Jack had always been interested in Native American cultures, particularly the Oglala Lakota of the old West. As a child, he had heard family stories about a great, great grandmother who was Oglala. As he grew, he read stories of the old West. Stories about the battle of Wounded Knee, and Little Big Horn. He knew the names Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, George Custer and George Crook. The older he got, the more his interest in Indian lore faded. When he joined the US Marines at age 20, he was proud of his Indian blood, but not more so than his English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch, German or Norwegian blood. He considered himself a true American Mutt.
Marine Corps boot camp was tough. But as he strengthened his body, he realized that it was more of a mental game than physical. Sure, the physical regime was brutal. It was intended to build the strong bodies required to fill combat roles. But the mental games that the DI’s played were just as tough, weeding out anyone who did not have the mental toughness to work through the pain or the tedious repetition. Of the seventy that started training that January of 1992, only around 60 would graduate in April, proud to claim the title of United States Marine.
Jack did well in boot camp. Losing about ninety pounds, and gaining a sense of self respect that he had lost somehow after high school. It was also the beginning of his search for some spiritual truth as well. After high school, he fell away from his Methodist upbringing, and identified as an atheist. But during boot camp he met a guy named Larry Perrault, a deeply religious man from Louisiana. They became friends, and would often debate religion during free time. Jack wanted to believe in God, but had been disillusioned with the organized religions that preached “It’s our way or hell”. Larry would tell him the most important words he could hear.
As they sat cleaning gear with only a few days of boot camp remaining, discussing again the existence of God, Larry told Jack that it was OK to not believe right now. He also made Jack promise to keep an open mind to whatever came in the future.
“Don’t close God out completely.” He told Jack that day, “He wants to be in your life. Just promise me that you’ll keep looking for the truth.”
Jack promised, though he didn’t expect much to change.
Jack would be going to artillery school to train to become a Fire Direction Controlman. His job would be to sit behind the big cannons and get information from the Forward Observers about where the enemy was. That information would be plugged into electronic and physical computers and changed into a set off numbers to be sent to the gun line so they could deliver the rounds where the FO’s wanted them. It was, in Marine lingo, a high speed, high stress job, as an error in computation could lead to 155 mm rounds dropping on friendly troops.
But before he went to artillery school, he – and every other Marine fresh out of boot camp – would have five weeks of infantry school training. In the Marine Corps, every Marine is a basic infantryman first. The Corps is too small to have specialties like the army, where a cook or an administrative clerk could go their entire career without touching a weapon. Marines are all infantrymen who happen to specialize in other things.
So after a ten day leave to visit friends and family back home, Jack shipped out to 29 Palms, California, to complete his infantry schooling. He had a good time at infantry school. He had earned the right to be a Marine, and the Sergeants rarely yelled at them or put them in the dirt to do push-ups for punishment. It was just solid schooling in infantry tactics and techniques. He remembered Larry’s words, but they were way in the back of his mind as he crammed as much infantry knowledge into his head as he could. He also had a little more freedom to write in infantry school. He didn’t dare keep much of a journal in boot camp. But he started keeping them again at infantry school so he could remember all of the things he was learning, and record his experiences in case anyone would be interested in reading about them one day in the future.
One night in the second week of training, his company did a night fire exercise, with heavy .50 caliber machine guns, lighter SAW 240 machine guns, a couple of Mark 19’s that fired grenades like a machine gun, and dozens of M-16A-2’s, the rifle of issue in those days. All of the weapons were loaded with tracer rounds, and the firing range was lit up with the thousands of burning rounds heading downrange at the burned out husks of old vehicles that served as targets. It was a very graphic demonstration of just how much firepower could be brought to bear upon the enemy. A confidence builder for grunts to see that well-coordinated fire was deadly to the enemy. After the show, Jack and his platoon filed out of the bleachers. A sergeant stood at the head of the line pulling Marines out and directing them to a tent. Jack was one of those tapped to go. He thought it was another “voluntary” work detail.
When the sergeant came in, he told the Marines that this was a mandatory religion class. He then spoke about his extremely fundamentalist views on God, and how God only favored certain people. Certain races. Jack looked around and noticed that every other Marine was Caucasian like him. The sergeant told them that they should not call “other” Marines brother, as that was an affront to God. After ten minutes of this, he asked if anyone had questions. One private up front asked if he could leave, as this was not what he believed at all. The sergeant asked him to explain, and the private said that the God he believed in was the God of everyone. Not just whites. The sergeant nodded his head for a moment, then struck the private with an openhanded slap that made everyone jump. The sergeant had two others there that took the private and bodily threw him from the tent as the sergeant morphed into a fire and brimstone messenger, telling the assembled men that anyone who thought as that private did would “join the niggers and the gooks and the Jews in eternal hellfire.”
Nobody else had questions after that, and after what seemed an eternity, the sergeant released them. As the troops left, they were forced to sign a “class roster” saying they had attended. Jack signed in as Buck Rodgers. He later found out that many others had signed different names and had been equally creeped out and disgusted by the “class.” A few of them reported the incident to their platoon sergeants, but nobody ever saw that sergeant again, and the issue was dropped.
The incident just confirmed Jack’s belief that organized religion was just a way to control people and oppress others. Though in his heart, he wanted desperately to hear from a loving God that He did indeed exist.