We all have them, whether we like to admit it or not. We are all influenced either in a negative or a positive way at some point in our lives by someone who makes such a profound impact on us that can be life changing either for better or worse.
I have had this happen to me in a very unique way in my 41 years of living. I say “unique,” because my encounter with this person I thought at first was a negative influence changing me for the worse. It took many years later to understand that this person was actually a positive influence and changed me for the better.
A person of this caliber that meets this type of criteria would typically fit the profile of a teacher, mentor, family member, or maybe even a spiritual guide. For others, like myself, on our journeys we meet the heroes of our lives who many would think should not fit into the category of “hero,” but we do, and we encounter them when we least expect it. My real life “hero” in my mind, was a “villain” at first, and you shall see why I thought so, as you read on…
I found “The 1st Most Influential Person That Changed My Life” in the hot summer of 1995 at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina, 1st Battalion, Bravo Co. Platoon #1001, when I was “still wet behind the ears,” being only 19 years old.
On a late night in June, actually the 13th to be specific, I was on a bus along with many other recruits and pulled up to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. We then had our first encounter with a very intimidating Marine Corp Drill Instructor who came aboard and said,
“Get off my bus.”
From there, we were led to the famous yellow foot prints, being terrified by other screaming and yelling Drill Instructors barking orders. I stared at the writing above the doors, or properly known as the “silver hatches,” which read,
“Through these portals pass prospects for America’s finest fighting force – United States Marines.”
Just a moment later, the hatches then opened, and we were all led in. There was no more outside world or civilian life going forward as the hatches then closed behind us, and I then got a taste of “where the difference begins” really meant.
From there, we were rushed inside and had our first one-on-one interaction with Drill Instructors. This is where I personally discovered how stressful it can be dealing with how intense, demanding, and intimidating they really are.
After a couple of days of being assigned to a temporary barracks, while I underwent the initial processing, I then went to my new permanent home for the next 3 months and was assigned to 1st Battalion, Bravo Co. Platoon #1001.
Along with my platoon of fellow recruits, we all sat in the middle of the squad bay, and our senior drill instructor introduced himself to us. He then introduced us to his team of drill instructors (3 of them) that would be responsible for us and the rest of our training going forward. They put their right hands up and pledged:
"These recruits are entrusted to my care.
I will train them to the best of my ability.
I will develop them into smartly disciplined,
physically fit, basically trained Marines,
thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country.
I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example,
the highest standard of personal conduct, morality and professional skill."
The Senior Drill Instructor then went back to his quarters and said,
“They are in your care.”
It then felt like complete chaos being paralyzed with confusion and fear as three Drill Instructors let loose on us for the next three months.
All Marines undergo this type of treatment – Drill Instructors screaming, yelling, using profane language in a frog like deep voice, invading your personal space, up in your face spitting on you while they bark orders, belittling you, and basically undergoing the complete hell of their wrath.
It is an experience that many people are not physically or more importantly mentally capable of enduring. Many people think they know this before they enlist and for others they find out during training and end up being discharged before they even were able to attain the earned status of a United States Marine.
Marine Corps Drill Instructors are a rare and special breed. They are given the responsibility to make warriors that are the few and the proud, so it must be expected that when they train recruits it better be intense and demanding. I certainly knew this as I heard the stories first hand from my dad. What I did not know, could only be made known by my own personal experience and it haunted me for a very long time.
One of my Drill Instructors has fit into the category of “The 1st Most Influential Person That Changed My Life.” At first though, I thought of him to be a negative influence, misunderstood his motives during my stay on the Island, and thought that he had a personal vendetta against me.
I say this because he figured out very quickly that I was not very bright, and because of him knowing this I paid dearly often. So, when it came to me reciting one of the General Orders on the spot, or yelling out the rank equivalent of an E-7 or an O-5 in the Marines and Navy, he just knew, as well as I knew, which in turn, made the entire platoon know, that standing at attention, and yelling at the top of my lungs, I was going to say:
“Sir, recruit Schnakenberg has been instructed, but at this time does not know, sir!”
I had said that so many times “The 1st Most Influential Person That Changed My Life” gave me the nickname “rock.” This was before Dwayne the “Rock” Johnson was around, so it was not because I was a muscle bound physical anomaly, but rather because I was “dumber than a rock” as he liked to say.
I developed a special kind of disliking for this particular Drill Instructor because he exposed a weakness of mine and capitalized on it by making me suffer brutal PT (physical training) that caused a sense of embarrassment that I thought I could not mentally endure. I felt dumb, everyone now knew it, and now it seemed to me that this particular Drill Instructor enjoyed seeing and making me look dumb at any given opportunity. I don’t know how many times I was sent to the quarterdeck because of my lack of intelligence, and in all honesty, I really began to hate this man.
But during the time under his strict guidance, something amazing began to happen…
Because of his unorthodox motivation and encouragement I was able to start answering the questions correctly that he barked at me. I not only was able to remember everything that I was taught, I was getting mentally and physically stronger than I had ever been in my entire life! It was by his unorthodox methods that he not only transformed me into a Marine, but he had a huge part in sculpting me into the man I am today. I just did not see this when I was nineteen years old while I was on the Island, and I left there holding an unnecessary grudge against him and everything that he stood for.
As the years went by and I became a Christian, my life was yet again transformed. I went back in my mind about all the negativity that I was holding onto and needed to let it all go. I went back to Parris Island in my thoughts and remembered all of this hostile anger I had towards this man.
Now that I was older, more mature, and more importantly had Jesus in my life, I finally for the first time was thinking clearly, but what was needed for me to do to let go of all of this anger towards this man – forgive him?
All those years of anger towards him was basically wasted negative energy on my part, because there was no need to forgive him, because forgiveness was not necessary.
I was looking at my experience with him entirely all wrong.
What I needed to do was be thankful.
He was not the “villain,” I perceived him to be, in all actuality…
he was actually my hero.
I now was able to look at him from an entirely new perspective..
This man pushed me to limits that I thought I was incapable of both physically and mentally.
When I thought I could not do one more push up, he showed me that I could do 10 more.
When I thought I could not keep my legs up off of the ground for another second doing six inches, he then would remove his Smokey, put it on the deck (ground), under my feet, and say,
“Go ahead and touch it with your dirty boots, I dare you.”
When he asked me questions and I finally had the correct answers, I was thinking he wanted me to fail, but he walked away proud. He pushed me to limits that I did not think were possible and he brought out the best in me, when I thought I was at my worst.
He did his job and fulfilled his role and pledge because I was entrusted in his care. He trained me to the best of his ability, developed me into a smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marine, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of the Marine Corps and country. He demanded of me and demonstrated by his own example, the highest standard of personal conduct, professional skill, and the only virtue that I could call into question was his own personal thoughts on morality and where in life he was spiritually?
I knew that he was only there playing a role, like a masterfully skilled performance actor. Despite his borderline hostile interactions with me, he was professional, did not abuse his power, and he was and is a real person who has emotions, feelings, and had a life beyond the Drill Instructor role.
But in his role, I now realize that he exemplified what it means to be a Marine. I had a Senior Drill Instructor and other drill instructors taking care of my platoon during my stay in Paris Island, and this one man changed my life in an extraordinary way that I will never forget. He set the bar for me and set a prime example of what it means to wear an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.
As I look back on the memories, I must admit that when I think of the idiom that all branches of the military use “squared away,” I think of him. His boots were always spit shined so nicely you could see your reflection in them like a mirror. When he wore his dress uniform, the creases were always so firmly pressed they looked like they could cut butter like a knife. He always had a fresh haircut and underneath that wide brim Smokey was always a face without a hint of five o clock shadow.
It always amazed me that when he took the platoon out for a run in that hot South Carolina sun, as we were all sweating profusely and gasping for air, he barely broke a sweat, never got a speck of dirt on him or seemed to be out of breath, and always called out the most perfect cadence I ever heard without skipping a beat.
It took me many years to appreciate all this man was and is, and I only wish I could have had this type of grateful attitude when I was 19 years old. He got to know me on a very personal level knowing all of my weaknesses that I could not hide, as well as my strengths by spending so much time with me.
Although I did not appreciate him then, I am truly grateful that I can now. I longed to see this man get “fired up” about something, because this is when the only time I was able to see a personal side of him for a moment. Although it was brief when it happened, there behind the hard core Drill Instructor stern look in his eyes and angry lips that rarely showed any sense of emotion, I could see his soul that longed to show another side of him, but under the circumstances, and the role that he must play, it was impossible for him to do so. He played his part well, but under that tough skin, I could sense that there may be in fact a “caring soul” inside of him longing to come out..
I find myself thinking about him sometimes and often pray for him. I always pondered the idea of trying to track him down and if I did, what would I actually say?
Then, out of the blue, a Marine that I went to boot camp with sent me a picture of “The 1st Most Influential Person That Changed My Life” and his contact information. He ended up tracking him down and I now had his contact information.
August 25th 1995 was the last time I saw this man. I have longed for this opportunity for many years, but what should I say?
He was out of the Marine Corps and was now a civilian. He aged a bit and let his hair grow in, but I will never forget those eyes!
Many emotions and thoughts flooded within me. As much as I would like to say, I just could not, because through the only way I could contact him and send him a message, I only had a maximum capacity of only fifty words to type.
That’s it! Only fifty words and what I wanted to say could fill a 250 page book front and back!
So with careful consideration and attention to detail, this is what I typed:
“ I am a recruit from Paris Island in 95. You prepared me for a life of disciple & self-control. One other Person helped me with that, & He was Jesus Himself. So, thank you, someday I would like to shake your hand - Schnakenberg (dumber than a rock) ;) “
It was a total of 49 words and probably the least amount of words I ever typed for a message, but filled with so much emotion in such a tiny little space.
I hit “send” and began to really think about what I had sent him..
Would he really read this message and if he did, would he respond?
If he did, what would he say, and think?
I did not have to wait too long for a response. I sent it on a late afternoon and the following day I had a message back from him.
My heart pounded with excitement and my emotions ran wild as I read what he said:
“Bill, I am humbled that you would like to thank me for having the privilege to train you. Your testimony is something, I went out and snooped around a bit after you reached out...now I have to buy the book to see what you were thinking about in the Squad bay :) Jesus Christ is my Savior and I am thankful every day for his Grace and Mercy! Oh, how he loves us! Gets me fired up just thinking about it. I recently became a Chaplain at the request of some of our College Aged students that asked if I would marry them.”
My eyes filled up with tears of joy and that moment, that I longed to see this man getting “fired up” once again about something, he now was fired up about Jesus!
This was the personal side of him that I always wanted to know. This was the only virtue that I could now be sure of knowing his personal thoughts on morality and where in life he was spiritually.
He knew Jesus, as I knew Him!
We now stay in touch, and he has even gone so far as purchased Blue Collar Believer and is now reading it. We talk about all kinds of things and build each other up and encourage one another in the faith. When he tranformed me from a recruit into a Marine we became brothers as Marines. When I contacted him many years later, we found out that we also were connected as brothers in Christ. To be connected by either brotherhood is a blessing, but to be connected to both is a double blessing!
We plan on communicating regularly and may in fact get together some day, hopefully soon, down the road.
I give thanks to God for this man, the influence he had on me, and our reconnection.
Children often view heroes as fictional characters with superpowers that wear a mask and a cape. As we grow up we realize that they are all figments of someone else’s imagination, but true heroes do in fact exist; we just find them sometimes in the most unlikely places and my personal heroes don’t wear a cape or a mask.
“The 1st Most Influential Person That Changed My Life” that can be considered my hero, wore upon his head a wide brimmed Smokey.
“The 2nd Most Influential Person That Changed My Life” that can be considered my hero, wore upon his head a crown of thorns.
Now this gets me “fired up!”
Semper Fidelis – Ooh-Rah!