John would never forget his words to his father, when at 17 he proclaimed to his family why he was joining the Marines. His father, a baby-boomer who had worked in sales all his life was not a fan of the military. He wanted John to have all of the things that he didn’t have when he was growing up. John just wanted out.
“I want to be someone,” John told his dad. “I don’t want to waste away in a daily life that doesn’t do anyone any good.” John was talking about his dad, and his dad knew it.
The Marine Corps was the perfect fit for John. There was no negotiating. There was no grey. The structure was extremely rigorous, and John thrived in it. He was glad to be in a place where people could rely on him for his strength and he could come through for them. He was prepared to give his life for his comrades and his Corps.
He graduated near the top of his class from basic training. That, along with a recommendation from his commanding officer was the catalyst he needed to go on to Officer Candidate School two years later. He loved the “school of hard knocks” mentality. It fit really well into the Marines esprit de corps. “After I graduated from OCS, I was ready to eat nails and ask for seconds. I loved being a Marine so much that I was ready to go out and lead hard charging Marines into whatever the Corps wanted me to do.”
Sixteen years later, John was a LT Colonel. It is a difficult rank to achieve, but not for someone as gung ho as John. Somewhere along the way he picked up a wife and kid even though the Marine Corps issued neither. The sky was the limit for John, but he didn’t even care about his promotions. He was just doing what the Corps expected him to do, and doing his best at it. If the Marines wanted him to take on more, then it was because it’s what they needed. It was not about what John needed.
In his first command tour, John was holding “office hours” during which he would review and take disciplinary actions against Marines who broke regulations. After dressing-down 2 Marines for underage drinking, John moved on to the final case of the day. The 32 year-old woman had been written up for missing morning muster 5 times. She had been a substandard Marine, failing to meet the standards of perfection that John demanded in his command. After continual counseling and escalation, her chain-of-command had had enough and was ready to be rid of her.
Standing across from her, John asked, “What is your malfunction, Marine?”. She stared almost as if looking through him with no answer. The tears in her eyes were now becoming obvious. John had no tolerance for teary eyed Marines. He read the charges and asked if she had any excuses. She finally answered, “No one listens to me”. John wasn’t in the mood to listen, either, but for some reason his breath had left him. In a rare moment of compassion, he excused the rest of the chain of command except his Executive Officer. They sat down in his office and they listened as she explained the personal circumstances of an estranged husband, two small children at home that depended on her, and a younger brother that was now living with her because of a mother that couldn’t get clean from a drug addiction after multiple attempts. Her mother disapproved of her choice to be in the military, and had stopped speaking with her. In her desperation to save her brother from the life she had known at home, she had sneaked him out of her mother’s house two weeks prior. She was sorry that it had affected her performance. She loved being a Marine, as it was the only real unwavering family that she had ever known. She was ashamed of her Marine Corps family not being able to rely on her. Her tears were real.
John dismissed the case and ordered his senior NCO to take care of her and to check in with him often on her progress. On the drive home, a flood of memories came welling up inside of him. He recalled the disapproving look from his dad when he proudly came home in his crisp uniform after basic training. His mom was proud to show him off to her friends while his father quietly hung out in the background.
“That Saturday I called my dad. I don’t know why, but I wanted to tell him that I was a good person. I wanted to tell him that even though he wasn’t proud of me, that I was proud of me. As I talked with him, I felt like a child. An 18-year accomplished military professional, and I recall feeling like I was asking him to tuck me in. I didn’t feel like he was listening. I shut down at that point, not sure of what else to say. It wasn’t like I even knew what to say to begin with.
“But being the results-oriented guy that I am, I wasn’t going to back down. I started writing an email to him later that evening. I told him that I was tired of his s$&t! I told him that I resented the power that he still had over me after becoming a bigger man that he could ever be. I told him that if he ever wanted a relationship with me or my family ever again, that he had to acknowledge the man I had become and apologize for years of dismissiveness.”
John couldn’t bring himself to send it.
“There was too much hurt buried in those words. I was ashamed, and didn’t want my dad to somehow have the upper hand yet again. I was super angry with him. For the first time since I could remember, I was furious with him.”
A few days later, John was driving off the base when he noticed the base chaplain’s office. He’d passed by it a hundred times without a thought. He stopped and discovered that the chaplain was in his office. The chaplain was surprised to see John, and asked how things were going. After a half an hour of bringing the chaplain up to speed on the events of the last several days, the chaplain asked, “Do you still have that email? If you do, will you send it to me?”
After dinner at home that night, John reluctantly hit the send button. He immediately wished he could recall the message, but it was already sent. The next day, the chaplain replied to John from his personal email, and asked that John give him his personal email as well.
For the next 6 weeks, John’s whole world changed. “I wrote to the chaplain almost every other night. I couldn’t believe the things I was writing about. I reflected on how my own scars were showing up in the interactions with my own son. I figured out that my drive for perfection was because my own father disapproved of my life choices to not follow his path. And most importantly, I worked out forgiveness for him in my own heart for not being perfect. Writing down my pain and passing it along to someone that I trusted was cleansing. The chaplain would merely reply, ‘I’m praying for you in that, John.’”
John is still a hard-charging Marine. He still expects high standards from his Marines, but is learning to love all of them for who they are, and especially for the individual personal struggles that they all live with.
“Through my own struggle and sharing, I’ve realized that I won’t be perfect, and that it’s okay to not be. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to try and uphold the good name of the U.S. Marine Corps, but I want to be cognizant of extending grace for being human. I still want to pursue perfection in my life, but I don’t want to beat myself up for not being perfect anymore. I feel like I’m finally living.”