After I completed boot camp, I was sent to Camp Johnson, North Carolina for admin school training and upon completion of that I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina which is literally in the same city as Camp Johnson was. It was not much of an event for me to move to one base from the other.
My first job was as an orders clerk for the Headquarters Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division. I remember having what was probably a silly feeling of excitement when I was given my own desk in the office where I was to work. I’d never worked in an office before and something about that desk made me feel … grown up.
About three months later, I took Christmas off to visit my family in Rapid City and when I came back to Camp Lejeune I was pulled aside and told I was no longer an orders clerk. Fortunately it wasn’t because I had done anything wrong, rather they needed a Marine to serve as a Chaplain’s assistant for the Division Chaplain.
There I was again, just a few months after arriving at my first adult job now starting my second one. I worked with a Navy enlisted man and the Division Chaplain – a Naval Captain – and his assistant chaplain – a Lieutenant Commander.
I enjoyed the job quite a bit; it was much more informal than I’d been used to since becoming a Marine. This could be the reason I made the error I did not long afterwards.
One day I was asked to go over to the Headquarters Battalion and get some signatures from the new First Sergeant there. I walked up to his office and knocked at the door and introduced myself, “Good morning, First Sergeant, I’m PFC White and…”
“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing!!??” a voice bellowed from the office.
“Um, uh…” I looked in and saw one of the biggest men I’d ever seen in my life. The Marine Corps mascot is a bulldog and I swear that day I saw that mascot come to life – at a good six and a half feet or so, snarling and ready to tear me from limb to limb.
“Marine, is that how you enter a First Sergeant’s office? Like we’re some kind of buddies or something?!!”
“Uh, no sir…I mean, no First Sergeant….”
“Get out of my office and come back when you learn how to present yourself like a Marine!” the man bellowed.
I did exactly what he said. I left. However, what he said was not exactly how I interpreted it. Apparently, he had meant for me to stay outside his office and eventually present myself properly. I made no friends that day by leaving.
By the time I made it back to the Chaplain’s office, a call had been made and I had been ordered back to the First Sergeant’s office. With a distinguishable gulp, I knocked on his door and when told to do so I walked in at attention and presented myself to him.
As one can imagine, several of the next minutes were filled with various profanities and loud yells to intimidate me and put me in my place. Both objectives were accomplished. I feared this man more than I probably ever feared my drill instructors at Boot Camp.
Which taking that into account made my next mistake even more stupid. Several months later, we had a Chaplain from Great Britain come to Camp Lejeune on an exchange program. Because I was the Division Chaplain’s assistant this meant I drove him around the base, I was there when this Chaplain arrived and I got to meet him, his wife and their two girls.
Not long after that I got the nerve up to ask this Chaplain’s daughter to go out with me and we began dating. One day I decided I wanted to buy her some flowers from the local PX. I drove there at lunch to do so – but I did this in the Division Chaplain van. When I came out a few minutes later, the van was gone.
It turns out that using military vehicles for personal use is a big no-no. Granted, this should have been something I understood but looking back at it now, I’m going to cut my nineteen year old self some slack.
The First Sergeant was not as kind. It wasn’t long before I was once again standing in front of his door. Fortunately, by this point, I was well aware of how he wished me to present myself and did so accordingly.
There was no pleasure to be found in the fact I remembered our earlier lesson together. More profanities and loud yelling ensued. The First Sergeant decided I needed to be taught a lesson. I had requested time off as I had planned to take my girlfriend to visit a good friend of mine in Washington D.C. That leave of absence was revoked and I spent that time on duty.
As reprimands go, despite how unfair I thought it was at that time, it was a rather tame punishment. In fact, I was able to get time off later on and was able to take my girlfriend to Washington D.C. after all. I was pretty lucky to be honest that more hadn’t been done.
That makes the final thing I did the stupidest thing of all. Another young female Marine had been moved into the Chaplain’s office. I have to be honest; I didn’t like her at all. She outranked me slightly – for most of the time we were the same rank but she was the senior of the two of us – and honestly I probably was threatened by that a bit. Again, I was nineteen.
She and I had a lot of issues for the next year or so and I did not show her the respect she deserved. It didn’t help though that she was pretty incompetent at our job. That doesn’t excuse what I did however.
One day we were filling out performance reports for the Chaplain’s that worked under the Division Chaplain and she kept doing them incorrectly. In the arrogance that comes so quickly to the young I made a big production of showing her how she was doing them wrong.
The assistant Chaplain at that time had finally seen enough. He contacted Headquarters Battalion and asked to have me removed from the Division Chaplain’s office. I had been, in essence, fired.
I was embarrassed and frustrated. I knew I was good at what I did and I lost this job because of someone else’s incompetence. That’s at least what I told myself at the time. In truth, I lost it because I didn’t know how to work within the system. I was trying too hard to fight it.
I expected to find myself before the First Sergeant again to be once more hit with more profanities and loud yelling. Surprisingly that didn’t happen. I was moved into the Logistics office for the Division and not much else was said of what happened.
I have to admit, I think being put into that job was a good thing and I actually enjoyed what I did. We were responsible for keeping track of things the various units in the Division needed such as food, ammunition, etc. I worked for a Gunnery Sergeant who was quiet and firm but pretty good to work with.
One day I was walking to my office when I saw the First Sergeant headed my way. He was coming right towards me with a determined look in his eye. I quickly thought back over the last few days and couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong! What was he going to say to me?
He stopped right in front of me, “White! I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together.”
“Uh, um…well, First Sergeant, I’m really not a football player,” I began.
“White! Did you hear me? I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together!”
“Well, uh, First Sergeant would you like me to sign up for it?”
“That would be fantastic White! I’ll see you at practice!” With that he turned and left.
I stood there dumbfounded. What the heck just happened? I guess I had just joined a football team, a MARINE football team, having never played a day of football in my life. “I’m going to die.” I whispered to myself.
The next several days were brutal. I practiced with fellow Marines who took this game of football, one I never understood and never thought made any sense, very seriously. I would go back to my barracks after practice bruised and in pain but feeling something I hadn’t in awhile.
What I felt was that I once again belonged to this group known as Marines. I wasn’t an outsider, I wasn’t a failure, I was just like them.
Silly as that might sound it was confirmed one night after practice when the First Sergeant took me aside and complimented me. What he told me was irrelevant. This man had spent every one of our encounters together yelling at me for something or another. This time he was telling me I was doing well. I felt a swell of pride that I hadn’t felt in a really long time.
Unfortunately we never got a chance to play any football games. Not long after that, a dictator in Iraq decided to invade Kuwait and the world changed for everyone I knew. My unit was in preparation mode to go to the Gulf.
I didn’t go with them. I had orders to go to Okinawa and so I watched as many people I knew began the steps to go to war. No one knew how long we’d be there or how serious the war would be. We just knew we were going. That would include a certain First Sergeant who terrified me so.
I don’t know what happened to the First Sergeant. Considering how the first Gulf War turned out, I’m sure he was fine and continued on in his career as a Marine. But I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder if he continued to first terrify and then essentially instill pride into other Marines such as he did to me so long ago.
As for myself, I can’t honestly say I am happy I experienced all that I did under him. I can say that I see now, twenty-five years later, that it served a purpose. I made silly, dumb mistakes as a young Marine and I deserved every consequence I received as a result. But what I also needed, and I like to think he knew it those last few days before all changed, was to feel like I was still part of this group I had joined. If that’s the case, he definitely accomplished his mission.