In the summer of 2010, I was a junior member of an elite team of Reconnaissance Marines training for a deployment to Afghanistan. We were slated for a fall/winter deployment and our last major training exercise in Twentynine Palms ironically took place over some of the hottest weeks there. As Recon Marines, our traditional mission was, well, reconnaissance, which could be a variety of tasks from measuring waves in a surf-zone for a larger beach landing force or sitting in a dirt hole for days at a time surveilling a target. As it is nestled in the Mojave desert, Twentynine Palms afforded us ample opportunities to train for the latter instead of the former (not like we would be able to do the former in Afghanistan anyway).
Twentynine Palms isn’t exactly a happening place to be, as are the majority of Marine Corps training sites. It was dry, hot, and lacked a lot of the creature comforts of home. I don’t know of anyone who looked forward to going there to begin with, but for me, the whole ordeal was a giant inconvenience. Although I started my career as a young, model Marine with infinite potential, I somehow let myself lose motivation and grow mentally weak. I had gotten into the habit of allocating the bare minimum time and/or effort into my work as a Recon Marine and more into whatever free time I could squeeze out. This began eroding my work performance across the board, but it wasn’t something I consciously acknowledged.
On one particular training op, we got to fly in on helicopters, which dropped us near the base of a nearby mountain ridge we had to scale. My ruck was so heavy I had to be helped by two of my teammates to stand. I wasn’t very muscular either, so it’s not surprising I struggled to get off the helicopter and up the ridge. I barely made it to the top, relieved to enjoy somewhat level ground to traverse to our objective. When we arrived, we set up our concealed position (a dirt hole), and set up our watch rotation along with other tasks.
The ensuing two days were so hot I lost my appetite pretty early on. I drank most of my water and only ate a small portion of crackers from my rations. The rest of the ordeal was pretty uneventful, but during our evening extract on the second day, my body began showing signs of what I would later learn as hyponatremia. After one of our short rest pauses, I found my body was unable to pick itself up with the weight attached to it. The result of equal parts mental and physical weakness had brought me to the point where I crossed the threshold from neutral buoyancy to sinking deadweight and a liability. My team leader, a legend in our community, whisper-yelled at me before our corpsman force-fed me tuna, my gear was spread-loaded, and we finally made our way off.
After the op, I received a seemingly endless barrage of what I will call “well-deserved negativity” from the rest of my team and platoon. Unsurprisingly, I was excused (“uninvited” might be a better term) from the last training op and instead sat in the headquarters tent while my team went off without me. At the time, I viewed this as a relief and passively accepted my fate, eagerly counting down the minutes each day till I could go back to my cot and watch It’s Always Sunny on my laptop. Any good Recon Marine would have fought tooth and nail to be on any sort of op with their team, but I just carried on in my signature way.
When we got back to Lejeune, I was informed I was cut from the platoon entirely and would be moved to a holding platoon in a different company. This was a death-sentence for what little of a career I had currently, and yet I took it with a minor amount of self-victimization and continued counting down my time till I got out. In my mind, the amount of effort it was requiring me to work toward this deployment outweighed the benefits of short-term comfort. This attitude continued for a while after with just about everything until the death of my good friend and barracks neighbor forced me to start looking at myself differently.
You see, I wasn’t cut from the team for falling out of a movement, that was really the cherry on top of a massive sundae of all the dumb “boot” mistakes I had consistently made during my time at Recon Battalion. I had developed a robust track record of doing the bare minimum to succeed, which in this environment, was actually below acceptable. While I was letting my work performance slip, my same friend had been busy busting his ass for this deployment. He got cut at the same time I did (for reasons still fuzzy to me) but he chose to fight the decision while I did little more than shrug. I began considering all the other times I could have given a little more effort, and it became clear the times I chose not to outnumbered the times I did.
I lost a couple more friends on that deployment and the guilt grew, hating myself more each day that passed without me there. My self-directed anger eventually needed an outlet, and I began working out more frequently. I got stronger and faster, which is of course a basic requirement in that line of work and one I had been neglecting, but I still retained my generally bad work attitude toward anything else.
The deployment ended some months later and the others came home. Many of them got out, leaving a manpower shortage, and I intended to soon follow. The battalion began restructuring the teams for the next deployment which was something I was wholly uninterested in. That is, until some close friends who saw more potential in me than I did convinced me to give it another go.
Overcoming my reputation was difficult, and even when all was said and done I imagine many still had a bad taste left in their mouth whenever I came to mind. I was placed in a newly formed platoon, comprised of a mixed back of experience levels, mine sitting around the lower middle tier. During our work-up, I endeavored to perform all tasks to the best of my abilities and become the asset I should have been all along. I would never truly be able to atone for my mistakes, but a part of me thought I had to try and at least break even by working hard.
I lost count of the different simultaneous hats I wore, holding roles such as team leader of site exploitation, biometric enrollment, team driver, team medic, and, most importantly, team radio operator. While my brothers were attending training such as shooting packages, hand-to-hand combat training, and getting their jumps, I was going to radio operator courses, learning how to drive and maintain vehicles, taking courses on biometric enrollment tools, and so forth (funnily enough, missing all the hand-to-hand training didn’t prevent me from picking up sergeant as a tan-belt). I strove to make myself as indispensable as I could in the jobs I was given, and it paid off with a pretty solid deployment and some newfound self-respect. By finally making myself an asset, I achieved the sense of belonging I was looking for but had been too lazy and self-entitled to earn.
Now, all this isn’t to say I suddenly became the perfect Recon Marine, glowing with the heavenly light of irreplaceability. Rather, I struggled constantly against my personality deficiencies, and still fell short on multiple occasions. But my friends and leadership saw my efforts and facilitated my growth with patience and opportunities, helping me build an important foundation for constant self-improvement and professional success. The results have been successful in acquiring my bachelors in the top of my class in two difficult degrees, obtaining employment in a highly technical field, and becoming a valued and relied upon member of a professional team.
I believe, whether you look at life like a fight or a mission, the singular goal should always be to perform to the very best of your abilities regardless of the task. You’ll never be able to erase your past mistakes, but self-improvement isn’t a train that has already left the station. View everything as a test and always shoot for the ace. Be introspective, identify your shortcomings, and work to remedy them. Be a team player.
Be an asset.