First Lieutenant Bobby Miller (2011), US Marine Corps, is sitting across from me. He’s telling me a story about being in the field in Twenty Palms, California. He’d been out in the desert for a while already. It was morning and he’d just woken up. He was hunched over his stove boiling water for coffee. Nearby, another Marine was having a meltdown.
“Maybe he’d been out in the field too long,” Bobby says, and shrugs. Who was he to judge? “Anyway, the guy was losing it and he’s crying and another Marine, a female, is sitting in the sand near him filing her nails and just laughing at him.”
“You can’t make that shit up,” I say.
“You can’t make that shit up,” he agrees, smiling.
I was glad my office suitemate and Bobby’s good friend and former Nordic skiing teammate, Peter Kling, arranged for this interview to happen while Bobby was in town for a few days. I looked forward to seeing him again. When Bobby showed up at the appointed hour and called out from the doorway of the darkened outer office, all I could see was his silhouette and the first thing I realized was that in the five years or so since I’d seen Bobby, I’d forgotten how tall this dude is. When we hugged, the top of my head reached the bottom of his sternum.
I met Bobby in 2007, when he first came to APU from Minnetonka, Minnesota, fresh-faced and fresh out of high school. He wound up at APU as a result of a college fair he attended his senior year, during which he went around and asked admissions representatives at the different booths whether or not their schools had Nordic ski teams. When he stumbled upon a booth for Alaska Pacific University at the back of the room, the Admissions representative informed him that Nordic skiing was the only athletic team he would find at APU. That got his attention.
APU stayed in close contact with Bobby after the college fair was over, closer contact than did any other school, in fact, and before long, Bobby was in Anchorage visiting APU during the Iditarod. He stayed in the dorms, went skiing, watched the start of the iconic sled dog race to Nome, got out into the mountains and soon realized that, “It wasn’t a matter of ‘what are we doing this weekend, but where are we going?’” Bobby said. He came home and told his family he would be enrolling at APU in the fall.
When Bobby arrived at APU, he sought out a degree program that would give him the flexibility to be gone a lot during the competition season. He wound up in Liberal Studies first, a program designed with maximal flexibility for self-directed learners – which Bobby Miller certainly was – and he was assigned to me as his academic advisor. Soon enough, Bobby switched his major to Business Administration Management, where he joined many of his APUNSC teammates who had discovered how season-friendly this program could also be, and how useful, especially for elite-level competitors who had to have a business plan and the know-how to market themselves and raise money to stay on the circuit full-time. Through some oversight, however, I remained Bobby’s academic advisor of record following his defection, along with Business Administration Professor, Beverly Dennis.
Like other Nordic skiers – like my office mate, Peter Kling, for example – Bobby Miller had no time whatsoever for bullshit policy roadblocks, was just kind of above it all. The way Bobby looked at it, with two advisors, his chances of catching one of us in at any given moment was doubled. That suited Bobby perfectly. For the next few years, he would appear in my office once a semester or so, needing a signature. After my briefing (for there’s no other way to describe it), we would talk for a few minutes about other things. When he got up to leave, I would remind him to fill out the paperwork that would make Beverly his only advisor. He would smile agreeably and never get around to it.
The older I get, the more I realize how young traditional undergraduate students are, especially when they come to college straight from high school. Males, particularly, can be awkward and self-conscious around their professors. At this point in their lives, they are more like chimpanzees than human beings, expressing intense emotions, positive or negative, in physical tussling and displays of domination. They have sketchy hygiene. They are moody. Rude. If they could throw poop and get away with it, I believe they would.
Bobby was different. He had a precocious social grace and possessed a confidence that had nothing to prove. He was comfortable in his own skin and at ease, seemingly, talking to anyone. An APUNSC skier, he was my first real introduction to this sub-culture. At the same time, Bobby was involved in a broader range of outdoor activities than many of his teammates, and worked for the APU Outdoor Program throughout his undergraduate years. He was involved in the first-year student “Journeys” experiences and guided at least one big adventure for high school students every summer. During the spring of his senior year, he pursued a long-time interest in serving in the American armed forces and met with a recruiter who was involved in the officer selection process for the US Marine Corps.
“So what made you decide you wanted to be a Marine?” I asked.
“The Marine Corps is expeditionary. You’re not involved in prolonged campaigns. You go in, you get out. What you’re doing changes every three to four months.”
The recruiter told Bobby to call him in three months if he was still interested in signing up and when Bobby graduated from APU in the spring of 2011, he submitted his package for consideration – “a long process,” he said – and then left for Australia, where he started work as the Assistant Coach for the Australian ski team and waited to hear if his application package had been selected. Early that fall, the USMC contacted Bobby and told him to report to Quantico Marine Base in Virginia in October for the ten-week OCS, or officer basic training. OCS is followed by The Basic School (TBS) for another six to seven months, which rounds out the Officer training.
“OCS is based on the premise that you are going to quit. You are kept in a constant state of failure. You are always below the mark,” Bobby told me.
“Did you ever think about quitting?” I asked.
“I thought about it every day,” he said. “Those of us who make it have a crazy sense of perseverance.” By the end of the year, the new USMC officers, now trained to be Rifle Platoon Commanders, apply for their top choices out of 22 possible jobs. Bobby’s top choice was engineering, but he was chosen to be an adjutant (another of his choices), which is a staff officer who assists a commanding officer on the administrative (vs. operational) side. From Quantico, Bobby was sent to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina for his initial training.
“An adjutant handles the least sexy stuff in the Marine Corps and the training is the least interesting,” Bobby admitted. From Camp Lejeune, Bobby went to Camp Pendleton in California, where for three years he learned Combat Logistics for Battalion 1 – organizing supplies and people around a battle space – and received intensive cultural training before being deployed to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
Helmand Province was a Taliban stronghold and a central region for opium production. The mission of the US Marines and international forces in Helmand Province was to eliminate the Taliban presence, all the while preparing Afghan troops to take control over the area once the foreign coalition forces left. I asked Bobby if he thought they had succeeded. He said that by the time he left Afghanistan, the opium trade had been dialed back significantly and the presence of US armed forces was limited to the cities. The Afghan forces had taken over everywhere else. Bobby said that his worst moment of fear came during the closing ceremony at the airfield when the marine battalion he was with left Afghanistan. There was no attack and the battalion departed without incident.
As an officer in the USMC, the Marines Bobby supervised were mostly women. Like a significant number of enlisted service men and women in the American armed forces, some of Bobby’s Marines had grown up in household with few resources. One young woman told Bobby that the regulation issue socks she received when she signed up with the USMC were the first new socks she had ever worn in her life.
During Bobby’s tour in Afghanistan female Marines were being harassed by male nationals. He recalled a time when a group of his female enlisted were walking up ahead of him in a group when he spotted some local male nationals approaching them at a rapid clip.
“I didn’t even speed up. To be honest, I was just hoping they would mess with these women,” he said, and admitted he was disappointed when the men decided on their own it wasn’t a good idea. Good thing, too, Bobby assured me. They would have had their asses handed to them.
“They were extremely competent Marines and they were such girlie girls. I never thought I would be reviewing female grooming regulations,” Bobby shook his head and smiled.
After his tour, Bobby had the choice of getting out or staying in for another two years. He elected to stay in, and was excited about the prospect of leaving for Okinawa at the end of the month and about the opportunity to lead officers for the first time. While the strict discipline and regimentation were often the things that made other Marine officers choose to leave after their four-year obligation had been fulfilled, these were two of the compelling factors in Bobby’s decision to stay in, and were tied back to being on the ski team at APU. Being at APU made it easier, in many ways, for Bobby to find a comfortable fit with the Marines.
“The Marines are a smaller branch of the military. You have the same sense of community,” Bobby said. The Marines had given him many other things he wanted, too.
“I get to travel. I get to use my outdoor skills. There are always new experiences and new people. I got to deploy, which I wanted. I wanted to live in a foreign country, which I’m now going to do. And I wanted an opportunity for more higher education.” Bobby was thinking ahead to getting his master’s degree.
“And from there we’ll see.”
At the end of our interview, I snapped a couple of photos of Bobby. Later, when I was downloading them from the camera –
“No! No! No! No! No! NO!”
As the first shot appeared on my screen I saw with some horror that Bobby was sitting just beneath a small whiteboard on the wall beside my office door that had come with the word “Tasks” printed on it. I had scribbled “Don’t Kill Anyone” on it in a black dry erase marker. The sign was just over Bobby’s shoulder in the photo.
I pulled up the second photo, holding my breath. The sign, mercifully, was mostly outside of the frame in this one. I typed a quick text to Peter, who was now at lunch with Bobby.
“You guys’ll never believe what happened…”
LOAO, came the reply.