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For Veterans Day: a proud and difficult legacy

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From the Halls of Montezuma...

Sunday was the Marine Corps’ 238th birthday.

After spending all morning reading Facebook posts and looking at pictures from friends with whom I served I was so motivated I couldn’t stand it. I had to go on a PT run.

Of course, I made it only about 2.2 miles — a far cry from the distances I covered in my active duty days — but cut me some slack, I’ve been sitting on my duff in a climated-controlled office for the past year.

At any rate, it was good to get out and get some clean north country air into my lungs. I felt pretty good after I finished my circuit. I had hoped that the fresh air and the exercise, such as it was, would help me sort out my complicated thoughts about the day.

To be honest, I’ve done a lot of fretting about this week’s column. I wanted to sum up perfectly the existential dilemma of my generation of veterans in some sort of definitive way.

Of course, I quickly realized my efforts were futile. Others more articulate and more qualified have already beaten me to the punch. And my generation of veterans, as with every generation, is so diverse and multifaceted in terms of opinions, outlook, experience and background as to render any effort to adjudge us as one ill-advised. What I can do, in the face of that reality, is to reflect on my own narrow experience in an attempt to touch some deeper vein of truth. So here it goes.

In the months following my birth, my Marine officer father would lull me to sleep with the Marine Corps’ hymn in my crib at our house on Camp Lejeune, N.C., one of the Marine Corps’ largest bases.

Eighteen years later, I stood at attention at Parris Island, S.C., and belted out those sacred lyrics, tears welling up in my eyes.

“From the Halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli/We fight our country’s battles/In the air, on land, and sea;/First to fight for right and freedom/And to keep our honor clean;/We are proud to claim the title/Of United States Marine.”

Now I, too, was a Marine.

I grew up watching war movies. Oddly enough, “The Dirty Dozen” starring Lee Marvin was one of my favorites, even though it has nothing to do with the Marine Corps. And when I was in second or third grade, I begged my parents to take me to Toys R Us to buy a G.I. Joe. We went on Veterans Day.

When we were kids, some of my friends and I would play “Army” in the woods behind our houses. I was always a Marine. I would dress up in my father’s old fatigues that I found in a mothballed seabag in the attic. I would run through the woods in boots that were way to big for me, flopping across the leaves and fallen limbs.

But war — real war — the kind that blows arms and legs off, rings bells that cannot be unrung and affects lives forever — is hell.

I was fortunate. Though those who deployed before and after me had far worse experiences than I, the six months I spent aboard the USS Iwo Jima in 2006 and the seven months I spent in western Iraq in 2007-08 were largely calm.

But during my enlistment, from 2004 to 2009, there was never a shortage of stories about friends or acquaintances who had just been killed.

I wasn’t a grunt — an infantryman — but I wasn’t a “FOBBIT,” either — someone who never leaves the fortifications of the large bases overseas. As members of a small intelligence team, my fellow Marines and I went outside the wire quite often. But we all made it home. I attribute it to all the prayers I received from my family. With two devout Catholic grandmothers, my metaphysical mojo was working overtime.

When I got back from Iraq, I found myself in front of a classroom full of third-graders, uncomfortably giving an impromptu presentation about what my deployment had been like.

The students started asking me questions. One young man was extremely knowledgable about military weapons systems and fired off question after question about my experience, including: “Did you fire a .50 cal?” Yes. “Did you fly in a Black Hawk helicopter?” No. Then he started asking me things I didn’t even understand. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that this kid knew way more about the military than I did. Perhaps if I had played more “Call of Duty”...

And shortly after that, I was out. I emerged unscathed just as the Marine Corps began ramping up operations in Afghanistan. Five years just like the blink of an eye.

Going back to school at 24 years of age was a trip. It wasn’t exactly the fantasy that I had harbored during all those pre-dawn preparations for PT, firearms training or missions, but it wasn’t terrible, either.

It could be weird at times, though. I was so much older than the 18-year-old kids with whom I was in class, and the worst part about it was that they were all smarter than me. For the first time in my life I was afraid to be called on in class. My hands would sweat and tremble and my voice would crack. Little things would annoy me. Like when people would pop bubblegum in class or ask a million questions about something. “Where is your discipline?” I would think, before realizing that I wasn’t in a barracks anymore. But I made it through and graduated and even had some wonderful experiences along the way.

There’s just something about those years though, 18 to 22, that you really can’t get back. My growth feels stunted in some way, as though I never quite got to spread my wings. They were clipped a bit, I suppose, to fit under a flak jacket.

Sometimes, late at night, I often wonder if I really did all that I could. I think about my experience over and over again. What if I had finished college after high school and joined as an officer? What if I had gone into the Army? What if I had enlisted under a different MOS — military occupational speciality? What if I had reenlisted? What if I had gone to Afghanistan instead of Iraq? What if I had finished my training pipeline before I got deployed? What if I had deployed earlier? Or later? What if? What if? What if?

I’ll never know the answers to those questions. It’s just impossible. I know that, absolutely. And sometimes that knowledge quiets my mind. But other times, it doesn’t.

I imagine that there are plenty of other veterans out there who feel the same way I do and there are plenty of veterans who feel slightly or completely different. Like I said before, I can’t answer for everyone.

The Marine Corps Hymn still gives me chills, and I dutifully changed my Facebook profile and cover pictures to those that show a much younger — and much buffer — me. And I ran a couple of miles on the Marine Corps birthday because I still can and because there are those who can’t anymore.

Though this column is mostly about my own experience, I’d be extremely remiss if I closed it without mentioning statistics about the rate of suicide among veterans — 18 to 22 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs — or about the number of homeless veterans — 62,619 on any given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Two-hundred-thirty-eight years is impressive, but the fight continues on. It’s a proud and difficult legacy.

And even though it’s two days late now: Happy birthday, Marines. Semper Fi.

Daniel Flatley is a former Marine and a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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