Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting Hooked on Being Part of the Marine Family


Copyright © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence, J.D. • All rights reserved

Flying back to San Diego from Washington after attending the formal commissioning of my mentee, Roberto-Ruelas “Tony” Araiza, 29, as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps at nearby Quantico, VA, I was wearing my Marine cover (tan desert cap) and seated in an aisle seat of a U.S. Airways plane as we landed.

As the plane stopped taxiing, pandemonium broke out as passengers grabbed their baggage to deplane.

Suddenly the stewardess announced on the loudspeaker: “We have an active-duty Marine on board.”

Unexpectedly, I was given a standing ovation by everyone on the plane out of respect for the Corps.

“That’s for you,” said a seating companion, herself a Marine though dressed in civvies.

Even going through airport security in Washington, I was personally escorted around the X-Ray security equipment.

Why Cross-Country Trip?

I traveled across the country for the singular privileges of (1) pinning his new gold bars onto his uniform for the first time, and (2) giving him his first salute after being sworn in as a commissioned Marine officer.

After returning my salute, Tony gave me the traditional silver one-dollar coin. It’s dated 1878.

In a Marine’s career, those two honors, pinning and the first salute. rank high up there to the place of a wedding in the lives of lovers.

Here was one of my young mentees becoming one of the proud and one of the few.

“Tony” is one of the hottest-looking young Mexicans you’ll ever meet. He naturally walks straight-back erect and looks sharp in his Marine uniform. He’s a natural-born leader, and in high school selected as team captain of his wrestling team, even without a vote.

As a natural leader, he’s perfect as a Marine officer.

His OCS training/breaking lasted about two months. As a commissioned officer, the Corps is now sending him into basic training at Quantico, where he’ll find his operational specialty, probably in logistics.


I first met Tony in 1997 when he was a champion wrestler as a sophomore at San Diego High School 13 years ago. I was the school’s fitness coach in the S.D.H.S. Caver Fitness Center.

We established a formal mentorship, and I literally became a functional member of his extended family.

“Tony” thinks of me as his dad.

To me, “Tony” is mi hijo (my son).

Actually, with 49 years between us, he’s more like a grandson, but that’s a mere technicality. He’s still my “son.”

“I am who I am because of Leo,” Tony has said to his closest friends and family. He’s straight, married and had a 3-year-old kid; while I’m a very OUT Gay.

He’s strikingly handsome. While he lost some weight in OCS school, his upper-body is more muscular.

I really love him, but like a son, not a Gay lover.

When he turned 18 as an S.D.H.S. senior, he asked me very privately one day to teach him how to shave. Suddenly, I even felt like a real Dad.

When he graduated from college, he gave me a special, school T-shirt that said Dad on the front, with his school’s name (San Diego Christian College).

Becoming a Marine

Having been a Navy combat photographer, I strongly urged him to get a commission in the Navy after he earned his undergraduate degree.

During one of our dozens of confidential, mentorship sessions; he said he’d go Navy if I insisted. Yet, I discovered that he had more of a gung-ho personality, and might fit better as a Marine officer.

After I changed my mind, he excitedly applied for the U.S.M.C. Officer Candidate School in Quantico, VA.

I had been a company commander in the Navy’s OCS school in Newport R.I., but learned that the Marine’s training for their officers is much, much tougher both physically and mentally than the Navy.

In just two months of OCS training, the Corps really changed Tony. He lost some of his pretty-boy good looks and in that short time became much more macho.

Day after day, he went through the toughest military training sometimes with only about three hours of sleep a night. While physical fitness and weaponry were important, “Tony” said the biggest part of his academics (60 percent of final grading) was devoted to Marine Corps history as he was turned into a proud Marine officer.

He graduated from OCS and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on Aug. 13 at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.

I had asked him earlier for the privilege of pinning his gold bars onto his uniform for the first time. He also specifically advised his OCS school that he wanted me to give him his first salute as an officer, a very special honor by a newly commissioned U.S.M.C. officer.

For those two privileges, I flew across the county to be at the Quantico Marine Base for a full weekend.

Tears were literally flooding down my face as I saluted him, and slowly said en Español, “Muchas gracias para este honor especial.”

With that salute, I became part of the Marine family, according to three-star Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn from the Pentagon, the guest speaker.

Before the commissioning ceremonies began, he was standing around bored and I walked up to him and chatted.

As part of the Marines now, Lt. Gen. Flynn strongly suggested that I serve as a volunteer at a Marine base in San Diego.

Volunteering Locally

The Marines at Miramar processed the mountain of my paperwork as a volunteer applicant, but I’ll be assigned to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

Everywhere I go, if I’m wearing my official, camouflage tan Marine garrison cover (cap), I’m treated with enormous respect. It’s incredible.

As a reporter working a story and wearing my SDPD police press card, I’m accustomed to receiving respect from those I’m covering.

But that is not even close to the respect I’ve been shown while wearing my Marine cover.

For two nights, I went to a small, second-floor Gay bar in Fredericksburg, VA, about 25 miles south of the Quantico U.S.M.C. base where Tony’s OCS school was located.

The first night, I wore a firefighter’s shirt. People in the bar were polite, but largely ignored me.

After “Tony’s” commissioning was over, I wore my tan Marine cover.

I bought my first drink, but all the rest were on the house.

After staff at my hotel discovered my Marine connection, they went overboard to meet my needs … almost.

While spending two, full days roaming the Quantico Marine Base, I noticed that most of the Marines I met were “godawful” cute. And built! I’m looking forward to my volunteer service at MCRD.

You took your Dad as you got him. But somehow I became Tony’s Dad and he became mi hijo (my son) culturally.

He spent most of his time with his little son, wife, sister and brother; but the most important seconds for me were the time when I was pinning his gold bars onto his shirt and jacket, and gave him his first salute.

If I had some small measure in shaping this young man into becoming a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, then our mentorship is successful. Nobody taught me how to be a dad, and certainly I wasn’t close to my real dad. But about six years ago, a close Gay friend/neighbor asked me, “Do you love him?” referring to Tony.

I had to think about that, and realized that I did love him, and as a son, not as a lover.

Even as I write this very intimate report on Tony’s commissioning, tears come into my eyes. Tears of pure pride and love.

Photo captions:

Newly commissioned a U.S.M.C. second lieutenant, Roberto-Ruelas Araiza returns his first salute from his mentor, Leo E. Laurence, J.D., at Quantico, VA on August 13th. Photo by Daniel Araiza.

Leo E. Laurence, J.D. pins the first gold bars onto the Marine uniform of 2nd Lt. Roberto-Ruelas Araiza after his Quantico, VA commissioning. Photo by Daniel Araiza.