When I was about 6 or 7, I discovered my dad’s pictures from Vietnam. In them, he and Marines from his infantry company — posed around the An Hoa Basin — were in the prime of their youth. Men I knew from fishing trips were 20 years younger, filthy, and full of swagger. They were raw and alive. From that moment, I wanted to be a “grunt” like my old man.
The tradition of serving runs deep in my family. My father is the son of a World War II bomber pilot. My mom is the daughter of a Marine who landed on Iwo Jima. She was an Army nurse in Vietnam. Ultimately, my family can trace ancestors back to every major American conflict since the French and Indian War.
I was profoundly influenced by the Marines with whom my dad served in Vietnam. From the earliest days of my life, the best people I knew outside my immediate family were Marines. Guys like Mike “Mac” McGarvey and Carlton Sherwood were around from the day I was born. They offered advice, a beer, or a bass fishing partner. Every summer in the North Woods of Minnesota, I’d listen to their stories about Vietnam, politics, and journalism.
Events during the summer of 2004 landed me in the Corps — and eventually into journalism.
That June, I was taking summer classes as a sophomore at Penn State when my dad called on a Friday evening to check in. He casually mentioned that he was offered a chance to embed with US Marines in Afghanistan for Parade magazine. Mostly joking, I replied he should tell Parade he’d only go if he could take me.
Part of me wanted to get on the ground and see Afghanistan firsthand. The rational side felt that drinking cheap beer in cargo shorts was the best way to finish the summer. No part of me figured Parade would take him up on the offer.
My dad made a brief call, and 10 minutes later, I was going to Afghanistan as an embedded photographer. They must have really wanted the story.
That July in 2004 set the tone for the next two decades. While embedded with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, I got my first taste of journalism. Parade’s editors selected a photo I made of 1/6 Marines on patrol in Uruzgan province as their cover shot. In January 2006, I would join the same company in 1/6 as an infantry rifleman and learn that my new grunt brothers blamed me for the extension of their 2004 deployment because I had helped highlight the unit’s success. As I was welcomed to the battalion in festive fashion, I tried — while doing endless pushups — to pin blame on Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera. No one cared about Geraldo.
After Afghanistan, Dad and I traveled to Vietnam for a couple of weeks in August 2004. I was able to walk beside my father through many of the areas he’d fought in as a younger man. Sharing that experience with my dad became a training ground. We compared Afghanistan to the “Arizona Valley” while walking his old patrol routes. Occasionally, my dad would stop, lay out a scenario, and ask me, “What now?” Frequently, these were situations out of which he’d once fought. Standing decades removed from Dad’s war under the August heat in those rice paddies, I felt a growing desire to prove my mettle. It was all leading to one concrete conclusion: I didn’t want to go back to college. I wanted to go to war.
When I returned to classes at Penn State that fall, my mind was still on patrol with the Marines in Uruzgan. When I’d look up at the mountains surrounding State College, I’d see Pakistan and think of the Konar River.
That November, the Marines launched Operation Phantom Fury to clear out the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province. Knowing some of my childhood friends were fighting in that second Battle of Fallujah solidified my decision; I dropped out and enlisted.
It was time to be a grunt, like my father before me.
Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 is where I learned firsthand why the pictures of my dad from Vietnam oozed both swagger and stress. As a journalist in Afghanistan, my presence was always temporary and on the periphery. If there was a patrol I didn’t want to go on or there was a risk I didn’t want to take, no one cared. It was someone else’s war — I was just there to give the public a window into it. I had nothing to prove.
Ramadi wasn’t someone else’s war. It was a highly personal grudge match between my best friends and those who wished to kill us. There was no leaving, and unless all of us were able to leave together, no one would consider it. This was our war, and we would endure the grind together.
Like my dad decades earlier, I was surrounded by brothers I’d never expected to have. Thousands of miles from home, we balanced on the edge of the human experience — together. What I felt was something like what I remember seeing in Dad’s old photos; the bond he shared with his brothers in Vietnam crystallized. It made sense.
After the Marine Corps, I spent years working as a defense contractor and in the US Senate. No matter what I was doing, I always found myself drawn back to journalism and writing.
Illuminating the experiences of ground-level troops — in combat and beyond — is a noble and necessary enterprise.
Just like the snapshots in my dad’s albums, there’s a story and larger context behind all the events happening daily — sometimes far away, sometimes at home. The temptation today is to echo the top-line narrative of an event as “knowledge.”
Media narratives often portray Vietnam veterans as victims of a pointless war of attrition. My dad’s pictures told me another story about the pride of belonging and how the human spirit is galvanized by the strength of our bonds, our fidelity to one another, and the stories we live together.
I know no truer story than that.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine.