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How to be a Secret Squirrel in 27 years or less

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

How to be a Secret Squirrel in 27 years or less:

A journey of service to my country.


(Point of reference, I am not a secret squirrel.)


Growing Up

I grew up in a family that was deeply patriotic. My father served in both the Navy and the Airforce and I grew up knowing that I wasn’t going to be any different. Some of my youngest childhood memories were of me sitting in front of the TV at my grandparent’s house watching old BETA tapes of war movies. The Guns of Navarone, Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare were just some of the movies I watched over and over, never getting tired of them.


As a child I grew up with constant ear infections. These weren’t merely ear pain; they were a constant problem and often had me out of school for days on end. So much so that by the time I was 11 years old I had already been into surgery three times. By the time I was 13 my doctor had concluded that it was my tonsils that were at the root of all my problems and decided to have them removed. Sure enough, he was right. I never had another ear infection again. But the damage had already been done. I had developed so much scar tissue in my left ear that it had literally crushed those three little bones we hear about, the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup.


I’ll never forget leaving the doctor’s office in Tampa one afternoon and my mom making a comment in passing that this might prevent me from entering the military. I can still remember exactly where we were on I-275 near the Tampa Police Department. I instantly became defensive and angry. I had never considered the possibility that any of this would ever prevent me from entering the military. I was an athlete, extremely competitive and driven. I had no other plans for my life outside of the military so how could something as trivial as this be a problem? But with a severe loss of hearing in one ear that was exactly what I would be facing.


When I was 15 my parents had heard about a reconstructive surgery that was being done in cases like mine. The procedure involved removing a piece of your mastoid, a piece of the skull behind your ear, and reconstructing the little bones to be placed back into the ear. The procedure was a called a mastoidectomy and tympanoplasty. This surgery would be my fourth and final procedure not to mention my last hope at military service.


After receiving the surgery, I was told it would be a little bit of time for my hearing to come back to normal levels, if it even would. It took some time but before long my left ear was able to recover quite a bit. Overall, I went from a 30% hearing loss in my left ear to somewhere around 0-20% loss depending on the frequency range. Things were looking up!


High School

Although I enjoyed sports and excelled in class, I really had a problem actually showing up to school. I once skipped 21 days in a row in my math class so I could hang out with my friends during their lunch period. It actually got so bad the teacher thought I had been disenrolled from school until she bumped into me. Oops… That was an awkward moment… But between skipping math, which ironically, I’ve always been good at, and skipping school entirely to hang out in the woods I ended up losing an entire year of school as a freshman and had to repeat almost every class.


But then came my stimulus. As a junior in high school we had moved to a new town for my Dad’s work. I had never seen a recruiter at my previous hillbilly high school and this new town was a booming metropolis comparatively speaking. We routinely had recruiters from every branch walking the halls of my new school during lunches. I have had dinner with Sean Connery and I can honestly tell you that I have never been star struck like I was when I saw the recruiters at my school. Along with the citified atmosphere this school had one thing my other one didn’t, a JROTC program.


As soon as I found out about JROTC I immediately enrolled. It was an Airforce program, which didn’t really fit into the image of snooping and pooping that I had created in my mind to follow, but hey, it was military, so I’d take it.


I absorbed everything I could about the military and before long I had excelled beyond what first year students were supposed to. The Chief Master Sergeant and Colonel who ran the program saw me as both a leader and a troublemaker, and often told me so. But they found that if they gave me a task it would be completed, albeit sometimes outside the guidelines of what we’d consider permissible. But that just wasn’t how my mind worked. Much like Captain Barbosa I often saw authority as “guidelines” rather than “rules”. When I get focused on something there is little that can be done to get me off track.


This became a very important trait when in 1992 I learned that despite my previous thoughts I actually had a chance to graduate on time, despite my freshman year transgressions. I went to my guidance counsellor and found out exactly what I needed to graduate. I sat down and figured out what classes I was in and what credits were needed and found that if I dropped a few of my more enjoyable classes like drafting, shop and one of my JROTC classes I could replace them with required classes and graduate early. But that wasn’t all. I also would be required to sign up for classes to be taken at a nighttime adult school during the school year. This meant no more sports. But as is so common the phrase on late night infomercials, “but wait, that’s not it”. I would also have to do the same thing during the summer for both daytime and nighttime classes. If I did all this, I would complete my schooling this year and be eligible to enlist at the age of 17. So that’s exactly what I did.


Enlisting

I was 17 years old when I walked into the Airforce recruiter’s office. I was assured by both my father (former Airforce crew chief on F-4’s) and my JROTC mentors that this was definitely going to be the branch for me. I was constantly fed lines about the retention rate and overall enjoyability of the lifestyle within the Airforce. But it really wasn’t what I was looking for. I tried looking into various Airforce Specialty Codes (AFSC) for jobs that would allow me to work in special operations. But this was before Al Gore invented the internet and my mentors were pushing me in other directions.


There are several benefits to JROTC but one of them was that upon completion of bootcamp you would be promoted to the rank of E3, assuming you had completed at least 3 years of JROTC in high school. This was going to be a problem for me since I was racing hard and fast to get out of high school in under a year. So, the Colonel in charge of the program wrote my congressman and obtained what was called a CHAPA letter. With this letter I would not only be given credit for 3 years of JROTC but would also be allowed to secure a specific AFSC versus just being assigned a general field. Starting to feel the pressure from all sides I signed a contract putting me in the Airforce for 6 years with the job of B2 avionics.


I was so nervous when I went to MEPS for the first time. Everything I had ever planned on for my life was riding on this moment and was fixing to take a downward turn. I flew through everything MEPS had from the ASVAB which I scored extremely well on, the physical and the background. But then came the hearing test. By this time in my life I was all too familiar with the sound booth. I had spent numerous days in those damn things hearing nothing but the deafening ringing that occurs when you’re locked in with a set of earphones on. I remember sitting through the test with 5 other guys all facing outward in the booth while the test operator gave us the instructions, “hit the button when you hear the beep”. I sat through the test straining to hear everything that I thought could even resemble a tone. At the end of the test we were all escorted out and sat in a waiting area for our packages to be returned to us. One by one the other 5 guys were called, and I wasn’t. Eventually I walked up to the enlisted man who had administered the test and asked him where my package was. He then delivered the news. My hearing on my left side was not passing… I was crushed inside.


Despite how I was feeling I shoved it deep down to hide my disappointment and told the tester that I needed to take the test again. Apparently, some of the guys were talking in the booth (at least that’s what I told him) and that was most likely the reason for my failure. So, he threw me into the next group, retested me and what do you know… I passed. The test had begun just like before by going through all the different frequency tones at different volumes on my right side. Afterwards when the testing began on the left side, I removed my headset and turned it around backwards so I would be receiving the tones intended for my left ear on my right side. I told you… I was driven… Upon completion of the test I was given a passing grade and sent to sign my final contract and eventually taken in to take the oath of enlistment.


After coming home, I told no one of what had happened. I went on about my studies determined to not let anything stand in my way. Over time I began to build a relationship with my next-door neighbor, who coincidentally happened to be a Marine Corps recruiter. We got to be friends and over time the pressure I was under to “go Airforce” reached a climax.


Through our conversations I began to realize one thing. I was never going to be happy working on electronics on the stealth bomber. This was never my intention for enlisting. So, I worked with him behind the scenes to get out of my contract with the Airforce and within two months I was back a MEPS to do it all over, this time for the Marine Corps. There was of course one caveat… I already knew I couldn’t pass the hearing test so this time around I wasn’t even going to take the chance. First time through I pulled the “old switcharoo” and passed with flying colors. This would be the second time, and the not the last, that I would take the oath of enlistment. By the way, switching my contract pretty much got me shit listed from my Airforce mentors in the JROTC program and almost got me kicked out of the house with my Dad, but I didn’t care, I was a poolee now on my way to becoming a Marine.


My parents got over my career choice in time, especially when they saw how focused and determined I was to complete school. No more trouble or fighting in school. No more skipping. No more problems of any kind. I completed my last year of school with flying colors. My parents were a little disappointed when I decided not to participate in the summer schedule graduation walk but I could care less. School was never anything more than an obstacle that I needed to overcome to get to where I really wanted to be. So, the ultimate culmination of my efforts in school was not a cap and gown ceremony. It was a ship date for 3rd Recruit Training Battalion.


Marine Corps

I arrived at Parris Island late at night, like all recruits do, and went through the iconic initial greeting on the bus with the drill instructor. We exited the bus post haste and stood on the yellow footprints. This was a monumental moment for me. Part of me was excited, part was scared, but another part entirely just couldn’t believe it was even happening. We lined up asshole-to-belly button and walked through the giant door at RAC and took our seats to start our receiving paperwork and receive our gear. We went through the haircut and I even fell for the old “who can drive a stick” bit, which ended up with me pushing a broom. But this was once again about to come crashing down.


At some point during our initial weeks we were expected to take another hearing test… WTF!!! Seriously? So here I was again faced with realization that my hearing was a problem but this time the booth was set up differently. This one had a window with the tester directly in front of recruits. I made the mistake at that point to come clean to my senior drill instructor. Not really sure why, but at this point I knew I wasn’t going to pass and felt like coming clean was the only thing I could do. I was retested under the supervision of my SDI and sure enough… not passing. I was taken aside, counseled, and dropped into medical reconditioning platoon (MRP) for injured recruits while they decided what was going to happen with me. In MRP you were expected to work around the base while processing discharges or medical boards. This process ranged from weeks to months depending on how much of a fight you put up about the conditions of your discharge. I worked mess duty in the drill instructors chow hall, polished floors in the headquarters building, and did general clean up and shit work around the base. But I didn’t care, I was here.


Before long I received the news that I would be going home. I met with some Marines who were counselling me through out-processing, and I was told I would be given an Entry Level Separation for a fraudulent enlistment and a RE-3p reenlistment code. According to them I would have to wait one year upon being discharged before I would be allowed to re-enlist. In hindsight it would prove to be far more difficult than this to get back in, but I suspect they knew this. I left Parris Island shattered but still with some hope that one day I would be back to complete all this and fulfill my mission.


Home Again

After coming home, I was really lost. I had grown up doing CADD work with my Dad, so I had skills to fall back on, but nothing that I really had any desire to pursue. I worked a few jobs, just waiting the time so I could re-enlist. I knew I couldn’t pass the hearing test but time away had given me hope that even worst-case scenario, I’d do whatever I needed to, to get past that test and get back in. But a year went by, the recruiters changed, and I would not be as fortunate again.


The new recruiters didn’t know me. They didn’t care about my tenacity or determination. To them I was a difficult waiver in and amongst countless easy candidates. The first recruiter I worked with wouldn’t return calls, the second wouldn’t be honest. I wrote letters to two Commandants of the Marine Corps and even managed to get General Mundy’s aid on the phone one time. But it would take seven years of closed doors before I would get another chance.


In that seven years I went through several stages. First rebellious, where I found myself involved with a “gang”, if you want to call it that. We weren’t really involved in any major violence or anything like that, but what we were involved in would ultimately come back to haunt me. The second stage I went through was that of providing for my girlfriend who would later become my wife. She had left home to come and live with me and I began to realize that I was now responsible for someone other than myself. This led me to step away from the illegal activities and focus more on holding down a steady job for the both of us. But as is so often the case our past has a way of catching up to us. Before long I would find myself facing two felony charges for grand theft auto. As far as my enlistment was going, bad just got worse…


I spent 4 years on probation for my involvement and in that time had gotten married and had two kids. With the thought of the Marine Corps being a distant hope, I focused on my family and my work. But I continued to train, running frequently, preparing and even following up with research and letters from my doctor who had done my ear surgery. I followed up with a new recruiter I had met who was honest and blunt. He returned phone calls, took time with me but was always straight about what sort of chances I was looking at.


Back on my Feet

At 25 years old I was managing a design team for a commercial engineering firm. I was making close to $70k a year and doing quite well for myself. I was stable, a family man, and starting to get back into my faith. But as good as all these things were, they would actually become a hinderance to my enlistment. In 1998 when I began pushing hard to re-enlist, I was nearing the age cap and would require an age waiver. I would also now need a family waiver and a financial waiver. Apparently, making good money and walking away from it was a problem and they needed an extra document attesting to the fact that my wife and I knew that we would be going from $70k to $22k a year. But all this was in addition to two character waivers that I would be required to have for the felonies and my previous fraudulent enlistment. So, it was an uphill struggle to say the least. I met with nearly every Marine Corps NCOIC and OIC in my area, ultimately having a face to face sit down interview with a Major, who was the OIC of my area. After a 30-minute interview where he asked me about my past, my future plans, my reasons for enlisting he informed me that he was going to approve me and even provided me with what I am told was an impressive letter of recommendation.


Once again, we were back at it. With all my waivers approved at this level and my contract ready to go my recruiter told me I would need to be ready to go when he got the paperwork back. Everything was sent off to 6th Marine Corps District Command at MCRD Parris Island and the wait began. Days and weeks went by, soon months went by. Then I got the call… I received a call from my recruiter about 10 in the morning that my package was approved but I had to be ready to go now. “What battalion?” I asked, because I was set on finishing what I had started with 3rd Battalion, which is rumored to be the hardest battalion out there because of its location and distance away from public view. “3rd Battalion”, was his response.


By Hell or Highwater

I left work immediately and called my wife on the way home. I literally told her, “Staff Sergeant is on the way and I’ll see you at graduation”. She was/is unbelievable… My recruiter picked me and took me to MEPS were once again I had to go through the whole process again. They rushed me through everything, I took my oath of office (again), and I was ushered in to sign my final contract and wait for the bus to take me to the airport. At this point in my life I think I’ve enlisted more than anyone else I know. But waiting there for the bus I received a phone call at MEPS. My recruiter had told me that something had happened and the Colonel at MCRD had denied my package at the last minute. Apparently, there was some discrepancy about whether my two felonies were two counts or whether they were two separate incidents which showed a pattern of behavior. Once again, I was on my way home…


I knew at this point that this would be my last go and as such I had nothing left to lose. I told my wife we were going on a road trip and called my recruiter and asked him if I could get my enlistment package. I never told him why I needed it and he didn’t ask, so I drove over to the recruiting station, grabbed my package then made our way for Parris Island. I never explained to my wife what was going on. Nor did I know what I was going to do when I got there. But we arrived in Beaufort late that evening and settled in for the night in a local hotel.


In the morning I got up early and headed for Parris Island. It had been years since I had been there, and my wife had never been there. We arrived at the gate around 9am and I pulled up to the gate. I told gate security that I was there for graduation, which coincidentally happened to be that same weekend (seriously, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly). This was pre 9/11, so talking your way onto a military installation wasn’t as difficult as I’m sure it is today. Having previously worked at the base I made my way to the 6th Marine Corps District headquarters building, parked the car and walked inside with my package.


I was met by an aid just inside the vestibule and I informed him, “I’m here to talk about my enlistment package”. Needless to say, the stunned look I got from him was repeated over and over each and every time I was forced to repeat my request to a new guy. After a slight ass chewing from the Sergeant Major, I was taken upstairs to Colonel Slick’s office where I waited outside while the Sergeant Major went into the Colonel to discuss just what I was doing there. I found myself being interviewed by probably a half-dozen Marines in the office who all asked, “you did what!?!?”. After a short time, the Sergeant Major returned and informed me that Colonel Slick would not see me and there was nothing further to discuss. I was handed a phone in the office from one of the admins working there and to my surprise it was my recruiter. He was laughing in shock at what had just happened. Although it would be years later that the movie would come out, a fitting illustration of his reaction to me could be summed up in the scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy tells his dog Baxter, “I’m not even mad, I’m actually kind of impressed”.


This time things were truly done with the Marine Corps. But it was also different. Because this time I knew I had done everything in my power to make it happen and it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I was still upset but I knew there was nothing more I could have done. It wouldn’t be for another ten years that I finally told my wife that I never had an appointment at Parris Island and that even upon my 4th and final hearing test I had once again switched the earphones.


Never Give Up

Although this would apparently complete my military career it would not be the end. One thing I studied in counterintelligence is that each of us has motivators. In CI you’re taught to look for motives along the lines of the acronym MICE. MICE stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. While these primarily exist within the realm of CI as possible categories of motives to betray one’s country, I would hypothesize that these motives go deeper than that, into what an individual values. If that is the case than it stands to reason that each of us possesses a “chief motivating factor”, something that when pressure is applied rises to the top. We all value money, but when money is pitted against principle (ideology), one will inevitably take precedence. If you do this enough times you will eventually be able to create a hierarchy of character which intelligence professionals could then exploit.


God had revealed to me that the military was an idol of sorts. It was something that I was placing above Him and as such in His grace He prevented. But this also caused me to self-reflect. Was I joining the military for glory or recognition (ego) or was it for service and patriotism (ideology)? The truth came on September 11, 2001. On that day, like most Americans, I was reinvigorated and motivated more than ever to do whatever I needed to serve. But the question would be where and how.


Start at the Bottom

In late 2001 I started training in Brazilian Jiujitsu, a martial arts style made famous by the Gracie’s in the UFC. I