Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I am a United States Marine

This is the story of my service to our great country. It’s not remarkable. It’s is fully recalled from memory, and probably has omissions and inaccuracies. But the best part of that is, it’s how I remember it happening. So the details I present here will serve as my record and will probably be forgotten over time. But I hope it is read with the same level of pride I have had at being one of the Few and Proud.

Being a Marine defines everything I am today and everything I ever was. I earned the title the same way millions of men before me and millions will after me. The method may change in the future, as it had changed before my service. All Marines are fraternal brothers and sisters. I believe all Marines have served for the same basic primal reason. We serve others because that is what God put us on the earth to do. Some men and women gave their lives in this service. That will always be the cost we have to bare. Some of us give a little and some of us give everything.

All those that have lived free from this gift of service, owe these men and women an eternal debt of gratitude. That debt can never be paid in a lifetime and only through the remembrance of the fine men and women that provided that freedom, and a promise to those men and women from those enjoying freedom to “never to allow others to be subjugated and ruled by tyranny and fear” can it ever begin to be repaid. The respect, adventure, and pride that comes with the title, United States Marine, are all just extra benefits of serving the people of our great country and the protecting the principles we as a people hold dear.

— Eric Stephens, September 2008

Sometime when I was in 8th grade I found my father’s Blue Jacket’s Manual. I was immediately fascinated with it. My father was in the United States Navy from 1947-1949. I enjoyed reading and talking about it with my dad. I especially enjoyed the knot tying. I spent hours learning to tie knots with my dad. I began folding all my clothes in my dresser according to the instructions in the manual. I knew at that time that I would someday probably join the Navy.

I had lots of options growing up. I was a moderately sharp kid. I took to discipline and rules easily. The military looked like a perfect place to go upon graduation. When I was considering the various military forces, the prejudices of my father guided my thoughts. I’m going to share with you some thoughts on each. This is no way meant to demean anyone’s service through the various armed services. I know today that any man or woman willing to join the armed forces to protect our great country is to be respected no matter the type of service they are called to do.

Army – no way in hell. My father had nothing but disdain for the dog faces. Personally I didn’t like their uniforms.

Navy – the right way to go. Good training for a career. The relative safety of a ship instead of a dirty cold fox hole.

Marine Corps – Jarheads. Trained killers with not too many smarts.

Air Force – no one in my family had ever joined the “Air Farces”. Good training, good barracks, little chance of getting shot at. Personally I didn’t like the uniforms, a blue copy of the Army’s uniforms and I didn’t like flying. I had a pretty bad time of flying back and forth to Guam as a kid, and I got motion sickness pretty easily.

Coast Guard – the Navy’s little sister. If you are going to join an ocean force why not join the Navy.

National Guard – alot like the Army, less funding, less discipline. Again, I didn’t like the uniform.

So in my simplistic view of the branches, my choices were few. Nearly all of my mother’s and father’s generation had been in the Armed Forces in one way or another.

Dad – Navy
Uncle Bob (Dad’s brother)- Navy
Uncle Larry (Mom’s brother) – Navy
Uncle Ben (Mom’s brother) – Marine Corps

Of my grandparents, only my Grandpa Stephens had been in the military and he was in the Marine Corps from 1926-1927. He served in the 2nd Nicaraguan Campaign. He was called to serve again during World War II but never left California due to the war ending.

My Great Uncle Chub (Theodore Roosevelt Davis) on my mom’s side was in the Merchant Marines during World War II if I recall correctly. So it was easy to see that military service was a proud tradition in my family.

The scandal of my Uncle Ben joining the Marines during the Viet Nam war was virtually not talked about. My grandparents were very proud of him for being a Marine. They had a sticker on the window in the front door proclaiming they were proud parents of a U.S. Marine. But somewhere in all that I felt they thought Uncle Ben was smarter than all that.

I learned of my Grandpa Stephens’s service in the Marines after I had already joined. It was another story that was not talked about at the dinner table. As the oral history goes, apparently my Grandpa had a less than honorable service due to a fight (fisticuffs) with his commanding officer over a woman. The woman was that officer’s wife, or so the story goes and my grandfather was married to grandma, so you can see why we didn’t talk about it.

So when I visited the recruiters it was a slam dunk for them to sign me. College was completely out of my reach financially. My parents would not be able to send me to college and the only way that was going to happen was through the G.I. Bill and honorable military service.

So it was off to the recruiters. I don’t remember my Navy recruiter. But I do remember the uniform the Marines were wearing when I walked in their shared office. I liked the Marine recruiters kick ass attitude too. So I called the Marine recruiter and told him I was interested. (I wish I could recall his name.) He called me back and we set up a meeting and that was the beginning. He took me down to take the ASFAB. I have no idea how I did on the test. If they told me, I don’t remember it at all. I do know they were very excited about my recruitment.

I was visiting the recruiter’s office one day when some other recruits came in. I remember the recruiter showing them the books with the military occupational specialties (MOS). They picked some very exciting sounding MOS like “Force Recon”, whatever that was, and the other picked “tanks”. Funny, I didn’t see either of those MOSs in the books they had shown me. So after they left I ask the recruiter what the deal was. He told me bluntly, those MOSs were not for you. And I should pick one out of the book he had handed me.

Every MOS in that book was a “technical” MOS. Electronics, Avionics, and some other “icks”, and lots of something or other warfare operators, and more technician jobs than you could shake your fist at. None of them really jumped right out at me. So frustrated, I looked for something exotic. I had no idea what the word crypto meant so Cryptologic Repairman seemed to be the page I came back to each time. So I told the recruiter that was the plan for me. Cryptologic Support Specialist 2669. I was told I would go to a year of electronics school, and a year of language school. I gather if you did well you would be a Cryptologic Translator and then one of the linguist MOSs.
He was very, very happy about that.

I began to work on my parents to sign so I could join. My senior year in high school, I turned seventeen just 2 months after it began. I wouldn’t be eighteen until after I graduated and then I still had to wait through the entire summer before I could join on my own. As I remember it, they were less than thrilled with my choice of the Marines. The talk with the recruiter in my living room did nothing to impress them. My parents liked the thought of the electronics training, that fit with my electronics vocational training at Mid-America Vo-Tech and was my father’s profession working for the Federal Aeronautics Administration.

Electronics was “the job” of the day. And it wasn’t the oil field or welding or construction. It’s funny how the world turned out. No one does electronic repairs any more. And those that do are barely making it or moved into the computer industry. Meanwhile as I write this, the oil industry is enjoying its third boom in my lifetime. And the construction industry is enjoying ten years of unprecedented growth in housing and building construction. And the men I know that are welders at the time of this writing (2008) enjoy very high pay in both the oil industry and construction. The work is hard but financially rewarding for the most part.

So to further dissuade me they had my Uncle Ben come over for dinner. His mission was to talk me out of joining. He told me the Marine Corps wasn’t for everyone. It was hard, brutal, and difficult. Those descriptions only encouraged me more. Up to my leaving for the Marines everything I did seemed easy. I succeeded at everything I tried or so it seemed to me at the time. The fact that I was “a little guy” and only 17 years old would make it even harder on me. I was only 5 foot 7 inches tall and a whopping 125-130 pounds when I graduated high school. My uncle finally resorted to threatening me that if I joined the Marines when I turned 18 he would “kick my butt”.

So a month after I turned 17 I asked my dad and mom to sign my delayed enlistment papers. I would join when I was 17 and avoid an embarrassing beating from my uncle. I think it was the final Sunday before I was to sign that my dad made me read the entire Sunday newspaper. I read it all, every page and every classified ad. When I had finished my dad asked me if I had seen any ads for a “trained killer”. I told him, I had not. He told me the Marines would be a bad career move because I would not get a job “doing that” when I got out.

I was undeterred. They signed the papers for me in November of 1981. I was to be a Marine Recruit. I began to hang out at the recruiting station when I wasn’t at work. I had also started hanging out with a different group of friends after school and on weekends. Early in 1981 I had started working for Braum’s and through the people there I met some new friends from my high school and from Moore. They are still the friends I have today. And everyone of them had plans to go to college. I asked how they were going to pay for it. They would work their way through or whatever. A few had some money already saved and they had plans to be doctors and engineers and such. Why couldn’t I do this? I could do that.

So as teenagers are want to do, I began to change my plans for the future.

I went with my recruiter to a couple of trips to see the Marines stationed at the reserve center shoot their howitzers at Fort Sill. We stood in line, in the drizzling rain, covered with mud, for chow and ate with the Marines in the reserve unit. Many of these men were college students. Hanging out with the Marines in the field was meant to motivate us. I realized from this that service in the Marines might just be boring and tedious. If this was all there was too it, it seemed a sad existence.

After a few months I began to think that I could go to college, that I SHOULD go to college. I talked to my recruiter and he was not excited that I wanted to change my enlistment to serve in the Reserves instead of on active duty. I finally pressed him in the last few months before I shipped out, to change my enlistment. Gone were the pleasantries. So much so that I left for boot camp not exactly sure what I had signed up to do in the Reserves. This is a huge mistake as I was to learn later from my Drill Instructors.

I went to boot camp in June of 1982. I left Oklahoma with a dozen or so other boys destined to be in the reserves. Because we were all going to go to college we were called 85 day reservists. And I took that title with the same disdain as it was given with. It was like we were something less than the others. All that term meant was that we would go to our MOS school in the following summer. By the time I finished my tour with the Marines, being a college student was highly desired and encouraged by the Marine Corps.

I went to MCRD San Diego and I was in platoon 3048, 3rd Recruit Battalion starting in June 1982. I remember how scared I was when we landed. What you see in the movies, the yelling, the haircuts, the fear in the eyes, is all real.

I remember that first night. I did not know a single person in a thousand miles of that place. I managed to cutting myself while shaving. I had never shaved before. No one had ever shown me. I didn’t have any whiskers. Hell I barely had peach fuzz. I had cut myself and it seemed the blood would not stop. When we stood “online” that night for fingernail inspection (really) a nice crimson patch had developed on my skivvy shirt from the blood. As the Receiving Barracks DI inspected us, he looked at my fingernails, looked at my shirt, looked up at the cut and turned and went to the next guy. This was the new life I had chosen for myself.

All the marching I had done while in high school band paid off. Marching and drilling came easily. The discipline came harder. I thought I was disciplined before I got there. I did my chores when I was told to, I did my homework when I had it, I showed up to work when I was supposed to. But I had no physical discipline and my mental discipline was only marginal. My band director called it “pride” when we stood in formation without moving. The Marines called it discipline when you stood in formation while a fly walked across your face and you didn’t move to shoo it away. Or when you stood in formation while some kids in a parking lot at the Padres baseball game we attended, threw Frisbees at us and laughed when they hit us in the head.
That was discipline.

We transferred from receiving barracks to our platoon at the end of the week. There was a guy that joined our platoon that had been waiting for a platoon for over 2 weeks. I could not imagine spending a single day longer in that environment. We met our Drill Instructors and tried to adjust to life in boot camp. Shortly after boot camp began I was made a Whiskey Locker Private. This had untold advantages. Basically we handed out cleaning supplies while everyone else cleaned.

We had, more or less, three Drill Instructors at any one time while we were in boot camp. We had several come and go but always three.

  • Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Caballero
  • Staff Sergeant Faulkner
  • Gunnery Sergeant Fous
  • Staff Sergeant Watson
  • Sergeant Whitehead

Each man had their own unique way of being a Marine and a Drill Instructor. I came to boot camp as the last of the career Marines who served in Viet Nam were beginning to cycle out of service. Gunny Caballero had participated in the Mayaguez Incident. I think I looked forward to the days when Gunny Caballero was on duty. When I served, DIs were supposedly not allowed to strike the recruits. I was struck several times by Gunny Caballero. It was just his way of toughening us up.

Staff Sergeant Faulkner had a very deep hatred of me. If it wasn’t hatred, I think he really, really didn’t like me. I remember one time in second phase while I was cleaning a stair well he palmed my head. He had enormous hands, and was able to squeeze my head until I thought I would pass out. For the most part he seemed like someone had passed him over, or he had a very big chip on his shoulder from something that had happened to him. As we finished boot we learned he would be a Senior Drill Instructor to his next platoon. He left a week early to pick up his platoon and I was glad to see him go.

Gunny Fous was my favorite. He had served 4 tours in Viet Nam as an infantryman. He was Oriental, Japanese I think. He hated the little guys in the platoon. He would leap from foot locker to foot locker yelling at the little guys.

My friend Jeff Gatewood was a little guy and he hated Gunny Fous. The Gunny left our platoon to take over the “convict platoon” at MCRD. When we arrived a year later to go to Artillery School, we had missed the bus to Camp Pendleton and wound up spending the night at MCRD. When we stepped off the bus we saw him crossing the grinder right there in front of the bus.

We called out to him apprehensively and he came over. He remembered every one of our names. He treated us like men and was genuinely glad to have seen us. Jeff was still not impressed.

Staff Sergeant Watson was the scariest of our Drill Instructors. He had served some number of tours in Viet Nam and never quite got over it. He would sleep only an hour or so at night. And often slept sitting at his desk staring out the door. You never quite knew what you were going to get with him. But he wasn’t malicious or brutal in his method and was often very comical.

Sergeant Whitehead was not with us very long. My most memorable moment with him was also the moment I realized I had to toughen up, get some discipline and my head straight, or I was not going to finish boot camp. I was not going to disgrace myself by getting kicked out of the Marines. I talked it up so much before I left, that not being a Marine would have meant I had to find all new friends and a new town to live in if I came home washed out.

I remember that when Gunny Caballero told us we would be doing “rifle PT” later that day, and I let out an audible grown. I groaned many times internally. But this time it slipped out. Caballero told Sergeant Whitehead to “take me up to the classroom and teach Private Stephens some discipline.” And he did. He asked me directly, “do you know why you are in this classroom?” and my response was to the point and a very cathartic moment. “I don’t have any discipline sir.” And that day was the day I changed completely.

Second phase was the rifle range. It was the part of boot camp that separated the Marines from the other services. I shot well at the rifle range but only scored Sharpshooter with a 212 score. I liked the Maltese cross Sharpshooter badge better than the expert badge anyway. I did not know the stigma that shooting Marksman or Sharpshooter carried. Later in my tour I shot Expert.

We finished second in every competition in Boot Camp. A one point our Senior DI pointed out that we were the most inconsistent platoon he had ever had. I’m not sure, but 2nd in everything is pretty consistent. We knew what he meant though. The day before each competition, we looked great. The day we competed we always made some mistake that cost us the win.

My son looks so much like this picture of me its scary.

After graduation it was on to my unit. Oscar Battery 5th Battalion, 14th Marines. The Sooner Marines as we are known. Upon being assigned to a gun I was informed by my Gun Chief that I was to be given the “worst job” in the Marine Corps. I was to be the gun’s truck driver. That cold morning with freezing rain pelting down, he told me to go with the other new drivers over to the motor pool. When we got there the sergeant at the desk told us to stand in the dry vehicle bay and to help ourselves to some coffee. We stood there staring out the windows while the rest of the gun’s platoon got wet and cold in the freezing rain.

M54A2 Always covered in mud.

That job got me a dry place to sit all day, my gear was never lost and I always knew how I was getting from one place to another. The worst job indeed! Truly the worst part of it was cleaning the truck after we got to drive it around the mud. I have some fond memories of getting that 6×6 stuck in the mud up to it’s axles several times.

We were the kings of the battlefield with our M110A2 self-propelled howitzers. It was a lot of fun to shoot, and deadly accurate up to 21 miles. My job, once I got the truck lined up with the ammo (rounds and powder) I hauled around, was to fuse rounds and when we were short-handed, to double as the #2 man.

We later sent our M110s to California and got the new M198’s. I didn’t like these as well as the M110s. There was less maintenance but more work to set one up to fire. This bad boy was not for little girls to play with.

The second summer I was in the Marines I went to Artillery School at Las Pulgas, Camp Pendleton, California. I was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, 11th Marines. I remember three things vividly about that summer in California. Going surfing at Pacific Beach, going to the E-club and that artillery school was a huge opportunity for our instructor “Sergeant Cramp”, a 10th grade drop-out, to screw with us.

I can’t count the number of times I drove him off the base when he was drunk, only to get hazed the next morning for not having a uniform pressed and ready with shined boots after spending the night on his couch. I later ran into him when the artillery schools moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He said, “I always enjoyed teaching ‘you college’ boys. You learned quick and didn’t ask a lot of questions.”

Fort McCoy, Wisconsin

My third summer in the Corps had us training at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin for the Combined Arms Exercise. We got to fight against an OpForce and I had some memorable moments while I was there. One very foggy night we were infiltrated by the OpForce. The guns went silent and the word was passed to break into fire teams and find the OpForce elements. I remember how quiet it was. I remember that I could not see 5 feet in that soup. We formed a very tight diamond and proceeded out into the night. We would stop every minute or so, kneel and listen. After about the third time we did this I noticed I was directly behind a guy with a lot less familiar gear on. We stopped and knelt. It was then I realized as some of the fog parted I was just behind another fire team. An OpForce fire team. I moved with them, but slower than before. They were probing for our howitzers. They were moving away from where our howitzers were located. The next time we knelt down I just stayed down and let them pass me.

I managed to find my way back to my “gun”. Just as I got there the command post (CP) sent up a colored flare. They sent up different color flares based on predetermined conditions. Depending on the color flare you had different assignments. The flare this time denoted the CP was under attack. Pretty soon all colors of flares were going up. Some were illumination flares. As the illumination flare comes down, standard procedure is to lie on the ground not moving until the light goes out. The CP was sending them up at the rate of about one a minute.

In the background I could hear the distinctive sound of an M-60 firing. The OpForce had found the far side of the gun line and was moving toward the center, to the command post.

As the flares went up, I went down and waited. As soon as they went dark I tried to sprint as fast as I could through the trees. As flares started to illuminate the area I saw the OpForce doing the same thing as me. As I went down with the sound of the flare, my helmet came off. As the light from the flare lit up the ground I watched it roll into a fighting hole at the forward edge of our gun line, just in front of the OpForce.

When the light died down from the flare I ran to the fighting hole. I positioned myself flipped my M-16 to full auto and waited for the force to appear. Just as expected a flare went up, and as it lit the area around me, right in front of me was a fire team of sorts, 5 men of the OpForce. I emptied my magazine loaded with blanks, spraying them with mythical bullets.

The OpForce team had a referee with them and he stated simply, “sling’em boys, you’re all dead.” I moved the rest of the way to the CP. As I got there I found out the OpForce had been repelled successfully and they sent us back to our guns for the night. It was a tense night as we fully expected to be attacked again, but it never occurred. As the exercise came to an end, we learned once again, we had finished second for the Cates Trophy.

The next year of service passed without incident for the most part. I was promoted to E-4, Corporal and started the Non-commissioned Officer’s Course (NCO) via correspondence. We were told about Christmas time we were slated for 29 Palms for our Annual Training Duty. It was to be a division combined arms exercise. We trained for life in the Desert the rest of that year.

Yeah, we “slept” in those tin buildings, no A/C.

Twenty Nine Palms turned out to be strangely enough, in the desert. It was hot. Hot, like 125 degrees during the day hot. When the temperature would reach 100F the exercise would be “black flagged”. This meant it was too dangerous to train. Because of this we spent more time during the day sleeping than we did awake. Sleeping in that kind of heat is not fun. and it’s front of us.

During the day, sitting around we watched as the helicopters would fly in, drop down on the desert and then fly out. My good friends Jason Rogers and Mike Gann should have been on one of those helicopters. They were posted as sentries at one of our outposts one hot day. I don’t remember the time of day they started but they were never relieved. Needless to say they ran out of water and had no way to walk back to the battery and they suffered from heat stroke and exhaustion. Finally someone did a head count and figured out they were short one team of sentries. They were quickly retrieved and after a few hours of hydrating were no worse for wear. When they told us people would die during training, we couldn’t imagine how.

When Marines train, people die. They die from accidents and mistakes just like in war. Our battery was proud that no one was medivac’d to the hospital during the entire exercise.

Jeff and Bear

We were given a weekend of liberty in which my two amigos, Jeff Gatewoood and Terry “Bear” Bechtold, and I would go into Twenty Nine Palms. They had decided like myself against going in to Las Vegas for much the same reason as I, saving money. We got a room had a good meal and drank a bunch of Michelob. As we got settled into our room I remember how refreshing I thought the swimming pool would be. It was not. The water was really warm due to the direct sunlight in 125 degree heat. It felt like bath water. Around 2:00am it was nice and we enjoyed it. As our time in California ended we learned that for the third year in a row we finished second for the Cates Trophy. The Cates Trophy is a pretty big deal in the Marine Corps Reserve.

That was my last annual training duty. As my 4×2 enlistment ended I took the next year off, grew my hair, and generally drank a lot. I never would have thought this would happen but I missed the men and the duty. I went off IRR status and began training with the battery for the next exercise which was technically after my enlistment ended in May of 1988. During my year off the battery had given our maintenance intensive M110A2s to a battery in California as I mentioned before and picked up the more accurate M198s and some new trucks to pull them. Our unit changed designations as well, we became Fox Battery within the 2nd Battalion 14th Marines. We were told ATD was to be in Hawaii. Boy was everyone excited. It turned out it was not to be and as 1988 began we were told we were back to the desert of 29 Palms.

I decided I would focus on my new career in computer sciences and bid farewell to Fox Battery 2/14 as my enlistment ended in May of 1988. Just a few years later I was attempting to reenlist. I was stopped due to the addition of a metal plate to hold my humorous together after a freak softball injury. The first Gulf War began to ramp up and I was again thinking of reenlistment. My wife Janie was pregnant with our second child (first together). My good friend Jason said, the battery didn’t need me and to stay home and be a dad. I reluctantly took his advice and my Marine Corps days were over, officially.

My heart will always be draped in dress blue. I wasn’t the best Marine. I was not a poster Marine like my good friend Jason, who in 2008 was promoted to E-9, Master Gunnery Sergeant. I didn’t always fit in, but I love being a Marine. The looks of surprise on people’s faces upon them learning that I was a Marine still entertain me. Each and every day I wake up and know that no matter what I may encounter, I am a Marine, and I can adapt and overcome whatever life presents me.

Thanks for reading and Happy Rovering Semper Fidelis.