The Cast: Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas (in charge), Marines (on duty), Old Glory (majestic), 4th Squad (on call).
There’s a reason they’re called the formative years.
Just a few days ago, I sat along Main Street, with my daughter, as the two of us watched the 4th of July parade go by. Always a treat. I love to get to stand and put my hand over my heart and pay proper homage to the flag that represents the country that I served. I enjoy watching my community get involved and showing their pride for this nation. It’s heartwarming. Then, near the end of the parade, I saw a sight that ignited a flash of a memory that brought a small tear to my eye. In a large frame, stretched taut, was a large American Flag. It was too big to be on a pole and brought along in the parade, so it was set clearly for all to behold as though it was flying in a breeze. Awesome.
Not too long ago I witnessed a great visual for youth that demonstrated when they make some of the most important decisions of their lives. It was impressive. The speaker had a tape measure that was extended out to ninety inches—each inch representing one year of life. Then, the speaker—after asking questions and receiving answers from the intended audience (12–18 year-olds)—placed colored bits of tape on the ‘years’ that were felt the important choices would be made. Things like marriage, college, children, career, and many more were the big decisions of life being made. After the speaker was done, the audience was now left to witness when most of the most important choices in one’s life are made.
Guess what? Most are made between seventeen and twenty-five. Yup. When a person is young. I get it. The formative years. The years when a person is impacted the most by the things they surround themselves with, the things they let into their lives. The time when someone decides which ‘road of life’ they want to follow. This isn’t to say other choices can’t be made later, or poor choices corrected. It’s just that there is a crucial point in time where we are impacted strongly by what we allow our lives to be filled with. At 19 I had a profound experience that affected me. One that I cannot be forgotten.
During Marine Corps boot camp you get pumped full of all sorts of knowledge. History. Tactics. Strategy. Discipline. And, so much more. One of the things that I would venture to guess that also gets instilled in any military branch boot camp is the love of country and for the flag that represents it. I love the red, white, and blue. I do. I love to watch that flag unfurl and ripple in the wind. I love the geometry. I love the colors. I love the symbolism. I love what it represents. I love it. I really do. And, during boot camp, we sad little Marine recruits were taught about it, and how to take care of it. Then, one night, it became personal.
There are eight hours of sleep time allotted during the day. Whether or not you sleep those eight hours is different. The rest of the day you are busy—non stop. There’s exercise, chow, classes, training, chow, training, more stuff, chow, punishments (throughout the day—whenever you earned them), more other stuff, training, other stuff, a short amount of personal time, then sleep. You can’t help but sleep. You are worn out, you are doing something active for 16 hours straight. But one thing you learn quickly, very quickly, when the D.I. (Drill Instructor) tells you to do, you do. Period.
It was entering personal time during the third, and final, phase of boot camp. We were somewhere in weeks eight to ten, and Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas stepped into the squad bay and called out with voluminous ferocity, “Fourth squad! Fall-out! You’re coming with me!” Which was immediately followed by all members of the fourth squad (which included me) standing up with lighting speed, snapping to the position of attention, and responding with, “Aye, aye, Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas, sir!” Then we quickly moved down the stairs and into formation outside the front of our barracks. All of us were nervous as to what was about to occur. This late in the evening it wasn’t common for us to get thrashed* at this late hour, but…
We were informed that due to some sort of logistical snafoo, M.C.R.D.’s (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) base flag did not have enough bodies to properly fold it for the night’s storage. We were conscripted to help. You could see the pride and excitement radiate from each one of us. This was going to be… well… This was going to be something that I do not have the words to properly communicate. See, at this point in training, anything different from the norm was gladly welcomed. But, to get to participate in something as important as this, and assisting full-fledged Marines in the retirement of the American flag for the night was almost tantamount to meeting God (no blasphemy intended). It was a tremendously big deal.
Our barracks were near the parade grounds where the flagpole was located. We were nearby. That’s why we were picked. None of us cared. We were about to participate in something larger than ourselves. Literally and figuratively. Each one of us had to struggle to contain our enthusiasm or else we would be thrashed at some point. Discipline and self-control had been drilled into us for the past several weeks, losing it now must not happen.
It wasn’t long before we had reached our destination and Sgt. Thomas was barking orders to send each recruit into a position to prevent our flag from touching the ground. We all understood why so many bodies were needed. This was one of those giant flags that could blanket a small city. You know the kind? The ones that you can see from miles away. It was a glorious spectacle to witness the red and white intertwine and ripple on the wind as Old Glory descended along it’s halyard. Pretty soon there was too much flag and not enough support to keep it from off the ground without wading it up and showing disrespect. Well, that wasn’t going to happen.
“YOU! Get under there!” A finger was pointed at the ‘YOU’ and then to the new position that the ‘YOU’ was to take up. Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas was putting each one of his recruits right where they needed to be. Each one of us doing our part to assist the four Marines who were attempting to retire our flag for the night.
Due to the surface area of our flag, it could not just be held along the sides and kept off the ground. So, some of us were sent to be supports for our flag. We were to bend at the waist and extend our arms straight outward, thus ensuring that no part of our flag would be soiled by making contact with the asphalt. As more Old Glory was lowered, more of us were set up into the strange yoga-like pose of legs-straight-bent-waist-arms-out-and-keep-your-mouth’s-closed position.
There 4th Squad stood—well, sort-of stood, we were all bent at a 90 degree angle—helping real Marines (we weren’t Marines yet, we were just recruits—we had not yet received the title) prepare our symbol of our nation for the night’s retirement. We would turn and look at each other and smile the smile of a man who was proud of what he was part of. Then, Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas would yell out, “Just keep your eyeballs on the deck. I know you’re turning your heads and looking all goofy at each other. I can see you under that flag. I’m not stupid.” At this, it was difficult to not giggle like school children. Our elation in our ability to be part of something so much grander than ourselves… To be trusted (even if it was just by chance)… This was the coolest thing I had ever been a part of in my entire life! Of all our lives. We all knew it.
In the Marine Corps we are united. We are a brotherhood unlike any other in the world. You mess with one, you mess with us all. Marines for life. Period. And, this event was just one more element that would help to forge us sad little recruits into future Marines. But, it would always be unique to 4th Squad, Platoon 2023, Hotel Company.
Eventually, our American flag was being folded up. The red and white stripes were wrapping up into themselves. As there became less and less flag, Sgt. Thomas would call out those of us who were no longer needed, to step out and get into formation. As each recruit left, the rest of us would utter an almost silent “Yes! Not me!” See, we each wanted to be useful just a little longer. We all wanted to help. We wanted to just touch our flag a little longer. As sappy as it may sound, it was as if by touching the flag we were able to share with our nation our love for it. Our gratitude for being part of something bigger than ourselves. Of letting America know how grand it is, and how much were were willing to do anything—including die—to keep it safe and our flag flying free even just one more day. Nobody wanted to leave.
It was down to the final folds: The triangles. The last few folds. “You. Get in formation.” Drill Instructor Sgt. Thomas would bark out another order, pulling one more guardian of the flag out from his duty post. But as he did it, despite the fear-inspiring intensity he had in his voice, there was also a clear sense of reverence for the moment, in it. It only added to the majesty of that event.
It came down to two of us, myself and on other recruit. Both desiring to remain to the end. Neither one wishing to leave. We wanted that honor of being the last one.
Sgt. Thomas, “One of you get out of there.”
He’s letting us decide?!? The other recruit and I shared the thought. And, in response to what we were both thinking, we each subtly shook our heads, “No. You go. I’ll stay.” Marines can be stubborn—that’s partially why we always win. And, even though we weren’t Marines yet, we had been trained. Neither was going to yield.
“Get out.” Sgt. Thomas pointed to the other recruit and motioned for him to get into formation. I got to be the last. I was there, under the blue field of white stars, as the four Marines carefully applied the eighth, ninth, and tenth, folds. My time was at an end. “Let’s go, Bagnall.” And I was directed to return to the rest of 4th Squad as the last three folds took place. Time to go.
I’ve reflected on that moment many times. It is still one of the most inspirationally pivotal moments of my life. There are truly not adequate words for me to find in order for me to properly describe the emotion that occurred that night, all those years ago. But, I do know one thing, my American flag, that symbol of my country—a new land for my immigrant family to call their own—is one of the greatest things my tired eyes will never tire of seeing.
Yeah, there’s a reason they’re called the formative years.
*If you were ‘thrashed’ you were punished for some error and were required to physically exert yourself with pushups, scissor-kicks, mountain-climbers, and such until the D.I. felt you had learned your lesson, or the D.I. got tired.