MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- During a weekend run, a friend and I talked about an upcoming vacation I was taking. I had planned to take my wife on a four day cruise for a honeymoon; 13 years after I had taken her as a bride. I figured I owed her that for following me around this gun club for so long.
When our discussion turned to the formal night that required formal dress, I asked him his opinion. I told him I had no civilian suits and that the only "tux" I had was the blue kind with the high stock collar.
"Wear your blues" he told me, and at first, I am embarrassed to admit, I was only considering the logistical nightmare that is involved in taking dress blues on a trip, much less on a ship where personal space can be measured in millimeters.
Then it hit me like a sledgehammer: of course I will wear my blues. What was I thinking? I am an ambassador in blue and what better opportunity was there to "roll the threads" than a formal occasion where I would likely be the only uniformed Marine around?
This prompted a discussion that I want to address here. As evidenced by my story above, even the most dedicated Marines can fall into the trap of convenience over obligation. Not even a generation ago, Marines proudly wore their dress uniform on liberty by choice. These days, the only time we wear them is for inspections, parades, and when we are forced to at work once a month. Rarely do we choose to take the uniform home on leave unless we are fresh out of initial training. Instead, we drag them out of the closet at the last minute and hope that we can work magic on them to make them look good despite their extended closet stay.
Snapping out of my stupidity, I vowed to bring the blues and wear them that night. How much I wanted to throw on my five medals and three ribbons but I knew that the Dress Blue "A" uniform was not authorized for liberty. Would anyone know the difference? Probably not. Was that the deciding factor? No. If the sanctity of the highest level of uniform we have is to be preserved, I could not jeopardize the integrity of its meaning just because I wanted others to see my pretty medals. That would be selfish. The Service Dress "A" is for the most formal occasion and this did not fit the bill.
So I went through the routine of removing my medals and pinning on my ribbons and shooting badges. Even though my wife knew the answer, she still wondered aloud why I took 45 minutes and four cycles of putting on the coat before I was sufficiently satisfied that they were spaced and lined up straight. Who would know the difference? Me and hundreds of thousands of ghost eyes who once wore the same uniform.
Luckily, the formal night was the second day so the haircut I got the day I left was just fresh enough to don my precious uniform. Worse than a girls' bathroom on prom night, I tugged, straightened, lint brushed, polished, rubbed, clipped, rotated, buttoned, tied, buckled, zipped, and smoothed until my wife had had enough and prompted me to come along. She was dressed in a stunning dress that complimented my uniform and was done a half hour before I was.
Stepping out of the cabin, we looked like royalty and left a certified disaster area behind us. How we as Marines can emerge from such chaos with an immaculate uniform is a constant source of humor for me.
Then it started. With a stunningly beautiful woman at my side, I am normally relegated to "that guy" status when walking through a crowd. But in this case, the tables seemed to be turned. By no stretch of the imagination am I embarrassed about my uniform, just the opposite. But what was a bit embarrassing was the open gawking I received. The crowd seemed to part as we made our way through the ship. Stares came as a mixture of curiosity, respect, and a touch of fear. Most of these reactions were indistinguishable from one another and I started to find it difficult to pin down what exactly they were thinking. The only thing that I knew for sure was that they were reacting and I knew that this was the right thing to do and admonished myself once again for ever considering not "rolling the thread."
As we strolled, a few of the braver vacationers spoke. But as my heart sank, the first one asked if I was in the Air Force. As my mental hands removed her still-beating heart, I caught myself and answered, "No ma'am, I am a Marine." Notice I did not say I was "in the Marine Corps." Or that I was an officer. I simply said "I am a Marine" and that is enough to ever say.
At the bar, one of the waiters asked if I was an admiral in the Navy. Because there were 56 nationalities represented by the crew of the ship, I had more patience with this foreigner. I only mentally slit his throat. Again, I smiled and said "No sir, I am a United States Marine."
As we made our way to dinner, the stares continued and I felt a bit self-conscious. It was good to get to our table where my wife and I could be alone again. But our waiter came over to ask a few questions and he told me that in the Dominican Republic, police officers wore the exact trousers we wear, blood stripe and all.
After our dinner, we strolled again and my soul was lifted as I received approving stares and nods from the generation I felt came closest to appreciating the true meaning of the uniform. The older gentlemen on the ship made me feel important and somehow I knew that theirs was a generation who deeply respected the Corps and that being a Marine during their younger days was worthy of great respect. I even received a few "Semper Fi" remarks as I passed by. I was stopped by a teenage boy who asked if he could get a picture with me. The celebrity status was a little overwhelming but I felt like I was representing the entire Marine Corps. How could I have ever considered not bringing the uniform?
The next day while touring Catalina, I was again approached by the teenager and he felt the need to tell me how much he respected Marines and how badly he wanted to be a Marine. He asked me if boot camp was hard, which is always such a difficult question to suitably answer. Without going into a complete presentation, there is no way to simply say "Yes" and leave it at that. We talked for a few minutes, I shook his hand, and I saw him return to a group of boys about his same age who were obviously waiting for him.
These events taught me a valuable lesson that I should have already known. I think that we should re-institute the wearing of the uniform to public functions. When you go home on leave, pack the uniform. Proudly wear your uniform and let everyone back home see that we Marines today are as fiercely proud of our Corps as our forefathers were. Not only is it a reflection of our accomplishments and pride, but more importantly it shows America that her Corps is still made up of proud Marines. Never be hesitant to "roll the thread." Semper Fi.