December 5, 2004
Past is prologueBy Dave St. John
I remember watching a news clip of a Marine Infantry unit preparing to deploy from Camp Lejuene during the First Gulf War. I watched a young, squared away sergeant move competently among his men checking their gear and speaking quietly to them despite the rude, intrusive glare from the TV camera lights. Damn... I was proud of him and there was a muted urge to be there and be part of it again welling up deep from inside me.
A few years later, I stopped at Quantico when I had a chance to go back there for a visit in conjunction with a northern Virginia business trip. I walked out on the 'grinder' at the old T&T Regiment near Main Side and shielded my eyes against the afternoon sun. It looked different from when I was there in 1962 and '63 and the changes they made were long overdue. Off in the distance, I saw a figure walking rapidly across the asphalt surface and as he noticed me, he changed his route and approached me.
He got closer, and said, 'May I help you, Sir'? He was a trim, hard—bodied Captain on his way to his Company headquarters with a clip board under his arm. I explained that I had been there many years ago and just wanted to stop in and see if it were still the same. Upon hearing that, he came to attention, saluted me smartly and said, 'Welcome home, Sir'. In that brief moment, everything good or bad that had ever happened to me while in the Corps was suddenly worth it. I felt like crying, I was so proud. He didn't know me from Adam. All that mattered was that both of us were Marines, him actually, me spiritually. We chatted about the training and the caliber of people the Officer Candidate Program was attracting these days. There were fewer of them, but they were as good as and probably better than we were, I quietly surmised from his comments
They had renamed some of the ball—busting trails we used to hump back then to more accurately align their difficulty with the sacrifices of heroes in prior wars who had faced and overcome a few difficulties of their own. It was no longer the 'Hill Trail', it was now the 'Medal of Honor Trail' replete with stations along the way depicting Marines who got the 'Big One,' many of whom never lived to have the blue and white ribbon slipped over their heads by the President of the United States
Candidates running that trail had to stop at each station, learn their stories, commit them to memory, despite the fact that they were ready to puke, their thighs and hamstrings burning, and even the ones in the best shape were gasping for breath. The strong message to them was that even though they might feel pressed to the edge of their endurance, the Corps expected... no... demanded more of them; and these men whose names were on these plaques delivered on those demands when it came their turn. They were the standard. It was a powerful association exercise. No MBA group exercises here, this was preparation for the real deal and everyone had to complete their assignment on time. It was a calling that touched one's soul.
I experienced a bit of nostalgia while there. How many young men whose boots beat a steady, coordinated cadence on that hard, unforgiving surface had paid the ultimate price for their decision to train here? How many had I had a 'near—beer' with in the Candidates' Club either there or at Camp Upshur, served by a regular cadre sergeant who needed the extra money he got from working there but hated having to wait on turds like us? Their names were a bit fuzzy now, but I could see them climbing the ropes on the 'O' Course and doing squat thrusts until their whole body seemed unwilling to bend even one more time. How many had I had a cold beer and a burger with at Diamond Lou's in Quantico Town on a Saturday afternoon after training was mercifully over for the week? Did their ghosts still walk the streets there? I felt as though they did. I saw them as young men, smiling, mischievous and confident. My mind played games with me as if I were a child again pretending with make—believe figurines and giving them the status of living beings. Just bring them back here now. Let it all be the same as it once was during the lighter times when we were young. Forget for a minute that we trained here for battle and just bring them back as if we were college kids, lean, bad asses in the best physical shape of our lives.
Let's swagger through the streets there again and maybe take a weekend trip to DC where our shaved heads gave silent but unmistakable testimony to our being Marines from Quantico.
Yeah, for a while there I was one of them again; a boy from Connecticut on his first visit to a southern state. My fellow candidates were from everywhere, most of which were places in states too far away to even imagine. Scared to death of the DI's who wore the impeccable summer service uniforms and elevated verbal abuse to the status of a capital offense. These guys were bad and not to be screwed with. Shut up, do what we were told, don't do anything to attract attention and get through these next six weeks... whatever it took.
The DI's, yeah... they were a story unto themselves. Tough, cocky bastards, they were. One of mine was involved in the Chosin Reservoir breakout in Korea. He was a black staff sergeant. In fact, he was the first black person I had really ever met or really knew. I still remember him to this day.
None of them had the multitude of degrees that would have academically qualified them as psychologists. They knew what made people tick at a gut level. They knew how long and hard to push us and when to disappear and let us recover, cool down and curse them out loud. They focused on the fakers and bullshit artists who tried to finesse their way into the Corps. They rode them unmercifully until they dropped out or shaped up. They watched for those with latent leadership talents and plumbed the depth of their commitment with leadership billets and duty assignments under pressure. They drove the candy asses out quickly and efficiently. It didn't matter how big one's biceps were or how long a man could run...in the end it was the size of one's heart and the depth of one's desire to make it through.
They took us from a lumbering herd of clueless college kids to a crisp team who executed commands on the drill field in precise unison. They gave us a sense of inner pride and purpose. They taught us personal discipline and organization. They gave us the confidence to march to the sound of the guns and kick the asses of those who would take us on. They made Marines of us. And when they were finished with us, they dismissed our platoon and met the next class of maggots, piss ants, and miserable pukes and... the transformation process began all over again.
Many of these unique, hand picked and committed men knew that perhaps one day, after we were commissioned and still wet behind the ears, they might be assigned to our units as Staff NCOs. They had a vested interest in us. Slowly and painfully, we began to understand their methods and toughness. We began to appreciate and understand concepts like traditions, valor, sacrifice, courage and leadership. Bullshit to some maybe, but the heart and soul of what this was all about to us. Some of us would call upon it when everything else we had learned had been drained from our frightened, bloodied and exhausted bodies. It was all we had...it was all we needed.
I think about those times even today. I think about all the instances in my life when it would have been much easier to quit, give up, give in or retreat. I think back to the time a black Marine staff sergeant made me hold an M—14 rifle by its front sight blades , my arms fully extended in front of me threatening to beat the crap out of me if I dropped it because I did something stupid and he saw it. Is he still alive today? Does he have any recollection of that stifling afternoon in a Quonset hut at Camp Upshur, a god forsaken training camp at Quantico, and the impact he had on me and the other college dumb asses assigned to his platoon?
I think of him and remember that, if we had left the base together then and tried to eat at some restaurant, local ordinances would have probably forbidden it. Inequities then...inequities now. I think of the steel he infused in my psyche. In the end, it was about mission and men...mission and men...mission and men. If I met him somewhere today, what would I say? 'Thank you Sergeant Manuel Montgomery, though we knew each other for a fleeting moment, it was I who emerged the better for it.' I can imagine his deep brown, piercing eyes fixing mine while his gravelly voice ordered me to give him 50... and they better not be 'pussy pushups', either.
I spend more time in reflection these days. Perhaps it is an inherent dimension of growing older. Those times in my past life still stick out like snow capped mountain ranges in some far western state. Anomalies perhaps, yet memorable visions that have shaped my adulthood and made me more than I thought I would ever be. They have made things valuable to me. Yes, some things are negotiable, not worth fighting over or making a fuss about. Others are not. They are intransigent reminders that life does have its lines in the sand. We are not sea weed subject to the flow, direction and speed of the current around us. There are times and events that should cause us to face up to threats and as a nation address them head on. Are we losing that conviction, that purpose, that goal...that very belief that there are absolute causes for which to shed our blood and give our lives?
I still hear the cadence of the boots on the 'grinder' at Quantico and other places where young men and women begin their indoctrination into a world of potentially great sacrifice. Will we have enough of them? Will they be more than just a slogan like 'Support Our Troops' on yellow magnetic ribbons that adhere to our cars?
I pray that our past is prologue. Pray with me. Much is at stake.