The Marines as You’ve Never Seen Them Before
'First thing you realize is you're walking in the midst of the elite' — here's a bird's-eye view of some of the best Americans
I can still remember going through Officer Candidate School for the Marine Corps back in 2009 like it was just yesterday. Many big fish in small ponds like myself found ourselves surprisingly average amongst a battalion of stellar individuals vying to become commissioned officers in the United States Marine Corps. It was the first time I ever saw guys who could run three miles in 16 minutes and somehow also possess the upper body strength to perform 20 dead-hang pullups.
The physical acumen of your average Marine Officer Candidate is something to behold, but it’s actually their least impressive attribute. Athletic prowess is common. Rock-solid character and integrity is a rarity. People who have it all are practically unicorns. Marine OCS is jam-packed with cliché men’s men and saturated by good old-fashioned American exceptionalism.
The first thing you realize when you enter Marine Corps Base Quantico is that you’re walking in the midst of the elite. We had career Marines who distinguished themselves on the enlisted side enough to be given a chance to go for a commission. Then there were stud D-1 college athletes and those West Point grads who had been bred for this very moment their entire lives. We even had the engineering grads who aspired to fly in the Blue Angels or become astronauts and those law school grads dreaming of becoming Judge Advocates or “JAG” lawyers.
From sea to shining sea, the cream of the crop was well represented at Marine OCS — and then there was me, a Criminal Justice and Sociology Major from Jersey with a completely average 3.4 GPA. I felt honored just to have a seat at the table.
While many others partied like there was no tomorrow, I spent my last year of college on a mission. Merely getting selected to attend OCS took an entire year of proving myself mentally, physically, and professionally to a group of Marines at an Officer Selection Station in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
At Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), the place where you receive your final medical evaluation as a civilian, I was the lone Marine Officer Candidate in a group of enlisted guys on their way to boot camp with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. For the most part, my MEPS experience was no different than anyone else's — duckwalking in my underwear for a doctor, pissing in a cup, etc. — but I couldn't help but notice that people were treating me like I was a golden child for being Marine OCS. I'd soon find out why.
At the ripe young age of 21, I was the youngest guy in my platoon — and making it through was the hardest thing I've ever done by far. I don't want to take anything away from my fellow brothers and sisters in blue, but the police academy was a joke by comparison.
Despite preparing myself mentally and physically for that entire year leading up, the tunnel vision set in relatively early on. You tell yourself that the screaming, ridiculing, hazing, and punishment are all part of a game being played going in — and you're right to do so, because that's exactly what it is. Yet the career Marines entrusted to weed out pretenders and phonies make sure that game takes its toll.
Those Marines were the drill sergeants in charge of Charlie Company 3rd Platoon. These were hardened leaders of men with multiple combat tours under their belts, and you can bet your ass they didn't want to be saluting you at a commissioning ceremony where you all of a sudden outranked them — unless you were someone they could one day respect. Until then, you're just another "nasty, disgusting candidate."
I can remember marching in formation in the dark one morning after getting maybe two hours of sleep and thinking, "This is what hell must feel like."
Adapting to the training in the first two weeks borderlined on sadistic. After the first few days of getting swarmed by drill instructors, screamed at, smoked, and knocked down several pegs — I began to question everything. "What am I doing here?" and "Do I belong here?" were questions I couldn't put out of my mind. I can remember marching in formation to the chow hall in the dark one morning after getting maybe two hours of sleep and thinking, "This is what hell must feel like," as I listened to the cadence being called by our grizzled platoon sergeant. I wasn't the only one thinking this way.
With less than two weeks in, guys began to "DOR," or Drop on Request, all around me. They were solid candidates, too — college valedictorians, salutatorians, and former college athletes with the brains to graduate magna cum laude. Many just didn't have the wherewithal to get through the pains of the first two weeks before deciding that they had their own answers to the questions I had been asking myself. "I definitely don't belong here," they concluded, before making their way to the nearest exit.
Perhaps some had more lucrative prospects awaiting them back home. Most, however, stood eye to eye with the biggest challenge of their lives, blinked, and then backed down — the very thing I feared doing most. To peter out of the most difficult challenge of my life would be a burden I couldn't bear to carry, and I made the decision that they'd have to kick me out during one of the three "boards" throughout the training cycle where they'd cut people who weren't up to snuff.
After 10 weeks of sleep deprivation, written exams, extreme exposure to stressful situations, sink or swim leadership performance evaluations (SULE I & II), peer evaluations, The Quigley obstable, and physical conditioning beyond anything I'd ever experienced before or since — I was honored to have survived the chopping blocks at the end of weeks three, seven, and nine.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant who led us liked to brag that his platoons had the highest attrition rate in the program during his time at Quantico. The number of graduates for C3 was less than half the number of candidates we started with. Second lieutenants truly earned the "Butter Bars" on their uniforms if they went through his team.
I marched on the Brown Field Parade Deck with the rest of the survivors on a frigid day in January, feeling as if I could do anything — but following the graduation ceremony, while everyone else was getting their "Butter Bars" pinned on, I rode home in the back seat of my dad's Impala rather unceremoniously. In my hand was a DD-214 with an Honorable Discharge from Active Duty for Training and an Eagle Globe & Anchor (EGA) pin that I keep to this day to remind me of what I left behind. I declined my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant upon graduation from Marine OCS.
In the whole battalion, only myself and two others declined our commissions after making it through the long humps with blistered feet and a 75-pound rucksack, the grueling E-Course, falling asleep while standing at attention for three plus hours in a squad bay with the heat on full blast, and the mental battle of pushing yourself way beyond what you thought your physical limits were every single day. It's extremely rare to do this, and it garners mixed opinions from Marines when they hear about it.
Some Marines have told me I'm crazy for putting myself through the struggle only to go home empty-handed. A few have accused me of wasting taxpayer dollars. There have been those who have looked at me sideways thinking I'm lying because they weren't aware that you can actually decline your commission after graduating from OCS.
The thing that has surprised me the most is that many others throw a little respect my way for having had a taste of the Marine lifestyle without quitting. I've even been extended a "Semper Fi," although that's always an honor I feel unworthy of being given. That's just the type of people Marines are.
I declined because I knew by week five of missing my two-year-old daughter that those long deployments apart were going to be time we could never get back. I wondered if my wife and I were cut out to survive the active-duty military lifestyle. I wanted to be a good dad and a family man more than anything else. It's that simple. I left and became a cop in Atlanta.
To say I've never looked back on the decision would be a lie. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like now if I took that other path back in '09 — but I'm thankful for every moment I've had with my family that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to had I accepted my commission, attended The Basic School, and embarked on a career of long deployments on battlefields across the world. With all things considered, I believe I made the right choice.
I don't qualify for veterans' preference or benefits, nor should I. I don't walk around talking about "the Corps" unless it's asked of me. You'll never hear me utter the words "Leatherneck" or "Devil Dog" about myself. I'm not a Marine and I'd never pretend to be.
At the end of the day, I'm tremendously grateful for the 10 weeks of suffering and triumph at Marine Corps Base Quantico that I was blessed with eight years ago. Damn near killing myself to keep the pace with those animals made me a better man, and it's given me added admiration and respect for Marines that most people will never understand. The Marines are widely regarded as the world's premier fighting force. For what it's worth, they've got my vote.
T.B. Lefever is a police officer in the Atlanta, Georgia, area and an OpsLens contributor. Throughout his career, he has served as a SWAT hostage negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a school resource officer, and a uniformed patrol officer. He has a BA in criminal justice and sociology from Rutgers University in New Jersey. This article is from OpsLens and is used by permission.