Under the Surface | Fre Mauricio

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Posted on November 11, 2020

I specialized as a field radio operator, providing communications support for artillery and infantry units. In addition to that, every Marine is expected to be a basic rifleman, meaning we must always be prepared to protect lives and kill to do so. Constant preparation required constant training in a variety of environments. I was stationed at Camp Lejeune in coastal North Carolina. Fortunately I was enlisted during a relatively peaceful time just after Desert Storm, but my units would still be deployed overseas periodically to train and maintain our readiness. I spent time in Japan, Norway, and Cuba over the course of my enlistment. I was lucky to avoid participating in any major conflict, but I did serve in a couple of humanitarian missions: in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, we safeguarded refugees who fled Haiti during Aristides’s exile, and in Key West, Florida with the Coast Guard, we rescued refugees floating on makeshift rafts fleeing Castro’s regime in Cuba.

About a year after high school, I had no idea what career to pursue. As a naive 19 year-old, the military looked to me like an opportunity to travel and experience the world on my own and help me find my purpose. It was shortly after Desert Storm, so I was also feeling patriotic. I specifically chose the Marine Corps because of their storied reputation, and I took their distinction as “the Few, the Proud” as a serious challenge to prove my self-worth. Not to mention those kick-ass Dress Blues. I cried when I got fitted for them in boot camp. I always give “So I could wear the Blues” as my first and short answer when people ask me in person why I joined. I served five years, beginning in 1992 and was honorably discharged in 1997. Most Marines serve four in their first enlistment, but I committed to an extra year because I qualified for a bonus $4,000, which seemed like a lot to me then. I shake my head in disbelief about that now. I played Faust for five years.

After self-discipline and grace under fire, the most important skills I took away from the Marines were careful observation and critical analysis. I learned to immerse myself deeply into my surroundings and people around me, to discover the most I can about any given situation in order to efficiently tackle any problem that should arise. It’s a heightened level of detail orientation coupled with calculated decision making, all while filtering out any noise and disruption meant to deter me from accomplishing my goal.

Every Veterans’ Day I find it difficult to really consider myself a veteran and accept people’s gratitude for my service.

I felt right away during my first week in boot camp, that enlisting may have been a bad decision. What immediately shook me the most was how religion is so embedded into the military lifestyle, and how the US military is not so vastly different from the extremists some Americans get so worked up about. What’s ironic is that you’re indoctrinated to be essentially robots, to erase your identity in order to obey orders without question, to work in harmony with your colleagues to succeed (there are no Black Marines or white Marines, only “Green” Marines), yet you must believe in God, or at least, believe that it’s wrong to not believe in God. Look who takes precedence in the Marine values of “God, Country, Corps.” All the dogma from growing up as a Roman Catholic and being an altar boy, exhausted me by the time I turned 18. I looked to escape all that in the Marines, but little did I know I’d be stepping into a whole new pile of dogma.

In boot camp we had to memorize the Rifleman’s Creed (there’s a shortened version of it in Full Metal Jacket), which is basically a Marine’s ode to their M-16 that literally humanizes the weapon: “My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life.” I never memorized it, I always lip-synched it; I took punishment when I got caught. It reminded me of the cult that worshipped the nuke in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It was just too creepy and psychopathic for me to take seriously. Alongside that, we got a list of the Ten Commandments, where “Thou shalt not kill” was amended with a parenthetical “…except in self-defense or under serious threat.” So much for separation of Church and State. That was it for me.

As soon as I made the Fleet, I came to a quick conclusion that the Corps was not going to be a career for me. I became, in effect, a terminal lance corporal, going about my time doing just enough to not get noticed, for good or for bad.

Military life challenged my belief system, so now I always take supposed truths with a grain of salt, and my decision making is very rarely impulsive. I try to keep an open and logical mind, informing myself about any given issue as much as possible, seeing it from all angles. It’s said that experience is the greatest teacher, but I expand that to mean others’ experiences as well. I try to consider all perspectives and parameters to decrease risk as much as possible. Looking back now, I realize how recruiters give a kid every reason to join, except the right one. They woo them with travel, adventure, excitement—a Marine craves not these things. The only reason a young American should join their military is that they love their country so much, that they’re willing to take lives to save lives. That is a mindset I could embrace for no more than five years. I withstood the constant awareness of giving my life as the ultimate sacrifice, but what I truly couldn’t accept much longer was giving my soul as the penultimate one. This is not to suggest I regret the time I served or that the military is an unnecessary, outright evil institution. I sincerely appreciate and honor my brothers and sisters who’ve made those sacrifices that I did not and could not, even as I tried. For that, I think of them today.

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