Ray Girardin stands between the two flags representing his brothers in service.
CONYERS -- Long Island, N.Y., native Ray Girardin was the 13th of 16 siblings.
"It was rough, but we got by," he said.
Seven of the 10 boys entered military service: three in the Marine Corps, three in the Navy, and one in the Army. "Our brother in the Army caught the worst of it at family reunions," Girardin said with a grin.
Girardin joined the Marines in January of 1971. He recalled, "When the bus arrived at Paris Island a D.I. boarded the bus and hollered, 'The party's over, boys. Get off my bus and fall in formation. You belong to the United States Marines now.'"
Culture shock awaited Girardin. "We had guys making a choice, join the Corps or go to jail," he said. "We were a motley crew. But the Marines broke us down, then built us back up. After basic we were different, grown up, proud to earn the title United States Marine."
Sent to Camp LeJeune, N.C., for infantry training, Girardin was trained in weapons and tactics needed to survive Vietnam. Upon graduation, however, his next port-of-call was Millington Naval Air Station north of Memphis for training as a ground support equipment technician.
Later trained in helicopter operations, Girardin was meritoriously promoted to corporal then unexpectedly sent into clerical administration. Better things lay ahead. Chosen for the Warrant Office program, Girardin received his commission in February 1976. In July he was sent to Futenma Air Base in Okinawa as the personnel officer for MABS (Marine Air Base Squadron), his first overseas deployment among many.
Sent back to Camp LeJeune, Girardin was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines and served aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima assault carrier in the Mediterranean as the personnel officer for the Battalion Landing Team.
"The Iwo was an old WWII aircraft carrier that was sawed in half then reassembled as a landing ship, but it had a bad list," Girardin recalled. "Concrete was poured into the bottom of the hull to correct the problem, but we still had a 3-degree list when we sailed."
Despite that imperfection, Girardin said the Iwo was "unbelievably" prepared for war.
After serving in the Mediterranean, Girardin joined the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at Camp LeJeune.
"The Battalion was part of a rotation of Marine Battalions that formed the spearhead for any action or assignment that the president of the United States deemed necessary in case of an emergency, such as the evacuation of civilians from embassy hot spots worldwide," Girardin explained.
In the late '70s when Russia sent a military brigade to Cuba, the U.S. Marines and Ray Girardin were sent there to show the country's resolve, as with the Cuban Missile Crisis years earlier.
"I was flown by chopper out to the Marine assault ship U.S.S. Nassau for the trip to Cuba," He said. "Guantanamo Bay was an all-Navy base except for a small Marine detachment. We had to reestablish and rebuild the base into an arsenal for Democracy, which has been used in the recent war on terrorism."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.