STEP 1: GET LOST
Ever since high school, I've been aware that I lack discipline, yet I never actually researched what it would take to be all that I could be.
Now, no job, no car and a jail sentence hanging over my head—long story—being one of the few and proud, not to mention employed and fed, is an attractive prospect, especially since news reports tell us that dwindling numbers have made military recruiters so desperate they'll take practically anyone.
Hey, I'm anyone!
So one Friday morning, I'm off to meet Marine Corps Officer Selection Officer Captain Randall Horner.
Now all that remains is a trip to the recruitment office . . . which I can't find. Could this be part of the recruitment process? Is there a recruitment process?
The New York Times reported last year that recruiters allegedly hid or altered police and medical records and took a bipolar kid fresh from the hospital. That sounds more like fraud, but what measure are words in wartime?
I call twice to get proper directions, and I stumble across the place only when muscular men in crew cuts emerge from a particular door—a door with a Marine insignia.
I stick my head into one office and ask where I can find the officer selection officer. Turns out I've snuck in the back door—infiltrated a military installation, as it were—and I'm redirected to the front. The office I'm sent to is a bit smaller than a one-car garage, and the walls are covered with framed shirts from various battle groups, each trying to out-badass the other, to wit: "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Two desks take up most of the space, with chairs and what looks like comic memorabilia occupying the rest.
One Marine, a stocky Latino, sternly interviews an Asian college student who takes up about a third as much space as the sergeant. The room's other occupant, Staff Sgt. Petrisevac, invites me to sit down, and I tell myself he's not looking too hard at my noodle arms. He's fairly thin himself, but in a sinewy, toned way. He could kick my ass. We both know it.
STEP 2: HAVE FEW/NO PRACTICAL SKILLS
It turns out Petrisevac is an avid surfer with a longboard-themed note pad dispenser on his desk. That's all I learn about him before he starts asking about me.
What inspired me to consider the Marines?
I wax patriotic about serving my country, I talk about the frustrations of writing, and I mumble about being inspired by Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers—the book, not the film. Petrisevac smiles knowingly. It turns out—oh, happy coincidence—that that particular novel is on the Commandante of the Marine Corps' reading list.
What skills do I have?
Well, I write. I'm a writer, not a fighter, I like to say; kinda inappropriate now. Yeah, so writing's about it. I do bake a mean batch of chocolate-chip cookies. And lasagna. I like lasagna.
Petrisevac looks down at some papers in his hand for a while, taps his pen on his thigh, then looks up. There's plenty of opportunity to write for the Corps, he tells me, as long as I'm up to scratch.
I nod. What is scratch?
STEP 3: USE RECREATIONAL DRUGS
Petrisevac explains there's six months of Full Metal Jacket-style basic training, and afterward I would be assigned to a particular duty based on my skills (if any), though he does mention something about communications and public relations. Then come the obligatory questions.
Nope. We share a shallow chuckle.
Drugs? Well—what if I had a prescription for medical marijuana? Petrisevac looks up quickly.
"Yeah, you'll have to quit that. If you want to sign up, you'll need a clean system. Stop any substance abuse for at least 30 days."
But it's medicinal. What happens if I get nauseated and vomit in basic training? I tell Petrisevac about prisoners being given synthetic marijuana derivatives in prison. He's not familiar with this.
"You'd better just not talk about it," he says.
By now, the other interviewee has departed and I'm shuttled over to Staff Sgt. Lopez—imposing in crew cut and preposterously bulging T-shirt despite his skimpy shorts. He looks me up and down, standing briefly to shake my hand. He isn't afraid of anything, and certainly not drug use.
"We've all got pasts," he says.
STEP 4: HAVE SEVERELY LIMITED VISION
I've got a few physical problems—eyes, stomach, back, head, tendency to freckle—but all I feel obliged to mention is my eyes. I'm legally blind in my right eye, with the left gradually fading as it's forced to compensate. I'm fine, I just have weak depth perception. Lopez says it's for the doctors in LA to decide whether I'm fit to serve, but something in his tone says he doubts I'll make my ultimate goal: naval aviator.
The Navy deploys the world's third-largest air force (behind the USAF and China), but it's becoming increasingly obvious I won't be joining their ranks. In Starship Troopers, Juan "Johnnie" Rico wants to become a pilot in the Federal Service, mainly to get with his sexy classmate Carmencita. When asked to choose a duty, his first choice is pilot and his last is mobile infantry (the grunts). He ends up getting fired out of spaceships in a giant gorilla battle suit. From the way Lopez is looking at me, I don't think I'm getting the gorilla suit, let alone a Harrier.
STEP 5: DEVELOP A RAP SHEET
As it stands, I must wait 30 days or so before driving up for a physical I suspect I'll fail anyway. Still worth the risk, as long as they don't mind that I'm still on probation—long story. Turns out they do mind.
Lopez immediately asks me when my probation ends and I tell him, well, it's more like I'm out on bail, actually. He lifts his head then sinks his chin to his chest, closing his eyes and exhaling slowly. Then he looks straight into my eyes, tells me again that it's his sense that we all have pasts, but that it all has to be taken care of before it can be considered "past." If I were on probation, we'd have to wait until it was complete; it's not like you can take a break from basic training to serve time.
I stand, a bit surprised and a bit ashamed. I apologize to Lopez for wasting his time. He gives me a firm handshake and a smile.
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"It's not a waste of time if it's given you the information you need," he says, and damn if that doesn't make me wish I could be a Marine.
On my way out, I pass a guy walking out of a medical building for a smoke. I bum a cigarette and tell him I've just been rejected by the Marines. I tell him I'm not sure how I feel about it.
He looks at me.
"Ineligible for the Marines? In this day and age?" He takes a drag and exhales wistfully. "Man, that's a good thing."