I owe my life to a Marine.
He did not pull my wounded body from a battlefield or bravely throw his body on a live grenade.
No, he saved my life by embarrassing me.
* * *
When I was seventeen years old, I stepped off the commuter plane and stood on the tarmac in Gainesville, Florida. The heat and humidity of mid-August pressed down on me; the air thick, the sun punishing. Instinctively I knew this was no place for a redheaded Irishman who preferred cool autumn days to the relatively mild summers of upstate New York. But there was no turning back—the next morning I was to be sworn in and begin basic training as a midshipman in the University of Florida’s Navy ROTC program.
A taxi took me to my dorm. Because fall classes did not begin for several weeks, the huge campus lay dormant and there was no sign of my new suitemates. Feeling alone and seeking comfort, I drew myself a bath, sank in the water, and cried.
As the hot tears rolled down my cheeks, I shook my head and whispered to myself, “How did I get here?”
* * *
My father and I were not as close as I would have liked during my adolescence. In fact, I wanted him to notice me, to recognize that I was a special kid, and to have him feel proud of me. One day in an attempt to connect with him, I mentioned some of the colleges I was interested in attending. As I prattled off the names of the private schools, my father nodded silently.
Looking back, I realize that my dad—a high school teacher—was likely feeling the pinch of having financed several of my older siblings’ educations. There was no more money for private schools. However, as I finished running through my list, he dropped his hint. Had I ever considered ROTC? The military offered full scholarships to a select few students who made the grade. Wouldn’t it be great it I could win one of those awards, he asked?
Unconsciously, I began nodding.
Yeah. Sure. That would be great… I guess.
Over time, the idea took hold within me. My need to win my father’s approval combined with competitive nature made me determined to win the award. In return for a full government-sponsored scholarship, recipients were required to spend at least four years on active duty as an officer and then four more years in the reserves. However, I gave this massive commitment little consideration; I just wanted to please my dad.
After months of interviews, tests, pushups, and physicals, I received a phone call informing me that I the scholarship was mine if I was willing to attend the University of Florida’s program. Elated, I accepted. My father seemed proud of me and this made me happy. My course was set.
The reality of my choices hit me when I stepped off that plane. At 17 years old, I found myself 1,500 miles from home, my girlfriend, my friends, and my family. I felt stranded at a huge university in a foreign state where I did not know a single person. As I settled into my new life, I discovered that I had little in common with any of the other midshipmen and I had trouble making friends. My feet bled constantly as my tight white Navy-issued shoes rubbed the skin off my heels. And because the Navy strongly encouraged us to major in engineering, I struggled to stay awake during my mind-numbing classes.
In short, I was as unhappy as I had ever been in my life. Every morning when I woke up, I revisited that same question: “How did I get here?”
Over time, the answer came. From my need to please someone else, I created a life where I suppressed all the things that mattered most to me – my freedom, my individuality, and my love for connecting with people.
As miserable as I was, I was not yet ready to take a stand for my life. I still valued doing the “right” thing more than paying attention to how I felt. No, I would not be a quitter. I would not disappoint my father.
In fact, I rationalized my decisions. Even though I felt like an outcast in the ROTC program, I tried to convince myself that perhaps I would learn to fit in. Perhaps my gut instincts were wrong and I would eventually learn to love the military. While I had no interest or aptitude for engineering, I was told that there were always jobs to be had in the field; it was safe.
Clinging to my lies, I soldiered on, month after month.
Every Thursday was “Drill” day. This meant that I was required to wear my white Navy uniform as I attended classes around campus. At the end of the day, all the midshipmen and Marines would meet on a huge field to practice our formations and marching in the sweltering heat. I went to bed every Wednesday night dreading the dawn.
Being in uniform required me to be in “soldier mode.” And I was not a very good soldier. Unlike most of the other midshipman whose fathers were active duty military personnel, I had no previous military experience. I did not know the culture. I was oblivious to the rules of the game. My ignorance caused me to feel anxious all the time, worried that I would be discovered for the being the interloper that I most certainly was among these military folks. I spent most of my time keeping my head down and trying to maintain a low profile.
Being in uniform required you to follow the rules and regulations of a soldier. This meant that whenever I walked around campus and encountered a superior officer, I was required to go to him and offer a salute. However, this simple protocol presented a large dilemma for me as the bars, stripes, and insignias on the uniforms that denoted rank remained beyond my comprehension.
In other words, I had no clue who my superiors were. To compensate, I adopted an ingenious strategy. I saluted everyone. However, between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, there were over a thousand cadets on campus. I was making a fool of myself (“why are you saluting me?”) and living in a constant state of fear.
My life changed course on one fateful Thursday.
I made my way to class, this one held in the busiest building on campus. Hundreds of students flowed in and out and I made my way through the crowd. I saw him out of the corner of my eye when I was about twenty feet from the entrance to the building. In the sea of students, he appeared and disappeared in an instant, but indeed, a man wearing the khaki Marine’s uniform had registered on my consciousness.
I felt the familiar shiver of indecision move through me. My gut told me that this man was an officer, but my mind told me that I was just a few steps from reaching the safety and relief waiting for me inside the building.
I don’t think he saw me… I’ll just keep moving and pretend I didn’t see him…
Then I heard his voice, as startling as a crack of thunder on a sunny day.
“MIDSHIPMAN! DO YOU THINK I CAN GET A SALUTE OUT OF YOU?” the Marine bellowed.
Hundreds of students froze, me included. Without looking up, I knew that his message was directed at me. As I turned to face him, I saw that all eyes were fixed on me. Reflexively, I raised my fingers to the bill of my cap. I heard a young woman snicker as she passed, and the Marine continued to dress me down as the other students got some unexpected entertainment.
As the blood rushed to my face in humiliation, I could not take in a word he was saying. I just waited for it to be over. When dismissed, too shaken to go to class, I scurried in the direction of my dorm room, fighting back the tears and cursing to myself.
I stripped off my uniform and lay on my bed. As I allowed the waves of rage to pass through me, one message echoed through my head.
Never again would allow the truth of my feelings to be trumped by my thoughts of doing the “right thing” or allow the preferences of other people to dictate the course of my life.
* * *
Following the event, I mustered the courage to give up my full scholarship, transfer to a small liberal arts college, and replace my engineering major for a degree in psychology.
This decision set me on a course to take full responsibility for my life and to use my feelings to navigate the course of my life. Moving forward, I would live in alignment with what felt right to me instead of what looked right in the eyes of others.
In retelling this story, for years I would curse that Marine for his actions that day.
Now, I see him as my guardian angel, sent to jar me awake from my sleepwalk so I could live my right life.
(This came from an unpublished book proposal I wrote called Radical Responsibility: How to Master Your Life by Mastering Your Thoughts. This was truly one of those moments that changed the course of my life. I am reminded of it because I boarded that plane to Gainesville 28 years ago today. Another lifetime ago, and yesterday.)