed away from trouble. By the time I was honorably discharged, I had a wife and very young son.

I returned to East Tennessee State and graduated cum laude, much to the amazement of my high school teachers, I’m sure. More importantly, I learned and found that I enjoyed learning.

It wasn’t easy, as I had to work during college while taking classes full-time but, when I did graduate, I did it without financial help (I didn’t even know there was a Pell Grant available and never looked into it) except for a thousand-dollar loan, which I paid back. Later, I went to grad school and seminary and added a couple more degrees. I earned academic honors there, as well.

Something else I gained by my military experience was pride. I wasn’t particularly cocky but I was proud to be a Marine. It was, as still remains, the greatest accomplishment of my life. But it also gave me confidence. Not that “I can do anything” kind of attitude but the kind that, when things got really tough, I could look in the mirror and say to myself, “Look you got through Marine Corps boot camp, you can get through this too!” And it worked.

The experience introduced me to a fellowship that is likely unlike any other. Once, some years ago, I went into a comic book shop to buy a few comic books. They guy behind the counter looked like a stereotype of a biker gang members with tats all over and long hair and a very full beard. I was wearing my clerical collar and, at that time, was clean shaven and had short hair. He looked at me with distain and even gave a snort of disgust.

When I went to pay for the books, I noticed that he had a Marine Corps tattoo. I said, “Were you in the Marine Corps?”

“Yeah, what’s it to you?” he growled. “Parris Island or San Diego?” I inquired.

He cocked his head and said, “Parris Island.”

I asked, “Which recruit battalion?”

“Third” he said.

“I was in Second Battalion,” I answered. “When were you there?”

I sat down and we had a full hour of conversation, talking about our experiences and laughing over boot camp stories. You couldn’t find two men more dissimilar, but we were bound together as Marines. As brothers.

I think that the older I have gotten and the further away I have come from those days, the more important they seem to me. I have two grandsons who are Marines now. They have put in a little over three years now. One is in Hawaii and the other in Japan.

I understand that, right now, the Marines are a job to them — like any other job with all of its annoyances. But the day will come when they realize that they did something truly extraordinary, especially in this day when only 1% of the population is in the military and the Marines are a small fraction of that 1%.

The term, “Once a Marine, Always a Marine,” has been used for decades. However, the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, made it official Marine Corps doctrine when in 2010, he declared officially, “There is no such thing as a former Marine.” He went on to say, “You’re in a different phase of your life, but you’ll always be a Marine …”

So it’s been 50 years since I got off that bus and began an experience that has stayed with me to this day. Sometimes, in my mind, I can hear the cadence being called, feel the rumble of boots on the ground, hear the crack of the M-14 rifles, and I can still see and hear Drill Instructor Ferris T. Johnson as, by example, he demonstrates what it means to be a Marine.

Sometimes, I’m still that 19-year-old remembering those days. And then I look in the mirror and I’m 69 and balding and terribly out of shape, and on Medicare. But I’m still a Marine. Always will be. The General said so. And who am I to argue with the Commandant?

[David Epps has been a weekly opinion columnist for The Citizen for over 23 years. He is the pastor of Christ the King Church (www.ctk.life) on Highway 34 between Peachtree City and Newnan. He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]