We recently celebrated our annual Memorial Day. a day to honor the many men and women who sacrificed their lives while serving in the United States military. Many Americans have served in our military but most have not Especially with the draft no longer a factor one of the many thoughts that may emerge from a Memorial Day celebration is why do so many American men and women voluntarily choose to serve knowing full well that death can be a real factor. As it happens I know a man who did voluntarily serve in the United States Marine Corps. I have come to know very well what motivated him and his story is unbelievably rivating.
There are many reasons why men and women join the military. Yes, to be sure one motivating factor is a real desire to truly serve our great nation. But there are other factors as well. For some it provides an opportunity to fly some utterly amazing jet aircraft. And to be sure that kind of experience can also translate into a very well paying job as a civilian. There is also a deep sense of adventure. And yes it is true that with that adventure there can also be a risk of injury or death but that is acceptable whereas being stationed at Fort Mud Dog, Arkansas is not. But for one young man back in 1963 it was a combination of many factors that moved him to join the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17.
His early life had been pure hell. At the age of 3 his mother dyed his hair blonde then scorched his skull with a curling iron. Next she put him in beautiful dress and took him to a photo gallery to get professional photos of her lovely young daughter. A couple of years later she poured boiling hot cheese over his right hand causing scaring that stayed with him for decades. A few years after that this young boy got to watch as his mother chased his father around the house flailing a butchers knife in an attempt to kill dad. Dad moved out and not long after mom came home and cheerfully annouced that she was now divorced and she had been awarded custody of her son. He was absolutely mortified.
About a year later the young man now almost 12 years old found a place to live and he left home. That place was known as Arden Shore and it was located on beautiful property just north of Lake Bluff, Illinois and just south of the Great Lakes Naval Base. Getting to live at Arden Shore had basically two requirements. You had to come from a severely messed up home – bingo, and you had to have an IQ of 120 or greater. He took the test and was invited to move in. But his deeply troubled youth had left him virtually numb and thus high IQ or not his academic performance in Junior HIgh School and High School was very poor.
Soon he was approaching high school graduation and age 18 The combination meant two things. One was he would soon be eligible for the draft and two he would need to find some way to support himself. Over the years he was caught between the upper crust world of Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, Illinois to the south and the United States Navy ro the north. He felt more aligned with the north But that was by no means the biggest factor in his ultimate decision to join the Marines. Somehow this young man had become infatuated with a desire to visit Asia. The problem was he had no money and no significant job skills so he had no way to pursue his dreams. And then it happened.
One day he found himself walking by the Post Office in Waukegan, Illinois when he saw a sign inviting those interested to join the Marines. What the hell so he entered the recruiting office and asked one quesion. “Do Marines go to Asia?” The recruiter said “Yes.” and the young man then said: “Okay give me the papers.” The recruiter than asked his age and he told the recruiter he was 17 to which the recruiter replied that he would need to get authorization from his father. He knew that would be no problem . He took the papers and went to see his dad. He said “Dad, sign these papers and I will become a Marine and you will no longer need to pay Mom child support.” Bam! And so it was.
Not long after this young man graduated from high school mainly because the school needed his desk space. Then not long after that he headed off to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Paris Island, South Carolina. Yes boot camp was intense, very intense yet in many ways it was enjoyable. and perhaps most of all it installed in him and so many others a critical element long missing in his life – discipline. After boot camp he went to infantry training at Camp LeJune, North Carolina and then it was time to go home for a brief visit before reaching his long sought destination of Asia. But there was a problem.
He took a bus to Washington, DC and then he went to the train station to catch a train to Chicago. But at the train station he passed out. The military police saw a young Marine passed out on the floor and instantly assumed he was drunk to they took him to a medical facility where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and the MP’s were ordered to take him to the Besthesda Navel Hospital for treatment. After a few weeks he was allowed to take a day to go visit Washington, DC. That turned out to be a very powerful day because the date was November 22nd, 1963. So there he was this very young Marine in the nation’s capital on the day the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, Texas. Fear and numbness set in than about midnight he found himself in front of the White House where he saw Jackie Kennedy, still wearing her blood stained coat, enter the White House. For the very first time he could feel and fully underdstand what it meant to be in service to his country.
NOTE: If you would like this entire gripping story it as available in a small but powerful book 142 page book entitled: 51:50 the Book available here
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All photos courtesy of Ron Irwin unless otherwise noted.