The Proud

John Soltysiak

You will wait impatiently in line. It’s slow, and you should be thankful you aren’t waiting longer. The Marines sitting on the bench next to you will wear the same desert camouflaged uniform as you.

You’ll scan the Marines already at the phone tables, which are separated by a foot and a half high divider between them. You’ll take special note of the smiles on their faces as they hold the receiver up to their ear.

That was you for the past six months.

Some lean forward while they talk, others lean back, and some use the divider to cradle their heads as they listen to the voice on the other end. The divider isn’t enough to keep the conversations back to the States private, but it at least hides their faces from one another if they duck down. The Morale Welfare Recreation employee will call “time” at the half-hour mark, and the Marines at the tables will say their goodbyes. You’ll eagerly walk over and stand in front of your assigned phone while the Marine on “your” phone takes his time.

It’s one last delay.

The Marine Corps will teach you important skills that you won’t forget: How to shoot someone in the head from five hundred yards away without the aid of a scope. How to perform a blood choke. How to check for a pulse. Restore the breathing. Stop the bleeding. Treat for shock. Be tactful. Remain calm when you’re about to call home.

The Marines will teach you what it means to be the few. The proud. What distinguishes you from the other branches. You didn’t join the Army to become an ordinary soldier. You didn’t choose the Navy so that you had a better chance of landing in water than on sand.  You didn’t join the Air Force because they were the easiest and most pampered of the military branches. You strayed from the beaten path and took the path of the beaten. You didn’t join. You enlisted. And then you earned the title. You will scoff if someone confuses you with being a soldier. You’ll tell them a member of the Army is a soldier. A United States Marine is a Marine. That while you can find ex-soldiers, there aren’t ex-Marines.

Once a Marine, always a Marine.

A soldier might tell you that USMC stands for Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. You’ll laugh and tell them Army stands for Aren’t Ready for Marines Yet. A sailor will remind you that the Marine Corps is a department of the Navy, and you’ll remind them it’s the men’s department. Airmen won’t be worth the effort.

You’re a motivated lance corporal with just over a year and a half into your five year active duty contract with the Marine Corps. You haven’t learned yet to respect the other branches or realize the greater sacrifices that many of them have made. Instead, you sit up straight, chest out, and chin up. You walk with a purpose. An insult from any civilian, soldier, sailor, or airman can’t permeate your skin. You’re confident.

Perception is reality.

The Marine will get up from the phone desk and look you in the eyes, and he’ll apologize. You’ll tell him it’s fine, because you understand what saying goodbye can be like. You will pull out the chair, place your M-16 service rifle on your lap with the barrel facing the ground, and pull your chair up so you are seated properly––the way you’ve done for the past six months before speaking in a low voice to talk dirty to her. You’ll wish she was your rifle—that instead of carrying it to the chow hall, sleeping with it, maintaining it, and trusting it to have your back for six months straight, that it could be her by your side.

Your greatest sense of pride came with the capturing of her heart when your friends told you to forget her—that she was too unstable for a relationship and liked to play games with guys. She took perseverance, time, patience, and understanding. You knew you could give her what she needed. You let her vent about things that bothered her without judgment. She was an emotional wreck when you met her on your birthday at Michigan State University. She flat out told you not to enlist because she was afraid you’d die in Iraq. When you had to sign the papers a month later in November, she was the only reason you didn’t want to enlist.

But you did.