By Cristine Pedersen, Comedy Bootcamp Alumna and Instructor
April 4, 2019
Article originally published in the New York Times. You can read the full article here.
It would be hard to overstate the significance the Marine Corps played in my family’s life. My father, Robert Starke, grew up in a small town in Eastern Oregon, enlisted in 1988 when he was 17 years old and went off to training at 18. My mother, Cindy, always says that the man who went to boot camp was not the same one who came back. The corps hardened him and shaped his ideas about raising a family. He and my mother married on Christmas Day that year, during his holiday leave following Marine Combat Training. She was still in high school. After her graduation the following spring, she joined him in Georgia, where he worked as a computer operator on a logistics base. My mother gave birth to a son and then to me — both before she could legally buy a drink.
My brother, James, and I were raised in my father’s interpretation of the corps’ intense ethos. We grew up believing that standing at attention, yelling cadence on runs to our activities after school and listening to lectures about honor, courage and commitment were norms in every household. In 1996, my father was medically discharged, after suffering a botched foot surgery while he was a sergeant in Okinawa. His reliance on the corps to define his identity only grew stronger. I would catch him wearing an old Marine Corps cap to his civilian job, or a flashy T-shirt adorned with skulls, crossbones and a pithy quote from an iconic Marine. For years he downplayed his disability and refused to submit a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He worked in law enforcement and as a karate instructor and joined an ironworkers union — all while trying to convince the corps to allow him into the reserves.
He finally gave up in 2009, when I told him I had decided to enlist. If he couldn’t be back in the corps, at least I was going to be. On that day he declared me “the son he never had.” His joke fell flat, particularly for my brother, but it was painfully symbolic of his desire to remain connected to the service that had forced him out. I left for boot camp in August 2010 at 18, and returned home three months later on leave to the Marine Corps hymn blasting loudly down our suburban street and a giant banner: “Welcome Home Pvt Starke Platoon 4035.” My father viewed my enlistment as nothing but a good thing. In time, though, he and I found that my decision to follow him into the service forced us to confront sides of the military neither of us wanted to see. My enlistment became a bond and a wedge between us, and eventually forced us on a journey toward truth.
A few months after I graduated from Marine Combat Training, a vengeful ex-boyfriend who had also gone into the corps sent a half-nude photo of me to fellow Marines in Pensacola, Fla., along with a text message that read: “This woman cheated on her husband while he was deployed to Afghanistan, make her famous boys.” Everything the text said about me was a lie. I had never cheated, he wasn’t my husband, and he had not yet even finished training, much less been to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the text spread like fire, warping fraternal camaraderie into vulgar abuse that masked misogyny as patriotism. This was my awakening: My experience as a Marine would be very different from my father’s.
Two years later, when I was stationed in Georgia, I was formally accused by my company’s gunnery sergeant of committing adultery with a married Marine and of being pregnant with his child. I was one of the few young women living in the barracks, and my partner in the alleged offense was the only African-American man. Naïvely, race seemed irrelevant to me until my squad leader said that it would be harder to disprove the rumor and “repair my reputation” because I was white and the male Marine in question was black.
After we both vehemently denied the rumor, the gunnery sergeant dropped the accusation and said it was a misunderstanding. Yet the following weekend a sergeant ordered me to move into another room. The change in quarters moved me away from the man I’d been accused of having an affair with — but it also happened to put me one door down from a corporal who had drunkenly tried to enter my old room two weeks before. This new neighbor had rank and more authority than me, as well as access to my room at any time for inspections. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to turn him away without it harming my career. I reported that earlier incident to leadership, and nothing else happened with the corporal. But I never felt safe there and I decided to unofficially move out of the barracks shortly thereafter.
At first, when I started to experience harassment, I would call my father for advice. I could hear him wrestling with what I shared. He had seen sexism and racism in the corps, but he believed things had improved over the years and that the Marines abusing me were exceptions, whereas I quickly realized these incidents were part of a systemic problem within the service. My father could not reconcile story after story of mine with his ideal of the corps. I felt guilty trying to make him do so. Over time, I told him less and less.
Like my father, I had a job specialty that would generally keep a Marine deskbound. Like him, I responded to it by volunteering for every opportunity or deployment I could. Our eagerness for extra assignments took us both to the same region of the world: My father served in Somalia in 1992; I deployed to Djibouti in 2014. Even though Djibouti at the time was stable and secure, during the time I was training for deployment he repeatedly offered concerned advice about “maintaining situational awareness” in a combat zone.
Life in the lower enlisted ranks is rough and dehumanizing by design. But much of what I experienced was far removed from the ordinary indignities of junior enlisted service. It was irrefutably wrong. After I lost a “Marine of the Quarter” competition, my platoon commander consoled me while at work by saying that regardless of the outcome I had given him an erection. Another noncommissioned officer casually remarked that had he not been married, he would enjoy an evening with any of the women in our unit, including me. I reported both cases, which only led my superiors to move me into a different squad. As far as I know, my harassers faced no repercussions. During my time in Djibouti with a different unit, an officer, clearly drunk, publicly kissed me on the cheek while I was in uniform. I gave a statement the next day, and the officer was reprimanded. Still I didn’t tell my father about what was happening. “Rumors don’t come from nowhere” was a phrase I had learned to loathe. I feared hearing it from him as well.
The truth was that sexual harassment was a continual element of my enlistment: It was part of what drove me to seek a deployment away from my regular unit; it kept me from feeling safe in my own barracks; it kept me from reaching my leadership potential. With time I understood that rumors and harassment manifest out of deep-seated misogyny, or insecurity. I also realized that my father and many Marines I served with failed to grasp both the extent of the abuses and their costs. In the summer of 2015 I let my enlistment expire, and I started college three weeks later. I felt exhausted by my career and angry that my father still felt so loyal to an institution that had repeatedly dehumanized me.
Two years later, my father and I took a trip to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the grave of his best friend from the corps, who in 2011 ended his life with painkillers and alcohol. Just four years after that tragic death, one of my best friends from deployment killed himself with a revolver. This shared loss pulled my father and me closer together again. Standing on the grassy lawn in front of his friend’s headstone, we downed shots of that Marine’s favorite drink, a brand of terrible tequila. When my father poured a shot onto the grass, I watched his shoulders shake with sobs. This was a side of him I never would have seen without the Marine Corps. I sometimes wonder whether, if I had never joined, he would have just held all of this pain and confusion inside him.
These days my father and I talk openly about our careers as Marines and how the corps changed us. Without that shared experience, my father would never have known so intimately the experience of someone outside the stereotypical image of the male Marine. And without my enlistment I would not have come to understand my father as fully as I now do. Together we have learned that you can simultaneously love an institution and recognize how it is failing. The truest form of commitment is perhaps to bring these failures to light.
Cristine Pedersen, a former Marine, is pursuing a Master of Science in Foreign Service degree at Georgetown University. She focuses on civilian-military engagement in humanitarian crises and protection of civilians in conflict.