There was a new guy running the Physical Fitness Test with us this morning. He was a scrawny kid, you could tell he was new from the moment he walked into the Marine Officer selection office. He was quiet. The morning was frigid, but beautiful. The base we trained at was still soaked from a week of raining, but the sun was rising over the high rise buildings nearby. It was a beautifully bitter morning.
There were four of us this morning. When the staff sergeant yelled “Go”, we took off from the starting line. We all kept pace, but soon the two faster ones left me and the new guy behind. I could hear him panting, and soon he fell behind me. “Keep going. Don’t stop. You got this,” I told him. He muttered something to acknowledge my encouragement. I kept running. Halfway through the run, I couldn’t hear his footsteps behind me anymore. He had fallen behind.
We ran through the cold. The morning turned warm as the sun rose. Sweat poured out of us. I was on the final stretch, and came in grunting and heaving. I leaped past the finish line, coughing. “Twenty five,” the staff sergeant called out without looking at me. We caught our breath, and watched the road for the new guy.
Several minutes later, he came in. The faster candidate ran down the road to give him pace, hollering to keep him motivated. I spat into the dirt and wiped the sweat from my face. “Let’s go, all the way in!”
He staggered through the yellow line on the pavement. With a grin on my face, I told him what another Marine told me when I ran my first PFT. “It’s a good run if you throw up afterwards.” He panted and gagged. He lurched forward to a garbage can and vomited.
The new guy did horribly this morning. It was his first PFT, most people do pretty badly. On the pull ups, the rest of us did a full set of twenty for the top score, but he only pulled five. On the grass, the rest of us pumped out a full hundred situps in two minutes, but he could only squeeze out half of that. He came in dead last in the run, five minutes past the lowest score for three miles. But in that moment I envied him.
Vomit poured out of his mouth as he hugged the rusted trash can at the finish line. It dripped out of his nose, as he coughed, and we could hear it splattering against the metal bottom. We had each given him a word of congratulations for finishing the run, though he came in so slow. But that was it. We didn’t comfort him, or pity him. We simply watched as he poured out the acrid promise of discipline. He did horribly on this test, but I envied him.
He had my respect, not simply because he gave his all. He was beginning to understand a philosophy. Our philosophy. He undertook a pain for the oath of tomorrow. He learned that our world was opposite of the world we came from. To run with the pack, where respect is given for the sacrifice we make for the man beside us. Where each step is an argument with death, and each breath is a fist we throw. He gave what we failed to give that morning. Though the rest of us had caught our breaths and finished our conversations by the time he came heaving through the line, he had an honor that he would not forget. He learned that the respect we traded was wordless, because no word could describe what we have. Our solemn stares as he grimaced from the bitter taste of stomach acid were louder than a pat on the back or some half hearted word of comfort.
When we came back to the office, we stood around the staff sergeant as he briefed us. Some of us had other paperwork to file for our application, and headed upstairs. The new guy and I waved farewell to them. I told him that this first PFT was one he wouldn’t forget. It was a small step towards becoming an officer in the Marine Corps, and I had a long way to go myself. But it was a moment of glory.
Sliding the key into the door to my apartment, I knew it would be empty. I entered silently. The bedroom doors were closed, it was still morning. My roommates were still sleeping. I’m beginning to see that these are two worlds, so different, so unique, that they seem to be from different universes.
I feel torn between the two worlds. The world I come from is marked by comforts. It is the world of wake up alarms set for noon. The language of this world is laughter, and the memories are of futile pleasures and vain sorrows. Indulgence is our culture, and our humility is hedonistic. All you can eat dinners soaked in beer, and a duty only to ourselves. But every morning that I wake up at five, before the sun rises, and go to train my body and mind, is a difficult process. Waking on these mornings to train is a ethereal moment of transcendence, of travelling from one world to another. It is the beauty of pain, and unspoken treasures. When the sun rises to warm my back, catching up to me, I realize I am in a different place. It is a place governed by the Flag. This cloth that waves high, the only one who has lived long enough to see the empty rhetoric of liberty manifested in blood. The colors that assure us that tomorrow is not a promise, and with a somber wave, urges us on. His dialect is silence, with an accent that sounds like a bugle or trumpet. The words of politicians mean nothing to those of us who live in this world, for we pay no heed to vanity. Our time is immediate, and our philosophy is that of a physical reality. We speak words that sound like empty abstractions, like freedom, honor, and glory, but behind each abstract word is a face and a place. It is the world of field stripping a rifle in a dimly lit room, alone. It is the nirvana found behind a set of iron sights. It is a world measured by miles ran at midnight, where night is my only company. It is the history, a memory of a Corps that has stood honorably before a world that has loved it and hated it. It is a solitary pursuit, without a hint of comfort. I love both of these worlds, but with each passing moment, I realize which world I belong to.
The people in my life come from the world I am leaving. Most don’t understand why I would leave that world, and travel to this other place. They ask me why I would ever want to be a soldier, to give up my personal liberties, to be a mindless machine, and do the bidding of some spoiled beaurocrat. None of these things ring true. For my exchange is one that cannot be explained with words. My response will sound like the snap of my heels as I salute, or the constant pounding of my heels on the pavement. It will be the echo of a 5.56×45 round resounding from the chrome lined chamber of my rifle. It will be the silence as I stand in honor of a rising flag each morning. I will be my response to the world I came from, in a uniform that wears the burden of a thousand men standing, and together, saying “Hoo rah”.
I will never fully forsake one world or another. I will be a citizen soldier, and will pay my dues to both worlds. I still have many memories to make with friends and family, as I will with fellow soldiers. The good times will resound. My work will be memorable. My duty is to both worlds, to the people who love and care for me, and the people I serve. But it is the distinction of these worlds that will set me apart, because although I am in one, my heart will be with the other.
And even when I step down from duty, and forge a path for my own life, I will always remember the words.