The Toughest Lesson — 28 of 31
Or “Military School, Failure, and Beyond.”
I’m a patron of Ninja Writers and this is day twenty-eight of the May Medium Post-a-Day Challenge of blogging for 30 consecutive days.
One.Two.Three.Four.Five.Six.Seven.Eight.Nine.Ten.Eleven.Twelve.Thirteen.Fourteen.Fifteen.Sixteen.Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-One.Twenty-Two. Twenty-Three. Twenty-Four. Twenty-Five. Twenty-Six. Twenty-Seven.
I wanted to do this post today for two reasons:
- I have a Memorial Day post idea already.
- It’s close enough to a military-related holiday without overshadowing the actual purpose, honoring and remembering those that have fallen in service.
Finding a Purpose
College, looking back on it, was a mixed bag for me. It was positive in the sense that when I put myself out there to make friends and got social, I thrived. That may sound ridiculous, but I struggled with that in high school. I lacked a lot of social skills as a child and the strange things I did in my early years followed me up until the time I graduated.
But, at the same time, college was too chaotic and unstructured. I switched majors several times, I lacked real focus in an environment where self-starting is crucial to success, and by the time I graduated, the economy was headed for one of its lowest points in years.
I had a few friends in ROTC and in my junior and senior years, their stable career path grew more and more appealing. I didn’t know it at the time, but someone extremely hyperactive like me craved structure, set by someone else or myself. I didn’t have the discipline at the time to do it myself, so I was drawn to the idea of not having to worry about what I needed to do. I had no problem with hard work. I just needed someone to tell me where to go and what to do (or so went my thinking at the time).
I started talking to the various branches of ROTC at our school to get more ideas. The one that stood out the most was the XO from the Marines. He was a straight shooter and the idea of something being tough, but worth it, was extremely appealing.
It was kind of like being an interviewer and picking the best candidate. The other candidates were great, but the one I offered was the right fit.
After graduation, I got in contact with the Raleigh OSO (Officer Selection Office). I filled out their lengthy application, had an interview with Captain Hessner in charge of the office, and by November 2007, the selection board had all my materials to review for the upcoming OCC (Officer Candidate Class)-197 in January 2008.
I was accepted in December and all of a sudden, the lack of certainty seemed to melt away overnight. I had a path and all felt right with the world. I even wrote a song about with it my friend Doug called “Born on Christmas Eve” (a rap song that used a sample from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow”).
OCC-197 — January 2008
My first go-around at OCS was a disaster.
I had a strange omen occur the day we did our PFT (Physical Fitness Test). During the three mile run, I looked back and saw a candidate looking to pass me, so I moved over. Literally 20 feet or so later, he wipes out on a small patch of ice, breaks his ankle, and gets sent home the following day.
Nothing went right. I brought the wrong pair of Bates boots I intended to use as an inspection pair. I lost most of my stuff in the chaos of pick-up day. I just didn’t understand the military system. Drill was a non-starter. I had never been in anything like it before. I became one of the runts of the platoon.
Every time there was a slow-down or halt, it was either Candidate Phillips, another candidate whose name escapes me, or me. The three of us couldn’t do anything right. Phillips didn’t give a shit and wanted to leave. The other candidate (I want to say Lopez) and I cared, but we got so behind on everything that it was like bailing water out slower than the ship was sinking.
It was demoralizing. I was embarrassed for myself. I would go to church services even though I wasn’t a practicing Catholic because it was the only respite I had otherwise. And then, running the obstacle course, I misjudged the distance on one of the portions and tore a bicep muscle trying to keep my grip and falling when I couldn’t.
One of the drill instructors thought I was faking it.
“GET THE FUCK UP YOU FUCKING DRAMA QUEEN.”
I spent five days in sick bay before being discharged and sent home. I spoke with the Commanding Officer at OCS, Colonel Mancini, before leaving and it was all on good terms.
“Heal up, study up, get fit, and we’ll see you soon.”
I was determined to make this work. I studied every book about the Marines I could get my hands on. I contacted the ROTC office at NC State and spent time learning how to put together and take apart the M1A2 rifle. I joined a CrossFit gym in North Raleigh (still fairly new at the time). I worked any job I could to stay busy.
By the time my fellow candidates from the Raleigh office and I departed for Quantico in October 2008, I was ready.
OCC-199 — October 2008
It was the complete opposite of January. Everything went right. I didn’t lose a single item. I had spare pens, boot bands, tape. I made sure to be a team player and returned lost items to fellow platoonmates. I was organized, focused, and hell-bent on succeeding this time around.
I wrote enthusiastic letters home to my mom about how things were going. She would send newspaper clips in letters back so I could keep up on current events (we had no internet or TV access). It was amazing how well everything was going.
But, in the back of mind, I knew it was because I had an advantage over most of the candidates. I had been there before when the system was designed to overwhelm and force the candidate to learn on the fly. I did my best to ignore it.
Then, one day in November, we were drilling back to the barracks and got tested by one of our drill instructors. He felt we weren’t moving fast enough into the “house” and to our racks. We went in and out over and over and over again.
We had done this plenty of times before. This wasn’t anything new or surprising. But, for whatever reason, I was super irritated. Over and over and over again. Until finally, I boiled over. During a sound-off in response to one particular order, I leaned forward more than usual in a threatening manner (their words) while one instructor passed me in the alley way. Another noticed and walked straight up to me.
I can’t remember what he said, but he knocked the rifle out of my hands so hard, the butt came up and knocked the glasses off my face and I got a small cut on the bridge of my nose.
I lost all confidence after that. I was right back to where I was at the beginning of the year.
I never recovered and got dismissed from the school just two weeks later.
As I left, the instructor I yelled at and I talked about what had happened. Since I was no longer a candidate, it was just a conversation between two people. Surprisingly, there were no hard feelings.
“I know why you did that and it’s not even the worst I’ve seen. This is the hardest military school we have for a reason. I have no hard feelings, but I do ask that you learn from this and get better. Okay?”
Aftermath and Breakdown
The thing that sucks the most is, I didn’t. At least, not right away. Truthfully, I let it bother me for a long time. I was ashamed of myself.
Coward. Loser. Weakling. Child. Failure.
Just a few of the many things I called myself for the rest of 2008. I went back to school at NC State at the beginning of 2009, but had a complete mental breakdown in March. I started having panic attacks again and became suicidal on a number of occasions.
It was like I learned nothing. I lost job after job (at least five in 2009). I couldn’t afford medications, so I stopped taking them. On top of all that, Facebook kept showing all my classmates graduating and become Marines.
Finally putting it together
So, that’s why I moved to California. To give myself a fresh start. And it helped. I had to learn how to build myself up in a new industry without a successful work history. I finally took to heart the lessons from OCS.
You can’t beat your competition unless you’re the hardest worker. Details make all the difference. Appearance speaks volumes. Physical and mental wellness work hand in hand. Failure cannot deter you or it will destroy you.
I really appreciate just how tough it is in the military. I have a great respect for it.
Looking back, even as tough as it was, I needed that failure to make me the person I am today. I needed the toughest lesson to beat me down to a low level where I had to choose between quitting altogether or beginning the slow, steady climb to a better life.
Truthfully, this was extremely difficult for me to write. So, if you made it all the way to the end, I really appreciate you taking the time to read this story. Thank you and God Bless.