It was years ago. I marched out the doors of a doctor’s office and into the waiting room. My paperwork had finally come in, and the staff just needed my signature and final blood work. The clock was counting down to my return home, and there was a mixture of bitter-sweetness in my heart. I was receiving a medical discharge from the United States Marine Corps after a stress-fracture to my left hip ended the career I so desperately wanted to birth. It made me all knotted up inside, but I did what I was trained to do and stuffed those emotions down deep so that I did not lose my bearing. After all, I had to maintain the protocol of the training environment that the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego strictly enforced, so there I marched out the door of the doctor’s office and into the large room filled with rows and rows of chairs. The exit to the facility was not more than a quick jog from my position, and I proceeded straight for it with all the intensity I could muster. That is when it happened.
A recruit, not more than a few weeks into his training, was sitting in one of those chairs. Decked out in digital green and khaki suede boots, he sat rigidly in his chair at attention–hands placed neatly on his lap with fingers lying straight to his knees. His mouth was silent, but his eyes said it all. He made eye contact, or “eye-balled” me as the common term goes, and he was waiting for me to hurl insult after insult at him, as he had just violated a core rule of recruit training: never look anyone directly in the eye, always be stoic. I approached, making my way to him as I was leaving. My intent was to yell at him and make a grand show of his failure, but I saw his face change to a pale, white color as his eyes locked to mine in terror. It gave me pause. For a split second, I saw something I had not seen before. There was something behind those eyes that grieved me, something that touched off a sympathetic nerve. I looked around to see if there was anyone else about. There were none. I glanced to my left, and that’s when I knew why he was there. In the moment that I crossed his path, close enough to speak, I said: “Keep your chin up, Son. Everything is going to be okay,” and then I swiftly moved on out the door to my assignment in Support Battalion.
Two weeks later, a new batch of recruits had been marched to our doors. They were being processed out of the Corps as failures to adapt. My job was to process their gear and get them assigned to a rack until the paperwork was processed to send them home. I had each of these so-called young failures line up shoulder to shoulder at attention and lay out all their gear on the ground, so I could take inventory and get it sent back to Supply. There, it would be recycled into the next training company of recruits coming into the Depot. I went through the check list individually with each recruit, one after the other, presenting their gear in front of me. There were no words spoken outside of the task-at-hand, and no one was smiling or being casual. This was military business–serious, professional, disciplined. Even in the moment of being disconnected from service, there was still a training protocol to follow, and grace was not part of that regimented function.
As I went down the line, I finally came to a tall young man standing silently stoic in the group. His gear, like all the others lying neatly organized on the floor in front of him. I looked down at the checklist and surveyed the gear before calling it off with instructions for the young man to present each piece of gear to me as visual evidence for its existence, and then I heard his voice. The young man had asked me my name. I shot back at him with a piercing stare and asked, “What’s it to you? Am I supposed to know you?” He paused a moment, and then told me his story.
Two weeks ago, he was in the Medical Center sitting in the waiting room. He had tried to fit into the Corps. He desperately wanted to be a Marine, much like a number of his family members back home, but he found himself struggling inside. Time and time again, he tried to talk to his Drill Instructors about the darkness that seemed to creep in heavier and heavier as the training days turned into weeks, but he felt as though they did not listen. He had become lost in the crack somewhere between the military’s policy of appropriately addressing recruit personal problems, and the bureaucratic rigidity of military training protocol. Thus, deeper and deeper he went down the rabbit hole of losing himself. Only after a few repeated meetings with his Senior Drill Instructor did the young man make any headway in progressing to see a shrink about his problems, but by then it was too late. He had made up his mind that the men meant to train him did not seem to care. They only cared about the numbers. There were no words of encouragement behind closed doors, only the negative reinforcement often handed to recruits in the public sphere of their peers, and so he shut himself down because he saw no room for grace.
“Had it not been for you, I was going to kill myself,” he said. “It didn’t matter what they told me. I was going to hang myself in a bathroom stall with my belt that night. But then you showed up. Who are you?”
“I am just like you,” I said. “Go home. Go to school. Make something of yourself from this.”
I don’t remember the young man’s face anymore. I never asked for his name. Looking back, though, we both found grace in an unexpected place. He got to go home, and I carry this memory now as an example that grace abounds even in failure and darkness. It’s not just for the light of day.