I get the standard questions about why I push myself on a fairly frequent basis. I usually give some sort of short sarcastic remark. Something like the “because it’s there” response to why climb a mountain. I suppose to be honest with myself I would have to admit that the truth lays somewhere deeper in my estimation of my self worth. A constant need to prove I’m strong enough, man enough, tough enough.
In elementary school I played football. I played for several years and don’t honestly remember much about it. With the exception of the year I hurt my back. I don’t remember a single catastrophic accident, just an uncomfortable pain that started to set in at practices. It made it difficult to run or be active similar to a pulled muscle in your back if you have ever had such a thing. You use your back and stomach muscles for just about every movement. Any disruption to your core makes everyday living a difficult task.
After complaining of the pain my parents took me to the doctor to be checked out. He did all sorts of x-rays and tests and eventually concluded that I had suffered some fractures to my spine. I want to say in the L4 region. He suggested a surgical procedure wherein they would fuse vertebrae and place metal and such in support. It required a waist to neck brace that would have to be worn for a year after the procedure. Because the brace was paramount to proper healing they wanted to make sure you could handle the brace emotionally and socially so you had to wear it for 6 months before the procedure as well. I was not excited about the prospect of being so limited for a minimum of 18 months at the age of 12.
The surprising thing was that the procedure would not even necessarily end the discomfort in my back! There was a fair chance it wouldn’t help at all and a small chance that it might even make it worse. Because of all that went along with it, my parents allowed me to make the decision. At that time, I figured I might as well wait and see if it got worse. The doctor told me it would be an issue for the rest of my life and military service would definitely be out of the question.
I stopped playing football. I guess overtime the pain diminished because I don’t recall it being much of a problem over the next few years. Of course I didn’t actually push myself that hard as I wasn’t involved in any sports or physical activities. At 16 I picked up the skateboard and did that aggressively for many years but my back didn’t bother me with that.
Perhaps because a doctor had told me it would not be possible, or maybe because the Rambo movies were released during my developing teen years, I had a fascination with the military. I was attracted to the Marines because the advertisements said they were the toughest! The motto even played up the exclusivity of the group by openly claiming not everyone will make it. The Few, The Proud. When I graduated several of my friends signed up.
I wanted to be a part of it. I tried to sign up as well. In their detailed inquiry into medical history the question of my back came up. They sent me to a specialist who took x-rays. He didn’t like what he saw. He said it would definitely be a problem and I would never be able to handle the training. I was disqualified. I remember the devastating let down.
For the next couple of years I was lost. I didn’t know what to do with my life. For a while I thought I wanted to be a police officer and even went to a couple years of community college towards that. I didn’t know if my disqualification from the military would stop me from being a cop but I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I remember my friends who had joined coming home and sporting their Dress Blue uniforms around town. I was haunted by the feeling that, according to the doctor, I wasn’t good enough or at least that is how I had taken it. I would never be one of the few and proud. I was one of the many, broken and unable.
I used the next years to get active. I rode a bike. I ran. I took martial arts and worked out at a gym. I needed to prove myself to myself. My back never did bother me. It was then that I met a recruiter. He told me the military processing center purged their records every couple of years. This made sense to me because it was before the time of a computer on every desk. I thought there is no way they keep all that information easy to access, what would be the point? We hatched the plan to apply to the Marines again but this time I would accidentally leave out the part about having a back injury. The recruiter who had given me this information wanted me to go to another recruiter to sign up though, you know, just in case I got caught it wouldn’t go back on him. What could possibly go wrong?
I lied to the new recruiter. I lied to the doctors. I lied to them in all the paperwork. Have you ever attempted to get in before? Nope! Have you ever been disqualified before? Never! I was on my way. They sent me to the processing center to take the tests and physicals. It was all going smoothly. I passed all the tests with flying colors. And then, they called me into an office and had me sit down. They asked me to read a sign on the wall out loud to them. I can’t remember the exact words but it essentially said:
Knowingly giving false information or withholding required information on any recruiting form is a felony offense, punishable by a $10,000 fine and three years in prison.
After reading it aloud he asked if I wanted to make any changes to my enlistment paperwork. They were just trying to scare me. I’ve seen this tactic before. My mom did this to me all the time trying to catch me in a lie. You look them in the eye and you believe the lie. He doesn’t know. No sir! Absolutely not!
It was at this point that he placed in front of me the package that I had filled out 2 years ago when I was disqualified. My heart sank to the floor and I thought I was going to jail. Now, not only would I never be one of the few, I would be a felon for trying. They told me to sit tight because a doctor wanted to talk to me. A doctor? Don’t you mean the police?
The doctor asked why I wanted in so badly. He asked if my dad or recruiter had coached me to lie. I pled to him how active I was and how I knew I would make a good Marine if they would only give me a chance. I realized I wasn’t going to jail but again was feeling like all hope was lost. To my surprise, he told me if I could get several good references from doctors and people who had seen me active, he would submit a waiver for me! It would be up to a medical board and they would decide based on my records and whatever references I could find. I had my mission.
I wasted no time. I had numerous people write what a hard working person I was and how I had never complained about my back. Employers, doctors, martial arts instructors. I took it all back to the recruiter and then had to wait. And wait. For several months I waited. I heard nothing. The gleam of hope I had experienced was now dwindling. And then it came. A letter from the United States Military saying that I was fit and could join immediately!
In the end, I was a good Marine, I think. My back never did bother me. I learned to take with a grain of salt anyone’s opinion that you can’t do something. So called specialists claimed I would not be able to handle it. I got to show them! Well, myself at least. I always fantasized about finding them one day and saying, you remember me (not like they would), you said I wasn’t good enough and guess what? I was! To this day however, I am often haunted by the voice that screams I need to prove myself. Not to anyone in particular, just myself.