Photo courtesy of the author.
Third squad assembled into our proper order of formation for our dress blues inspection. It was Nov. 10, 2005 — the 230th birthday of the United States Marine Corps, aka the world’s finest fighting force.
Humidity was common aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and we were sweating in our dress uniforms after pounding several beers. I would be the only person in our platoon to redeploy to Afghanistan who had been with it during our previous deployment to the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. The majority were fresh out of recruit training. The other two squad leaders were corporals imported from security forces. Our new platoon sergeant had joined the unit after serving as a drill instructor, and our platoon commander landed shortly after receiving his commission — as is typical.
Since I was the only junior enlisted member with combat experience, I had been assigned to be the third squad leader and fell in at the front of the third row. I was only an E-3 and 20 years old. Being underage required me to rely on my roommate to buy me beer. I was proud of the squad and its leadership that I’d hand selected.
My roommate was a beefcake who could lift a semitruck if he were so inclined, so I’d appointed him as the first team leader. The second team leader had been to college and had brains. The third team leader was an “old man” at 27 with more life experience than the rest of the squad. Their jobs were challenging because they had to lead their peers who had been through bootcamp with them and shared the same lack of job experience. Soon they’d be leading their peers in a combat zone.
They had performed well during our predeployment training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California, and then in the desert of Twentynine Palms, California. We dubbed ourselves “The Regulators,” and during forced marches, a member of third squad would shout, “Regulators,” and the others would echo, “Mount up!” We had borrowed the war cry from the famous rap anthem “Regulate” featuring Nate Dogg and Warren G.
Our captain made his way through the inspection until he arrived at our squad. He looked us over curiously and asked, “Why’re you all wearin’ fuckin’ aviator sunglasses?” Our point man responded, “They’re in regs sir. We bought ’em at the PX, and they’re uniform.” He nodded, accepting the answer. The captain looked me up and down.
“Lookin’ good Anderson,” he said.
I caught a hint of alcohol on his breath, and I suspect he was already shitty.
“Your collar’s a little loose.” He ran a finger between my collar and my throat. I explained that I’d lost some weight, but really I’d inherited my coat from a Marine who recently left the unit and had a fuller neck than mine. The rest of the uniform passed on first glance.
The captain made his way to Brains, the second team leader, and asked, “Is it true?” Brains matter-of-factly replied, “Yes, sir.” The captain pursed his lips, trying to suppress a smile. “How much did she cost, Brains?” Brains mechanically responded, “Seven hundred dollars, sir. We all chipped in.”
The captain shook his head. “And whose date is she?” he wanted to know.
“Squad date, sir,” Brains proudly declared. It hadn’t taken long for word to spread through Alpha Company that our squad’s guest of honor for the Marine Corps Ball was a prostitute.
After formation, our squad reconvened in a barracks room, bumping old-school rap and drinking as many beers as possible before the ball. The Old Man texted our squad’s date to let her know where the hotel was and to meet us before entering so she could receive the other $350.
The Old Man had gone downtown to Lewers Street earlier in the week to solicit our practitioner of the oldest profession, and he claimed to have been very selective. I was curious to see what she looked like and was half-expecting to see a working girl who would make us laugh more than anything. Or maybe she’d look like a model. Lewers Street had plenty of both varieties.
As we posed and snapped cell phone pics of our snappy uniforms, a Marine from another platoon on barracks duty passed by us in his olive drab and tan service Charlie uniform.
“Hey Portillo,” I slurred. “I’m coming back in fucking cuffs tonight!”
“Good to go, lance corporal,” he replied.
It hadn’t taken long for word to spread through Alpha Company that our squad’s guest of honor for the Marine Corps Ball was a prostitute.
A year earlier, I had passed my first Marine Corps birthday fighting through the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Since then, I would sometimes experience a shot of adrenaline when I drank and could feel war pulsing through my veins. The feeling made me want to fight a stranger. Soon the $40 cabs arrived, and third squad caravanned to Waikiki.
When we arrived, she was waiting for us in front of the hotel. She accommodated our request to wear the signature “jelly” shoes that Waikiki’s prostitutes wore to signal to johns that they were working. We wanted everyone to know the score tonight.
She had straight black hair and wore a beautiful black dress that tastefully exposed world-class cleavage, an olive complexion, and stunning almond eyes. She was a hooker, and I was in love, just like the rest of third squad. We thanked the Old Man for choosing well and laughed about the success of our plan.
Inside the ballroom, we joined the Marines lined up at bottomless kegs of cheap beer and immediately started double-fisting drinks. I was relieved that nobody seemed to be checking ID. I made my way to our table and sat next to our lady of the night. Our captain must have told his officer friends about our date because it wasn’t long before a second lieutenant introduced himself to her and made it a point to communicate passively to the junior enlisted Marines, causing us to address him as “sir.” When he asked what she did for a living she said that she was a biology major at Hawaii Pacific University. This greatly impressed the second lieutenant, who claimed to have a deep interest in the subject and pointed out that he was a college graduate and got paid more than enlisted Marines. He seemed to spark her interest. Soon he was gone and replaced by another officer. Our table was a hit.
The lights dimmed to quiet the crowd, and the ceremony began. A recording of Gen. Lejeune’s birthday message was played over a projector setup that included the written words for those who might have been deaf, blind, or too drunk to follow along. Next, a motivational video featured modern Marines deployed to the Middle East and explained the stakes of service in 2005. The oldest and youngest Marine cut the birthday cake, and by that point shifty eyes of the attendees yearned for cheap beer before they lost their buzz, for fear they might recall the night’s events and friendly company we found ourselves in.
After our salty guest of honor who’d seen 10 times more combat than anyone in the room spoke, we rushed back to the bottomless kegs to continue our most valued tradition of a Marine Corps ball — getting totally and utterly shit-hammered. When it was time to leave, I looked around and found our date was nowhere to be found. She’d left with an officer. There would be no squad gangbang this year. The Old Man pointed out that she had fulfilled her contract. Perhaps it had all only been a marketing opportunity to her?
Third squad exited the building, and most of the underage Marines decided to catch a cab back to base where they could drink more. I followed the team leaders, who decided we’d walk to Nashville’s, a country-themed bar that they figured might be patriotic enough to look the other way at my ID since I was in uniform. Along the way, a truck pulled over and a pair of blonds asked us if we wanted a ride? We hopped in the bed and were off into a warm November night on the strip. I noticed a duffel bag near where I was sitting and found a military gas mask inside.
I assumed one of the ladies must have been married to some deployed serviceman. As we cheered tourists walking the strip, I donned the mask and raised my hands into a Richard Nixon double peace sign while wagging my head.
At the bar, I followed my friends into the long line outside. With my adrenaline pumping, I felt confident the beer-bellied bouncer with a cowboy hat was a real American. He waved through Beefcake, my hand-picked first team leader. Then Brains made it. Finally, the Old Man was accepted. As I handed the bouncer my ID, I fumbled it before picking it up off the ground and presenting it to him with a Cheshire grin. He illuminated the card with his flashlight and said with a twang, “Sorry, can’t let you in, man.”
Appalled, I declared, “But I’m in uniform. Look at my ribbons. I’ve been to combat!” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nuthin’ I can do.”
The Old Man had forgotten to look back to see if I’d made it. I was on my own and proceeded to walk down the main drag of Waikiki trying not to look dejected. When I passed Lewers Street, I wished I had the $300 left in my bank account for a hooker, but no dice. I only had $100 to my name. Suddenly, the world seemed to turn darker, and I felt like I’d been cursed by God, born in the wrong year.
At the end of the strip, I took a seat on the bench a few hundred feet from the sea. I listened to the waves crashing on the shoreline and felt sorry for myself. Then the thoughts started flooding in. Since Fallujah, too much alcohol often triggered a certain mindset. I thought about the dozens of Marines who’d been killed during my combat deployment and what a fucking shame it was they weren’t around to enjoy anything anymore.
An old lady sat down on the bench next to me. She turned to me and asked, “Are you all right?” I responded coldly, “No ma’am. I’m losing my buzz, and they won’t let me into a bar because I’m too young.”
“Oh,” she replied, and left.
I got up and was walking back to the strip to hail a cab when someone started to shout. At first, I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he waited for traffic to pass and jogged across the street. He was a square-jawed man in his late 30s dressed in a suit, and he spoke with a coked-up gravelly voice that reminded me of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
“Hey Marine, my name is Nick,” he said. “I just opened up the bar across the street and was hoping you might want to come in for a drink?”
I couldn’t believe my luck.
“Sure,” I said. Nick led me across the street and down the steps of his basement establishment. We walked past the bouncer and up to the bar. I dug my wallet out of my sock and slapped $20 down.
“What will it be?” the bartender asked. My heart was pounding.
“Jack and Coke please,” I said. He fixed one up and left the $20. I kept the bill there and lit up a cigarette. After a few seconds, the drink was gone and the bartender poured another. Nick returned and asked if I had any friends who would like to drink at his bar. I called Beefcake, who happily agreed to bring as many Marines as he could find. I assured Nick reinforcements were coming and worked on the next drink.
Beefcake called to inform me the troops were closing in. I climbed the steps of the bar and lit up a smoke. I couldn’t see them but sensed their presence. I shouted into the tropical breeze, “Regulators!” Somewhere in the distance I heard, “Mount up!” Soon I could make them out. There were a dozen Marines in their dress blue uniforms and a jaw-dropping ebony lady at the front of the informal formation dressed in “jelly” shoes, with the Old Man’s dress uniform hat and holding an NCO’s Mameluke sword, marching with it as if she were leading a parade. The young men in uniform began singing the Marine Corps hymn. I couldn’t recall the lyrics but hummed along. The lady stopped in front of me and asked, “Are you the one paying for my drinks?” Without hesitation I replied, “Yes! What do you like?” She smiled and said, “Whatever he’s having,” pointing to the Old Man.
The rest is a blur. There was a live swing band and Marines dancing like it was the end of World War II. The working girl and the Old Man were tossing themselves over their shoulders. I took a break to have a puke in a urinal and reset. Then I went upstairs for a smoke and some fresh air.
A cute-looking couple passed by. Locked in arms, the guy asked his date to wait and wished me a happy birthday. He said he was stationed at Pearl Harbor and served in the Navy. I could feel a shot of adrenaline. I asked him to look at my ribbons and explained that I was a combat vet — a real vet — and a sailor might get his ass kicked talking to me.
One of the team leaders called for the others as I made fun of the sailor. I danced around him exclaiming that he wasn’t shit! The Old Man yoked me up and cut off my wind. He said, “Stop being a fucking asshole, Anderson!” Brains agreed. Beefcake told the Old Man to let me go and flagged down a cab. I had ceased being a leader and begun being led by my subordinates. I cooled down during a moment of shame and clarity. Suddenly I knew they were right. The kind sailor escaped into the night with his girlfriend.
I listened to the waves crashing on the shoreline and felt sorry for myself. […] Since Fallujah, too much alcohol often triggered a certain mindset.
I awoke being violently shaken by the military police. Maglites shone into my face, and it took a moment for my vision to adjust. I looked down to see that the top three buttons of my coat were undone, and I had puked on it. The cab driver was irate and shouted to the MPs, “I did the right thing! You better pay me! I don’t care who pays, I haven’t been paid!” I was pulled out of the cab, and a chubby MP sergeant asked if I had any money.
My blood ran cold. Not because of the money, but because I hoped they wouldn’t find out that I was underage. If they did I would surely lose my rank and billet as squad leader. I dug my wallet out of my sock and handed the $40 cab driver $100. I was then led by the MP into a van with a staff sergeant who would drive me back to the barracks. He was the acting OOD [Officer of the Day]. My next hurdle was to avoid getting logged into the duty logbook, which would most likely result in the same consequence as drinking underage. I tried making small talk with the OOD, but he was a new transfer into the unit who’d missed the ball and wasn’t in the mood to be impressed with my antics.
We arrived at my barracks. I tried to casually exit the vehicle and head for my room. The van shut off and the OOD emerged.
“Stop, Lance Cpl. Anderson!” he ordered. I turned around. “We have to make an entry into the duty logbook.” He grinned and escorted me into the barracks. Portillo looked up from staring into space and stood at attention to report his post. I smiled and said, “I told you.” Then I proceeded to berate the OOD for obviously not having been to combat and taking it out on me. While he was making his entry into the logbook, I informed him that I would call my highest enlisted member of my unit and guaranteed he wouldn’t give two shits about anything written into it. The OOD dared me, and I opened the book to the page that read my first sergeant’s number. First Sgt. Fowler was the oldest Marine in our infantry company, and we had spent time together in Fallujah. The OOD watched me, salivating as the phone rang in my ear. Crickets were chirping near Shit Creek, which bordered the barracks.
“Hello?” First Sergeant asked. I told him everything, about the hookers and getting turned away at the bar, how I missed my dead friends and was corralled and logged into the duty logbook by some asshole who hadn’t been anywhere. There was a brief silence as 1st Sgt. Fowler gathered himself from being woken up.
“Anderson,” he said, “I want you to hear everything I’m about to tell you.” I was intrigued.
“Go to fucking bed — right now.” There was a brief moment of silence as I contemplated my response. What he said made sense.
“Ay-aye, First Sergeant,” I replied. And I did.
Garrett Anderson is a writer and filmmaker in Portland, Oregon. As a Marine rifleman, Anderson fought in the second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq and later in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. He is writer, director and producer of The November War, a documentary about a squad of Marines on one of their worst days in the Battle of Fallujah.
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