22. No Longer With Us

No Longer With Us

…We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans‬ ‭5:3-5‬

My head spun once again with nervous terror as the encroaching evening darkness loomed over me, an ominous reminder of the dreadful week ahead. I readied my gear for Monday, wondering what suffering I’d endure next. This was much worse than boot camp. Each week sucked more than the last. Memories of cold nights, early mornings, agonizing marches and screaming sergeants rung in my head, calling into question if enlisting in the Marine Corps was the right decision.

Phil’s phone rang. I looked over at him as he spoke to the person on the other end. “This is Phil,” he spoke deeply, always greeting unfamiliar callers in a temporary low-toned voice. “It’s for you Decoup,” he said, handing me the phone. I glanced at Phil in disbelief as the man stumbled through his message to me. The next six words spoken in my ear changed my life forever.

Guard Platoon lasted about one month. We picked up in SOI in early December of 2007. Somehow, despite all I’d experienced in the boot camp and the Marine Corps at large, I thought School of Infantry would be an easier road to travel. I naïvely assumed the operative word was “school,” envisioning classroom lessons, studying and tests. How wrong I was.

SOI tortuously incorporated all the terrible elements of bootcamp’s field week repetitively for 8 weeks. Irate, pissed off sergeants escorted us to and from shooting ranges, rain or shine with either our full 60 pound load or a small day pack. If we only wore our day pack rather than power walk to our destination we were forced to jog.

Hot chow was a thing of the past. We ate MRE’s for at least two and often three meals per day. These dry rations feature a main meal, some sort of side dish, often crackers and cheese or peanut butter or brick-like condensed bread. Some included protein shakes, mostly consisting of sugar. If you’re lucky, the MRE gods gift your lunchbox with M&M’s or Skittles.

When time came to be resupplied with a pallet of MRE’s, a beastly female Marine climbed out of the 7-ton.1 She wasn’t tall but still looked tough as nails with hair pulled back into a flawlessly formed bun, broad shoulders, and full arms that could likely choke me out in a matter of seconds. Once the instructor saw her climb out and work her way to the other side of the vehicle, he turned toward our direction and smirked. “That my friends, is a Wookie.”

In SOI we were reminded of the importance of gear accountability the hard way. After our first night shoot using NVG’s and PEQ-2s,2 we were ready to start the two-mile trek back to the barracks. Before doing so, the instructors performed the standard head and gear count. Each Marine held out our NVG’s, rifles and PEQ-2’s. After several minutes of standing with our rucksacks on the ground, we were informed that a PEQ-2 went missing.

They counted again with the same discrepancy. Standing in a column with a line of Marines flanking each side of the gravel road facing inboard, they ordered us to empty everything in our packs on the cold, damp ground. One by one, the handful of sergeants ripped through our gear, seeking the one lost piece of equipment. As the search continued, one yelled, “We ain’t goin anywhere until this last piece of fucking gear is accounted for! We’ll be here all goddamn night if we have to!”

My head leaked pent up frustration from drooping eyes that longed to be shut. The thought of crawling on our hands and knees across the range looking for a small brown box as drops of rain began trickling from the sky further sank my already drowning morale. We should have been back in our squad bay, unpacking our gear and hitting the rack. Instead of sleeping, we were stuck out in a forsaken wilderness looking for an item that shouldn’t have been been detached from the rifle in the first place. Thankfully, after only a little over an hour of searching, we heard one of the instructors cussing out one numbskull for what appeared to be him hiding his laser as a souvenir. I don’t know if he actually was dumb enough to pull a fast one, but we all were pissed for his ignorance, foolishness or both.

Weekend liberty was the best part about SOI. Fridays brought joy and relief as the day came to an end, knowing freedom would soon follow. Most of the time, I would visit Peggy’s house. Austin would join my cousin Josh to pick me up and take me to her place. There, I would forget about my troubles in the Marine Corps and enjoy civilian life for a few days. By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, I sank into the Sunday blues, knowing I’d have to return back to begin another dismal week.

A longer, more restful reprieve occurred during Christmas break. I returned to Washington in freedom for two weeks on Recruiter’s Assistance.3 Since this bout of RA occurred during the Christmas timeframe, I basically received two free weeks of leave, almost never needing to report to my recruiter to perform any work. While at home I fell back into my old routine, hanging out with mom and Lee, enjoying slow mornings with coffee, going out to eat on occasion, watching movies with them on their big screen downstairs and visiting dad.

Dad took me out to dinner on new years eve at a small Thai restaurant not far from mom and Lee’s house. Our conversations were light as I filled him in on my accomplishments in the Marine Corps, brushing over the many terrible times I’d already endured. He seemed to have forgotten about his struggles, or at least they left him while we ate together.

Though he masked whatever may have ailed his mind, his body didn’t look so good.  His skin looked yellow and his cheeks red. His belly ballooned beyond his waist. Not even his jacket could hide it anymore. When he picked up his glass of water, his hand tremble as he brought it up to his mouth.

“You okay dad?” I asked, looking at his hand.

“Oh that? It’s nothing. I’ve had a tremor for awhile.”

I’d seen his hand shake in the past. I wasn’t sure when it started, but it seemed to have gotten worse. Once we finished eating, he dropped me off at a friend’s house where my high school buddies were celebrating the entrance of the year 2008. I hugged him goodbye and then tried to savor the last twenty four hours of my time on leave.

I continued to agonize in infantry training for another three weeks. Towards the end of January, the light at the end of the tunnel could be seen. After returning to base from liberty  on Sunday the 20th, depression weighed me down again as the full force of the Sunday blues set in once more. I met up with Dust in the squad bay, trying to distract myself from imagining the horrors of the week ahead. After evening crept in and darkness fell, our conversation was interrupted when Dust received a phone call.

“This is Phil.” Dust looked at me, “It’s for you Decoup.”

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Austin.”

“What’s up?”

“Ryan…” he paused, as if delaying his speech could ease what came next. “Dad is no longer with us.”

  1. Also known as the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, or MTVR, the seven ton is a roughly 10 foot tall light armored diesel truck with a length of about 26 feet. Typically this functions as a personnel carrier with a large section in the back often covered with a canvas and inboard facing seats. Some versions have a bench splitting down the middle so troops can see outboard and engage the enemy behind ballistic glass. This variant is called an Armadillo.
  2. The AN/PEQ-2 is mounted on either the top or side of a rifle and emits an infrared laser that can be seen only through NVG’s.
  3. Recruiter’s Assistance, or RA is a duty where you can return to your hometown without taking leave but are required to report to your recruiter and attend any functions he deems necessary.

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