Lessons I learned in the Marines

Courtesy of Zach Petroff | Private Zach Petroff (right) upon graduating bootcamp at Parris Island,

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor

I am not the biggest fan of the United States military or war in general.

As an enlisted active-duty Marine that served from 2007 to 2012, I look back at that time much like a scorned lover removed from an abusive relationship, with a lot of pain and a few fond memories.

I may be guilty of lecturing poor undergraduates who have mentioned their interest in joining the marine corps with a rant about the reinforcement of toxic masculinity and the military industrial complex.

Yet, as the Marines get ready to celebrate their 248th birthday Friday, I find myself appreciating the lessons I learned during my time in service. Whether it’s survivors’ guilt, shame or overall avoidance, I have a tendency to downplay or outright deny the impact that those five years had on my life. My world view, my ideology and various outlooks on life have been forged by the lessons I learned while serving my country’s economic interests in Africa and the Middle-East.

My time in the United States Marine Corps was one of the most influential educational experiences I have ever had. I am not saying I do not appreciate my time at Duquesne University, and I have had a lot of great educators during my time here. But the classroom is not a substitute for the lessons taught in the theater of war.

One of the first lessons I learned happened almost immediately at boot camp. The 13-week training period, unbeknownst to me at the time, consisted of a lot of marching and drilling. My platoon spent countless hours going over drill formations and rifle movements.

I have no eye-hand coordination. My brain and my feet are rarely on the same page, so when it came to drilling, I was an absolute embarrassment. The precious free time that we had during boot camp I would spend working on my marching. It took me way longer than I would like to admit to finally be able to execute an about-face command.

This is how I learned that there are times when effort does not matter, it is only about results. This may seem like common sense, but to a sheltered 20-year old, the fact that my Drill instructors did not care how long I practiced, they only cared about my ability to execute commands, was an eye-opening experience.

I also learned about brotherhood and belonging to a community. Often forged out of necessity, Marines quickly find themselves creating these exceptional bonds with one another in a short matter of time. Some call this “trauma bonding,” but the ability to form such intense camaraderie taught me not only how essential friendships are, but how the human experience is enhanced when you have your brothers by your side.

I learned what it feels like to be part of a community. Whether I like to admit it or not, I am and always will be a Marine. I always feel the most comfortable when I am with fellow Marines. They could have been from a different era and served with a different unit, but it is irrelevant as long as we both shared the title. Marines are taught from day one to look after one another and that mission does not end after your enlistment.

I had my first real exposure to diversity. Until I joined the Marines, my interactions with other groups were rare. My family, my friends and my colleagues before joining were all in the same demographic and economic class. During my service I worked with people from not just all over the country, but from all over the world.

I was able to see first hand the power of diversity. I watched people from different backgrounds with different life experiences come together and navigate complex and dangerous situations.

It was like a much more violent version of the Breakfast Club.

I also learned, ad nauseam, about leadership. Leadership is drilled into your head the moment you step on the yellow footprints before boot camp. The chaos of war can force a Marine into a leadership role without warning.

I did not learn about real leadership, however, until after I got out of the Marines, when I was able to compare what a true leader really is.

A leader is not a rule-follower. In every unit there was always that one person not afraid to speak up, no matter the rank in front of them. They were not interested in office politics or recognition, but were more concerned with taking care of their Marines. They were harsh when they needed to be and sensitive when it mattered. They put everyone around them first and their success relied on the mission being accomplished.

They all understood that true leadership is a burden and void of ego.

One of the more painful lessons I learned in the Marines was the art of the “butt-chewing.” Getting screamed at by another man in front of your peers is a horrifying experience. It is not something I think I ever was able to get used to, no matter how frequent my dressing downs occurred (which was often).

However, as I learned in the Marine Corps, there is an art-form to both receive and give a butt chewing. Make direct eye contact, pay attention to the words not the volume and understand it is a teaching moment.

And possibly the most elegant lesson I learned during my time in service, is the preciousness of life. I witnessed first-hand the fragility of it. I learned how the only thing that truly matters in life is how well we take care of one another.

I would never wish war upon anyone. If given the choice between college and going to war, the answer should always be higher education.

However, the memories and experiences I had and the life lessons such as the importance of belonging to a community, exposure to diversity and the ability for a group to come together to achieve a common goal are priceless.