A Marine Returns to Duty

What was I thinking?

I arrived at the airport an hour and a half early.  Then the flight was delayed, and then canceled, and I was re-booked to a different flight.  It was a long day. 

As the plane began its descent into Jacksonville and the flat coastal lowlands came into view, I felt a pang for my family -- my wife and four children, innocent and vulnerable.  I would not be with them -- to teach them, to protect them, or to embrace them -- for nearly a year.

As I traveled along the road from the airport and saw the yellow, orange, and pink hues of the Southern sunset silhouetting the tall pines along the road, my thoughts wandered to the past forty years of my life, and I took stock.

The year I lived in Pakistan at the age of eight was now a lifetime away.  I was homesick the entire time I was abroad, but I still developed a love for the people and a taste for the spicy, rich food -- the curries, breads, desserts -- that stays with me and comforts me to this day.  Yet the greatest feeling I had ever had came to me when I returned to the States, when I saw a movie at the theater with my childhood friends on my first night back.

I thought about the loyal and decent friends I made as a teen, but also the self-doubt and melancholia that then arose within me, that I have fought against, run from, and at times surrendered to over the course of my life.

My father could not have known when he was a child, growing up poor in the British colonial city of Lahore, that his son would stand on the yellow footprints at Parris Island to become a corporal and then a major in the United States Marines.  My grandfather coming into America through Ellis Island, leaving behind the Eastern European ghettos, would not have predicted that his grandson would serve his new country in war in a small attempt to emulate its founders and leaders, from Washington, Jackson, and Polk to Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and JFK.

As we traveled to the base, we passed the modest but well-manicured homes that lined the road along with bait-and-tackle shops and rib shacks flanked by saw palmettos.  We passed the magnolias with their glossy leaves and defiantly Southern charm.  We passed the occasional live oak draped with Spanish moss.

I was hungry -- craving pulled pork, hush puppies, and about a gallon of sweat tea -- and was reminded of the intoxicating properties of the American South, the friendship of its people and the beauty of its women that could have you falling in love ten times a day.

The radio was on; virtually every station is a country station.  "Staying's Worse Than Leaving" by Sunny Sweeney played.

"You don't go," the song says, "until you're praying to break even, 'till staying's worse than leaving."

And so here I am, forty years old and back in the fight again.

Getting closer to Camp Lejeune, I thought about how a kid who never felt that he fitted in, always felt like an outsider -- scared of his own shadow -- ever could have made it.

The feeling of running in formation for the first time of your life, as a young man, surrounded by other young men who all came seeking something, all acting out of love of country and faith, from diverse backgrounds and ancestries, all responding to the drill instructor's cadence -- "back in seventeen-seventy-five, my Marine Corps came alive" -- in unison...well, it sits somewhere beyond words.  Feet falling at the same precise moment, breathing at the same pace, in the same uniform, hair shorn, all sixty-five of us as one.  Ahead, the American flag sets the pace.

Being proud of your country, and resolute in your faith, is potent medicine.

It is difficult to articulate the pride of wearing the blood-stripe, standing for the sacrifices of leaders who fell in service of this nation's freedom, in defense of their families and all we collectively hold sacred as Americans.  It is impossible to capture the swell in your heart that exists when you stand at attention while the colors are retired, or when you ride in an armored vehicle thousands of miles away from home, with only your fellow countrymen and their arms (and yours) to protect you.

There is no fear -- only pride and belief in the rightness of your cause and the virtue of your country, and ultimately belief in yourself.

As we drove in the dying day, I thought about the time my father returned from a trip to Washington when I was a child, and he was visibly upset.  Somewhere on the way to our Pennsylvania home, he was pulled over by a state trooper, who said to him, "Do you think the ayatollah would let you drive like that?"  I thought about how I worked for four years with police officers as a criminal prosecutor and formed relationships and lifelong friendships in the common pursuit of justice.

I recalled the holiday I spent during Officer Candidate's School with a born-again Christian friend, a fellow candidate.  Over dinner at a restaurant outside Quantico, Virginia, I asked if he truly believed that anyone who had not accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior would go to Hell.

His reply: "Yes, that is my understanding."

I thought about an English teacher at the Haverford School who taught us to have an adamantine sense of self, and of Saint Thomas More's words to the Duke of Norfolk:

And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

We ate a wonderful meal together, wished each other happy Thanksgiving, and continued our friendship throughout the remainder of our training and beyond.

Where else could these things happen?

Where else in the world could a man raised as a Muslim meet, fall in love with, and sustain a fifty-year marriage with a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx?  Where else can people make mistakes, learn everything the hard way, and yet still succeed on their own merits through a stubborn determination not to quit?

As the day dimmed and the hot Southern night took over, I marveled at the greatness of my country -- the land of my birth -- the sole nation that judges men as men, and where hereditary social position affords no absolute limits or guarantees of success in life.  I considered the words of William Faulkner, embodying not only the human spirit, but also the American spirit:

I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

With the sun setting as we approached the front gate, I stood in awe of this nation that made me who I am, with its boundless potential yet unfulfilled and its greatest days still ahead.  I bowed my head at its limitless resilience, at its beauty, and at the majestic Carolina Pines.

Dean Malik was a candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's 8th District in 2010.  He is an Iraq War veteran and former assistant district attorney in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.