• Fugue State ... Once a Marine ...

    Steffan Piper, Saudi Arabia, 1991

    When I tell people that I was once in the Marine Corps, or that I'm a Marine, I get a lot of double-takes and surprised faces smiling back at me in disbelief. Usually, it's the women who are most taken aback as usually to them, I'm just something to snack on, a piece of candy. Something good, at least while I'm still young. They don't see the deeper layers of me like that because, simply put, I don't put on a uniform anymore. It's typically not until I'm lying naked somewhere do I get asked: “What are those tattoos you have? They look like military insignia.” It's always difficult to explain. Even as a married man, now out to pasture on the back forty. I don't understand it, but that's likely something that's a residual from the Marine Corps as well.

    Yours truly

    People who have known me for many years, when learning about this part of my life, are often the most surprised. Maybe it's the way I come across, or the way I speak, or deal with people. It's hard to say. But whatever it is – I know what it is not. I don't fit the stereotype that the world has been subjected to when it comes to other Marines. Hollywood has done a beautiful job in outlining some of the most striking examples of stereotypes that are so well seated in the public mind that most just can't envision much else.

    A drill instructor from boot camp who barks orders all the time, a gravel-voiced, chisel faced, career Marine, like Clint Eastwood, who stays fit all the way into the grave and exudes military bearing even while asleep. Some have the image of a dirty hippy sleeping under the bridge dressed in military surplus gear, still suffering from the cause and effect relationship of Vietnam, or some other far away place. It's either one or the other. To the casual observer, there really is no gray area.

    My experience, and likely millions of other men and women, wasn't like that. While there's always a few people that could fit those roles that you see illustrated in films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Heartbreak Ridge, ninety-nine percent of military service just isn't like that at all.

    Is it about friendship? Yes.
    Is it about being broken down and being built back up into a man? Yes.
    Is it about learning a job that's specific to a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS)? Yes it is.

    Do those skills often transfer to the civilian world? Some do, like what it is to actually be a Marine. But others do not, like being able to shoot a rifle as good as a seasoned hunter or Olympic participant. I haven't hunted a day in my life and I'm unlikely to involve myself in the Olympics. I also don't sleep in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere, while keeping quietly alert. I don't march anywhere any more or shout out cadence during my morning jogs. At least not out loud.

    In writing Fugue State, the first thing I knew I wanted to steer away from were those stereotypes. I wanted to tell the everyman's journey through the Marine Corps, even if what I was experiencing, was singular in and of itself to me. I had always felt, deep down, that I wasn't the only one who felt the way I did, or saw what I saw. I felt it necessary to try to speak to others that have gone through, come out, and have yet to see or read their story of military service, which is the biggest complaint regarding most of the movies. Fugue State is the story of how things fall apart in highly structured environments. The story is about the personal and human attrition of the group, like running wolves that struggle and eat at each other over time. About how we deal with isolation, loss of who we are, and how we find ourselves in the world, especially when it's a world we don't recognize at all. The version of you we find, is often one that we never thought we'd ever meet.

    The second thing, was that I wanted to put down what had happened to me as accurately as I could without having to embellish and drift off into fantasy. I live with a lot of these memories and frequently revisit them when I sleep and while I'm wide awake. Some days I know better than to nap in the middle of the day as I can feel them a few inches away, just out of reach. These things never go away. I've had so many lucid dreams over the years about Saudi and the Marine Corps, that I've awoken confused and unsure of my surroundings. At the front of the book, there's a few lines about the reality of the story and it's always the same.

    The bulk of what you are about to read is true. Certain names, places, and
    characterizations of certain people have been adjusted for the sake of fiction
    and telling a compelling story. Any unintended likeness is coincidental.

    This paragraph was at the beginning of my other book Greyhound as well, and it's there for a reason. I do my best to relate to the reader the world I'm walking through, where I've been, people I've dealt with. Some might say it's a cop out and it's too close to being journalism, but I feel that telling personal stories like this requires staying away from stereotypes, climactic or cliff-hanging endings, over-wrought love stories and bad dialogue that just never gets spoken in anyone's day to day.

    When people ask me, “How long did you serve?” I usually never answer the question. One, I'm not comfortable with any answer I might give, and the truth of the matter, is that I never felt like I got out. A lot of people who serve feel this way. Post Traumatic Stress or not. Combat or not. Twenty years of service or not. “How did it end?” is the only real question.

    8th & I Marine Barracks, Washington D.C.

    Strangely, I never fully felt like a Marine until years after I had gotten out, and was working at the Veterans Administration in the late 90s with a group of Vietnam veterans who recognized my pain and helped me.

    At the time, I was working at the Los Angeles VA in the Brentwood Mail-out Pharmacy as well as helping other vets with their paperwork that was necessary for filing for their benefits. Most of them just couldn't face the daunting task of writing down their own story for the review board. A lot of them just couldn't do it and avoided it at all costs. Asking for anything was demoralizing and dehumanizing. Talking about it was hard enough. I was just someone who listened, went to a lot of counseling groups with them and did what I could while trying to get my own self sorted. Keep in mind, in those days -- everyone got rejected for benefits. Everyone. I helped Korean and Vietnam war vets that had been denied scores of times over the years who had served admirably, discharged honorably and fought in serious campaigns. They actually thanked me for what I was doing for them, and even then, I wasn’t fully aware of my problem, but they saw it clearly. Vets band together for a reason. The only thing that brings people back is having and sharing a sense of community and sincerity in how we love each other.

    As a society, we don’t fully consider how much the weight of war tears down the souls of the men and women who fight in them. We’d rather just think that in the absence of battle, there will be none. But it’s delusional, as evidenced—some battles never cease. Most of us, despite having a DD214 to prove it, never really get out. Being sent back out into the world and never needing to be heard from again is strange proposition. But as the saying goes, which now makes more sense ... 'Once a Marine, Always a Marine.'

    Wives never understand nor can they. They seem to live to treat you like Missile Command, hitting all the buttons during a panic situation. Disastrous. Relationships, for years on end, become the hardest things to master. It's a journey that's possible, but usually the hardest. Divorces are common. Suicide is somewhere in a dark corner, waiting to pull you down when your not being careful. In-laws become like hemlock, battery acid upon your soul, and seem to have a hate against you like no other. They only ever get to know the shadow of you, the rest never matters enough. They then spend years sharpening their hatred like a knife, or an instrument they'll someday use against you hoping to cause pain. Never being accepted by the world is one thing, not being accepted under your own roof is entirely another.

    On top of it, these are just the normal days we all hope to get through and there are many of them. Some, just can't bear it and fold. I've known and lost several friends in that scenario and it hurts every time.

    Eagle's Nest Cafe -- Eagle River, Alaska

    Writing this book has left a hole in me where it slept in my chest for years, as the last book did, but the point of it was to hope, on some level, that it may help someone out there realize that they, too, are not alone in the pain or confusion they’re going through or live with.

    The world still looks dangerous to me everywhere I go, all these years later. We all have irrational and rational fears; they just differ in magnitude. War, or combat, is a magnifier unlike any other. The more I change, the more things stay the same. We just work to make it to tomorrow.

    Semper Fi.


    Steffan Piper is the author of several novels including Greyhound, Yellow Fever and Fugue State. He was once kicked out of Nome, Alaska due to a minor misunderstanding. He has a blog, a Facebook page, a favorite film and lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles with his family in Palm Desert, CA.


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