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.