My Service Stories (Part 1)

11 Nov
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Service Stories

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.

Boot Camp

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.

My Service Stories (Part 2) – Stinger School

12 Nov
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Service Stories

This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you haven’t read the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.

Welcome to El Paso and Fort Bliss

After graduating from boot camp, my next stop was USMC Redeye/Stinger Air Defense School at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX. An Army base! Ft. Bliss was where Marines trained to identify, engage and destroy enemy aircraft with a Redeye/Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Since the missile systems were so expensive, the Marines didn’t have their own training facility. We had one barracks on an Army base and we utilized their training facilities. In addition to Marines, we also had Navy gunners and SEALs that trained in our school. This wasn’t my choice of school, but between boot camp and school, I dealt with the anger and the feelings of betrayal. I was now a Marine and I accepted that everything is done for the good of the Corps. So, I decided to make the best of the situation. I knew I was smart and I learned early on that the top graduate in each class got to shoot a live Stinger, select their preferred duty station and pick up a meritorious rank. I made that my personal mission.

School mostly consisted of memorizing and identifying silhouettes of any aircraft that could be flying in any battle, whether they were US, NATO or Soviet aircraft. We had to identify them from different angles. We would review and review and review aircraft silhouettes. We had huge decks of flash cards where we could drill each other. On our exams, we had 3 seconds to look at a silhouette before we had to identify the aircraft. We also practiced tracking aircraft in a large domed building that housed a large 3D video game. Aircraft would be projected all around the dome and we would use simulator missiles to track and engage them. It was as real as one could get with late-80’s technology. We had to identify whether or not they were friend or foe, and then if foe, engage them before they had a chance to launch their own weapons.

All this was in preparation for our actual job which was to identify enemy aircraft that were closing in to attack whatever we were guarding. We were the last line of air defense. We were mobile and frequently attached to infantry or artillery companies. Our positions were frequently forward of the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) so we could engage the aircraft before they got close the other troops. On-board ships, we stood watch on the tops of the ships watching for aircraft that might target the ship. We deployed as a team of two; gunner and assistant-gunner. One person engaged the enemy aircraft and fired the weapon while the other identified the aircraft and communicated with higher command for engagement authority and instructions.

I excelled in that school. I was selected as the class leader and eventually graduated top in my class. We went out to White Sands Missile Range and I got to shoot a large BAT (ballistic aerial target) that was about 3-5 kilometers out traveling at a couple hundred miles an hour. Stingers are shoulder-launched-anti-aircraft missiles. They have a seeker-head that locks onto the heat and infra-red signature of an aircraft. They reach mach-2 in 3-5 seconds. It was one of the coolest experiences I had as a Marine.

Because I graduated top in the class, I was able to request a duty station transfer. I chose Okinawa, Japan. One of the reasons I wanted to join the Marines was to see the world. This was my first step. Additionally, I picked up Lance Corporal (E-3). In less than a year, I had been promoted twice!

Next stop – Okinawa, Japan.

My Service Stories: Okinawa – Part 1

10 Jan
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Service Stories

This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you want to start from the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.

Welcome To Okinawa, Japan

After I finished Stinger school, I received some well-deserved leave before I headed to Okinawa Japan. It was nice to get home, but honestly, I was really excited to go to Japan. Seeing the world was one of the main reasons I joined the Marine Corps and I was just about to get my first taste of life outside of the USA. Before I could go to Japan, I had to report to San Onofre, California which was on Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the US. It was a short stay before we were loaded on a big 747 for our flight to Okinawa. I don’t remember much of the trip to Japan. It was a chartered jet just for military so I believe we flew directly to Okinawa. Eventually we landed in Okinawa and we were processed to our units.

My First Unit

My unit was 1st Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion. Before I got there, it was just a Battery, but the Marine Corps decided that Low Altitude Air Defense was important enough to make it a full Battalion, which is one of the reasons I suspect that my contract was changed – they needed bodies to fill a quota. For us, that meant two full firing Batteries (Alpha and Bravo) and a Headquarters & Support Battery. For the Firing Battery, the most basic unit was the Team that consisted of a Team Leader and an Assistant Gunner. The A-Gunner would drive the vehicle and fire the missile. The Team Leader would evaluate targets and make engagement decisions and fire another missile if needed. There were 5 teams in a Section and at least 3 Sections in a Platoon commanded by a Lieutenant. Each Battery, usually commanded by a Captain had at least 2 platoons.

My first duty was that of an Team Leader, since I was older and graduated top in my class. As luck would have it, the Platoon I was assigned to was also assigned on-call duty. This meant that if something happened in our part of the world that required Air Defense, our unit would be the first to deploy. We would practice loading and unloading our vehicles over and over until we could get the call and be loaded and on the road within an hour. Nobody really liked being on-call because that meant your liberty (free-time) was limited and you couldn’t drink more than two beers per day. And…that phone call could come at any time.

MCAS Futenma

The Phone Call and the New Lieutenant

One night, the phone call came. We rushed out of our barracks with our prepacked battle load and headed for our trucks. Once we picked up our trucks, we had to head to the bunker to pick up the missiles, chow and other equipment for our trucks, and then head to the armory for our weapons. All this had to be done in an hour. My A-Gunner and I were the first to our vehicle and we headed to the bunker. When we got to the bunker, our new Platoon Leader, a fresh-out-of-school Second Lieutenant was at the bunker to oversee the truck loading. (Second Lieutenants were called Butter-Bars because the single bar indicating their rank was gold in color. Most butter-bars didn’t get respect from enlisted men until they picked up rank) This was his assigned spot during our practices so this is where I met him that night. We started grabbing our truck’s supply and other trucks were starting to line up. The Lieutenant was getting overwhelmed and and could not make a decision to save himself. I don’t naturally gravitate to a leadership position. I’m confident in my decisions, but I don’t like to lead people (they are too much trouble). The one thing I can’t stand is incompetent leaders. When I am faced with an incompetent leader, I step in an assume the leadership position. This is what happened here.

I saw that the butter-bar was in over his head and that the whole mission was being affected. I stepped up to the Lieutenant and told him (maybe a little too forcibly) that he needed to sit down over in a corner away from us and I would take care of the load-out. He turned and stood off to the side while we completed the load-out. I was a Lance Corporal (E-3) at the time and had no business talking to a Lieutenant like that, but to me, the mission came first and we were in trouble of missing our one-hour deadline. We got our vehicles loaded and headed to Kadina Air Force Base where we loaded our vehicles onto transport planes and took off. Once we were in the air, we were informed that it was just a test and we turned around and landed, unloaded and went back to our base to unload our trucks and go back to our barracks just in time for reveille.

Later that morning, I was called into the Lieutenant’s office. I had a feeling that I was going to get an ear-full. Once the door was closed, the Lieutenant told me that as an enlisted man, I was not supposed to talk to an officer in the manner I did. Not only had I disrespected his rank, I had done it in front of other troops. I apologized and told him that I was thinking of our hour limit and I knew how the trucks were supposed to be loaded. He told me that he appreciated it and also told me that without me taking charge like that, that we would have missed our deadline. As it turned out, he was praised by our Battalion Commander for successful rapid first deployment. So, the story ended better than I thought it would. Over the course of the two years I was in Okinawa, we came to respect each other. We were the same age and had a lot of common experiences. Over the course of those two years, he would recommended me for meritorious promotion and personal awards. I believe that I picked up Corporal (E4) because of his recommendation. When his platoon was selected to deploy to the Persian Gulf in 1988 to escort ships into and out of the Persian Gulf, he asked that I be assigned to his platoon. I’ll cover that deployment in a later post. I wish I had kept up with him. I’m sure we would be great friends now.

There are a lot more stories from Okinawa so stay tuned for the next part!

My Service Stories: Okinawa – Part 2

12 Jan
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Service Stories

This is a continuation of my Service Stories that I am writing for my daughters and possibly their kids. You can begin the series here.

I spent two years based out of Okinawa, so the next few stories will be of my experiences in Okinawa, my deployments and training there. Most of my time there was fun and eye-opening. I was from a very small town in Missouri, so traveling to Japan was an experience not many from my town got to do. In fact, most of my friends had never been out of the state! In this post, I’ll share about some of my memories of when I first arrived in Okinawa.

The Squad Bay

When we first arrived in Okinawa, they didn’t have barracks for us so they housed us all in squad bays. If you aren’t familiar with squad bays, they are long open buildings that house 60 Marines in bunk beds. Each squad bay has one single large bathroom and shower that everyone shares. Each bunk bed has a locker to store gear and clothes in. These were a little better than the squad bays we lived in while we were at boot camp, but basically, they were the same. I think we lived in those squad bays for about 2 months, until we were assigned to units and more permanent rooms in the barracks. In the barracks, we had rooms shared by four Marines. Two bunk beds per room with a common bathroom (we call them Heads) per floor. This was better, but you still didn’t have any privacy.

The Enlisted Club

Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Funtenma, didn’t have a proper enlisted club where junior enlisted Marines could go unwind at first. That meant that most of the time, we would end up going out in town at one of the local Japanese bars, frequented by Americans, where they were very good at taking your money with overpriced watered-down drinks and cute girls. We did have the Slop Chute. It was a half of a squad bay that had a two-by-four and plywood bar with refrigerators and wire-spool tables with spool benches to sit on. You could buy a cold beer for a dollar and eat buckets of popcorn. There was always some kind of music playing and it was a cheap place to go for a cold beer after work. But that’s all they had. There were very few woman Marines on base at that time, so if you wanted to talk to a girl, you had to go to a local bar out in town. That meant trying to learn some Japanese and speaking in broken English. Not the most ideal situation to meet someone special, but it was the only entertainment (and female interaction) we had.

Scuba Diving

Okinawa is known to be one of the best places to scuba dive in the world. The water is clear and there are lots of fish and caves to explore. One of my first roommates was a scuba instructor so he taught me how to scuba dive and we used to dive quite a bit. In fact, one of our favorite things to do was night cave diving. We’d go out about 10 pm at night and dive down 100+ feet and start searching caves. We’d dive for a couple of hours and then gradually make our way up to the surface. Once we had decompressed and surfaced, we headed back to base just in time to get ready for inspection and a full day of work. We’d work all day and go to sleep in the afternoon just to do it all over again.

He also worked for a local dive shop teaching Japanese tourists (those from mainland Japan) how to snorkel and scuba. This was always a good way to meet Japanese girls who worked hard and came to Okinawa for a vacation. They were always intrigued by American Marines and so my roommate always had opportunities to go to some of the good clubs in Naha with these girls, all expenses paid. He was always willing to invite me to go along which was a lot of fun, and gave me different experience than the average Marine on Okinawa would have. We ate and drank at some of the best restaurants and bars on the island.

I haven’t been diving since, but it was one of my most favorite things to do while I lived on that island. One of these days, I want to go back and dive those caves again.

Exploring Okinawa, Yakisoba and Yakitori

One of my most favorite things to do whenever I am in a new place is explore and being in a foreign country made me want to explore all over the island. Another one of my roommates loved to ride bikes and he would often take off on a Friday and start riding around the island. He would find places to sleep Friday night and Saturday night and then return to base on Sunday. I joined him a couple of times on these exploratory trips. Most of the time, we’d sleep outside with just a poncho liner and poncho for bedding. It was real fun and great exercise. We also got to see a lot of history and culture. My only regret is that I didn’t have a camera on these trips.

Another thing I love to do is eat the local food. Wherever I am, I try to find where the locals eat and eat the local food. I still do this today. The two dishes I ate almost everyday was Yakisoba and Yakitori. Yakisoba is fried noodles and Yakitori is chicken strips grilled on a stick soaked in teriyaki sauce. For a poor Marine, this was standard town fare. You could get a cup of 5-10 sticks of Yakitori on the street pretty cheap. It was great when you were on a bike.

My advice for anyone traveling to another country would be to always explore. Find locals that will show you around. Eat where the locals eat and what they eat. Ask many questions. Most people in the world are friendly and they want you to experience their culture in a positive light, so they are willing to help. Try to learn phrases in the native language so you can communicate. Before you go, learn about the culture and what not to do. Some things that we do or say may be offensive to other cultures. It’s always best to know something about the culture before going.

My Car and a lesson learned

After I had been in Okinawa for a while a friend of mine was leaving the island and asked if I wanted to purchase his car. It was a 1978 Toyota Celica, like the one in the picture (yup – those side mirror are waaaay forward!). I thought this was a great deal and would allow me to see more of the island. So – I purchased the vehicle without knowing the laws in Okinawa. Once I bought it, I found out that insurance is part of the car and so when you sell the car, you sell it with the insurance also. The trick is to buy a car with just enough insurance to last your time in Okinawa. I didn’t know that so I bought a car that didn’t have any insurance left. That meant that I had to take it to a Japanese mechanic and have it inspected so I could buy insurance. There were a number of things that needed to be fixed before I could buy insurance for it so after a couple of thousand dollars and 6 weeks later, I finally had a vehicle.

Two days after I got my car, a few of my friends and I were at the Slop Chute drinking beer when the other guys decided that they wanted to go to a bar in town. I didn’t really want to go so I stayed and had a couple more beers before heading back to the barracks. After a couple of hours in the room by myself, I was bored so I decided to go find my friends. Normally this meant that I would have walked down to the bottom of the hill to catch a bus, but I had just got my car and so I drove off the base looking for my friends. I stopped at all of the places I thought they would be and didn’t find them, so I headed back to base. When I got to the base, I went to get my ID card which was in my wallet and couldn’t find it. I knew I had it when I left but I couldn’t find it at that moment. The MP at the gate asked me if I had been drinking, and I told him that I had been earlier, but hadn’t had a beer in a couple of hours. Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been so honest, because he took me into the MP shack and gave me a breathalyzer. I was just over the limit (it was .08 in Okinawa), so I was considering Driving Under the Influence. I didn’t feel drunk but that didn’t matter.

I was booked and I had to call my platoon sergeant. He came and got me and when I got back to the barracks, I called the 1st Sgt because at the time, I was working for the Battery Commander and 1st Sgt. On Monday morning, I was called into the 1st Sgt’s office where he asked me what happened and gave me a stern reprimand (and told me to quit being stupid). He then sent me to the Captain’s office and where asked me what happened. I was honest and told them the truth. The captain also told me not to be stupid anymore and then had me sign an entry in my record book that said I was counselled about an alcohol related incident. That was the only thing that went into my permanent record. Because I officially received a DUI, I lost my Okinawan civilian drivers license for six months and had to sell the car that I had just got insured. Before I sold it, I asked if I could look in my car for my wallet and sure enough, my wallet had fallen out of my pocket and was in the gap between my seat and the door. I took a huge loss on that vehicle and learned a very important lesson. Two weeks later, the Captain told me that a firing battery was heading to the Persian Gulf as part of MAGTF 3-88 and that a Lieutenant had asked if I could be assigned to his platoon (Okinawa Part 1). He thought it was a good deal since it was an 8 month deployment, more than the six months I wouldn’t have a license.

So – off to the platoon I went for some of the best and most fun training that I have ever done. But that’s a story for another post.