It’s Veterans Day today and while reading some posts on Facebook and Twitter, there were a few that suggested that in addition to thanking Veterans for their service, stop and listen to their stories, because, the more we know and appreciate the sacrifice that Veterans make, the more we will appreciate Veterans Day. That got me thinking about my stories and for the sake of my kids, I think I’ll write a few of them down here to preserve the memories.
While I was technically in combat during Desert Storm, I was somewhat removed from the violent fighting. I didn’t have to experience the hand-to-hand combat, heavy shelling and constant assaults that other Marines have faced in the past, or are currently facing. (If you want to read a book to get a feel for what a Marine Infantryman experienced in WWII, read With The Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okanawa by E. B. Sledge) But the stress, adrenaline and anxiousness we felt were real. It created an alertness and singular focus that I haven’t experienced since and that I still crave. For my kids, and whoever else reads this, this is the beginning of my Marine Corps story. I’ll start with joining and boot camp.
Joining the Marines (part 1)
I was never an athletic person growing up. I was a music and math nerd, who taught himself how to program a computer in 1979. I was also an Eagle Scout. Sports were for my buddies that were taller, faster and naturally more talented. I was the manager, and that’s about the closest I got to playing a sport. Even though I wasn’t the athletic type, the Marine Corps still interested me. I talked to a recruiter my senior year of high school and told him I wanted to be a Marine Corps officer. I had no idea what that meant, except we had a family friend who was a Captain in the Marines. I decided that I would join the Platoon Leaders Class, which is a program where college students can attend Officer Candidate School during two summers of college and once they graduate with a degree, they are commissioned Second Lieutenants. So off to school I went. My Officer Selection Officer (OSO) gave me a workout plan to do, but my school was so far away from any other Marine Corps units that it was left up to me to manage my own fitness. I had no idea how to work out or how to push through the pain so I didn’t work out regularly and when my OSO came to review my progress, I hadn’t made any progress and so I was dropped from the program. That bothered me because I don’t like to quit. I had never failed at anything before. Eventually, that failure would carry through to college. I started failing classes and then the fear of failure caused me to start withdrawing from classes so I wouldn’t fail. After 2 1/2 years of college, it became apparent that college was not the path for me. I left school and went to work.
Joining the Marines (part 2)
After working 3 or 4 years, I started to realize that I did not want to spend my life managing restaurants. Kids were graduating college and getting hired at a higher salary than I was, even though I had more experience. I decided that I needed to get a degree in something that would enable me to get a good job. I had accumulated some debt and I was still paying on student loans, so I also needed to find something that would help with school and still allow me to earn a living. Once again, I turned to the Marines. I suppose that my failure at college still bothered me and I wanted to prove that I had what it took to be a Marine. I went down to the recruiter and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. I was running restaurants for Taco Bell in Dallas at the time and they were very supportive of me going into the reserves. On the day I was set to go to Military Entrance Processing (MEPS) and ship out, my recruiter invited me to have another talk with him. He said my test scores were very high and I could pick whatever job I wanted in the Marine Corps, and if I enlisted in the regular Marines, I would get a signing bonus that would cover my debts. I only had to sign on for six years. This sounded great. No debt and I could be trained in something that I could use to get a great civilian job in six years. I signed on the dotted line and started processing. As it turned out, I should have read the fine print. I picked Air Traffic Control as my job because it was the 80’s and Reagan just fired a bunch of Air Traffic Controllers so it was in the news and it sounded very technical. The job designation for Air Traffic Controller was 7312. Since I was signing on for such a technical job, I was going to receive a $7,000 signing bonus, I would pick up rank upon graduation of boot camp and I could pick my first duty station. I called my manager and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back. I went through MEPS and found out that I was 7 lbs overweight to go to boot camp (a foretaste of things to come). With the help of some ex-lax, I made weight the next day and was set to be sworn-in as a 24 year-old Marine recruit. While I was waiting, my recruiter told me that he couldn’t get me guaranteed overseas so I needed to pick a new preference. I selected west coast and he gave me another contract to sign. I signed the contract and off to boot camp I went. I’ll share more about my boot camp experience later, but upon graduation from boot camp, I found out that the recruiter changed my job preference to 7212 Air Control, Anti-air Warfare. Instead of directing planes out of the sky, I was now shooting them out of the sky. Also, everyone else that got that MOS was being sent to Okinawa Japan, except me because I picked the west coast! On top of all this, I didn’t get a signing bonus and during boot camp, I had some intelligence officers ask me if I was interested in moving to intelligence. I liked that idea and I was just about to switch jobs until I told them that I was guaranteed Air Traffic Control and was supposed to get a signing bonus. If I knew then that I was already screwed, I would have been in intelligence. Needless to say, I learned my first lesson in the Marine Corps. Don’t believe recruiters and always double read the fine print.
I mentioned that I was not athletic. That became apparent during our first Initial Strength Test (IST). This is where the Marine Corps would find out just what they had to deal with. It was a modified Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and we had to do as many pull-ups as we could, do as many sit-ups in 2 minutes as we could and run a mile and a half, preferably in less than 15 minutes. I jumped up on that pull-up bar and could barely hang on. I had no grip strength and did zero pull-ups. On the sit-ups, I managed 26 in two minutes. On the run, I walked most of the way with a Drill Instructor yelling in my ear the whole way. I did not finish in 15 minutes. They had their work cut out with me. I was automatically dropped to the Physical Conditioning Platoon (PCP), which we referred to as the Pork Chop Platoon. The goal of that platoon, is to work you out so that you could do the bare minimum PFT score. The PCP platoon consisted of overweight recruits, weak recruits, recruits recovering from injury etc. We worked out morning, afternoon and night until we could pass the PFT. I spent 5 weeks in PCP because I got bronchitis about 3 weeks in and the strength that I had started building went away. Finally, after 5 weeks in PCP, I passed my test and was assigned a new platoon.
My second platoon in boot camp was great. I was able to do all of the training that all the other recruits were doing but my physical fitness was always behind everyone else. Boot camp is divided into three phases and in this platoon, I had finally passed first phase. As we were sitting outside our barracks, cleaning our weapons and waiting for transportation to the rifle range, I was called into the Drill Instructors office. I was informed that I was not going to the rifle range and instead, I was being dropped back to the beginning of phase one. I knew that it was because I was at the lower end of the 3rd Class physical fitness score and he wanted all 1st Class scores. So, off I went to my third platoon!
My third platoon drill instructors did not want me at first. I understood that. This was my third platoon, not including the Pork Chop Platoon. On top of that, my previous drill instructor had put in my service record that I had a bad attitude. That surprised me because I was pretty pumped to be going into 2nd Phase and I could see progress in my physical fitness. I was instructed that I better have a great attitude and any sign of a bad attitude would get me dropped once again. Fortunately for me, we had a Junior Drill Instructor named Staff Sergeant Johnson. He was a very big, very dark-skinned Marine with a very deep voice and an almost zen-like persona (when he wasn’t yelling at you). While our Senior Drill Instructor (SDI) was a short, fire-cracker-tempered Staff Sergeant named Johnson, the other Staff Sergeant Johnson was as even-keel of a Marine that I had ever met. Since this was technically my fourth platoon, I knew all of the Marine Corps knowledge that all the other recruits needed to learn and since I was 24, none of the mental games affected me, so they put me in charge of teaching the other recruits what they needed to know, and I was always left at the barracks whenever the other recruits were outside doing “motivational physical fitness” in the sand pits. It was during this time that SSgt. Johnson started calling me into the DI’s office to talk to me. He would talk to me like an adult. After-all, I was older than most of the Drill Instructors. He would ask me what I was struggling with and I would tell him. Most of my problems were physical. When we were on runs and I was falling behind everyone else, he would run alongside me, coaching me on how to increase my pace and run more efficiently. On one morning about 7 weeks into training, he told me that whenever we had any downtime, I should go out to the pull-up bar and do max sets of pull-ups and then report back to him how I did. My strength had been increasing but I was stuck at 12. The bar outside the barracks we were in was slick and I requested that I be allowed to re-tape the bar like the other bars we were using. He gave me permission and once taped, I was able to do 19 pull-ups. I ran into the barracks and reported at the top of my lungs that Private Petersen had just completed 19 Marine Corps pull-ups. He didn’t believe me so he followed me outside and ordered me to do another set. I jumped up on that bar and with his encouragement, I did 20 pull-ups. That was the max number that would help you qualify as a 1st Class PFT. That was the break-through for me. I had already maxed out on sit-ups, and my run was getting faster. It was just the pull-ups that was keeping me from a 1st Class PFT. From then on, whenever we had a PFT, he would send me out to the bars to put fresh tape on them. Eventually, through the course of my time in the Marines, 20 pull-ups got easier and I could do them anywhere, without tape, but that day that I did 20 pull-ups was a better feeling than graduating boot-camp.
I eventually graduated boot-camp with my platoon (MCRD SanDiego – Platoon 1012, April 1987). It was during our final inspection that I found out that I wasn’t going to Air Traffic Control School like I thought. I was headed to Red-eye Gunner School to become a Red-eye Gunner. That story is for another time.