I drive up to Quantico to meet my sister’s family for my nephew’s graduation from The Basic School. The parking lot is full of Marine 2nd Lieutenants in their dress blues. Talking on the cell phone while trying to locate me, Laura jokes, “Look for Evan. He’s in a navy blue jacket and white pants.” Me: There he is. No wait. There he is. No wait. There he is. No wait.”
Evan looks spectacular in his uniform. As do all of his fellow officers. As my sister says, you could be a real dog and you’d still look handsome in that uniform. But there’s not a dog among them. They mingle outside with their families—parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and young children. An air of pride and emotion rises with the humidity on this warm summer evening in Virginia. That dress blue uniform. For a moment, it’s easy not to think about what might lie ahead for each of them. And it’s hard not to remember what they looked like ten months ago, as they were slogging their way through Officer Candidate School.
The strain of sleeplessness. The overwhelming physicality of the field exercises, hand-to-hand combat training, the incessant drills, the runs with 80-pound packs and the ever-present M-16’s. They’d dropped weight. Gauntness and exhaustion hung on their faces like their fatigues hung on their skeletons. They looked hunted.
During the ceremony, as they call each officer’s name, I pay close attention. From here, they’re heading to their next assignment. While it is certainly the last time we’ll see many of them (because they’re leaving for bases around the US and the world, and because we don’t really know most of them), it is not lost on me that because our country is at war, some of them may not have long to live.
After the speeches, we stand around outside of Little Hall, as Evan bids farewell to many of his fellow Marines. Some of them introduce themselves. “I’m George” one of them shakes hands with us. Evan strides over, calling him Thomas. We’re confused. “He has three first names!” Evan laughs. “They call me Karen.” He doesn’t know why, but he’s OK with it.
Some are serious fellows, while some cut the fool and vamp for the cameras. As they clown around, it’s hard not to imagine them as rough and tumble puppies. Playful, lethal little puppies that can shoot your head off from five football fields away, if the “Expert” rifle and pistol badges pinned to their chests have anything to say about it.
Evan joined the Marines so that he could learn to fly. Helicopters were his aircraft of choice when he enlisted, but now he allows as how he’d like to fly fighter jets if his skills match up with the requirements. The Marine Corps will test them out on Cessna’s. As the men and women develop their skills, they’ll be shunted off to the aircraft where their strengths intersect with the needs of the military. That means anything from a jet to a cargo plane to a helicopter.
Outside Little Hall at Quantico, another dress-blued Marine saunters over, a fresh scar shining on his chin. It’s obvious that he was stitched up since he’s been at TBS. “Yeah,” Evan says. “He split that open in Field Exercises. I cleared him originally. ‘You’re all right,’ I told him, and we kept marching. But later my medic said, ‘He needs stitches!’”
“That’s pretty rough looking,” I say to Evan, looking at his friend’s ragged chin. “His chin looks good, thanks to me,” Evan laughs and thumbs the zigzaggedy scar. They turn and pose for another camera.
I’m reminded of a time, when Evan was 5 years old, that my father and I stopped by Laura and Michael’s house in Hopewell. Evan sat curled in Michael’s lap, sniffling. “He crashed his bike and tore his knee up pretty good,” Michael said. “Do you think it needs stitches?”
Daddy and I looked at the jagged crater, bright with blood. “Oh yeah,” I said. Daddy nodded, queasy at the sight. Little Evan turned his head into Michael’s shoulder, choking back sobs, the prospect of needles and sewing far worse than the gaping wound he now wore.
For Evan and a number of his compatriots, the next stop is Pensacola. They are heading for flight school. Already, he and 2 others from his class have rented an oceanfront condo. “Cooking out on the beach!” Evan chirps happily.
For no reason at all, I remember a time in my sister’s minivan when Evan was about 18 months old. He was strapped in his car seat and I was belted in next to him. We were passing a beach ball back and forth. Suddenly he made as if to pass it, and when I went to catch it, he yanked it back, faking me out. He looked out the window; a tactic designed to draw attention away from the target, then tossed it back to me, laughing as I missed it. A comical strategist, even as a toddler.
Evan introduces us to another member of his platoon. The first thing you notice are his James Dean eyes. Tragic eyes that no doubt draw women like iron filings to a magnet. Wild eyes, behind which, upon closer inspection, lies a sadness deeper than the Marianas Trench. He joined the Marines as an enlisted man. Two tours of duty in Iraq under his belt before Officer Candidate School. A real war before the war games. He smiles and shakes hands all around. He looks haunted.
Our gang heads for the car where another young Marine family stops to say good-bye to Evan. Their 4-year old son shakes Evan’s hand. Evan bends down to accept a hug from their knee-high 3-year old daughter. All we can see are her tiny hands around the backside of his dark blue uniform.
I look out over the sea of white hats and blue jackets, dotted with colorful life rafts of family and friends. I imagine families the world over, similarly trying to live their lives. I hope for the best.