A Parris Island Encounter


On Tuesday, February 10, 1970, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. On Wednesday, I went to see the man who had been my pastor for four years. I shared with him that, with the Vietnam War in progress, I had a good chance of being sent. I also told him that if I were killed in Vietnam, I was worried about where I would spend eternity.

I was a fairly good kid as a teenager. I went to church while my parents did not, I didn’t drink, smoke, mess with dope, or try to bed down the girls I knew. I had been president of the youth group for three of those four years and most of my extracurricular activities was taken up with football, Isshin-ryu karate, and singing for the local “Up With People” chorus. Yet, I was afraid to die.

I suppose the pastor had all this in mind when he said that I was a good kid, and I shouldn’t be worried. Well, he was the minister, so I tried to swallow my fears of what lay beyond death and move on.

On Thursday evening I boarded the bus and, in the wee hours of Friday the 13th of February. I and a busload of recruits disembarked at Parris Island, South Carolina My world, as I knew it, was over. Including a week of formation, the next 13 weeks was far worse than I imagined it would be. For the most part, I was able to do all I was ordered and expected to do. Except for the rope.

During the grueling physical training, which was in addition to the continual marching, running, group punishment exercises, classes. and physical and mental harassment 15 1/2 hours a day, I was able to do what was expected during the daily PT time allotted: I could do 100 sit-ups in two minutes, the required amount of pull ups, I never fell out of the daily three-mile run … but I couldn’t climb the 20-foot rope in the required time of 14 seconds. And, after three weeks of boot camp, the PT test was tomorrow.

If I failed the PT test, there was the real possibility that I would be “re-cycled,” which meant starting boot camp all over and with a new platoon. We had a few “re-cycles” in our platoon and the Drill Instructors were even tougher on them than us.

Wake-up time for recruits is 5:00 a.m. and lights out is at 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., I was still awake, dreading the day to come. Finally, I prayed something like this: “God, if you are real and if you are in this awful place, and if you care about me at all, please let me know and let me know that you are with me here. Whatever happens tomorrow, that is all I ask.” There were no visions, no words spoken, no angelic messenger came.

After a while, I got out of bed and grabbed my flashlight. I covertly opened my footlocker and took out a little booklet, a pamphlet really, called “The Serviceman’s Guide,” which had been given to me, along with a pocket-size New Testament, by the Navy chaplain for our battalion. Tossing my wool blanket over my head, I opened the booklet and turned on the flashlight. Immediately my eyes fell on this passage:

“Fear thou not for I am with thee. Be not dismayed for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee, yea, I will help thee: yea I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” Isaiah 41:10 KJV

As I lay there in the dark, surrounded by the snoring of sixty-some men, I had a certainty, and assurance, and a knowing that I had not had before. I knew that I knew that God had met me in that place and that, while the days ahead would be hard, all would be well. On that night, and on all the nights to follow, God was present.

The next morning, I made the rope with several seconds to spare. I never failed any of the PT requirements over the next ten weeks. In fact, I can honestly say that the remainder of Marine Corps boot was lived in a state of prayer that I had never known was possible.

Time and space do not allow me to share the truly miraculous occurrences that were a regular part of that Parris Island experience. Somehow, I read that New Testament, and tried to live it out, during the very few spare moments we had and finished it before we left The Island.

By graduation time, my fear of dying was gone. As St. Paul said, “for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Romans 14:8 NASB

Before I went into the Marines, several well-meaning adults tried to dissuade me saying, “You can’t be a Christian in an outfit like that.” Or, you cannot be a Marine and a Christ follower.” But I found Christ in that very outfit in a lower-level bunk under a wool blanket the night of March 3, 1970, fifty-four years ago. And although I have occasionally let go of Him, he has never let go of me.

I was trained as a warrior by the Marine Corps, but I was transformed by the love of God and the faithfulness of Christ in the very midst of that legendary Corps. The Marine Corps motto is Semper fidelis, Latin for “always faithful.” I can attest that, while I have not always been faithful to God, He has been “always faithful” to me. Whatever comes, He is faithful.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]