Tuesday, November 10, 2009

USMC--Birthday of a Giant

Happy Birthday to the Marine Corps!

Older than the nation it defends. Feared by militaries around the world. The Few, The Proud.

As I tapped out that last line I remembered that not all happy with their decision to join the Marines. Let me tell you my side of the story.

In 1966 the local draft board in Newport News, VA sent me a cutesy little letter informing me that I, a registered sophomore in college, was now classified as a 1-A and not a 2-S. I was eligible for the draft. That put a quick damper on my immediate future as a college student. A day or two later I received a short handwritten letter from my mom in which she had enclosed a clipping from the local newspaper. The clipping stated that several hundred (memory says 'thousands') Virginia young men would be called up in the very near future and many were in college. The war in Vietnam was escalating.

I had already registered for the fall term but quickly put the skids to my educational future by informing the registrar that I was withdrawing from school. The college president got wind of it and called me into the office for a quick chat. I think he was more concerned about the basketball team (I was a starting guard at the small college in Pennsylvania... never would've made the team at a bigger school) than my education. I politely informed him that my decision was final, shook his hand, and left to pack away my things.

The following morning mom and dad arrived at the school shortly after breakfast, having left home 6 hours earlier, to give me a ride home. One year earlier they had dropped me off at college and were now retrieving me. Six hours later I was back into my former bedroom. A college dropout.

The draft board and the recruiting services were all sequestered in the basement of the marbled post office in downtown Newport News just a few yards from the arch that many a soldier and sailor saw when either departing or returning from WW2.

I went into the draft board office and met the gray haired witch of conscription, Esther Davis. Isn't it amazing that I can remember such a person? We were told that she loved her job. After presenting my draft card I asked, "How soon will I be called up?" With nary a smile she said, "Soon."

It did not take me but milliseconds to depart her office and walk across the hall to the Navy recruiter and ask the petty officer, "Where do I sign up?" My older brother had been in the Navy Reserve and I wanted to go Navy as well. I figured with one year of college behind me I could wrangle a good job and be off to boot camp. "Sorry, but we're booked up for six months. Can't get you in."

The Air Force recruiter said the same thing. I had grown up with Army brats so I didn't want to go Army. Back to the Navy recruiter who suggested the Marines. No way, I knew enough of their history that I didn't want anything to do with them. I went to the Naval Reserve Center to sign up. "Bring in a buddy and we'll sign you up." I gave him a frank, "No," because I wouldn't drag a friend into the military at my expense.

I went back to the PO and visited the Marine Recruiter who said few words and never promised me a rose garden. He asked a few questions and offered me something that appealed to my interest. Aviation, mechanic.. We filled out the paperwork and the next morning I was off to Richmond to the Selective Service Center to take my physical. Never saw so many lines of semi-naked young men holding paperwork with large letters stamped at the top, "DRAFTED." When the processing personnel saw "ENLISTED" at the top of my paperwork I was ushered to the front of each line. By the end of the shift I was on the Greyhound back to Newport News.

To make it short, in six days I was out of college and on my way to boot camp at Parris Island, SC. In a few short words let me describe MCRD, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, eight weeks of hell.. During that time they turned me into a Marine that was proud of his selection, his unit, and his country. My weight jumped from 170 to 195 and I was in top shape.

After four more weeks of combat training at Camp Geiger it was off to Cherry Point for aviation school. Following NAMTRADET I was assigned to H & MS-24 where I spent the next 18 months in OJT. On Sept 9, 1968 I volunteered for Vietnam. In August of 1969 over 650 Marines were withdrawn from Chu Lai to Iwakuni, Japan. From Japan to El Toro, California where I was discharged.

During my four years in the Marines I learned that not all people are happy with their decision but we made the most of it, did our job, did it well. Marines are a weird bunch of people. If they're not fighting the enemy they're looking for a fight with the other military branches (poor Navy personnel), and if they weren't available, we'd fight amongst ourselves. Not me necessarily, I thought of myself as more of a lover than a fighter and I only had two scuffles during my enlistment and won them both. One of my Virginia buddies, Don Tipton, and I would literally wrestle for an hour or more or until one of us nearly passed out from exhaustion.

Many young men have had the thought that they'd never make it in the Marines but let me assure, the Marines will turn a young man into a Marine. You cannot go from one branch of the military into the Marines without going through boot camp whereas you can transfer from the Marines (at the end of your enlistment) into other branches of the service.

So, today, 234 years after its birth, the Marines are celebrating another birthday.

While in Botswana this past year I was in a restaurant at Riverwalk when I spotted two young men walking away. I quickly got up and followed them outside and called, "Gentlemen!" Neither one turned around or acknowledged me. "Semper Fi," I called and immediately they stopped and turned around. I introduced myself, "Aaron Wetterling, former Sergeant, former Marine." We shook hands.

"Are we that noticeable?"

I replied, " It takes one to know one."

Happy Birthday, Marines. Semper Fi.

Aaron Wetterling
former sergeant, former Marine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your service.