Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Good Question

I was asked a question today that, despite assuming I would be asked it frequently, have rarely encountered. And I believe it worthy of an answer, too. That question was, why did I join the Marine Corps.

Each person will provide a different reason – so radically different, in fact, that it is impossible to make generalizations. For example, I knew one guy that joined because he felt God was calling him to preach to the troops. A few others had “nothing else going on” in their lives. A very small number joined for an education (you don’t often see this in the Marine Corps infantry). In the song “Alice’s Restaurant,” a 15-minute story marginally put to music, Arlo Guthrie told the recruiter he just wanted to kill, kill, kill. They proceeded to announce he was a perfect candidate, much to his chagrin. None of my reasons are quite as alarming as that, however.

In short, I was scared of joining, so I joined. I will come back to this.

I grew up playing “army,” romping through the woods, wearing camouflage (much to the annoyance of my parents), hacking at things with machetes, shooting rifles, hiking, and camping. Most everything was undertaken with some sort of military surplus gear. I was marginally acquainted with the inner workings of the military from veteran family members, but really knew little about it. There was an air of mystery that made it appealing and an uber-masculine appearance that caused me to wonder if I had what it took to be counted among their ranks. Additionally, I had long found veterans to be interesting men with colored backgrounds and a nearly endless supply of stories. I always enjoyed hearing them.

My fascination with the military thus began at a young age, and it only heightened as I grew older. I remember when, at perhaps eleven years old, I followed the progress of Desert Storm closely. The guns were neat, the missiles were amazing (as were their price tags, too), and the uniforms and body armor also caught my eye. Over time, my interest in the armed forces increased all the more, perhaps approaching an unhealthy obsession.

For a number of years, I shied away from making such a lengthy commitment to the military. I might not like it, I thought, but then I’d be stuck with it. Furthermore, and perhaps more daunting than any other consideration, I doubted that I had whatever physical and mental fortitude was necessary to be a soldier.

I did some poking about and found myself training with the Naval ROTC program at the University of Virginia during the late 90s (as a Marine office candidate), but a combination of being totally physically overwhelmed and intimidated by the men who by all counts were extremely patient, intelligent and mature for their age, drove me to abandon the training (and the officer program to which I had applied) after only one semester. As monumentally challenging as it was, though, I remembered it fondly (except getting up before 5AM several days a week).

By the age of 22, the constant self-doubt had reached its peak. The final straw was going to an event and seeing a Marine in uniform who looked extremely self-confident, comfortable, and carried himself well. I was simultaneously impressed and envious. Soon thereafter I made my decision. The only way to know if I had what it took was to dive in. It had become a matter of faith. If I was terrified of failure without even trying something, then I was of little use as a leader, a mature adult, and especially as a Christian. I apparently had no confidence in God’s provision – or at least was so petrified of failure that I would never venture out and try something challenging.

Within a week or two, I walked into a Marine recruiter’s office and told him I wanted to enlist for Marine Corps infantry. They looked at me as if I were nuts, but agreed to it. I did this without informing my parents of the decision – at least until it was done. I needed to know. Needed to make the decision without anybody advising or influencing me, and learn what I was capable of doing.

What Marines? Because they were noted for being the toughest, most-respected, and fiercest. Why infantry? Because that field more than any other would drive out all self-doubt and excessive worry. People learn what they’re made of when they get shot at. I knew that much going in. I was diving into the pool not knowing if it contained any water. Turns it, it did.

The US invaded Iraq while was in boot camp, quickly changing our training tempo from insanely stressful to, “you’re going to war, recruit.” And we knew it, too. Every aspect of our training became preparation for that inevitable placement in harm’s way. It would only be a matter of time. I was in continuous training from February, 2003 to August, 2003, and once in the fleet we trained almost constantly from January, 2004 to June the same year. A few days after July 4th, we were landing in Kuwait and conducting more training before heading north into Iraq. I was in actual combat exactly 18 months after showing up Parris Island, SC for boot camp. That was the first tour of three.

Am I satisfied with what I found out about myself? For the most part, yes. But curiously, the lessons were learned AFTER my service. While I initially attempted to define my masculinity or success as a man based upon my service, several months beyond it I realize that it had nothing to do with the Marines. Frankly, it had nothing at all to do with “things” I did. My character lay not in my combat skill or physical prowess, but solely in my willingness to try. Facing bullets, thus, is not the bravest thing I have done. Doing something I was previously terrified of doing, however, WAS. And this is the greatest lesson I carry with me.

Success or failure may not be particularly relevant. What is of far greater merit is my willingness to even try. Defeat may indeed come, but I have to show up for the battle first. The battle I won in all of this is with myself. I took a chance, gained much, lost much, learned much, and walked away in one piece much wiser, bolder, and unconcerned with jumping into life. I found faith in my successes, and grace in my numerous failures. Rather than hide for fear of something happening, I am now going (see the blog title!). The destination is insignificant at the moment. What remains infinitely important is my willingness to commit to the journey.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. A lesson all of us should learn and have to learn in God's time. To be willing to commit, whether it is to the Marines or the Mission Field, that it's scary out there, but you have to dive head first and hope you end up alive or in heaven! I am glad you are here Ben!!

  2. Rah rah, leap into the unknown! Do things that are beyond your imagination and capacity! And everyone will think you're crazy. But you did it, and I did it (only it wasn't the military), and it's very good for growth.

  3. As an old parachutist, I would suggest you go out to the local drop zone this weekend and satisfy your need for conquring the unknown, and know the joy of the freedom of Eagles. If you really want to leap into the it!

  4. The stuff heroes are made of...

    Way to go Ben.


  5. Thanks for your candor, and for sharing your thoughts with us. Keep writing!