So, apparently there's a bit of controversy surrounding a Marine Corps veteran who sang "God Bless America" at the request of the Red Sox during Game One of this year's World Series. Dan Clark, who these days is a Massachusetts State Trooper, served a four year hitch in the Corps and was described as a "U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant [retired]" by the broadcast team and the Red Sox. Deadspin has the full story, which I recommend reading, both for the background and (if you're a veteran, anyway) the amusement which comes from reading a civilian trying to explain the ins-and-outs of military customs and regulations.
What Deadspin doesn't comment on, and what is central to this tempest in a teapot, is that this entire situation could be avoided with a little helpful guidance from the Marine Corps to its veterans. Part of the process of becoming a Marine is learning what the word means. Marines are particular about how they are addressed - we are not "soldiers," and we can be very pointed about this depending on the intentions of the speaker making the error. As nothing less canonical than the "Marines' Hymn" tells us, "Marine" is not merely some interchangeable noun like "soldier" or "trooper" or "GI." "Marine" is a noun and a title:
From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.
The "Marines' Hymn" is a handy little piece of military agitprop. (I say this in the most affectionate way possible – I love the Hymn, and love singing it – but if "agitprop" disturbs you, substitute a more tactful (read: “sterile”) term like “PR” or “information”. Tact was never my strong suit when it came to Marine Corps life.) Just that first verse alone tells you some useful things about the Marines, including:
- some of our celebrated history
- the terrain we’re known for fighting upon or in (really anywhere, though the Hymn doesn’t mention our many pitched battles with bikers, sailors, and locals in bars from Yucca Valley to Kin Town, and Jacksonville to Oceanside)
- our rapid deployability and expeditionary ethos
- and that “Marine” is a title one earns
This title, as one learns in Marine Corps boot camp, is a forever thing, which ought not be surprising from an organization with a motto like “Semper Fidelis.” There are no ex-Marines, your drill instructors tell you. Once you earn that title at the end of boot camp, even if you’re dishonorably discharged, you’re still a Marine. There are plenty of Marines who aren’t in the Marine Corps anymore, but there are no former Marines. It’s actually true: I have known plenty of Marines in my day, including a nonagenarian Tarawa survivor, and veterans of the Corps from every era thereafter: Korea, early Cold War, Vietnam, later Cold War, Desert Storm, Somalia, and Iraq & Afghanistan. I’ve never heard a Marine say he felt like an ex-Marine. Being a Marine becomes part of your identity in a way I’ve never observed from friends, relatives, acquaintances, and strangers who have served in other branches. Decades after they were a soldier, sailor, airman, or coast guardsman, they might say “I was in the Army,” or “I served in the Navy.” Rarely do I hear “I was in the Marine Corps” without a date or war appended to the end of that statement. It’s “I’m a Marine,” or some variant of that statement.
Which gets us to our central problem, and the problem at the heart of the brouhaha surrounding Sgt. Dan Clark. Most of us who become Marines don’t make the Marine Corps our career. We serve a hitch or two, then get out to go to college, or spend more time with our children, or because we find that military life isn’t something we particularly want for the next sixteen or twelve years. We’re still Marines after we leave the Marine Corps. The Corps is clear about that.
The “Marines’ Hymn” has one other element to it which is noteworthy:
First to fight for right and freedom,
And to keep our honor clean;
“First … to keep our honor clean.” Keeping our honor clean can mean many things. Our PR slogan, “Honor, Courage, Commitment” is a part of that – doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. Not doing the wrong things, even when they’re easy or no one is looking. Being able to look in the mirror and not wince from the integrity check. Ask any Marine Corps veteran about his time in the Marine Corps and you’ll hear about other kinds of honor policing, from the funny to the asinine, which frequently is passed down from lifer Marines to junior enlisted Marines. Little discipline infractions like keeping your hands in your pockets, or walking and talking on a cell phone, or wearing your hair a bit too long than a guy who’s been getting a high-and-tight for sixteen years might like, even if it’s within the letter of regulation. Marines love to jump on one another for these little details, sometimes suggesting that if you’re complacent about the small things, you might be incompetent about the big things.
What is going on with Sgt. Dan Clark is honor policing. Sgt. Clark served in the Marine Corps from 1980-1984. Near as I could determine, he’s not a Grenada veteran, which means he served in the odd dichotomy of the Cold War-peacetime Marine Corps. (I wouldn’t serve in the peacetime Marine Corps for six times the highest re-enlistment bonus offered during Operation Iraqi Freedom. No doubt I’d shoot my mouth off straight into the brig within the first few months.) So, Sgt. Clark is a Marine Corps veteran, but Marines like to be called “Marines.” The Corps has ingrained that into our identity.
Unfortunately, the Marine Corps does not equip its less-than-career veterans with an adjective to describe our service. We are told that we are not “ex-Marines” or “former Marines,” because that title is ours forever, but because we didn’t serve our twenty we aren’t “retired Marines.” I’m not sure there’s even a cromulent word in English to describe our status. “Sometime Marine” makes us sound like sporadically-serving reservists (sorry, reservists!) or, at the minimum, requires explanation to civilians. The related “one-time Marine” suggests that time has passed, and might be problematic when considering Marines with multiple enlistments, (“two-time Marine”?) “Prior Marine” sounds silly and might imply the same as “former” to civilians. I like the sound of “erstwhile Marine,” but like “jejune,” it’s a somewhat uncommon word one uses at one’s peril. Unfortunately, “erstwhile” also means “former,” or suggests something from the past is no longer the case. In the eyes of the Marine Corps and, more importantly, anyone who earned the title “Marine,” that’s just not going to do.
So we’re left with a conundrum. Dan Clark, and presumably any Marine who served from Tun Tavern to today but did not retire, may not be referred to as a “retired Marine.” The Marine Corps lifers who serve as the repository of all Marine traditions have secured a special designation for themselves, but have left their brother and sister Marines who served in but did not retire from the Marine Corps without a useful idiom with which they may profess their “Marine” title.
I hear a great deal about the current Commandant’s efforts to prepare the Marine Corps for peacetime. Perhaps in between issuing directives regarding barracks life and other details, he might spare a thought for those Marines who have left the Marine Corps, but still would like to call ourselves Marines in a way that accurately describes our status and keeps our honor clean. I’m happy to sit down with him and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and peruse a thesaurus for the right word that describes the non-retired Marine’s Marine-ness.
(As for the idea that retired Marines can wear their dress blues at any function, but non-retired Marines may only wear their dress blues “in conjunction with a sanctioned event involving an active or reserve military unit,” don’t get me started. I’m not going to wear my dress blues to the hardware store, but if one day I decide to shave the beard I started growing the day I left active duty and put on my blues and medals for a fellow Marine’s wedding or funeral, the Marine Corps ought not have a damn thing to say about it. I earned those dress blues as surely as I earned the title, and they can’t take that away from me.)