Ten months into what would become a ten-year career with the UN’s security service—I was giving serious thought to declaring “fuck this” (that wonderful phrase we so rarely get to utter before hanging up on the boss), applying for a commission, and rejoining the Marine Corps.
I have to be careful with this next bit. My tendency to gush when describing the Marine Corps has only worsened with age. First, there’s the ethos—the USMC’s singularity of purpose—and all that heartbreakingly earnest talk of honor, courage, and commitment. The Marine Corps taught me the difference between bravado and bravery, between poise and posturing. There’s something to be said for an institution that, in these soft times, prides itself on building toughness. Damn it. I’m gushing already. I guess it was all downhill after ‘ethos.’ Call it the nostalgia of someone who hadn’t ironed his underwear into perfect rectangles or run four miles still drunk in five years. What can I say? Apparently five years is long enough to forget the angelic choir that accompanied the near orgasmic moment of staring at an honorable discharge with my name on the top.
It didn’t help that I felt more like a Marine out of the Corps, than I had in it. When you’re in the Corps everyone you hang out with is a Marine. In graduate school I suddenly became ‘THE Marine.’ Don’t get me wrong. I left the Corps with my USMC swagger intact, a solid Marine Sergeant. But my stint didn’t qualify as the big deal many of my civilian friends made of it. I had friends who’d been big deals in the Corps. Guys who went on to reconnaissance units, a couple who even got out and became Navy SEALs. After a couple years at Camp Lejeune, I bucked for embassy guard duty, and—following stints in the Middle East and Eastern Europe—began graduate school. Hawks might all look the same to people who’ve never hunted, but I knew the difference.
And then there was the bigee: I was missing combat. While my contemporaries were fighting our generation’s wars, I was listening to undergrads bitch about pop quizzes and pontificating (badly) on ‘Just War Theory’ for my thesis. My father served in Desert Storm, my grandfather in Korea, and several of my uncles were Vietnam vets. The sort of old-school black patriots who unironically lionized both John Shaft and John Wayne. My own idea of legitimacy was knotted to an idea (rather specific in some ways and dangerously vague in others) of serving some greater good, and of getting shot at while doing it. Would seeing warzones through the lens of a humanitarian sate my concept of legitimacy? Looking back, I can see that the good I was most concerned about serving was my own.
On March 1, 2007, I was two months shy of a year with the UN and still hadn’t quite made up my mind about the organization. I’d completed short-term assignments to Afghanistan, Haiti, and Sri Lanka. But hadn’t yet sat over a map of Mogadishu with an American trained Sudanese doctor to plot clinical visits to monitor WHO’s polio vaccination program. Hadn’t yet seen a Chechen woman with a face carved from stone hug and hold a UNHCR colleague in Grozny. “Thank you,” she said, not giving a damn that the security thug was within earshot. “You kept us alive.” Hadn’t yet seen the mass casualty incident response plan I’d helped write for the mission in Haiti put to work in response to the 2009 earthquake. Yeah. I wasn’t quite a true believer in the United Nations yet, but I was on my way. I’d seen enough good to convince me to stick.
In September 2016—threes months past my ten-year mark with the organization—I left the UN to run the Asian Development Bank’s field security program. My initial impression? Humanitarian work is way sexier than development work. But I’ve already seen a lot of good. I think I’m going to stick.
Fitzgerald claimed there are no second acts in American lives. Bullshit. I’m at least on my third. Check back with me in a couple years. I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Dewaine’s work has appeared in Drunken Boat, the Stone Canoe Journal, the World Policy Blog, the Afropunk website, The Mantle, and the Good Men Project. He is an MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and blogs at fsconotebook.blogspot.com.
Dewaine urges you to learn more about Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans. Visit au.org. He also would encourage you to find out more about the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by visiting aclu.org