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Yellow Footprints 21 Years Ago Today

Arriving at the airport in Charleston, SC, I am greeted by a Marine in his service uniform. Alongside a group of ten or so other young men, we wait at the gate for a few other recruits to land. From there the Marine walks us single file to the bathroom, or head. He stands us in front of the sink and tells us to empty all contraband from our pockets, such as cigarettes, lighters, and knives. He collects them all and takes us through a maze of hallways in the bowels of the airport. We arrive to a room where we are instructed to sit down and lunch was passed out “bag nasties”. After we eat we are told to put our heads on the table and sleep. I was not sure what to expect as my recruiter only told me about island life, not the details of the journey to get to the island. None of us are allowed to look up. Every thirty minutes or so new recruits enter the room and are ordered to do the same, thus beginning our thirteen weeks of having no control.

Shortly after midnight everyone has arrived at the airport and they file us out to an unmarked white shuttle bus. The interior of the bus is like that of being shut in a closet or unlit basement. The windows seem to have two layers of limousine tint on them, shielding our view outward. We approach the main gate to Parris Island. The driver stops the bus and speaks with the guard, or sentry. After pulling through, we are then stopped in front of a building and as the bus door glides open, a drill instructor boards the bus and tells us all to sit up straight. He has a raspy, deep, and commanding voice, and welcomes us to the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. He screams, “Get off my bus. Get off my bus NOW and on my yellow footprints.”

The famous yellow footprints at Parris Island, South Carolina.

The famous yellow footprints at Parris Island, South Carolina.

It’s hard to believe that 21 years ago today, August 8, 1994, I boarded that flight out of Jackson, Mississippi headed for Charleston, South Carolina and was then off to Parris Island. I grew up an Army brat in Giessen, Germany (The Rock) or Fort Stewart, Georgia and when my parents separated I was eight years old. That day marked the moment I knew that I wanted to prove to my father that I could be tougher than him. I was angry at him for divorcing my mother and leaving our family and forcing us to grow up in rural Mississippi in a single wide trailer. Growing up in Brandon, Mississippi with a sister three years my senior and a single mother who worked three jobs at times to give us the best she could, seemed unbearable. We didn’t have much growing up, but my mother did her best to teach us morals, ethics, and how to be successful in life.

Ice cream with my mother at the ice skating rink near the Zugspitze, Austria.

Ice cream with my mother at the ice skating rink near the Zugspitze, Austria.

At the age of 15, I obtained my driver’s license, purchased my first car, and secured my first job flipping burgers at a local Wendy’s. I signed up for Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) at the start of my freshman year of high school and after four years was the JROTC Battalion Sergeant Major. By the age of 17 I was working at Exxon with computers, networking, marketing, and sales through the local community college (Hinds Community College) and on-the-job training. None of this really mattered me then because the only thing I wanted to be was a Marine and to show my father I was more of a man than he ever was. All the years later I was still bitter. I never took my SATs nor thought about going to college. I was a below-average C-student in high school and cared more about women than my education at the time. But the woman who mattered most stood beside me in the recruiting station when I was 17 years old and helped me realize my dream towards becoming a United States Marine – my mother.

Parris Island graduation photo October 1994

Parris Island graduation photo October 1994

My three months in 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Bravo Company, Platoon 1014 were a blur as was my time in the Fleet Marine Force. It’s hard to remember it all but I remember the good times and cherish the bad times. It’s those bad times that have helped me survive in the civilian world realizing things could always be worse and I have survived worse situations. When things get bad I remember nights on rail watch mid-February cruising in the Adriatic off the cost of Bosnia during Operation Joint Endeavor with below zero temperatures or the 115 degree days in Africa with 100% humidity listening to AK47 rounds hitting sandbags exploding sand everywhere during Operation Assured Response and Operation Quick Response.

On post atop of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia - Africa April 1996

On post atop of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia – Africa April 1996

Two weeks before graduating boot camp we had just returned from Basic Warrior Training (BWT). We were in the head cleaning our gas masks when I heard “Recruit Bowles, report to Senior Drill Instructor Sergeant Smith, recruit”. I shouted “Aye Aye Recruits” and beat feet to the Drill Instructor’s Hut. I slapped the hatch 3 times and shouted “Recruit Bowles reporting as ordered Sir!”. Upon entering the Drill Instructor’s Hut ALL of my Drill Instructors were standing behind the desk and my SDI had the phone in his hand. He said “Your father is on the phone for you recruit”. My heart sank. I knew I would pay for this. I had developed a phone relationship with my father after their divorce and saw him every few years for a couple of days. I took the phone from Sergeant Smith and stood at attention and spoke “Sir, this is recruit Bowles, sir.”. My father, then Army Sergeant Major Bowles, was on the other end of the phone and I knew he was laughing on the inside. He asked questions like how was I doing, when will I graduate, etc. The entire time I’m standing at attention in front of my 4 Drill Instructors and speaking in the third person to my father on the phone.

As the call concluded I handed the phone back to my SDI and the heavy took me to the pit for a good hour of “fun”. Apparently my father had called the Parris Island Base Sergeant Major and was passed all the way down to my Series Commander and then into the SDI’s hut. I was never a great runner at 6’4” tall and 200 pounds. I was more of a “Give me as much weight as you want and let’s go hiking “humping”. During the final physical fitness test (PFT) 3 mile run the Series Commander ran up next to me and said “I wonder what Sergeant Major Bowles would think of his baby boy back here at the back of the pack”. To which I gasped to respond “Aye Aye Sir” and took off. That was the fasted PFT I ever ran during my time in the Marine Corps. I finished just shy of 22:00 to do the 3 miles.

The values instilled in me during my time at Parris Island, and my time in the FMF, stick with me to this day. JJDIDTIEBUCKLE is what I live my life by and I am thankful for each and every opportunity I had serving my country. After my time in, I reflected on that thought I had before joining of “Showing my father I’m harder than he is”. I learned a tough lesson. The World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Era veterans were hard as nails. My father retired in the mid-nineties with 30 years of faithful service, two tours in Vietnam, and a DD214 full of awards. It wasn’t truly about me being better or tougher than him. It was about me making him proud at the end of the day and earning his respect as a man and love as his son. He is retired now and resides in the desert in Nevada and we talk regularly via phone/email and see each other each year.

It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since I stood in those footprints but the values/lessons have served me well to the point where I have a loving wife of 14 years, 4 beautiful children, and a career which affords me the opportunity to have time/skills/network to give back to my fellow Marine Infantrymen, and Corpsmen, via the 03XX Foundation, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.

Family vacation at Universal Studios, Orlando June 2015

Family vacation at Universal Studios, Orlando June 2015

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