I grew up as an orphan in California’s foster care system. By the time I graduated from high school at 18 years of age, I had lived with 16 families. Each time I moved, I had to shed my current identity and adopt one that would be accepted and approved of by my new foster family. Experience taught me that “being myself” was the quickest way to being beaten, starved, tortured, or sent away to another foster home. I had to adapt to each new circumstance I moved into and become the perfect version of child my new family expected me to be if I was to have any hope of staying healthy and finally have a place to call home.
After a lifetime of living this way, I was a perfect chameleon but had no identity of my own. The image I presented to the world was one of a very confident and capable young man, while the reality was that I was a child who felt lost and completely insecure about his talents, abilities, and value to any other human being. I would eventually feel inspired to find a mentor who was wise enough and experienced enough to tell me who I was, explain what my strengths and weakness were, and show me how to navigate and overcome the challenges of life that felt so overwhelming to me. At the end of this journey, I would indeed find this mentor, but he ended up being in the last place in the world I thought to look.
At 18 years old, I moved to Atlanta with nothing but a suitcase, $200 in my wallet, and a distant cousin willing to rent me a room. My entire focus was to discover who I really was…what I truly liked/disliked, what my talents were, what I truly enjoyed, and most importantly, what career I would find fulfillment in having. After a few years of searching on my own, I was no closer to understanding myself but I did know what kind of man I wanted to become. I wanted to be respected and admired by men and women alike, I wanted to be strong enough to overcome any challenge, I wanted to have the lethal skills to defend myself and the family I would eventually have, and I wanted to have the financial means to have a beautiful home of my own, be surrounded by nice things, and travel to exotic places.
One day I had what I felt was a great idea. If I wanted to become a certain kind of man, all I had to do was find a man who was everything I wanted to be. Once I found this great and wise leader of men, he would be able to assess me and tell me how to achieve what I wanted in life. It didn’t take very much analysis of this idea to come across my first major hurdle. Where would I find such a man? I had never come across one personally, and every man I knew of who was as highly respected and admired as I wanted to be was either a celebrity or public figure. Finding a man like that in the general public seemed like an extremely long shot at best. My logic told me that I had to look for my mentor in a place where common men wouldn’t be. It was while I was driving on my way to work with this thought in mind that I suddenly found what I felt was the best answer to my question.
It was a sign that said, “Armed Forces Recruitment Office.” The office was located literally a block away from where I worked and I had driven by it every day for over a year without noticing it. I was never inclined to join the military, but after arriving at work and thinking about it for a few hours, the more it seemed to fit what I was looking for. My logic told me that I was far more likely to find a man with the qualities I was looking for in the military. After all, to be in the military, a man had to be physically and mentally stronger and tougher than the average Joe. Military men were well respected and admired and they had to have lethal skills if they were to go to war and win. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that all military men were the type of man I wanted to meet and emulate, but I felt very confident that there were more great leaders per capita in the military than there were in the general public. Furthermore, it didn’t take much research to learn that U.S. Marines were considered the strongest and toughest of them all.
On the same day I noticed the “Armed Forces Recruiting” sign, I walked into the Marine Corps recruiter’s office and said, “How do I sign up?” I was ready to go. I had no sentimental attachments to anything in my life, and my greatest hope of finding the man who would help me discover myself was by joining this organization. I had a job, a car, a leasing contract to an apartment, and plenty of furniture, but two weeks later I was riding in a van headed to Parris Island, South Carolina. It was here that I would find the man that I was looking for.
On October 6th, 2003, I stepped on the infamous yellow footprints and began my indoctrination as a U.S. Marine. As soon I saw the drill instructors with their “Smoky Bear” hats yelling at the top of their lungs and looking like they could bend steel with their bare hands, I felt like I had made a great choice. Five days later, marked “Training Day 1” on the Basic Training calendar, I wondered for the first of many times what the hell I had gotten myself into. I was one of 94 recruits in my platoon, and one of the first things that are established in the platoon is leadership among the recruits. The Drill Instructors divided the platoon into four parts called “squads” with each having a squad leader at its head. Lastly, there is a position called “Guide” that is the leader of the four squad leaders, and consequently the entire platoon of almost 100 recruits. It was my great misfortune that the Drill Instructors elected me as the Guide.
I wanted to quit immediately, but that simply wasn’t an option. I was expected to lead 93 other people and I was just as clueless as they were. When we were taught or shown something, which was always very quickly and haphazardly, I had to turn around and teach everyone else. Half of the orders I received were to have the platoon do one thing or another without receiving the benefit of being told how it should be done. I simply had to guess at how it should be done, teach every other recruit how to do what I had guessed at, and then follow through with a plan I prayed would work. I was looked to for guidance from below and looked at for perfect performance from above.
For the first six weeks, it never worked. Marine Corps Basic Training is 13 weeks long. By the end of those six weeks, I had developed walking pneumonia and broken three ribs. I was no great success as a leader in my eyes, but it was apparent that I had more of a clue than anyone else did. How much the other recruits ate and slept every day depended on my ability to have the entire platoon perform well enough to avoid the hazing that was sure to come if we didn’t perform up to standard. I was the first to wake up, the last to go to sleep, the first to feel the wrath of the Drill Instructors, and always the last to eat. I was alone on the island called Leadership and it was the most miserable experience I’ve ever had. What kept me going every day was the knowledge that I was earning the opportunity to meet the man who would show me who I was and, as expected, graduation day did not disappoint me in the least.
I was promoted on graduation day for my performance throughout Basic Training. It was considered a great accomplishment, but quite honestly I was just glad it was over. I still had walking pneumonia, I still had three broken ribs, and I had lost approximately 10 kilos of muscle mass. In all aspects of the expression, I was bone weary. We went through the ceremony without a hiccup and the word “Dismissed!!” was sweet music to my ears. I was simply looking forward to the next step of my journey. I walked away from the parade grounds with my promotion warrant in hand and headed to where the buses were waiting to take me back to Atlanta for some much needed rest. As I was walking toward the bus, I opened my promotion warrant for the first time. Above the certificate that displayed the formal declaration of promotion, there was a space for comments from my Senior Drill Instructor. It read as follows:
“Through his example of leadership, Recruit Verdun inspired the respect and admiration of the young Marines he had under his charge, as well as me and my peers. Throughout basic training he assisted those under his charge with discovering their hidden talents and abilities and guided them in developing them to their fullest potential. His example as a leader has inspired me to improve and update the way I inspire loyalty and dedication in my troops and I am confident he will continue to inspire these qualities in others as he progresses in his career. I am proud to recommend Michael Verdun for promotion.
E.P. Earl, Staff Sergeant
United States Marine Corps
Parris Island, SC. Marine Corps Recruit Depot”
As I read his comment, the world around me began to spin. The man I had been looking for all this time…was me.
By: Michael Verdun