February 18, 2010
The short essay below is by Jordan Blashek, Princeton 2009, who decided to turn down acceptance to medical school to join the U.S. Marine Corps and enter its Officer Candidate School, from which he graduated in December 2009. Written originally as an explanation of his decision for his high school classmates, it is worth reading – and appreciating – by us all.
“You Joined Us” — That phrase is carved into a steel plaque that tauntingly guards the entrance to the Officers’ barracks at Camp Barrett in Quantico, VA. As I hobbled inside, exhausted from another 15-hour day, my roommate half-jokingly pointed to the plaque, “Why did we do that again?” I smiled. Today had been a long day. Waking at 4 AM, we spent the next 9 hours outside in the pouring rain learning hand-to-hand combat and outdated bayonet techniques. Without warming layers, hats or gloves, our hands quickly went numb and our bodies started shaking uncontrollably in the 30-degree temperature. Finally, we were sent back inside to clean our rifles, which must be spotless before we can wash off our bodies. As 8 PM rolled around and we were still cleaning on a Friday night – when my high school and college friends were out at Happy Hours – I thought about that plaque on the wall: Why exactly did I join, again?
It’s a question I have tried to answer many times for my family and friends, but never feel as though I have fully conveyed my reasons. I made the decision to join the U.S. Marine Corps at the start of my senior year at Princeton, turning down an acceptance to medical school in the process. I kept the decision to myself until I broke the news to my shocked parents over Christmas Break. I ran through the litany of justifications for them: I wanted to serve my country. I wanted the camaraderie and the pride of being in the Marine Corps brotherhood. I needed the challenge to test my true capabilities and strength. I would receive the best leadership training on the planet, which would help me in any future career I chose. I wanted adventure and the chance to be a part of history in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wanted to exude that same confidence that I saw in every Marine officer I have met. Whether I convinced them or not, in the end, none of these “reasons” alleviated my parents’ understandable anxiety.
When I told my plans to anyone else, I felt as though I were talking to a brick wall – the Military, especially the Marine Corps, was simply outside their reality. My closer friends would nod their heads and say something to the effect of “Wow, that’s cool;” but since I was the perennial flake of the group, most did not take my decision very seriously. And to be honest, even I was not quite sure that I would follow through with the choice. In the comfort of my college dorm, the decision to become a Marine Corps officer seemed glamorously abstract. However, on October 1, 2009 my decision suddenly became very real when I arrived at the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA.
My OCS experience was surreal. Along with 407 other “Candidates” – all college graduates with newly shaved heads – I ran around for 10 weeks carrying an M16 rifle, while the Marine Corps’ famous drill instructors screamed increasingly creative insults at us. In reality, we were beginning the painful, yet deliberate process of transforming from civilians into Marine officers through some of the most intense training that exists in the US military. Meanwhile, the drill instructors continually evaluated our leadership potential as part of the time-honored tradition whereby enlisted Marines select the officers that will eventually lead them in combat. After nearly half of the officer candidates were dropped or dropped out on their own, we emerged from OCS standing a little taller and a little straighter on graduation day, December 11, 2009. That afternoon, I raised my right hand to swear the oath of office and receive my commission as a second lieutenant. That oath obligates me to serve a minimum of four years in uniform.
Ultimately, I joined the US Marine Corps because I believe that officers bear the most solemn responsibility in our nation, and that was a duty I could not, and should not, leave for others to assume. To say that I wanted that responsibility is not quite right, because being a Marine officer is not about one’s self, wants or needs; it is about guiding the young 18 and 19 year-old Marines fighting this country’s wars on our behalf. I decided that serving them was the highest honor and responsibility I could have at this point in my life. As one speaker at my commissioning ceremony explained:
“As second lieutenants, you must have a strong sense of the great responsibility of your office; the resources which you will expend in war are human lives. This is not about you anymore. This is about the young Marines who will place their lives in your hands. It is your job to take care of them, even when that means placing them in mortal danger. That awesome responsibility – the weight which now rests on you – is reflected in those gold bars which you will soon place on your shoulders.”
That is why the plaque hangs in every portal through which we pass – You Joined Us. We chose to bear this responsibility and we must make absolutely sure we are prepared to fulfill it, because young American lives are at stake. If that means being cold and miserable; studying for ungodly hours; and going for days without sleep, then so be it. That is the price of the salute we receive from our Marines.
Five months into my service commitment, I have not regretted my decision for a moment. I already have unforgettable memories from my experience and new friendships with diverse and exceptional peers from all over the country. We have had moments of pure fun together and laughed harder than I ever thought possible. We have also been humbled by the stories and portraits of brave Lieutenants – those who fought and died after roaming the very halls where we now stand and their portraits hang. Most of all, I am immensely proud to bear the title of ‘United States Marine,’ an honor that I will carry with me my entire life.