In Exile

[This is a chapter from my unfinished memoirs. Enjoy.]

Growing up is such an odd sensation. As a kid, I remember thinking that the day I’d be an adult was so far off – incomprehensibly in the future. And I remember thinking that I would just magically be different – all of the sudden I was to become infinitely wise, strong, perceptive. The transformation from child to adult, boy to man – as if I were to go to bed one night and wake up the next morning forever and irrevocably different, improved.

Those of us who have grown up know that this is so very much not the case. It feels like I haven’t even grown up at all; merely gotten older. And yet, looking back, one can see the ways in which they have grown and changed. The arrogance of adolescence, the desire to rebel and all the angst and self-righteousness. Oh yes, how I’ve changed.

I remember thinking how oppressed I was in my youth. Not literally oppressed, but more…suffocated by my mother and her presence. She seemed to loom over me, choking out and stifling my ability to be motivated about anything. Any time I would start writing something new, any time I met a new friend, any time I met a girl I’d fancied, it seemed like I would have some particularly nasty fight with my mother, and like that I was sapped of all energy and willpower. I remember wanting to get out of her house as quickly as possible.

And at the age of seventeen, after several failed attempts and foiled plans, I finally did. It was around the time that I confirmed my departure that I began compiling this tome, and over the past three and a half years I have added to it periodically. In its inception, I viewed myself as moving away to Utah and living some great and fabulously successful life. I was to meet women, perhaps date them and settle down with one of them. I was to complete my long unfinished novel. I was to write about my terrible childhood and my wonderful adventures in Utah. It was to be unique – perhaps one of the first accounts of someone who grew up so intimately on and with the internet, so engrossed in professional video games, so nerdy.

Things, it would happen, did not pan out that way.

Upon arriving in Utah, I started volunteering at Nathan and Paul’s gaming center in downtown Salt Lake City. I wanted to find a job and a place of my own to live at as soon as possible – I was then staying with Nathan at his parent’s house as he too looked for a place to move his family – but Nathan insisted I be patient. He was in the midst of preparing for his magnum opus to the Unreal Torunament 2004 community, UTLAN, which would commence in August and was to be hosted at his gaming center. It was to attract some of the best players in the community from all over the country.

Initially, I was excited to be in Utah. I would often walk around the large and (relatively, in comparison to Bellingham’s downtown area) clean downtown area. I delighted in finding the local sights and attractions, getting to know the transit system, finding good restaurants to eat at. The managers at local restaurants came to know me by name and would give me discounts or free food. It was a good feeling to be known. I tried applying at a few places to work in the downtown area but never got a call back.

UTLAN 2006 came and went. Overall it was an extremely fun event, though stressful to prepare for. I met a lot some disparate and interesting people – the coolest of whom was probably a William Moyer, who has since become involved in politics. He was very intelligent and animated, and though a bit sarcastic, he was pretty friendly. All 40 or so people who showed up had a very good time, and online disputes were put aside as we all shared in having a good time. We went out to eat as a group and everyone seemed to bond. Of course, the old rivalries flared back up over the internet once everyone went home, but people were looking forward to UTLAN 2007.

It was about this time that Nathan’s parents popped some unexpected news on me – I was to leave their house within a week. Apparently, they had told Nathan I was to only stay for two weeks, while he gave me the impression that I was going to be able to stay for a month. Thankfully, Nathan’s brother Paul and his wife Melanie hosted my unemployed waif of a self while I looked for employment and an apartment, preventing me from a very unwanted return to Bellingham and high school.

Employment came quickly and in the beginning of August I started working part time at the mall, selling and repairing watches and clocks. I still volunteered at the gaming center, but would quickly stop as the brothers closed it down. I saved up enough money to get an apartment, and scored a centrally located one.

Salt Lake City is basically a giant grid (including its suburbs) and extends all the way down south into the suburb of Sandy. Road names generally follow a numbering scheme and are centered on the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake. The first road west of the Temple is West Temple, and the next one is 100 West, then 200 West and so on. It is like this in all directions. I believe it is State Street that runs straight into the Temple, with Main Street next to it. State Street is a north-south avenue that extends all the way down into Sandy. Sandy starts at about 9000 South, and the suburb I lived in, Murray, started at about 4000 South. My apartment was at about 4700 South and State Street – centrally located. I was about a ten minute walk from the train station and a three minute walk from the nearest bus stop.

I lived above a playhouse that featured a cabaret theater and a dinner theater, specializing mostly in musical comedies that were written and produced in house. It was an island of liberal thinking in a sea of conservative thinking and Mormonism, and was a pretty cool place aside. The apartments were owned by the same gentleman that owned the theater, and he quickly took a liking to me and offered me a secondary job working in the box office at the theater. I took it, less for the pay and more for the ability to see free shows and get a discount on the food (which was quite good). I quickly repaid Paul and Melanie a sum of money, something like $300 to $500 in thanks of their housing me. They were surprised, expecting nothing – but I couldn’t let their kindness go unpaid, especially on such short notice.

Another perk (and unseen curse) was the staff there. The cabaret side of the operation employed attractive young girls, ages generally from 16 to 19 (though some older college girls also worked part time, as they had been working there since they were in high school also) and provided me ample opportunity to flirt. My advances were unsuccessful, much to my frustration and confusion. Hindsight has elucidated my failures to me (I didn’t care about my appearance, I was intentionally awkward, I relied too much on humor and intellect and not enough on being personable) and I’ve discussed the particulars of my romantic foibles in detail elsewhere here.

When I first started working at my job at the mall, I looked like a mess. I wore the same shirt most days, didn’t know how to properly tie a tie, had a scruffy and unkempt haircut. My boss quickly took me under his wing, gave me some fashion sense and even took me shopping for some good dress clothes once. He was about ten years my senior, and we hit it off as friends. He was also recently relocated from out of state – having managed a kiosk in Boise for five years with oustanding results, the company felt he was just the man to run its number one store after the former manager there was promoted to a higher position.

The both of us weren’t exactly quick to warm up to the local populace – too conservative and Mormon for our Godless, liberal upbringings. As time worn on, we spent more time hanging out after work – I’d go to his apartment and we’d watch movies or recordings of concerts together. We’d go out to eat or go out to the movies. He started getting into the guitar (an old hobby of his) and began to play his favorite metal songs – a technically enviable feat. He even showed me how to play a bit, but I never really took it up. He even took me to my first concert – an all day metal festival.

And so it was like this I wasted away days, weeks, and months. Working 40 to 80 hours a week, getting better at hawking my wares and repairing timepieces new and old, buying things I didn’t need to fill voids I couldn’t heal. My life was going nowhere, fast. I had intended on going to college sometime in the future.

But that future never came, as I didn’t want to go into debt and did not have the time to really seek it out anyway. Transportation was an issue, as I never had a car and had to rely on public transit. I met women, it is true, but none of them seemed to fancy me, and I found that I couldn’t work up the courage to ask them on a date anyway. Where was I to take them? What was I to do with them? I wasted just a few days over a year mulling around in Utah until I woke up one day – shortly after having been promoted to assistant manager at my retail job – with an epiphany: I was going to wind up exactly like my dad.

There had been talk in the company of my abilities and my rather rapid rise to the assistant manager position – at the number one grossing location – and I was slated for the next promotion to manager in the area. At first, I was rather smug with this news, being the renegade and idealistic high-school drop out that I was. But when I realized that my father, in his youth, had foregone higher education in order to manage another retail operation…and when I recalled his life successes (or lack thereof) I immediately became discouraged.

What was I doing? Where was I going? I had wasted an entire year in an unfamiliar state. I had made few friends. All I had to show for my time was an increasingly large collection of media – books, music, video games, and a faster computer. My life felt very hollow. Where was the magnificent change that was supposed to occur? I was away from my mother, after all. Wasn’t that the source of all my weakness? Wasn’t that the reason why I hadn’t finished my novel, why I couldn’t get the money to go to St. John’s?

Apparently not.

The company I worked for continued to rot. The upper echelons of management continued to make rather unpopular decisions, blaming lower-than-expected profit margins and sales figures on its stores and the employees working in them. (This was ironic, as the Wall Street journal was running articles about how retail sales were at an all time low as the economy recessed.) Many, including myself and my manager, became fed up with the way we were treated. I couldn’t imagine trying to forge a career for myself with this company. College was out of the question. It seemed like the military was my only option.

My grandfather had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps had always had a mythical presence in my childhood – any time the Discovery channel ran a program on them, I watched it in awe. The world’s finest fighting force, they seemed to routinely undergo the most intense training imaginable. They were heroes to me. The way kids dream about being President or an astronaut or a rock star – that was the way I felt about the Marine Corps. It was a flight of fancy, something I thought I would never be able to accomplish. I even remember confiding in Sara that it was something I envied, though never seriously considered doing.

But as my situation worsened, as my life wasted away in a maelstrom of apathy and discontent, I began to consider it. The Marine Corps. Me? On a whim on one of my off days, I caught the train down to Sandy, Utah and looked around for the recruiting office I heard was nearby. I had already done some research and read some books – it seemed like everyone who enlisted in the Marine Corps found it to be one of the best decisions of their life. All of the complaints about the military – getting screwed over by recruiters, the government not meeting its end of the bargain, getting screwed out of your job, getting your contract jerked around and on and on – seemed not to mention the Marines, but instead dealt with (chiefly) the Army (and following that, the Air Force and Navy). Perhaps it had something to do with the relative size of the forces – with the Marine Corps being a mere tenth the size of the Army, it was probably easier to manage incoming recruits and take care of its Marines.

The mall the recruiting office was attached to was under remodeling at the time, and I had a hard time finding the entrance to the office. I must have looked like a rather poor recruit – tall, lanky, I weighed maybe 160 pounds at the height of 6’5. The staff noncommissioned officer in charge (SNCOIC), a gunnery sergeant of eight years (a rather meteoric rise to that rank – on average, it takes a Marine some twelve years to become a gunnery sergeant, and often longer than that) looked every bit a Marine to me. The first thing he said to me that day (aside from asking me my name, or perhaps he overheard it as I talked to another sergeant) was “Well, Donner, if you join, you’ll never have to pay for sex again!” Ah, the Marines. So crass. Just what I was looking for, being so tired and fed up with political correctness and neonazi feminism.

The sergeant that I spent most of my time with, Sergeant Baker, had me pick four name-tag sized tabs from a group of tabs – reasons why I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I picked college, challenge, financial stability, and physical fitness. There were no tabs for “overcoming a debilitating amount of depression,” “rehabilitation from a year of customer service,” “an anger at mankind one wants to express with a rifle,” and so on. Upon seeing my tabs, Sergeant Baker said “College and money, huh? If those are your chief reasons, you’re probably better off serving in the Air Force.” And he spun his chair around, as if to say I should leave.

Marine recruiters are good at what they do. It is their job to find the best young men for the Corps, and despite popular opinion, the application process is rather stringent. Even for enlisted Marines, there are strict requirements, and while I was in the process of enlisting, I saw several potential recruits weeded out or turned away by the Marines working in the office. Even in a time of war, Marine recruiters have a keen sense of duty and want to make sure that they are sending only the best candidates into their beloved Corps. One way that they do this is by making sure a potential recruit truly understands and appreciates what he is doing.

Lots of people turn to the military for the benefits and the benefits alone, and the Marines are acutely aware of this. Of the service branches, the Marine Corps offers the fewest benefits to its recruits (saving them instead for those looking to re-enlist, and even then the other branches often offer better bonuses and incentives). The Marine Corps prefers its Marines enlist and reenlist based on a willingness to serve, on a willingness to be the best of the best, based on the intangible benefits of pride and confidence that being a Marine offers you.

It wasn’t just college that I was looking for. I wasn’t just looking for financial stability. I still remembered the fanciful dreams of my youth – the mystique and myth of the Corps, that group of superheroes. I told Sergeant Baker that if I was going to join the military, the Corps was the only branch for me. Hearing that, he turned around and we got down to business.

By the time I left that office several hours later, we had an appointment set for me to undergo my enlistment, undertaking all the necessary physical and academic exams. Sergeant Baker enrolled me in a local adult education school so that I could finish up my last year of high school and get the degree that was necessary for enlistment. I felt like a different person. I was anxious and scared at the same time. Within the week, I would be signing a contract stating that I was going to enlist as a Private in the United States Marine Corps.

Nobody I knew (and still talked to) could believe it. My manager in particular said I would never make it – he later apologized, explaining that he was just stressed out and worried about what my departure from the store would mean for him. We were pretty good friends outside of work, and he, like me, did not have many people he spent time with in Utah. He quit shortly after I went to boot camp.

Sergeant Baker helped me get in shape for boot camp. When I enlisted in August 2007, I was what was referred to as a “triple threat,” I could not meet any of the three requirements of the Marine Corps’ Initial Strength Test (the necessary requirements for a recruit to pass in order to proceed with training in boot camp). They require a recruit to perform two dead hang pull ups, perform forty-four crunches in two minutes, and to run one and a half miles in thirteen minutes and thirty seconds. The run and the crunches came quickly for me, as I was not particularly out of shape – I did a lot of walking and have never been very fat. My biggest problem was that since my freshman year of high school, I had not done anything particularly active with my life (like a sport or active hobby).

Even though I was not physically in the best shape, the Marines at the recruiting office were behind me every step of the way. Sergeant Baker took me to the gym whenever he could and helped get me on a training regiment. The gunnery sergeant in charge of the office expressed his confidence in me, and reminded me that nobody cares more about one’s career than oneself. “Even if you aren’t in the best of shape for boot camp, don’t let that get you down, Donner. Just work at it as hard as you can. One day you’ll get there. That’s what’s important. Four years from now, when you’re re-enlisting and looking at picking up Corporal or Sergeant or, hell, who knows, maybe Staff Sergeant, nobody will be asking what your PFT (physical fitness test) score at boot camp was.” (The Physical Fitness Test is the test Marines run semi-annually to assess fitness. It is used for promotions. A minimum of three dead-hang pull-ups, 55 crunches in two minutes, and three miles ran in 28 minutes is required to pass. For a maximum score, a Marine must perform 20 dead hang pull-ups, 100 crunches in two minutes, and clock in their three mile run at 18 minutes or below.)

The encouragement and support I received from the Marines and fellow poolees (those of us who enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program, and were going to boot camp within a year) was remarkable and refreshing. Never before had I felt like I had had so much support. And the things that I felt I was accomplishing at the time were remarkable also. I had never felt like I was achieving so many things so quickly. Within two months, I went from failing all three events of the IST and being a high school drop out to having my diploma and being above average in two of three events. The other event, pull-ups, would prove to be the bane of my existence for some time to come yet.

But Sergeant Baker wouldn’t see me discouraged. “Even if you can’t get your pull-ups before you go to boot camp, they’ll usually let you continue on in training anyway. Then you’ll have three months to get your three pull-ups down so you can graduate. The worst that can happen is you’ll get dropped back in training to the Physical Conditioning Platoon, where you’ll stay until you can meet the requirements.” This didn’t seem all that bad.

I’ll pause here in the narrative for a moment. I’ve always wanted this work to be a selfless examination of myself and my past, as my memory is extremely spotty and I want something to refer back to later. I tend to bottle up emotions and feelings and forget about them. Then I wonder about the decisions I’ve made, and have no emotional context to understand them in. It can be a difficult process recreating my life, sifting through all of the cracks and crevices I’ve hidden myself in. Because of this, I want to discuss a less flattering part of my enlistment process.

The entire time I was in Utah I was (as should be evidenced elsewhere in this work) extremely depressed. Depression is something I am and have been very familiar with. I have grown accustomed to it and do very well hiding it. It surprised me, sometimes, the depth of it. A random event or memory could trigger a huge emotional response in me. In Utah, I remember sifting through some old journals or maybe my yearbooks, and suddenly something clicked. I was rendered immobile for the rest of my weekend off from work – I didn’t leave my apartment, I slept 14 or 15 hours each day. It was somewhat frightening. I began to shy away from self-examination, self-reflection, or brooding of any sort, as it made it rather difficult to live life.

Another time, I was browsing Barnes and Noble, looking for something interesting to read (as I had taken to reading as a way to pass the time to and from work) and stumbled across the book “I Don’t Want To Talk About It – The Secret History of Male Depression” by Terrence Real. I spent one tearful evening reading the entire volume and was again rendered immobile by my emotional response. I wanted desperately to talk to someone about my response to the book, but no one returned my calls or seemed interested. I didn’t want to talk to a psychologist, as talking to someone who is paid to be your friend and make you feel better seems a rather silly thing to do. So my emotional response to that tome was another thing forgotten to the sands of time.

But I still remember my morbidity during the time I was enlisting. For a long time, I had come to some conclusions about my own death. It was probably seventh grade when I’d decided that I would never kill myself – suicide was quitting, I’d reasoned, and I wasn’t going to quit. It was some time later that I justified my lack of healthy living on the notion that, while I wasn’t going to quit life, I wasn’t going to exactly do my best to prevent my own death, either. I became fixated on a sort of passive suicide, a sort of killing myself through unwise living – the apex of which was to be my enlistment in the Marine Corps. What better way to die without killing myself, than putting myself directly in harm’s way in a war zone? Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

I have been a believer in the notion that there is beauty in everything, even death. There is a tragic beauty in the oblivion my brother drank himself into – a beauty he and I both understand. I understand his attraction to it; when I was conducting an “interview” with him for a school project in high school, I became alarmed when he stated that he was drawn in to drinking by his fascination with the beauty of oblivion. I had, at the time, been considering taking up the bottle myself – I was about the same age he had been when he had taken his first drink – and this deterred me. I had always assumed that my brother’s alcoholism had been a direct response to my mother’s emotional abuse, but to hear my brother tell it scared me.

There is beauty in everything, even death. I wanted a beautiful death. This life I was living was so completely unsatisfying. American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

There seemed to be a purpose that resonated with me and aligned with my tastes, then, in military service. And the morbid side of myself was placated – what better death could I have, than one in which I died serving my country and fighting hand in hand with my brothers-in-arms? There is beauty in all things, even death.

I didn’t tell my mother I was enlisting until it start to come down to the wire. I needed a copy of my birth certificate, and she was the only one who had access to get me one. I didn’t even call her to tell her. I emailed her, stating rather curtly “Hey mom, I’m enlisting in the Marine Corps so I need a copy of my birth certificate. Please send to this address, thanks, John.” I did not reply when she required further inquiry; she stated she was sending it and that’s all I needed.

Initially, I was slated to fly to boot camp sometime in the middle of September, shortly after my 19th birthday, but I didn’t feel ready enough as the date drew near. I had procrastinated on my high school diploma (I didn’t end up getting it until two days before I flew out of Utah for California!) and I didn’t feel like I was in shape physically (still unable to perform even a single pull-up, a source of constant frustration and shame). Therefore, the intelligence job I had selected became unavailable, as I was going to be enlisting in a new fiscal year (as fiscal years apparently began in October); I temporarily selected a “Data Network Specialist” MOS and that was that.

I put in a lot of notice to my job – perhaps a month or more – as even though I was growing to dislike the decisions higher management was making, I felt like I owed the company quite a bit. They had taken me in without a high school diploma and when I was still 17, and had been quick to promote me and place me in a position of authority and responsibility. I started making eight dollars an hour, flat, and left making about $15 an hour (often more than that, thanks to overtime they let me have) after commission factored in. I helped a new manager get the store ready for his reign, as my manager went to a slower mall. I quit at the end of September and prepared to fly down on October 21st.

My last free month spent as a civilian was a strange time for me. I had absolutely no time – twenty days or so to enjoy my freedom – and all the time in the world, because I didn’t have to go to work. I worked on preparing myself physically and mentally for boot camp. I read as much as I could about what to expect – getting several books about the military and Marine Corps boot camp. In particular I read “The Few and the Proud,” a series of interviews with current and former Drill Instructors, and I read the (then) new Counterinsurgency Field-Manual. And I debated my choice of Military Occupational Specialty in the Corps. Data Network Specialist was something familiar and safe – dealing with computers. There was a future after my service in that. But it was boring and I didn’t want to be stuck doing something boring for four years.

I seriously considered going in to the infantry. I viewed it as a decision I would always regret and wonder about if I didn’t pick it. I didn’t want to always wonder “what might have been,” if I didn’t pick infantry. But I also worried about the toll it would take on my body, and I worried about not being in shape for it. Ultimately my recruiters talked me out of it, telling me that I would be doing myself, the Corps, and my nation a disservice by picking infantry. They get very few recruits with my intellectual capacity to fill the highly technical jobs in the Corps, as most academically inclined recruits either go to other services (Navy and Air Force mostly) or become officers.

It was in this way that I chose an option entitled “Ground Electronics Maintenance.” I thought I would be doing field repairs in combat on various electronic gear – which my recruiters said may be a possibility. It was a rather large option in which you could wind up in one of several different MOS fields. My specific MOS wouldn’t be chosen for me until just before completion of boot camp. I didn’t pick this field until a few days before I was slated to go, and it wasn’t until the day before I was due to have my final night in Utah in a hotel the military was paying for that my recruiter called to tell me he got me the job – and a $15000 bonus, with it. This was unexpected and good news. The bonus was due to the high academic requirements to qualify for the option – you had to have some pretty good scores on the Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery.

My brother and I had a rather nasty fight a week or two before I was going to leave. I don’t remember much of the particulars anymore, but I do remember that he compared me and my conduct to my mother. Which was absolutely unfucking acceptable to me. I was the only person that believed in him in my family, stuck through the hard times with him, regularly called to see how he was doing. I felt like, at the time, he had burned the bridge. But our relationship was such that this fight didn’t really amount to much and we’d get back in touch while I was in boot camp.

On my final weekend in Utah, some buddies from Bellingham flew down so that we could participate in one last gaming tournament before I departed. Originally, they were going to play with Nathan or his brother Paul, but both bailed towards the last minute because of familial obligations. It worked out that I could have one last night of good times, and so I did. We each won $500, as we had by far the most experience at the game (being a part of the competitive community, we knew nobody of note was going to be at this tournament). I gave my money to Nathan, being as I wouldn’t need it at boot camp.

I remember my last night as a civilian somewhat vividly. I was stationed at the Ramada in downtown Salt Lake City, an area I was pretty familiar with, as I made frequent visits to the outdoor mall for its restaurants. (In particular, I was a recurring customer of the California Pizza Kitchen here, becoming quite familiar with two of its full-service bar waitresses and two of its managers. I often got free meals.) I was nervous and scared and restless. I tried calling people who were important to me at the time, to get some last minute soul searching done. Nobody answered.

I strolled along downtown SLC. We had been briefed that there was a curfew but my recruiter told me it didn’t matter as long as I was back at the hotel in time to leave in the morning. I went to the California Pizza Kitchen a final time, talking to either Kristy or Suzanna. I bought a book on taoism I intended to read during boot camp. And I waited. My boss and I were to see one last movie together before I was going to leave.

The movie was 30 Days of Night, or something like that. A horror movie about a group of vampires that attack some small town in Alaska as they go through their yearly phase without sun because of whatever planetary phenomenon affects that region of the world. It was a decent film but I was preoccupied – my boss hadn’t been there and I felt betrayed. Why was I so unimportant to people, that they jerked me around like that? Why couldn’t I build a lasting connection with anyone?

Much like when I left Bellingham, I was looking to others to make the decision to enlist for me. If anybody expressed doubt or regret at my permanent departure from their life, I wouldn’t have enlisted. I wasn’t really making my own decisions in life, I was letting other people’s actions and reactions determine my fate. And because no one cared about me, I signed on the dotted line. I rationalized the decision to myself in terms of service to my country, defending freedom and liberty, getting into better shape, achieving something – but at the time, the primary motivation was the lack of a reason to not go.

Maybe boot camp would change me. Could it change me? I hoped to keep in touch with several people who expressed interest to do so as I left – keeping a list of addresses in my wallet. Sara was on the list. I fought myself day in and day out over her – part of me wanting to get over her, part of me drawing on her for warmth and support. Even though she wasn’t an active part of my life, I would find my thoughts resting with my memories of her and the support she offered me in my time of need.

And so it was with these disjointed hopes and dreams and feelings and confusion that I found myself a recruit on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego from 22 October 2007 to 01 February 2008.

Military Communication: Problems, Precedents and Solutions

A. Background Premises

1. While the Marine Corps is a unique war-fighting organization with a unique mission and capability, it is important to remember that it is still ultimately an organization. As such, it is susceptible to the same structural problems that any other organization is susceptible to, especially when it comes to organizational communication. Because the Marine Corps is a unique organization, it has unique communication needs.

2. America, and indeed the world, is entering a new era of rapid communications technologies that change the way we live, work, play, and fight wars. Per reference (1), “Most of us seek a firm direction that is outmoded. We need new thinking, new criticisms, new knowledge, new approaches, and new understandings. Creativity is more important than ever.” We have become an information society, which is “an environment in which more jobs create, process, or distribute information than directly produce goods,” and this change has impacted the military as well.

3. Reliable, timely and accurate communication is the key to organizational excellence and should therefore be a top priority for the Marine Corps. Per reference (1), “Numerous scholars have gone as far as to suggest that organizations are essentially complex communication processes that create and change events…Put simply, organizations of today and tomorrow need competent communicators at all organizational levels.”

4. Difficult problems sometimes require unconventional thinking. Daniel Pink, bestselling author and conceptual thinker, writes “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.” Modern technologies have overloaded organizations with too much information; many require people with a different tool set to make sense of all this information.

5. Specifically, problems related to communication have been effecting not only Electronics Maintenance Company, but potentially 3d Maintenance Battalion as well. It is not unreasonable to assume that communication problems may be effecting other units within the Marine Corps as well.

B. Organizational Communication

1. Per reference (1), “Organizing is an attempt to bring order out of chaos or establish organizations, entities in which purposeful and ordered activity takes place…the process we call organizing is accomplished through human communication as individuals seek to bring order out of chaos and establish entities for purposeful activities.” Communication is central to organizing.

2. Aside from individual communication competencies, which have their own unique challenges and solutions, organizational communication presents yet more unique difficulties. Organizational communication, per reference (1), is the “process through which organizations are created and in turn create and shape events. The process can be understood as a combination of process, people, messages, meaning, and purpose.” The Marine Corps is an organization devoted to the art of warfare; we are an organization which seeks to impose order on a naturally chaotic state (war) – as such, efficient and effective organizational communication is paramount to success.

3. Per reference (1), organizational communication as a process involves “creating and transmitting organizational messages [which] reflect the shared realities resulting from previous message exchanges,” a process which “evolves to generate new realities that create and shape events.” In other words, organizational communication strives to create common meanings and purposes – the Marine Corps already has established guidelines in this regard (initial training, the Core Values, ethical guidelines) but beyond initial training the degree to which they are maintained is variable.

4. Per reference (1), organizational communication involves individuals: “Individuals bring to organizations sets of characteristics that influence how information is processed…it is fair to say that organizational communication occurs across networks of people who seek to obtain a variety of objectives requiring communication interactions.” Per reference (2), “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and a weak communicator contributes to weakened communications up and down the chain of command.

5. Per reference (1), organizational communication depends upon “the movement or transmission of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and the sharing of information throughout the organization….Concern is expressed for message fidelity, or the extent to which messages are similar or accurate at all links through the channels.” This concept is not foreign to the Marine Corps; ethical guidelines (especially the second reference) mention the importance of such fidelity.

6. Per reference (1), organizational communication requires meaning: “Organizational communication is the symbolic behavior of individuals and organizations that, when interpreted, affects all organizational activities.” Furthermore, organizational communication has a unique purpose: “[it] seeks to reduce environmental uncertainty. It is people, messages, and meanings. It is intentional and unintentional messages explaining the workings of the organization. It is the process through which individuals attempt goal-oriented behavior in dealing with their environments.”

C. Functional Problems & Org. Communication

1. All organizations face similar problems with organizational communication, so before analyzing the Marine Corps (or any specific sub-organizations, such as 3D Maintenance Battalion, within the Marine Corps) it is instructive to analyze organizational communication problems in general. Such problems may be similar in character if not exactly in detail.

2. Open communication systems thrive in comparison to closed communication systems. Per reference (1), open systems are “organizations that continually take in new information, transform that information, and give information back…” while closed systems are “organizations that lack input communication, making it difficult to make good decisions and stay current with the needs of the environment.” Furthermore, “without appropriate change, organizational systems stagnate and die.”

3. Communication channels, per reference (1), are “the means for the transmission of messages. Common means are face-to-face interaction, group meetings, memos, letters, computer-mediated exchanges, web sites, presentations, and teleconferencing.” Proper selection and utilization of various channels – as well as the creation of new channels which “speed information transfer and shorten decision-making response time,” are organizational priorities.

4. Messages in an organization can move in one of three directions – upward, downward, or horizontally. It should be noted, per reference (1), that “information flow cannot always be described in terms of specific direction,” because “informal network flow such as the grapevine…may move both vertically and horizontally, all within the transmission of one message.” In strict hierarchical structures like the military, a systemic bias for downward communication is present, while upward communication is notoriously difficult and unreliable. This is discussed in more detail below.

5. Communication load is an important consideration. Communication load, per reference (1), is “the volume, rate, and complexity of messages processed by an individual or the organization as a whole.” Furthermore, there can be three load conditions: specifically, optimal load, underload (wherein individuals are relegated to performing mundane tasks due to lack of new information input) and overload (where the load has exceeded system or individual capacity). One danger of ever expanding communications technologies is that we, as a society, may be fast approaching a situation of “permanent overload in many jobs, a situation that actually impairs rather than strengthens the decision making process.”

6. A final important general consideration is that of message distortion. Distortion is, per reference (1), “anything that contributes to alterations in meanings as messages move through the organization.” Distortions can occur for a variety of reasons, due to “load, message direction, channel usage, and the very composition of the [communication] networks themselves.” Furthermore, “organizational communication is characterized by the serial transmission of messages,” whereby a message is created from a source of authority and passes to a subordinate, who then undergoes a role transition and acts an authority to pass the message on to yet another subordinate, and so on down the chain of command. “Research consistently finds that original messages change or are distorted in the serial transmission process.” Language is a contributing factor to distortion, as “definitions of terms and concepts vary throughout the organization.” It is no exaggeration to say that distortion is inevitable and unavoidable.

7. Other functional problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other functional problems. For example, message function and structure; the role of organizing, relationship and change functions for messages; and the movement of messages through formal and informal networks are some of the topics that could be considered.

D. Meaning-Centered Problems & Org. Communication

1. A meaning-centered approach to communication, in contrast with a functional approach, per reference (1) “describes organizational communication as the process for generated shared realities that become organizing, decision making, sense-making, influence, and culture.” These concepts tie directly into Marine Corps priorities of developing a warrior ethos and abiding by the core values, per references (2) and (3). As such, these concepts warrant consideration.

2. Per reference (1), key assumptions of a meaning-centered approach to understanding organizational communication include the following premises: “Organizational cultures and subcultures reflect the shared realities in the organization and how these realities create and shape organizational events,” and “Communication climate is the subjective, evaluative reaction of organization members to the organization’s communication events, their reaction to organizational culture.” In other words, Marine Corps culture (“esprit de corps”) reflects the shared realities of the Marines in the Corps, and these realities create and shape events (be it by successfully maintaining gear, or winning wars). Furthermore, communication climate (or “command climate”) is the sum reaction of many Marines’ subjective response to command communications, which has an impact on Marine Corps culture (or “esprit de corps”).

3. Organizing can be understood as an attempt at reducing ambiguity by promoting reliable meanings. Per reference (1), “organizational members use rules and communication cycles to continually process…equivocal messages or messages susceptible to varying interpretations…. The main goal of the process of organizing is an attempt to reduce equivocality – ambiguity – in order to predict future responses to organizational behaviors.” Examples of this in the Marine Corps range from desktops and turnovers in the maintenance community to aid in job training and performance to rules regarding proper posture when speaking with seniors (parade rest and the position of attention). Furthermore, performance evaluations (such as proficiency and conduct ratings) can be understood as attempts to reduce ambiguity about job performance, per reference (1): “Supervisors reduce equivocality for their employees by the organizing of work assignments and the communication of task requirements… The supervisor understands what the employee believed the assignment to be by evaluating what was accomplished. The feedback to the employee (often in the form of rewards or punishment) reduces uncertainty about the adequacy of performance.”

4. Influence (as defined in reference (1): “organizational and individual attempts to persuade; frequently seen in organizational identification, socialization, communication rules, and power”) is a powerful tool to achieve organizational goals. Per reference (1), “who and what are viewed as influential, the way people seek to influence others, and how people respond to influence all contribute to organizing and decision making.” People “are more likely to be receptive to influence attempts in organizations with which [they] identify or have a sense of “we” or belonging.” In other words, Marines are more likely to respond to influence by the Marine Corps if the Marines identify more solidly with the Marine Corps. Identification is defined in reference (1) as the “dynamic social process by which identities are constructed; indicates perceptions of a sense of belonging. Usually associated with the belief that individual and organizational goals are compatible.”

5. Organizations tend to encourage identification through socialization; per reference (1), there are three major stages of socialization: anticipatory socialization, encounter socialization, and metamorphosis socialization. These will be analyzed in turn.

6. Anticipatory socialization, per reference (1), “begins before individuals enter organizations and results from past work experiences and interactions with family, friends, and institutions such as schools, churches, or social organizations.” Indeed, as reference (3) acknowledges, all Marines come from humble origins: “Our ethos has been shaped by ordinary men and women — heroes who showed extraordinary leadership and courage, both physical and moral, as they shaped the special character that is the essence of our Corps. They are heroes and leaders who are remembered not by their names, or rank, or because they received a decoration for valor. They are remembered because they were Marines.” Becoming a Marine begins before entering the Marine Corps, when the would-be Marine begins to consider the idea, talks with recruiters, and reads or otherwise thinks about being a Marine; this is anticipatory socialization.

7. Encounter socialization, per reference (1), “involves new employee training, supervisor coaching, peer groups, and formal organizational documents.” In other words, this is the training stage of a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps has an excellent training program, as per reference (3): “Marines undergo a personal transformation at recruit training. There, they receive more than just superb training; they are ingrained with a sense of service, honor, and discipline. It is there, as a former recruit depot Commanding General said, that Marines develop a sense of brotherhood, interdependence, and determination to triumph.”

8. Metamorphosis socialization, per reference (1), “occurs when the newcomer begins to master basic organizational requirements and adjust to the organization.” Personal speculation as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that metamorphosis socialization may be a problem in the Marine Corps; [The CO of ELMACO] has mused, for instance, why it seems to be that Marines lose their motivation between initial training and their first duty station.

9. Other meaning-centered problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, power, communication as culture, and further analysis of communication climate are some of the topics that could be considered.

E. Supervisor/Subordinate Relations, Peers, & Motivation

1. Per reference (1), “an individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor is one of the most important of the primary communication experiences in organizational life. It is so important, in fact, that the quality of this relationship usually determines how the individual identifies with the organization as well as the individual’s job and organizational satisfaction. Communication experiences with supervisors and peers are so influential that they contribute to the quality and quantity of an individual’s work.” In other words, an individual Marine’s ability to identify with the Marine Corps and live the core values is directly impacted by their relationship with their superiors; additionally, the quality of that Marine’s work is also impacted.

2. Per reference (1), “individuals who are satisfied with organizational communication experiences are more likely to be effective performers and to be satisfied with their jobs than those who have less positive communication relationships.” Reference (3) has another way of stating the same phenomenon: “…leaders must have the respect of their followers. If followers do not believe their leader is operating from a foundation of values, then words become hollow and lack credibility and the leader will be ineffective.”

3. Motivating subordinates (or, Marines) is a notoriously complex subject, but it generally falls to the supervisor to motivate the subordinate in any organization. One theory of motivation worth mentioning is the rewards theory, first professed by B.F. Skinner. Per reference (1), rewards are defined as “positive feedback or tangible reinforcements for organizational behaviors,” or more simply, rewarding Marines for being good Marines. It is worth mentioning that Frederick Herzberg proposes that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not polar opposites; per reference (1), “what produces dissatisfaction in the work environment, if corrected, will not necessarily produce satisfaction or motivation.”

4. Gerald Salanick and Jeffrey Pfeffer have a theory of motivation that, per reference (1), “suggest[s] three basic determinates of attitudes or needs: (1) the individual’s perception of the job or task characteristics, (2) information the social environment provides to the individual about what attitudes are appropriate…and (3) the individual’s perception of the reasons for his or her past behaviors.” Moreover, “Salanick and Pfeffer identify four ways in which social information influences attitudes: (1) overt, evaluative statements of coworkers directly shape individual worker attitudes; (2) frequent talk among coworkers about certain dimensions of the job and work environment focus attention on what is considered to be important or salient in the work setting; (3) information from coworkers, or social information, helps an individual worker interpret and assign meaning to environmental cues and events in the work setting; and finally, (4) social information influences the way an individual interprets his or her own needs. Thus…job attitudes are a result of social information in the work setting coupled with the consequences of past individual choices.” In other words, the way Marines treat one another and talk to one another may have untold impacts on how that Marine perceives either his or herself, his or her unit and his or her Corps.

5. Other supervisor/subordinate and motivation related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, the pervasive nature of supervisor/subordinate relationships, the amount of time spent communicating between supervisors and subordinates, and gaps in the expectations between supervisors and subordinates are some of the topics that could be considered.

F. Communication Apprehension and Upward Distortion

1. The Marine Corps recognizes the importance of upward organizational communication, as per reference (3): “Subordinates should use the chain of command, but ideas must rise to the top.” Moreover, “leaders should make it their duty to bring subordinates’ ideas and criticisms to the surface where all may analyze and evaluate them.” Yet problems with reliable, timely, and accurate upward communication exist in all organizations. Generally, these problems may have their root in the phenomenon known as communication apprehension.

2. Per reference (1), communication apprehension (or CA) is defined as “the predisposition for behavior described as an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with others.” Moreover, “CA has been found to be meaningfully associated with such important organizational outcomes as occupation choice, perception of competence, job satisfaction, advancement, and job retention.” As such, CA merits further consideration.

3. Per reference (1), “Marilyn Hunt (1992) found that individuals reporting high-quality relationships with their supervisors were more likely to…conform to formal and informal requests, to attempt to clarify expectations, and to accept criticism from supervisors than were individuals reporting lower-quality relationships.” In other words, positive working relationships reduce CA and, furthermore, positively benefit Marines and the Marine Corps.

4. In contrast to paragraph 3, and per reference (1), negative working relationships have negative impacts: “…perceptions [of supervisors] influenced how much employees reported sharing information, ideas, and resources with work group peers. In other words, the less favorable the relationship with the supervisor, the more likely individuals were to withhold information even from peers.” CA can distort not only upward communication, but also horizontal communication, with important implications for mission accomplishment. If, for example, a Marine discovers a superior method for getting the job done, but due to communication apprehension resulting from negative working relationships refuses to share it with fellow Marines, the Marine Corps fails to benefit from this innovation and initiative.

5. Per reference (1), “Paul Krivonos (1982) summarized many of the findings about upward communication in the following four categories: (1) subordinates tend to distort upward information, saying what they think will please their supervisors; (2) subordinates tend to filter information and tell their supervisors what they, the subordinates, want them to know; (3) subordinates often tell supervisors what they think the supervisors want to hear; and (4) subordinates tend to pass personally favorable information to supervisors while not transmitting information that reflects negatively on themselves.” Moreover, “Janet Fulk and Sirish Mani (1986) suggested that the perception of supervisors’ downward communication, or the extent to which supervisors are perceived as actively withholding information, influences the accuracy of upward messages. The more the supervisor withholds, the more employees withhold and distort.” In a chain as lengthy and complex as the Marine Corps’ chain of command, nearly infinite opportunities for distortion and withholding exist.

6. Per reference (1), “when a positivity bias distorts upward communication, supervisors may not receive timely information about problems. Thus, needed information about innovation and change may be slow in coming, particularly if the supervisor is perceived as resistant to new ideas.” In other words, ineffective upward communication limits the effectiveness of higher-level decision making.

7. Biased upward communication may lead to abuses of power. Per reference (1), “the supervisor has the formal authority of the chain of command. The supervisor controls information flow and performance evaluation. Employees control technical performance and have vital firsthand information about the progress of work. Both are dependent on each other; the supervisor directs, but without compliance and performance, no work is accomplished. If the supervisor becomes abusive in directing the work, an employee group may seek alternatives by withdrawing from interaction with the supervisor or withholding information the supervisor needs to make good decisions. At an extreme the employee group may complain to others in management, transfer to other departments, or leave the organization.” In an organization like the Marine Corps, where the option to easily transfer to “other departments” or leave the organization do not feasibly exist, abuse of power may contribute to rising suicide rates as Marines feel suicide is their “only way out.”

8. Other communication apprehension and upward distortion related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other CA and distortion problems. For example, the biasing effect of peer groups, romantic relationships and interpersonal relationships within an organization are some of the topics that could be considered.

G. Immediate Solution; Benefits and Risks

1. Given the problems discussed above and the background premises introduced, innovation is required. As such, it is my recommendation that ELMACO immediately create a “Communications NCO” billet; a dedicated “communications expert” to mitigate identified problems.

2. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of how the ELMACO Communications NCO would “fit-in” with the current chain of command. In a sense, it can be said the chain of command is completed by the addition of this billet. Whereas the chain of command has always provided relatively effective downward communication, as established elsewhere in this paper, it has had difficulty establishing equally effective upward communication. By providing a means for reliable upward communication, the Communications NCO billet “completes” the chain of command. Furthermore, the billet may help bolster downward communication by providing another effective channel for commanders to utilize.

3. The Communications NCO would be focused upon neutral, unbiased reporting of command-identified valuable information in a timely, reliable manner. As such, the Communications NCO would not be held accountable for positive or negative reports, but rather, the emphasis would be placed upon accurate reports. The Communication NCO would be held accountable for failure to maintain integrity in reporting the facts and for knowingly biasing communications.

4. The new billet provides several potential benefits, which will be named in this paragraph and discussed more in-depth in following paragraphs. In no particular order, the billet would provide a means to frequently and accurate gauge command climate; to reinforce Core Values, ethics, reliable communications, and training efforts towards these ends; to provide information to higher commands in a rapid manner; and to prove proof of concept for future development of Marine Corps communication structures.

5. The Communications NCO billet could establish a variety of procedures and methods for assessing command climate in a frequent and reliable manner, for example, through anonymous surveys. Because the Communications NCO would be evaluated for reporting accurate information as opposed to positive or negative information, communication apprehension when reporting information up the chain would be significantly reduced. Such a billet could potentially provide commanders with an immediate, reliable pulse on morale and welfare, with benefits for decision making impacting all levels. Moreover, the Communications NCO would be able to assist in increasing motivation while simultaneously providing commanders an increased ability to recognize and reward outstanding achievement.

6. The Communications NCO billet could assist in buffeting efforts to maintain high standards of ethical conduct and training. Additionally, such a billet stands to mitigate problems with metamorphosis socialization as described in section D paragraphs 5 & 8 by assisting the command in creating messages aimed at increasing identification with the Marine Corps and the unit as discussed in section D paragraph 4.

7. Per reference (1), “the greater the degree of socialization, the more likely individuals will respond favorably to organizational persuasion. In fact, little doubt remains that socialization relates to organizational commitment, decision making, perceptions of communications climate, and overall job satisfaction.” A commitment to improve metamorphosis socialization (in other words, emphasis on ethics and core values training) beyond initial training in a Marine’s career may yield positive benefits in the form of retention increases, better leaders, more productive command climates, and a more motivated cadre of Marines.

8. The Communications NCO billet could furthermore foster increased awareness of the importance of communication competency in daily tasks, and, moreover, provide relevant training aids to the command in order to raise aforementioned competencies. It may be unrealistic to expect all Marines to be communications expert, yet the benefits of having dedicated communication experts (such as the Communications NCO) are potentially incalculable through a variety of metrics, including money, time, and lives.

9. While the Communications NCO would more or less report directly to his or her respective Commanding Officer, he or she would still be available to higher commanders as the situation necessitated. If, for whatever reason, the Battalion Commander required immediate information about the welfare of a particular company, the Battalion Commander could leverage the assets of the local company’s Communications NCO rather than wait for the information to sift up the chain through other means. This model makes the Communications NCO the “eyes and ears” for higher commands, and the “mouth” for lower commands, in a manner of speaking. Such a model is likely to reduce surprises to commanders of all levels, in addition to helping ensure unity of Commander’s Intent at all times.

10. Specifically, the ELMACO Communications NCO billet, if successful, could provide proof of concept for the theoretical model outlined in this paper. If effective, Communications NCOs could be trained at other companies in the Battalion, and a Battalion Communications NCO could be created (see figure 2). Extremely long-range implications include exporting the model further and potentially creating a new MOS dedicated to ensuring effective communications at any command.

11. The Communications NCO has the potential to benefit in other regards as well. In short, the billet has the potential to positively impact the command, the mission, morale, retention, and is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ expeditionary model by fostering more rapid communications at all levels of command.

12. The immediate risk for employing such a billet is minimal. Initially, it would require reassigning only one qualified Marine to get the program up and running. I nominate myself for this duty. I believe I have demonstrated sufficient integrity, motivation, Honor, Courage and Commitment to tackle this task. I can’t guarantee perfection but I have every reason to be confident I will deliver results. Per reference (3), “Leaders must allow subordinates the opportunity to show initiative…. Because innovation is imprecise and because subordinates, especially junior ones, will make mistakes, protect them. “Zero defects” are not a standard of measurement. They do not encourage initiative; they stifle it.”

H. Conclusions

1. This document was intended to be comprehensive yet brief. Much of what has been written here could be expanded upon. In any event, organizational communication represents a challenge not just for the Marine Corps, but for any modern organization.

2. Unusual problems often require unusual solutions. With low risk and high potential reward, such a plan seems to promise great benefits for little investment.

3. I can provide further documentation, analysis, and correspondence as required.

I. References

(1) Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela S. Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, Seventh Edition. 2009, Pearson Education, Inc.

(2) MCRP 6-11B W/CH 11 Marine Corps Values: A User’s Guide for Discussion Leaders

(3) MCWP 6-11 Leading Marines

[“J. Durden”]