Esquire Magazine’s monthly column ‘What I’ve Learned’ is an excellently composed editorial on the meaning of life from the perspective of some of the world’s most intriguing statesmen, artists, and philosophers. I am neither statesman, nor artist, nor philosopher (and if you ask any woman who has ever dated me, hardly intriguing) but I am a Marine who just left active duty service. After 11 years since having first raised my right hand, and in the spirit of Esquire’s eminent feature, I spent the first day of my terminal leave reflecting…on what it is I’ve learned.

On Life. (in general)

Life’s much easier when you read wonderful books and stare at inconceivable art and listen to transcendent music and watch inspiring movies. When you allow the great authors and poets and filmmakers and musicians and artists to help sort things out for you, life just becomes easier, I think. Perhaps this is because you realize you are not the first person that has ever felt that he had no clue what’s going on, or what’s to come. You realize you are not alone. And you say to yourself humble things like, “how small I am.” And you become stronger.

But even with the nod of the greats, it’s important we each tell our own story in our own way. It’s therapy, for one. But it also preserves the memory. I never want to forget any of the Marines I ever walked alongside. They are my heroes.

Chapters. (and why a father is always right)

On the last afternoon of my active duty service I met my old man for a drink. We sat in deep couches in a familiar bar and ordered the old fashioned. We first toasted the great naval service of which we had both served, and next the adventure that I had just lived. We sat in that bar for hours and told stories of the great men we knew back then and how I wish the VA would cover the Propecia prescription for my hair loss and finally did what it is a father and a son do after one has come back from war and the other had already been, which is change the subject and talk about mom.

And at some point that afternoon, I can’t be sure exactly at which time, I looked at my dad, who had flown three tours in Vietnam and whose one Marine son had fought in Afghanistan and whose other in Iraq, and asked him what he was thinking about just then. He told me he was thinking about life’s chapters and how important it is to recognize when they start and when they finish. He told me to enjoy this moment.

And that was all he said.

My dad’s lesson was simple that afternoon: It’s essential to sincerely differentiate between “time” and “moments” because life’s shade, import and value are defined by moments and time is just what we have left.

My father the Scotsman was right. But then again, it’s been my experience that a father is always right.

On Love. (swimming in the ocean, shakespeare and everything else)

Pool workouts are straightforward, comfortable and humdrum. But working out in the water is about heart and when you swim in the ocean you have the environment to compete with and the climate and God. And so I prefer to do my swim workouts in the open ocean.

This weekend I did my usual La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores and back swim. The water was cold and the sand sharks off the Shores, harmless though they are, did their best to frighten me (but how I love that they take 30 seconds off my 500 meter split). The only difference between this swim and the countless others I’ve done these past few years is that this was the first ocean swim I’d done since being off active duty.

For the first time this workout was about me wanting to look and feel good, instead of about preparation for training (or not wanting to fall behind my Force Recon Marines during a swim exercise) and, quite frankly, I hated that feeling.

My mind was everywhere during the swim. But at around the 1,000 meter mark it settled on one thing: how much I love the Marine Corps.

It came to me out there that my experience in the Marine Corps was the most wonderful, transformative, rich experience a man could ever hope to have.

And this is what I learned…

The Marine Corps taught me the sort of practical things that all men should know but don’t these days like how to shoot a weapon, survive in the wilderness, navigate by compass and map, and take care of your feet.

The Marine Corps taught me the true meaning of words I had only before read about in Shakespeare: honor, obligation, courage, fidelity and sacrifice. These were no longer merely a part of some story from an epic script on war, but real memories about real men in war.

In the Marine Corps I learned what it means to be truly happy and what it feels like to be truly sad. And I realized neither had anything to do with me but both had everything to do with the unit and the definition of a meaningful life.

In my travels I learned that life isn’t very easy for most people in this world. And that we are blessed to have won life’s lottery and to have been born in this country.

I learned that freedom is impossible without sacrifice and neither matters very much without love.

I learned that it’s not what’s on your chest that counts, but what’s in your chest.

I learned that standards matter. I was taught the importance of discipline. And of letting go from time to time.

I learned that all it takes is all you got.

I learned a good NCO is worth his weight in gold…a good Staff NCO is absolutely priceless.

I learned it is important to write letters to yourself along the way because the details will escape you.

I learned there is a difference between regret and remorse.

Phase lines help you eat an elephant. Which is true with so much in life I suppose.

I learned that apathy is the evil cousin of delegation.

The Marine Corps taught me about physical courage, team work, the absolute virtue of a human being’s great adventure and that all men fall.

With respect to tactics, I’ve found it most critical to never say never, and never say always.

I learned the importance of a good story shared among friends. Or a good glass of scotch enjoyed in solitude. Or of the importance of sailing away until you cannot see the coastline anymore…and then coming home, a better man.

I learned that faith matters. And that aside from the importance of believing the universe is so much bigger than any one man could ever comprehend, I learned that I truly believe in the power of a great bottle of wine, the courage of the enlisted Marine and the tenets of maneuver warfare.

I discovered my morality.

I learned how to fight in the Marine Corps…and my time in bars with my brother-Marines has taught me that contrary to our own self-perpetuated mythology, not all blood that Marines shed together is on the battlefield.

The Marine Corps taught me how to think aggressively. How to respond under pressure. How to perform. How to live excellently and that nothing is more important than the mission or the Marine.

The Marine Corps taught me how to laugh – deeper than I ever thought imaginable – and how to cry. And that a warrior’s tears reflect his soul.

Finally, the Marine Corps did more for me than I could have ever done for it…it gave me an extraordinary adventure to live that is mine and that I will never for the rest of my life forget.

And then there’s this last irony…

That I would have the honor of spending these years studying and practicing the discipline of warfighting alongside the wonderful modern Marine-hoplite only to realize that what I learned had so much less to do with war and so much more to do with love.

How do I feel in the 72 hours since I’ve left the Marine Corps?

I miss it already.




Posted by Alexander Martin in Marine Corps, Navy


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  • Byron

    Captain, you will always be a Marine. And the Corp, in it’s own time, will come to miss you very, very much.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words…
    Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
    This story shall the good man teach his son…
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be remembered,
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;”

    Sepmer Fidelis, Captain Martin.

  • Jesse Brown

    Did you ever think 12 years ago, when you came by to pick up J and we talked about Vietnam and the Marines, that you’d be writing this?

    This will not be the last time you reflect on this subject.

    Semper Fi Brother. Glad you made it through. Give me a shout when you get through DC and we’ll hoist a couple.

    – Jesse

  • Matt Yankee

    Thank you for sharing that.

    Funny how those sharks can focus the mind.

    Thank You.

  • Jeff

    Great article and outlook (and advice from your father).

    Good luck with your next adventure.

  • Emalynne

    You have no idea how many people, including myself, who you’ve inspired and guided throughout the years by sharing your stories. Your strength and intelligence outdoes any other person I know. Let’s toast to a new chapter!

    Oh, and I can’t believe you swim with sharks..

    Em

  • Mike Geiger

    As always….well put. You have the words that escape most of us. TBS, IOC, 3/1, what can I say?

    What I learned from you: being yourself as a leader inspires. I enjoyed sharing the adventure and am excited to see what is next for you.

    Mike

  • G. Swanson

    You have sister-Marines too, you know. Other than that, great article. Thanks for speaking from the heart. Enjoy your next chapter!

  • Jerry Hendrix

    Coming to grips with the idea that you can love someone, something, some organization, more than yourself, to become part of something greater than your self, and to place yourself in service to others, seniors and subordinates, is the most powerful, enobling, liberating feeling I can imagine. You have passed through the fire, life will continue to be hard, and may be “better” in many ways, but will never be as REAL as what you have just lived.

  • http://www.chaoticsynapticactivity.com/ xformed

    Capt;

    Like Emalynne says: Inspiring to many…and I’ve forwarded this on to three outbound feeds to let your words cause some serious mediation about life, as well as to share what you communicate about being a Marine.

    The felling will never subside. You will look around in the days to come and see what most people take for “relationships” is such a poor substitute for what you have come to know, and you will be sad, but you will also have opportunities to let them know there is more beyond what they see and feel and accept, because of 11 years of learning first hand. Once more you will lead, but they don’t have to follow you because of the UCMJ (before they know you really). If they follow, it is because you really have the gift of leadership.

  • BA

    Eloquent and wholesome. As per for the plank owner of the Good Mother F*ckers Club. It’s been an honor, brother.
    Now go get a haircut.

  • http://kitchendispatch.blogspot.com Kanani

    This is so thoughtfully written, the pacing and structure is so well done. Keep thinking, keep crafting those words. Bit by bit, you’ll see that each chapter has a beginning, a middle an end. And the very best ones –even though they may look back, are always going forward.

  • http://thedrawncutlass.blogspot.com/ Robert Evans

    I think you mean the tenets of maneuver warfare, not “tenants.” It’s a wonderful series of sentiments, though, and I’m going to link them on my own blog.

  • Roger

    Thank you. For your service first and your heart and mind second. You describe the “Banding” that brings men of both into a bond which hopefully will help retain the Union and man’s integrity (those that have it and recognizing their humanity, prize and polish it). The soul of a warrior bonded with those past and future is the ‘stuff’ of even better stories and the “paint” that depicts the true pictures of life. Semper Fi… be ever vigilant.

  • Surfcaster

    Thank you. Thank you for your time, service, and now your most moving wordsmithship.

    And as someone that wears a wetsuit more grey sealish than human, you are invited to swim slowly behind me whenever you wish. Us fat guys need all the help with sharks we can get. I’m ascared bleepless of them sharks.

  • Old Air Force Sarge

    Outstanding. Simply outstanding. Thank you for your Service.

    And as I always say when reflecting on the Marine Corps, God bless the Marines.

  • Mike Chambers

    Nicely done, as was the case during work-ups and the deployment, you remain My Favorite Martin. Thank you for your service.

  • Wells

    What a great piece. I’m going to leave a few copies of this around the squadron tomorrow.

  • Jess Rasmussen

    I retired 23 years ago; I still miss the Corps each and every day. The lessons that I learned as a Marine still permeate everything I do. I’m fortunate to have periodic contact with Marines but each time I do, I’m just a little jealous of them. If I could only do it all over again…

  • A.J. Angelone

    Outstanding. Thank you for your insight. I left active duty in October after 10 years. I miss the Corps every day and your article helped put my feelings in perspective. God bless and Semper Fidelis!

  • JZ

    A battle to fight. An adventure to live. A beauty to rescue. You’ve only just begun. Much love and I’ll see you soon.

  • John Xavier

    The US Marines…the Corps…frankly, the best there are or is. Thank you for your service.

  • CDR Tom O’Malley, USN (Ret)

    Captain Martin;
    Thank you for your service. Great piece of writing.
    Love the Marines I was lucky enough to have served with.
    BZ!

  • http://www.stratfor.com nhughes

    As you emphasized, our fellow Marines — our obligations to them and their expectations of us — impel us to a greatness that few achieve on their own as individuals. That will be one of your challenges in the next chapter: continuing to hold yourself to that higher standard, to push yourself to go that extra mile. The Marines you served and commanded taught you to be better, to be greater. You have the tools. In the next chapter, part of the challenge will be demanding the same of yourself tomorrow as you did as a platoon commander yesterday. And part of the challenge will be the people you choose to surround yourself with.

    I owe you a beer.

    Good luck and Semper Fi.

    Nate

  • Claudio Vianello

    From a different perspective: I was recruited at 19, before “the age of reason.” My mother had to sign the enlistment papers. Was shown photos of F-8 carrier landings, Marines in dress uniforms, etc. nothing about the carnage of war. After 46 years, My heart is still bleeding over my comrades whose lives were taken from them fighting for politics in Vietnam. ser.# 035203

  • http://www.usmc81.com Cpl. Beddoe

    Sir, well done and Semper Fidelis! OUTSTANDING!
    Cpl. Beddoe, USMC 1981-1985

  • John E Bishop

    Marine,

    Thanks much for your reflections! They touched a nerve in the heart of this Marine and veteran of Vietnam. If you will send me your contact information I’d like to send you a USMC give just to say thanks for your service to the country and to our Corps!

    Semper Fi,
    John E. Bishop
    US65NA@aol.com

  • David Christian Yorck

    As a retired Marine with two son’s in military
    Oldest 28 year old Son Capt USMC Iraq 2007 2008 Afghanistan 2009
    and 23 year old LT US Army Infantry slated for 101st Airborne I try to tell them not to make some of the mistakes I made.
    They are good young men but want to do things their way.
    God Bless America!
    DCY
    Vietnam 1967-1979
    Saudi Arabia 1990

  • Dick Cooke

    Captain Martin,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments after leaving our corps. I served 35 years and it’s been 22 years since I retired, and I still reflect daily on what the MC means to me. I’ve served my community in a number of elected positions and have little respect for most politicians who’ll spend money we don’t have without a second thought. It isn’t their fault they weren’t Marines, but I wish they had been and we could have saved a ton of money. I learned that common sense and the Marine leadership attributes are in short supply.
    Good luck in what ever you choose to do next. I’d love to have a beer with you sometime. I’m in the phone book in North County.

  • D. Zevallos

    You wrote all that just to tell me that you love me?

    Jokes aside, well written Sir! Not a day goes by that I don’t remember the awesome experience that we went through. I thank God for allowing me to serve with outstanding Marines such as yourself. I’m positive that I’m a better man because of it.

    I wish you the best success in life’s next chapter, whatever that may be. Let me know when you’re free so we could have a few drinks and catch up on old times.

    Semper Fi
    -Z

  • Capt. HW “Woody” Sanford,MC,USNR(ret.)

    Sir: Your wonderful piece inspires us all. I never served in the marines, but many times with them:
    US Naval Hospital San Diego, intern, 1965-66- examined/treated/operated on many badly wounded marines. Also the great”Chesty” Puller was one of my patients.
    US Naval Hospital Philadelphia, resident, 1968-71- East coast Naval/Marine amputee recovery/rehab center. Amputees were everywhere, Wheelchair races, trying to get some with the nurses,always in great spirits and dying to get back with their buddies in Nam.
    Reserve Training- Camp Lejeune- Jungle warfare exercise-2 weeks
    – 29 Palms- Desert Warfare CAX-2 weeks. Treated a
    bunch of heat casualty cases.
    Weekend Training- Very realistic Medevac exercises X 3 with CH-47
    – and 53 Helos flown by some really hot pilots.

    Every Marine I met private to general was simply outstanding.
    I sincerely wish you will continue to write. You definitely have a gift. Have you met Senator James Webb? I read his “Fields of Fire” a long time ago, but still remember a lot of it. I also enjoyed the movie “Heartbreak Ridge” with Clint Eastwood.

    Anchors Away, Woody

  • MSgt Bill Ragan (ret)

    Marine, You put into words the feeling all Marines have when they mount their Eagle, Glode and Anchor on the I love me wall. Thanks for taking the time to share.
    Semper Fi Marine and God speed

  • Capt. HW “Woody” Sanford,MC,USNR(ret.)

    Forgot to mention above that Chesty’s son, Lew Puller, was my patient at Phila. NH. Can’t remember if he was Marine or Navy, but he was a double amputee. Drugs got him later, he wasted away and did himself in. Fair Winds, Following Seas, Woody

  • M Hodgins

    Well said, Grasshopper. I am looking forward to reading more of your insights (now that I know where to find them). Welcome home!

  • R.J. Zudonyi

    This is a great read. As I sat here in Afghanistan, as a contractor, not a Marine or a Soldier any longer, it made me reflect on who I have become and how I became who I am.

    I followed you during my time in the Corps and can agree with everything you stated. The Corps has definitely left an impression on me that carried on to everything else I did. Thanks for sharing.

  • Stu

    Very well said! Thanks for taking the time to reflect and share. Stu

  • Charlie

    You jarheads need an emergency resupply of hankies.
    Sheesh.

  • Gunner

    As a retired Marine I was not surprised by the feelings and passion in your reflection. I was impressed with your ability to put into words what so many of us have felt. After 13 years, I still miss the Corps and the individuals I served with. I also miss the atmosphere that Marines produce and exist in. The brotherhood is aive and is strong. We must ensure we live up to the expectations of those that know us, but most importantly, we live up to our own internal expectaion of ourselves.

    Fair winds and following seas Skipper.

    Semper-Fi

  • JPKenny

    This really hit home. I left active duty in 1974, 7 years after I first raised my hand and was sworn in. I have regretted and sulked for the past 37 yrs, my decision of so long ago. Not a single day goes by, that I don’t think of my Vietnam buddies and the Marines we hauled in our choppers. I truly love the Marine Corps and each and every Marine I meet, I try to tell him or her to stick with it, it just doesn’t get any better than The Corps.
    Semper fi

  • Duane Jensen LtCol USMC (Ret)

    The notion that Marines are all chest-thumping gorillas should be dispelled by your thoughtful and well-written article. Your father should be justly proud to have raised sons who wish to emulate his service to country and who have learned such meaningful insights so early in life. Godspeed Captain Martin and all the best into the future.

  • Dustin

    As of now, I am only a Midshipman Candidate at the Naval Academy Preparatory School, a few weeks away from Commencement to the Naval Academy, where I plan to earn my Commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Your words of wisdom have brought a greater sense of self-awareness to me.

    The long road to Commencement Day will be filled with its own successes and failures, and I know that no matter what, I cannot give up. Since the day I was born, my parents have given up too much for me to fail; I have fought too hard to let this opportunity slip through my fingers.

    Sir, I am deeply thankful for your service to The Corps. Your reflection on your service has made me realize that I should take nothing for granted. Every experience has something to offer, be it a greater understanding of my limits, humanity, or life in general. I will always have something to learn, and I obviously have much more to learn about myself.

    Very Respectfully,

    Dustin Calvert
    M/C USN

    “It is better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand days as a lamb.” – Roman Proverb

  • Mike Geiger, COL, USAR (Ret)

    Well thought out and expressed. Thank you for what you have meant to my family and for what you have done for our country. Best wishes for your future.

  • http://www,stagnesalumni.org Gerald F. Merna USMC Ret.

    Alexander Martin: Thanks for your extraordinary writing and expression of what the overwhelming majority of Marines (at least the many I was privileged to know during my years of service with the Corps, including Korea and Vietnam, two tours of recruiting duty (NY/NJ; KY) and stateside tours at most Marine bases) feel about their service as a United States Marine.
    At 16, as a runaway from a Catholic Home, a huge Marine Corps Recruiter in New York City “caught” me with a forged baptismal certificate, and in a booming voice for all to hear said, “You little SOB (at 5’3 118 lbs that was what I was) you have caused us all a ton of work and grief, now get the H@&% out of here and don’t ever come back,” but in a much softer and quieter voice leaned over towards me and whispered in my ear, “…until you’re 18.” Well I came back at age 17, right at the end of WWII, with a “stand in” (read “phony) “father,” a stranger I stopped on the streets of New York and convinced to be my Father for an hour or so, just long enough to sign my consent papers. The Recruiter knew he was not my Father but also knew I was determined to become a Marine so he “expedited” the paperwork, got me sworn in and on my way to Parris Island after which I served for the next 22 years, earning every enlisted grade from Private to Master Gunnery Sergeant before being commissioned a Second Lt. while on my way to Vietnam in 1966, coming home as a First Lt. All this with two years of high school (attaining two degrees after retiring from the Corps).
    The Corps gave me the “impetus,” the training, the experience, the “edge” that led to three additional careers after the Corps–good, solid careers.
    Three Marine Brothers (all served in Korea, one in the same Korean War Battalion with me that his Son, my nephew, currently waiting to pin on his Colonel’s Eagles, later commanded in Iraq); two Navy Brothers, one KIA at 19 in WWII when his LST-577 was sunk by a Japanese Submarine; another “Sailor” Brother who also served in Korea; our only Sister married a Marine; and our Uncle was a WWII Marine who served in many Pacific Island campaigns and got “busted” so often they nicknamed him “Sgt Zippers,” alluding to the fact it would be better to put his stripes on with a zipper so they could easily be removed when he got in trouble and replaced when he got promoted again!
    The Corps is the most unique of all the services, and those of us who chose it know why; if we have to “explain” it to non-Marines they wouldn’t understand anyway!
    Thanks Marine Martin, for your wonderful and touching essay; it is one we can all identify with, as the many commenter’s above have so lucidly attested to.
    Semper Fidelis, Brother and Sister Marines, those of you not yet in our Corps, those of you now at Parris Island and San Diego, those who served, and especially those who paid the supreme sacrifice.

  • Randy Pierce

    Skipper,
    I appreciate the sentiment. I served four years active and one reserve before they booted me out on disability.It’s especially meaningful as we approach the 236th birthday of our Corps. I manage a small town next to Charleston SC and we manage to turn up over 100 marines for the Ball every year. Residents on the island who served in other branches of the service are always asking for invites because they love the affection and loyalty us old Jarheads have for our Corps. We even have MECEPS from the Citadel join us – at our expense. And to see the “Old Corps” and these young Marines(usually Sgts and SSgts) share stories is all that you expressed. It will never leave you and there will always be other Marines there to talk with or just sit together and know what’s going through your mind.
    To say Semper Fi means so much but it cannot completely put forth that feeling that wells up somewhere between your gut and your heart. But you know it and you feel it in the handshake or the hug of that fellow devildog.
    So go now – seek out , close with and live the life the Lord has for you now.
    Tuefulhun

  • MSgt Harvey Jones, US Marine Corps, Retired

    Semper Fi… Marine

    Your words express the hearts of all those who served in our Corps.

    God Bless you…OohRah!!!

  • RAG

    I’m retiring from the Navy in April ’12 after 37 years in Navy Medicine (13 enlisted, 24 commissioned). Ten+ years at sea, 3 tours with the Marines, and 3 combat tours.

    I’m having a hard time letting go. A real hard time. My wife passed away 3 years ago and I have a daughter leaving for college next summer.

    I just don’t think there’s anything out there that will compare.

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