This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. –The Rifleman’s Creed
Tonight my son calls from Fort Benning, Georgia to let me know how he is progressing with his boot camp training. He’s only allowed to make an eight-minute call, so it’s not really a conversation. He reports on what has transpired since he last talked with me, and by the time he’s finished, I have just enough time to say, “It sounds like things are going really well,” before I’m cut off.
“I have to go, Dad. Good talking with you.”
I put the phone down and go out to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. With the sun setting at around 4 P.M. now, seven o’clock feels much later than it is. I sit down at the kitchen table and look out the window. A light rain is falling, and the wind is beginning to pick up. From what my son said, it seems he’s enjoying his experience, and making the most of it. This past week, his training focused on marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat. “I made it up to five-on-one before somebody finally got me in a headlock I couldn’t get out of. I had to tap out.”
As I reflect on what his experiences have been with boot camp these past six weeks, I become reminiscent of the very same experiences I had thirty-four years ago when I was a Marine recruit at USMCRD San Diego. I was a bug-eyed 17-year-old kid that the drill instructor thought had been let in by mistake. “Boy, this is a man’s organization. The Boy Scouts is just down the road.”
I looked straight ahead. “Yes, sir,” I would say, and no matter how hard he tried to humiliate and mock me in front of the others by referring to me as Private Baby Huey, no matter how many times I had to respond with “Quack a Doodle Doo” whenever I was called to come forward, I refused to allow myself to give in or give up. Even still, those first five weeks had me questioning more than a few times whether I made a big mistake. The drill instructor seemed to have a certain knack for choosing me to be his example—“Quack a Doodle Doo”—of how not to march, to fire a rifle, or to block against an opponent in hand-to-hand combat. In each instance, he would then demonstrate the correct way, and then I would have to demonstrate to the other recruits that I could do it correctly.
If the drill instructor still weren’t satisfied with my efforts, the rest of the platoon would have to do punishment PT until I did get it right. While I demonstrated the skill, stood for correction, and then demonstrated again, the rest of men would have to do push ups, bends and thrusts, and “extended port.” During that time the M-14 was still used as a training rifle and at nine pounds, your arms would start to burn after holding it fully extended after a few minutes. Later on during the night, my fellow recruits would thank me by honoring me with a blanket party. In spite of almost a good month of sporting multiple bruises, I didn’t give up. I just kept at it, and I think all that extra practice actually made me more proficient when it came time for the tests we had to take. After I took out some of the biggest guys in the platoon in rifle and bayonet fighting and hand-to-hand combat, the drill instructor stopped making me an example of how not to do something. Instead when I executed a move that took down my opponent, the drill instructor smiled at me and said, “Damn, Cunningham, that was good.”
Two weeks before graduation I was walking my post on Fire Watch, giddy with the thought that I’d actually made it. I felt satisfied knowing that I had succeeded with the most difficult thing I had ever tried to do in my life. No more Baby Huey. I had become Private Cunningham. The three-mile runs, the forced field marches, the obstacle and confidence courses, marksmanship training, the intimidation and humiliation, the drill movements I had been so clumsy with in the beginning, I had learned all of it, had overcome my fears, and I was not the worse for it, but the best, a rifleman, a United States Marine.
What I didn’t know then, though, was how much I would hold on to that feeling throughout the rest of my life. As a 17 year old high school drop out who earned the title of Marine, I would later go on to earn a GED, and eventually a BA and MFA in English. The Marine Corps ingrained in me a sense of stick-to-itiveness that has stayed with me throughout my life. Reflecting on my conversation with my son, I recognize in his voice that same sense of excitement and self-assuredness that comes from the realization of individual success.
“You know, Dad, during the first couple of weeks, there were a few times when I said this really sucks. I mean I felt like I made a mistake. But then I realized that thinking that way didn’t change my situation. So, I decided that I would make the most of it, and I’ve been doing just great since then. I actually like it. I can’t wait until you’re here for graduation. You’ll have to meet my drill instructor. He was in the Marines, and the guy’s just crazy, but I’ve come to really respect him.”
My son, a man, a warrior, stepping on the “great doorstone” facing a vast horizon not only of adventure and possibilities, but also of uncertainty and danger during this time of war that he may be called upon to fight. Of all the values we may strive to live by, duty perhaps may be the least understood, especially when it results in paying the ultimate price with one’s life. But as cultures continue to move relative to all others, rigid and firm in their own beliefs and purpose, the call to duty will be answered by our Marines, Soldiers, Airman, and Sailors when events fracture into chaos, leading to war.
9/11, however, was not a minor earthquake; instead, it was an 8.0 magnitude paradigm shift that has altered our daily lives in ways only Orwell could imagine.To protect our freedoms, and to bring the message of freedom and liberty to others, we have greatly curtailed some of our most precious freedoms here at home. And that scares me more than the terrorists who have committed themselves to making us subservient to their kindly, bow to Allah, maliciousness that they have perpetrated on us. “Death to America,” is not a slogan, or a hollow understatement, it is the loud rumbling of Hannibal’s elephants marching over the Alps. Just as the Romans never imagined the day they would see pachyderms in Northern Italy, never did we imagine jet planes used as missiles to bring down the World Trade Center. What this time means, and the challenges we will have to face as a consequence, in spite of the nasty political bantering that has erupted between our political leaders, has yet to be defined and understood.
That my son has decided to serve our country during this time of war does make me a little nervous. During my time when I was willing to serve, I had no fear of the ‘Nam. But now as a parent, I understand my mother’s concern then as my concern now. I can only hope and pray my son’s choices in life are good ones, and that his quest in life is one of purpose and meaning, of a life lived in confidence in the pursuit and fulfillment of his dreams. And should he be called to serve in Iraq, or elsewhere, I pray his training will have been such that he has been pushed physically and mentally so that if he is faced with a combat situation, he will be able to rely on himself and his fellow soldiers as they help each other complete the mission and get themselves safely home to their families and loved ones. Looking out the window again at the light rain that continues to fall, I begin to recite the last verse of The Rifleman’s Creed:
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…My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but Peace.