Life is full of twists and turns that are the result of decisions we make – decisions that sometimes impact our lives forever. One of the most significant events in my life involves the long journey I had to take to go from a young boy who grew up in Pennsylvania to become my mother-in-law’s worst nightmare – a Yankee stealing away her sweet Georgia peach of a daughter.
In 1973, at the age of eighteen, I joined the United States Marine Corps but not for the right reason. My girlfriend had yelled at me at a time when I was already unsure of my future and the Marine recruiter just so happen to be sitting there when it happened (see my article Decisiveness – A Way to Inspire). Nine days after I made that fateful decision, I was standing on the yellow footprints at the receiving barracks on Parris Island about to begin three long months of boot camp that would help me earn the title Marine. During my time in boot camp, my girlfriend sent me a “Dear John” letter. That relationship was now over.
When I completed boot camp, I was sent to Marine Corps Air Station Memphis-Millington. I was not happy. My recruiter had assured me that my contract guaranteed that I would be sent to school for training to become a crash crew firefighter after I successfully completed my recruit training. But my school assignment was for training as an aviation supply clerk. I tried to explain the mistake to the Gunnery Sergeant who was overseeing the check-in process for all new arrivals. He reviewed my contract and said, “Your contract guarantees you will be in an aviation support role. You will like supply – they put out fires every day.” Cute but not the right answer.
He listened intently and agreed that my recruiter has not been totally honest with me. He assured me he would personally brief the CO and together they would do their best to get me assigned to the crash crew school.
So, I did what any naïve private would do – I completed a form to Request Mast to the Commanding Officer (CO) of the training command to explain my problem. Before I could see the CO, I had to first speak to the Command Sergeant Major. He listened intently and agreed that my recruiter has not been totally honest with me. He assured me he would personally brief the CO and together they would do their best to get me assigned to the crash crew school. But he added this one warning, “Of course, that can only happen if you are not assigned to a class that is convening because once you are assigned to a class, there is nothing we can do.” You can already see where this is going – I was assigned to a class that was convening immediately before all my peers who graduated from boot camp with me. The senior instructor let me know that they were told I did not want to be in this school and they were going to make my life miserable if I did not give my very best. I did my very best and was meritoriously promoted to Lance Corporal at my graduation because of my high grade.
The reason I did so well in school was not that I felt this was my true calling. We were told on the first day of class that when it was time to receive orders to our very first duty station, your class standing would determine the order in each student would be able to select a duty assignment from the orders that were available at the time of graduation. Since I wanted to stay on the east coast, I worked hard so that I would be able to get the first pick and get a duty station on the east coast before all the slots were taken. But, like everything else I had experienced, my luck would not change. My entire class was being sent to the west coast – no one got any choice in the matter.
I was finally assigned to the supply department at Marine Aircraft Group 16 at Marine Corps Air Station (Helicopter) in Tustin, California. My first boss was Sergeant Rich Amano. Rich turned out to be an awesome mentor and friend. Under his guidance, I flourished and was promoted to Corporal with just nine months in the Marine Corps. I was promoted to Sergeant with less than two years in the Marine Corps. I became so important to the overall operation that the Captain we worked for told me I would be able to complete my first enlistment at this location because he had spoken with the monitor and had arranged for me to stay in place for the remainder of my time in the Marine Corps. So, you can image my surprise when I was reassigned to Marine Aircraft Group 36 on the wonderful island of Okinawa, Japan (see my article Bearing). During my tour, I had the pleasure of working with Gunnery Sergeant Chuck Ducharme who taught me computer operations and programming. When he rotated back to the states, he had me assigned as the Non-commissioned Officer in Charge of the Automated Data Processing Unit.
Chuck was sent to the Fleet Assistance Group, Pacific when he returned from Okinawa. This was a team of experts who helped Marine supply departments with their computerized operations to ensure each supply department was able to maintain their inventory accuracy and financial accountability. When the team visited Okinawa, they were impressed with how well the computer operations were functioning under my leadership and how I could integrate the supply functions with the computer requirements to keep operations and record keeping on track. Just before I was about to return to the States and bring my Marine Corps career to an end (I had only six months left before my enlistment would end), Chuck called me to say that if I was willing to re-enlist, I would be assigned to the team to replace Master Sergeant Jim Spring who was retiring at the end of the year. How could I not jump at this chance? (Of course, Chuck did not tell me until I arrived in San Diego that I had orders to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania which would have put me about 3 hours from home and had been orders I had requested since the day I became a Sergeant.)
My new boss was Lieutenant Sam Flores (Sam was a Warrant Officer when he assumed the role of Officer in Charge of the Marine Assistance Team but was promoted to Lieutenant shortly after his arrival). He was able to see potential in me that I had not realized and began to groom me for assuming roles of greater responsibility. His guidance and example led me to want to take the same path he and my friend Rich Amano had taken (Rich was now a Warrant Officer). So, after being promoted to Staff Sergeant, I applied for the Warrant Officer program. Sam wrote my letter of recommendation and much to my surprise, I was selected for the program on my very first attempt. In February of 1981, I was promoted to Warrant Officer as an Aviation Supply Officer and shortly after that, I was on my way to Quantico, Virginia to attend the Warrant Officer Basic Course.
I spent three months at the Basic School and since I was only four hours from my mom’s house, I visited her on many of the weekends. It was during one of these visits that I had a very important discussion with her. I let her know that I had decided I was not going to get married while I was on active duty in the Marine Corps.
I told her that I had witnessed many good couples who I honestly believed loved each other dearly when they were married but they ended up in divorce court anyways. The toll that the military lifestyle takes on a marriage is great and I just felt that at this point in my career, I needed to be a Marine.
I would worry about marriage later in life but for now, I just wanted to be the very best Marine I could be without having to divide my focus between my military responsibilities and a wife and family. I wanted her to understand that I was happy and loved the life I was living. I did not want her to worry about me being alone because I was very comfortable with my decision.
After I graduated from the Basic School, I was sent to Athens, Georgia to attend the Navy Supply School. On my first day, the senior Marine, Major Randy Haglund, told me that if I wanted a good meal I should go to the Howard Johnson’s restaurant and see “Mama Sarah.” She was always good to the military personnel who visited the restaurant. So, that afternoon, I ate lunch with Mama Sarah. She asked me if I would be back for lunch the next day and I told her I would be there. To my surprise, she introduced me to a very nice lady – Hazel. We talked during lunch until Hazel had to leave to get back to work. As I was paying my bill, Mama Sarah looked at me and said, “Bet you marry her.” I assured her that I was not looking for a wife and that I was a confirmed bachelor. She smiled and said, “Bet you a quarter you marry her.”
On November 7th of 1981, I gladly presented Mama Sarah with a quarter – my debt was paid in full. And as I sit here almost 37 years later ready to celebrate another wedding anniversary, I marvel at how many circumstances had to come together to get me to Athens, Georgia on July 1st of 1981 just to meet the love of my life.
As a leader, you will be faced with many opportunities that may just come out of nowhere. Don’t be afraid to change directions and accept new challenges. Who knows – it might just bring you to a place where joy and happiness come together.