When Tom (not his real name) decided to enlist with the United States Marine Corps in 2008, he had been renting a bedroom in his older sister’s El Cajon home for over a year. His room was wedged between his three-year-old and seven-year-old nephews’ bedrooms. At the time, he was 27 and out of work. It had been over four months since he had been laid off from his job at Fry’s Electronics in Murphy Canyon. He attempted to land a job as a Border Patrol agent. He passed all the tests but missed a paperwork submission deadline. He didn’t get the job. He was frustrated.
The way Tom saw it, joining the Marines was his best option. He viewed it as a way of getting his foot in the door to eventually land a law-enforcement job. That was, after all, where he wanted his life to head. His brother had served in the Army for nearly a decade and is now a cop with the San Diego Police Department. Tom picked the Marines specifically because of their reputation of being the toughest military branch.
He walked into the Marines’ recruiting office on East Main Avenue in El Cajon and signed up. He didn’t hesitate, he just did it.
“The recruiter loved me because I was the right age, I didn’t have any tattoos, have never done drugs, and I have a high school diploma. He didn’t have to try to convince me. My mind was already set.”
Tom’s mom Rita (not her real name) wasn’t happy when she learned that her son had joined the Corps. He had tossed the idea around with her, but she hadn’t realized he was serious. It came as a bit of a shock.
“I was worried,” she tells me.
“I wasn’t,” says Tom’s father Jim (also not his real name). “I think being a Marine is good for young men.”
Now, Tom’s mom has a SEMPER FI bumper sticker on the back of her Toyota Tacoma. When I last spoke with her, she had just returned from a ceremony honoring five men in Tom’s battalion who lost their lives during her son’s most recent deployment. While sitting in the bleachers at Twentynine Palms, one of the other mothers leaned over and whispered, “We are so lucky that our sons came home alive.” This rattled Rita: there was a heavy truth in that statement.
While Tom was gone on his last deployment, Rita watched the news constantly. If she heard about an explosion in the province where Tom was deployed, she imagined the worst. She would scour the internet for information. She even joined a Marine-mom website where other mothers exchanged information. The way Rita saw it, the more knowledge, the better.
“In the first three months of Tom’s last deployment I worried all the time,” she says. “It got to the point where I started getting sick. I used to cry really easily. Finally, I decided that I had to give it over to God. I had no control over the situation. That’s when I calmed down and relaxed about him being over there.”
She asked her congregation to pray for Tom.
Tom’s dad was of the opposite mindset. “I never worried about him. What good is worrying going to do? Besides, nothing bad ever seems to happen to people I know.”
During Tom’s first deployment to Afghanistan, his parents heard from him constantly. “I would look at my phone and there was Tom, instant-messaging me on Facebook,” Rita says. “He would send us email updates. It made it easier.”
“But this last deployment was different,” Jim says. “There was a lot more action. We heard from him less.”
Tom’s Facebook page lists his hobbies as: “Dodging bullets.”
Activities: “Shooting people with guns, and being shot at by people with guns.”
Tom writes: “Joining the United States Marine Corps…good initiative, bad judgment. Because doing something that makes sense, well…just doesn’t make sense.”
Tom was one of the older guys during his three-month boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He feels he was able to see through some of the mind games they played on the recruits.
“The worst part was three months [of] having angry men telling you what to do, when to do it, every second of every day, except when we were asleep. I knew it wasn’t gonna last forever, but it sucked at the time.”
Because of activist groups putting pressure on the military, Tom says that there are now restrictions on the way drill instructors deal with recruits. For instance, recruits are required to get a minimum of at least six hours of sleep each night; drill instructors are not allowed to touch the recruits; they cannot swear; recruits have to have three meals a day; and they are allowed to shower.
“Basically, these groups put their noses in what the military does. Because of them, the Marine Corps’ new recruits aren’t as tough as the old ones.
“Showering was the worst,” he says. “There would usually be two, sometimes three, guys per shower head. The drill instructor would command us to wet our left arm, turn off the water, lather up, turn back on the water, and rinse. That’s how we showered. It was annoying. Everything during the recruit training was timed like that, even eating.”
When the recruits used port-a-johns, drill instructors would shake them from the outside.
“Because of this, we would look around before getting into one. We would try to run in before anyone could see us going into it.”
Tom’s four-year contract with the Marines is up in April 2012, at which point he’ll do four years of reserve duty. He was deployed twice, both times in Afghanistan.
During his first deployment, from late 2009 until early 2010, Tom was a driver. He and his crew had the task of making the Marines’ presence known. They would do armored patrols, confirming to civilians and Taliban that they were there.