My Touchstone: Dear Sarah part 2 – An Explanation

Dear Sarah
Sept 4, 2001  *Dated one week before 9/11.
This entry is less of a response and more of an explanation of the multi-layered ironies my father’s letter contained.  If you care to get part of the rest of the story, please read on. 🙂

—> His words are in bold.  See my responses below, but also just a quick background…My father and I regularly exchanged emails that were more in the style of old-fashioned letter writing, heavy on contemplative thought and expressive emotion, and less of the modern-day bullet-point emails; the following letter was a combo of the two.  It wasn’t as emotive because he was (obviously) focused on trying to drive a point home.  He gave me solicited and unsolicited advice, which regardless of the type, I always welcomed.  Even though our relationship had been strained – seemingly beyond repair – my junior and senior years of high school, we were back to our old selves again by the time I was engrossed in my third year of college.  Additionally, I was the only one, the youngest in fact, of his four children who followed in his footsteps and joined the military.  Even as a grown woman, I felt like a little girl at times to sit and listen to his stories about the military, and I assume he felt similar satisfaction in being able to finally share those stories with a willingly captive audience.  Moreover, I planned to fly – kind of like him (he was a navigator).  As if we didn’t have enough to talk about already with coinciding interests in sports, nature, and life philosophy, from 1999 onward, we had the Air Force and flying.  But in 2001, things changed, and although I still wanted to serve our country, I wanted to do it as a MARINE.

So, here is my father’s letter…

A few things I’d like for you to think about:
1.The USMC Major says you need a current PFT.  Can you do that in your condition?  There’s a difference, right? 

Since it was September, I was back in Charlottesville to begin my third year of college. I’d spent the previous two summers working at Henderson Hall Marine Corps Base in Arlington Virginia where my days were consumed by running five to twelve miles every morning at 6:00am (after an hour drive in from the suburbs), lifting in the base weight room at lunch, and swimming 800-1600 meters in the afternoon.  I would have taken crack cocaine, too, to further perfect my physique had I listened to the advice of one of my fellow lifeguards. During the months I worked at the pool the summer of 2001, I trained even harder since Air Force Field Training (FT) was then within immediate sight.  But I made the classic young athlete’s mistake and over-trained.  I was fixated on finishing #1 at FT and knew physical fitness was one component of that success I could control.Two days into FT, I tore my left hamstring while running up the stairs – a moment that changed the course of my life.  Because of that injury, I had to leave Field Training before completing it.  I would only later realize that my incompletion would be the technicality loophole that allowed me to switch ROTC programs.   The injury itself was debilitating. I couldn’t walk properly for weeks, let alone run, sitting hurt, standing hurt, and it forever altered my stride to where I needed physical therapy for years to come.  Other than having already broken both arms and legs, of which all the fractures healed without complication, I hadn’t had any of the nagging knee or hip problems that a lot of female soccer players were plagued with.  Tearing my hamstring threw everything off balance; but being twenty and obstinate (as the two often go together), I’d convinced myself I was in running shape again weeks after the snap.  Furthermore, if I really wanted to make the switch from AF to Marine Corps, I had to be ready to run.  In order to accomplish a perfect score on a Marine Corps PFT (Physical Fitness Test), a woman had to do the flexed arm hang for 70 seconds, complete 100 crunches, and run three miles in 21 minutes; a male had to perform 20 dead hang pull ups, complete 100 crunches, and run three miles in 18 minutes.  Passing required lesser scores.  I was sure I could at least pass.

2. Does a flight contract guarantee pilot or just any type of flying job?
Yes. In the Marines, you could sign a contract as a pilot if you so desired and if you met certain requirements.  It guaranteed you a spot at flight school, not success there.  What I didn’t have the balls to tell my dad yet, though, was that even if I didn’t end up flying, I would rather be in the Marine Corps than the Air Force.
3. I wouldn’t stir up any more with the AFROTC than necessary before you know this is what you are going to do.  That is, will USMC pay and is that important to you?  PFT?
I did know this was what I was going to do.  Even now, as a thirty year old woman who has – forgive the trite but true saying – had seen the world, I still harken back to that decision as the most doubtless one I’ve ever made. It’s been my touchstone for a decade. I wasn’t so resolute to go Marines because it made sense.  In fact, it made no sense at all!  As a college student dependent upon my government scholarship, I was told that if I really tried to complete the switch, I would be unable to. 

[At this point, I think everyone thought I was bluffing.]  Furthermore, it would be considered a breach of my contract with the Air Force, therefore I would be kicked out of school, forced to enlist (in the AF), and would have to pay everything back that the AF previously shelled out toward my education.I continued my petition.  The Colonel (both my dad as you see in question #3 above, and the ROTC Detachment Commanding Officer) humored me.  “Let’s say you do switch, how are you going to pay for school?”  The Marines didn’t offer three, two, and one year scholarships like the Air Force did.  Either you came in committed to the program from day one or you didn’t.

Other options had to be explored.  I was already daily engaged with the Marine Corps ROTC Major on all of these matters, as well.  He suggested formally joining Navy ROTC (which had available scholarships), then applying for an MO (Marine Option) spot.  No, I decided it was too risky to end up in the Navy if something fell through. “Well, there is Platoon Leaders Course,” Major Pfeiffer mentioned.  That program, which was funded by a slightly different pot of money, entailed much less commitment than full ROTC, yet offered the same financial benefit.  But the Air Force Det Commander told me, “You’re not taking the easy way out.  If you switch to the Marines, you have to still do ROTC whether you take PLC money or not.”Either way, none of the decisions could be made quickly, so I had to cover all my bases in the meantime.  That semester I wore my Air Force ROTC uniform to Navy/Marine ROTC’s morning Leadership Laboratory (aka: Lead Lab), went to my regular classes for the day, then attended Air Force ROTC’s afternoon Lead Lab.  On Wednesdays I went to Air Science class; on Thursdays I went to Naval Science class.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 0600, I PT’d (aka: worked out) with the Marines.  Thursday mornings, I attended Air Force’s Mando (aka: work out).  Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I had soccer practice, with games (sometimes traveling) on the weekends.  I also decided to double major in Religious Studies and took a 22 hour course load toward that goal.  Oh, and in case I lost my scholarship and/or didn’t get a new one, I began working part time at a local golf shop to make a little extra money.    The entire semester passed this way.
4. I remind you of what you said to me about the enlisted airmen you met at Shaw vs those Marines you met at Henderson Hall…These are the type of folks you have to get to do the job when you become their officer boss.  It may not seem so big now, but it will be your life as a manager, flyer, etc. 
Convincing me that my life would be easier in the AF than the Marine Corps didn’t sway me.  Surely it would be easier to manage highly motivated, intelligent young men and women who lived in Air Force dorms (not barracks) and ate at cafeterias (not chow halls), but when you want to be a Marine, and when you already feel a kinship with them, it’s hard to explain to someone that you want to be one of those misfits.  The fact that most Marines are a little bit – or a lot a bit – crazy was an appeal, not a deterrent.  Most Marines embody the “work hard play hard” mentality, and so while they often appeared as screw-ups in their personal lives, for the most part, they could flip the switch to “on” when they were at work.  As my journey into the Corps progressed, I found I had way more in common with the Marines than I ever did with the Airmen.

5.  You must plan for what happens when you are not flying.  Even if you get a slot, then pass all, all, phases of the training, you will eventually be given other duty.  What will that be?  Where will it be?  What does each service have to offer that interests you for these other duties?  The USMC is about ground attack, you will never lead troops in a ground attack (thank God) and that will limit you whether you believe it or not.
As previously mentioned in #2, the fact was that if I didn’t end up flying, I only saw myself as a support paper-pusher in the Air Force.  I would be a civilian in a blue uniform.  If I did not become a pilot in the Marine Corps, I would still be a <i >Marine.  Also, the Marines had nearly all the same opportunities as the Air Force – attaché duty, language school, ROTC instructor, etc – just in smaller quantities.  If I was interested in those duties later, I assumed it would only be a matter of me making up my mind to do it, and I could.

6. I know peer influence is far greater than parental influence, but I have been through many years of military service.  I’ve been around all the services.  I take the Air Force hands down, and I want only the best for you.  I will never say I agree with you becoming a Marine.  I KNOW the Air Force is a better, more rewarding life.  You can believe all you want that you can make it in the macho world of the Marines, that you can make them accept you…You will never be a man, you will never be as mean, nasty, tough, strong, etc.  The Marines are built on that concept for a reason.  It does not matter what they say to be politically correct.  They have to believe they are meaner, nastier, and tougher than the enemy bastard whose throat they have to slit on a dark night.  We need people like that.  Maybe you can do that, maybe you want to do that, but no high school dropout, weighing 210 pounds with an IQ of 90 is ever going to believe that.  I’m sorry if this sounds cruel or perhaps wrong to you, but I know it is true.  Should you have the right to prove yourself?  Yes.  Will you? I doubt it.  PFTs are not Iwo Jima’s beach where you have a 60lb pack on your back, the water is chest high, the surf is pounding in your face, bullets are whistling around you head, mortars are blowing your unit into hamburger, and you have to turn and say “follow me.”  I know you want to fly and all this death and destruction is far less personal, unless of course you are shot down and taken prisoner (if you survive the crash).  Hopefully you will never have to fight a war, but you are joining (either AF or USMC) to do that if called upon.  It’s about believing you are right so much that you are willing to do whatever is necessary to win.  To kill someone else face-to-face or with a bomb.  Decide you can do it.  Decide you convince others to do it.
Wow, #6 is heavy! 😉  I’ll take it one piece at a time…Like I mentioned, my AF superiors and my dad thought I was bluffing.  They thought since I’d spent the last couple of summers hanging out with Marines at Henderson Hall and the school years PT’ing with the ROTC MO’s, that I only wanted to do it because my friends were doing it or because it was “cool.” At that point, the MO’s weren’t my friends, though; Kate was the only person I knew well, and the others were still an untouchable enigma to me.  To my parents it looked like a clear case of peer pressure.  To me, the friends were a bonus, not the onus for my pull to the Marines.  My Dad kept his word – he never told me he agreed with me being a Marine – but he has since told me he is proud of me.  When I later faced some of the injustices he predicted, the “I told you so, now quit being a tough Marine and come home” platitudes colored his advice. Even when clouded by chaos during some of those situations, I lucidly disregarded my parents’ advice, followed my gut yet again, and although avoided no pain whatsoever by doing so, was glad I’d followed my own path. And there’s a subtle difference in those two sentiments that permeates some of our conversations to this day.  My dad was maybe the closest to understanding my decision to go into the Marines – my mother was adamantly against it, and by all accounts, I guess you could say after reading this letter, so was my father – but no one in my family inherently understood why I was doing it.  Five years later, they didn’t understand why I chose to stay in after my second (and a heinous one at that)  deployment.  Since the initial decision never resonated with them, how could it have in 2007 either?  I wasn’t mad at them for urging me to get out.  I understood why they felt the way they did, but I didn’t agree.Should I have the opportunity to prove myself?  Will I? Did I?  I finished number two in my Platoon and in the top 10% of the Company at OCS.  (For the record the girl who finished .01% ahead of me did not accept her commission, thus, technically I think I finished #1 😉  ).  Despite appearances to many of my peers at TBS, I finished well among our class. I asked my SPC if I could attend IOC; a handful of pilots every class were allowed to go even though they wouldn’t be Infantry Officers.  Why couldn’t I? I’d completed every hike and outscored most of the men on all the physical events.  To my knowledge, no woman had ever gone to IOC before and I wanted to be the first.   Had I been healthy, without two broken bones in my left foot (which had been broken for five out of the six months of TBS), he’d worked a deal to where I’d be allowed to go.   Later, once I was in the fleet, I made it a goal to run a 300 (perfect score) male PFT before I left the Corps; I did.  I was ranked in the top 10% by several of my RO’s.  Despite being lambasted with lies and almost literally physically forced onto a plane to go home early during my second deployment, I requested Mast with a  revered Wing CG and stayed in Iraq another two months, declining the offer to be home with my family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. With a year left on my second contract, I was asked to be the first female Marine Counter-intelligence Officer at a flagship class in Dam Neck.  I declined, recognizing that ego for being first wasn’t enough of a reason to do something, but was deeply honored by the invitation.  Aside from all that, and most importantly, I remember every friendship formed that otherwise would have gone unborn, every mentor who guided me, every enlisted Marine that ever told me I was a good leader to th or that I changed their life for the better, and every female Marine who’d never previously had a female Officer-In-Charge (OIC) who thanked me for being an example to emulate.   “Hopefully you will never have to fight a war.”  No explanation is required to highlight the significance here.  As we know, the garrison Corps would return to its fighting roots and become cemented into a decade long war in two countries.  Have I killed anyone face to face?  No.  Have I seen real time videos of battlefield death and destruction? Yes.  Have I called in artillery fire to be dropped on real live men?  Yes.  Did it look like a video game?  Yes.  But did I <i >know it was real? Yes.  Was I ever watching a video feed of a school we thought was occupied only by insurgents, with attack Cobra helicopters inbound, T-1, when all of a sudden a group of women and children emerged into the courtyard?  Yes.   Have I been forced to watch beheading videos?  Yes.  Did they give me nightmares? Yes.  Have we guided Prowlers onto a target or Cobras with Hellfire missiles and played “whack-a-mole” on flat screens in a COC and laughed?  Yes.  Did I have an emotional hangover when I returned to my barracks room later that day? Yes.  I chose this profession, though, and I can acknowledge the atrocities without demeaning my choice.

7. About flying.  I know from first-hand experience that just wanting to be a pilot isn’t enough.   I was smart, I was tough, I had more desire than most, but I didn’t have enough of whatever to make it.  I wasn’t a bad person or a failure because of it, but I had to find a different job.  So don’t ignore this.  I’m not trying to jinx you, but you are not being fair to yourself if you don’t think about the options.
Oooooh the multiple layers of irony present here in this one little paragraph! 🙂  This is an entire story in and of itself, so I’ll just tell you all that I did not end up flying in the Marine Corps beyond getting the equivalent of my private pilot’s license back in 2003.

8.  Also, remember landing on an aircraft carrier is one of the most challenging things in the business.  Perhaps you can do it, but you are raising the odds of failure.  (This is about technical analysis of a career, not rah rah, bust your ass, you can do it.)
Again, I didn’t end up flying, so I don’t have a lot to say about this for now 🙂

9. Yes, you will always be my daughter and I will always love you.  I will accept your decision, but I will never tell you that the Marines are better for you than the Air Force.  It’s more than the fact that I was in the Air Force, too.  I have no doubt the Air Force will be everything you are seeking in the military, and more.  You will meet quality people, you will lead enlisted people who are brighter and more enlightened.  You will have greater variety of jobs, respected jobs, from which to choose.  You will travel; you will have one remote tour in a career (maybe), not sea duty every 4 or 5 years.  You will have command opportunities in and out of airplanes.  You will have something of an uphill fight in any service because you are a woman.  Don’t kid yourself.  It isn’t right but it is true.  You will be a minority.  People will respect you for your intelligence more in the Air Force.
Intellect, respect, and quality of life are a matter of perspective.  By “normal” peoples’ standards, my quality of life would have been better in the Air Force, but it was not (as my father insisted) everything I sought in the military and more.  It was like being in a relationship where you were happy, but felt like something was missing.  The Air Force was like a nice boyfriend, one with whom I could be happy, but one who didn’t challenge me on a deeper level….and especially at twenty years old, I craved a challenge.

The Marines were better for me because living my life as a part of that institution (vice AF) provided an avenue through which I would NOT live my life full of regret.  I knew then, and maintain now, that I would’ve spent my life asking what if, or thinking I could’ve if I hadn’t put it all on the line and gone for it.  My Marine Corps years contained the worst tragedies of my life, yet I would not change my decision to join the Corps to this day.  It wasn’t a choice like having to pick between two colleges (for example).  Generally speaking, no matter where someone goes to school, they’ll learn a lot, do well in life, etc.  Yes, the specifics turn out a little different depending on where you go, but the general picture is the same – you emerge a college graduate with friends, boyfriends, memories, etc.  At this crossroad, though, I irrevocably altered my life path.  To non-military types, maybe you think it’s the same as the difference in schools, majors, or where you chose to live; but I think some of you will grasp the gravity of the decision I made.  For those of you who know what I then went through in the following years, you really get it.  And I’ll admit that I’m proud to say that I made it through everything and in the big picture now have myself a really good life.  I emerged from that fog physically and mentally stronger than I EVER could have been otherwise, and on my own terms.

The refining fires of my faith and my service forged me into the person I am today. 

Well, I have to go and you probably got pissed at this letter long ago.  I hope this isn’t too late.  I want you to stay in the Air Force.  I wasn’t pissed.  And I smile every time I read this letter. 🙂  Halfway through the second semester of my third year, the paperwork came through.  The switch could be realized…and from that day forward, all letters such as this “ceased and desisted” forever more! 😉

I love you.  Dad
I love you too, Dad. 🙂

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I think they were proud of me after all on my Commissioning day 😉