“Our war is different,” Justin Eckersley said to me via e-mail, “and so are the people fighting it. We are not conscripts. An all-volunteer force is just going to have a different attitude not only about the war they’re fighting, but about coming home, too. You chose to do something, and you adapt, but you retain yourself because doing this was a part of who you were anyway, if that makes sense. The way we are fighting this war is different, too. It's hard to explain in brief, but we are smarter, deadlier, and safer than in the past, though it may not seem like it with all the news of IEDs.”
Justin is a veteran of the Iraq war who, following his tour of duty left the Marines and attended UMass Boston where he and I met. It wasn’t until several weeks after I had met him that I learned he was a veteran – to Justin it just wasn’t that big of a detail and Justin, for what it’s worth, is the last person you’d ever expect to be a hardened veteran. He plays Dungeons and Dragons wearing a Burger King crown, wedges crushed-up aluminum cans into the bottoms of his shoes so it makes metallic crunching noises when he walks, and the last time I saw him he was running around the playground of my elementary school at one in the morning pretending it was a spaceship and declaring that everybody not on the jungle gym was now asphyxiating because ‘The ground is outer space’. Justin is 26 years old.
After taking the ASVAB in high school, Justin was besieged by calls from recruiters of every branch of the military. “They offered me money, training and college.” Justin said, “Except the Marine recruiter. He promised me pain. And pride. And inclusion into something I knew was imperfect, as any organization of humans will be, but that stood for something more, whether it achieved that or not.” The romantic in Justin was hooked, and he signed up without much hesitation, beginning his first four years of Marine life.
After a full year of training, Justin was deployed on a an aircraft carrier as a public relations liaison, with duties very contradictory of the kind you’d think of when you hear ‘deployed Marine’. His daily life consisted mostly of interviewing other service members and writing articles about their lives aboard the ship to be published back home. Nonetheless, his job was not without its trials, and Justin saw that in war, everybody shares the hardships. “We lost a pilot. That was bizarre and painful for me. He was just on a training exercise, and I guess something happened to him out there, in the dark. He crashed and... gone. Wasn't there the next day, or the day after. Being public affairs, I had to interview a friend of his. He cried. I'd never seen an officer cry. I mean, they're human like anybody else, but... I hurt for that man. And when you put that in perspective of other war stories, it's mild.”
After his tour was up, Justin left the Marines to see what civilian life had to offer him, and was greatly underwhelmed. In the three years he was out, he says, worked one ‘Underling-level job’ (A security guard at a Boston museum), and watched his body atrophy as he lived in a tiny apartment. He half-assed a semester at college learning something he was already good at, writing, and made just enough money to cover his living and medical expenses. Since returning to the Marines a year ago, Justin has accomplished the following: “I have learned two management-level jobs (maintenance management and embarkation chief), been promoted, gone to several additional schools (technical stuff like hazardous materials certification and whatnot), become very strong and healthy again, live in a four-bedroom house with a pool and a two-car garage.” And he makes about sixty grand a year.
But Justin isn’t just in it for the money. In about a year’s time, he is going to try out for MARSOC, the Marines Special Operations Command unit, the Marines equivalent to the Navy’s SEALS. “I have never seen combat. I don’t know what it’s like to fire a weapon out of anger or fear. I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. Men who have found out are, yes, often broken. But the friends I have who are ex-special forces are almost a different class of human. I need to know if I have that within me.” Justin says that on top of this desire, protection is in his nature. He can laugh and play and revel in peace because he’s willing to fight for it, and has earned to look like an idiot when he so chooses. “I want to work to secure that right for others, to be an actual force for good, as idealistic and naïve as that may sound.”
I’ve known Justin for three years, and in that time the incredible quality of his character was never once obscured. At every moment, he has a look on his face that seems like he’s about to burst out laughing. He finds most things funny, and he makes most things funny. The incredible flexibility of personality that Justin carries with him is what makes him such an interesting person, and such an ideal Marine: He’s dedicated deeply to his job, but nobody forced him back into the service, that was his choice entirely. Justin makes no excuses for his weaknesses or for anything he thinks he is lacking; it’s simply the next item to be resolved on his to-do list of self-improvement. And he’ll never stop, because complacency is simply not in his vocabulary.
“I think I am the way I am because none of what I am is a front. I am a Marine. I am also a total dork. I am unabashedly both of these things at once. I don't have to pretend to be above playing in a playground because I am not. Confidence and self-honesty, I suppose.”