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Why Did I Enlist in the Marine Corps?

By Pat Lisi 

            This is a question I’ve been asked several times in my life, and it’s a legitimate one.  Why DID I enlist in the Marines, was I nuts or something?  Why does anyone do something as spontaneous and perhaps as fool hardy as this, especially when there was a war in progress at the time (Vietnam)?  You’d have to be fuzzy in the head to actually go down to the recruiter’s office and volunteer for such a sure-fired way to get yourself killed.  But I did it.  In fact, I wasn’t alone.  My friends Greg McCallum and Dave Hron (Chopper) enlisted in the Marines with me in the fall of 1968, and we all knew what was in our futures — or so we thought, anyway. 

            Greg never did end up going to Nam, but he was the only one among us to actually make a full career out of the Marines (air wing) and he retired as a Master Sergeant in 1988.  Chopper was sent back home to Madisonfrom Milwaukeeafter flunking the physical due to his flat feet.  He later signed a waiver and went through boot camp a couple of months after Greg and I had already graduated, and then he ended up in Vietnamwith the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment.  He ended up getting wounded 3 times in two tours of duty.  He died in 2012 from cancer that I suspect was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Nam. 

            After Dave, Greg and I joined the Marines there were a few more from our graduating class at Madison’s LaFolletteHigh Schoolwho took the ‘pledge’.  Dave Reeve and Billy Merz ended up as Marines in Nam, and Dean Hanson and Phil Klahn joined the Corps but did not have to go over.  Hanson was injured in an accidental kitchen fire when a gas stove blew up at a mess hall at CampPendleton, and I’m not sure where Klahn ended up.  Heck, he may have gone to Vietnamand I don’t even know it.  He had some troubles during his Marine Corps days and I never did quite find out what happened to him.  Dave Paynter (Red) from our class went over to Namas a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division, and Billy Powers did a stint inNam also as an Army soldier.  Powers died in 2011, homeless and penniless.  A chap named John Bailey (Beatle) joined the Army at about the same time as Red but he didn’t end up inVietnam but in Germany instead. 

            I’m not exactly sure about all the other guys, but Chopper, Greg and me wanted to go to Vietnam partly to avenge the deaths (in Nam) of a couple of upper classmen from Madison LaFollette High School who graduated the year before us.  One guy’s name was Paul Gerlach who was an Army soldier.  The other man was Larry Herfel, a Marine, who coincidentally was a cousin to Chopper.  Larry was killed at the Marine combat base in Con Thien.  He hadn’t actually graduated from LaFollette or any other high school for that matter; he wanted to get toNamin the worst way and I’m not sure what his motives were.  There was another upper classman, Don Nisius (Butch), who joined the Marines right out of high school and was sent toVietnam, only to be wounded three months later and then he returned toMadison,Wisconsinwith stories of the battles.  He was a ‘tanker’ stationed up in the “Marine Triangle” near where Herfel had been killed. 

            Anyway, I and my two comrades joined the Marine Corps in order to go toVietnamand eradicate enemy soldiers.  It was pretty much as simple as that.  We were going to kill gooners.  We were going to “get some!”  We wanted to avenge the deaths of Gerlach and Herfel, and the wounding of our friend Butch Nisius.   But, why the Marine Corps???  We could have joined the Army or, maybe even better, sign up in the Navy or Air Force and fight the enemy from a safer distance!  

            Well, it was the legends of the Marine Corps that called us to service.  The lure, if you will, were the stories, the movies, the books I had read about the tough guys the Marine Corps had produced.  And, I wanted to be one of those ‘jarheads’.  I think I can speak for Chopper and Greg when I dare say that we wanted to join the hardest and the most strict combat outfit, the one with the reputation for making men out of ‘thugs’ from neighborhoods back home, like we were.  Hell, I thought I was a ‘tough guy’ fromMadison,Wisconsin.  The truth of the matter is I wasn’t shit compared to what the Marines did for me (and to me) as they prepared me for combat.  And, we pretty much got what we asked for, the three of us.  It was hard, and it was tougher than anything else we had ever experienced in our lives.  Tougher than we anticipated, that’s for sure. And, in the end it may have been exactly what saved our lives once we went into combat inVietnam.  I suspect the others I mentioned had it hard, too, because all the guys who went to Vietnam from my graduating class (1967) made it back a live – injured physically and mentally – but alive. 

            Of course, ‘per capita’ a hell of a lot more Army combat soldiers survived the Vietnam War than Marines.  So, my theories can be challenged, I know.  But, I still am glad that I did my tour inNamthrough the Marines Corps and I have never thought that I made a mistake by doing so.  “Once a Marine always a Marine,” and that will never change.  

            Heck, my bumper sticker even says so!


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