Once a Marine

San Diego, California, 1969: Palm trees swayed in the morning breeze. Platoon 1037 emerged from out of the shadows, shouldering rifles, marching since long before daybreak. We weren’t marines, far from it, just homesick kids in a frightening, unfamiliar world.

Staff Sargent Pepka was formidable, daunting, and vicious–vicious, like a swamp infested with alligators. PLATOOOOON, HAULT. LEEEEFFT, FACE,” he barked.

A blood-thirsty mosquito landed on my neck. With quick decisive action, I smashed it. In less than a heartbeat, I was yanked from out of the platoon.

“You are pathetic. You are a ******* disgrace to the Corps,” roared the strapping drill instructor. “On your knuckles, Private Scumbag,” he ordered. You owe me pushups, five hundred.”

“Sir, aye aye Sir!” I yelled, “one, Sir, two, Sir.”

A sweet mental vacation, reminiscences of life as I once knew it, flooded my mind: my folks back home, my college friends, my dog, and every lake, river and babbling brook I ever fished.

“I hope you ***** come back from Vietnam in a body bag, Idiot.” he thundered.

Through psychological terror, I instantly learned to obey orders. Every day was a test, a transformation process. Twelve weeks of Pepka’s sadism changed me from a wayward youth, into a proverbial lean, mean, fighting machine.

Graduation day: Platoon 1037 marched in formation for the last time. My name was no longer “Scumbag.” I felt salty, indestructible, capable of taking on an entire regiment.

After the ceremonies, Staff Sargent Pepka walked up to me and stuck out a powerful hand. “Well done, Marine,” came a thundering voice. MARINE: was there ever a word in the English dictionary with a sweeter ring? Never!

We climbed aboard cattle cars destined for Camp Pendleton, preparing to confront an enemy who fought with homemade bombs, traps, and Soviet rifles in a tiny country on the opposite side of the planet. One day I stepped out of a C-130 cargo plane onto Vietnam soil. I was greeted by a small band of grungy, bantering “short-timers;” and so begins another chapter of my life as a U.S. Marine. Boot Camp will never be forgotten. Even if I live to be a hundred, I’ll always remember the man who made a marine out of me, Staff Sargent Edgar.

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