40 years later

David Epps's picture

It was 40 years ago, Friday, Feb. 13, 1970, that I arrived at Parris Island, South Carolina at “zero dark-thirty” a.m. I’d like to say that I was motivated to enlist by intense patriotism during a time of war, but the simple truth is less honorable.

I was about to flunk out of college and face the draft. Having played around in high school, I was unprepared for the rigors of the university. During the summer of 1969, I took one night course and made a C. In the fall quarter I enrolled in four courses and came away with two A’s and two C’s, but one of the C’s was a point above a D. During the winter quarter, I was academically drowning.

At the time, I discovered, if one had military orders one could be “withdrawn passing” from East Tennessee State University with no questions asked and there would even be a partial refund of tuition.

I didn’t want to be drafted. I had two friends who had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. One was horribly wounded and the other was killed. If I had to go, I wanted to go on my own terms, so I began to investigate the various options. One, of course, was the Marine Corps.

My father couldn’t understand why I was considering dropping out of college. I decided that my impending flunking-out was on a “need to know” basis and he didn’t need to know.

The fact that I even considered the Marine Corps terribly upset and angered him. Dad was a Navy veteran of World War II, and I suppose he was remembering Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and other places where the Marines made legends and suffered terrible casualties. He didn’t talk about all that, however.

He finally said, “Look, the Marines are a tough outfit and I don’t think you can hack it.” If he was trying to talk me out of it, it was the wrong thing to say.

In my neighborhood, a working class, blue collar environment, those who survived were either tough or learned to get along. I had learned to get along. I played football in junior and senior high school, lifted weights, and was on the high school karate team, yet my Dad said I “couldn’t hack” the Marines.

I enlisted the next morning, a Tuesday. That afternoon, I withdrew from college and prepared to leave two days later. My parents took me to the bus station in silence and when I said goodbye and prepared to board I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life.

He made me promise I wouldn’t volunteer for anything, as he shook my hand. How could I tell him, “No?” He was right, though. It was tough — much tougher than I had imagined. But, in the end, I “hacked it,” and graduated from boot camp 13 weeks later.

The next time I saw Dad, I was in my Marine Corps green dress uniform and sporting a ribbon and a badge for having fired “expert” with the M-14 rifle, a feat accomplished by the top 10 percent of Marines who qualify. And, to my surprise, back in my neighborhood, I was suddenly a “tough guy.” I was a United States Marine.

I kept my promise and didn’t volunteer and, strangely enough, never made it to Vietnam — something I felt guilty about for decades. And still do, sometimes.

But, as a retired sergeant major pointed out, “They had you, you were available and willing. They didn’t send you. Move on.” Easier said than done.

I returned to the same college with a wife, a baby, an honorable discharge, and the G.I. Bill.

I had learned a few things in the Marine Corps about hard work and discipline. I worked a job to make up the difference between the G.I. Bill money and the actual expenses, never went to the financial aid office, and took out a few loans.

I put myself through college. I graduated cum laude, “with honors” and on graduation day, Dad shook my hand. It was the second time I ever saw him cry.

It’s now been 40 years and I’ve never regretted enlisting. Sometimes, I can still hear the drill instructors calling cadence. I still feel the pride of being one of “the few, the proud.”

I see a car or truck sporting the eagle, globe, and anchor and feel a kinship. I hear the Marine Corps Hymn and still get a lump in my throat. And 40 years later, it’s still a part of who I am. Semper fi.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctkcec.org.) 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. He is also the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]

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