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Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

The wrong dress blues for this Marine

Marketplace Staff Feb 20, 2009
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TESS VIGELAND: Anthony Swofford served in the first Gulf War as an elite sniper in the Marines. His bestselling memoir, “Jarhead,” shares that story. When Swofford came back from months of active duty, where he marched through burning oil fields and sifted through bombed Iraqi corpses, he prepared to enter civilian life — and faced a grim economic reality.


ANTHONY SWOFFORD: As a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, I made less than $800 a month after taxes. My car payment was around $180 a month — I drove a modest Nissan 4×4 pickup. The rest of the money I spent on car insurance; food; that mainstay of the Marine diet, beer; and the gas I needed to escape from the desert Marine base at Twenty-nine Palms to Los Angeles on the weekends.

We’d been back from the Gulf War for a year, but combat still haunted us, and we were always ready to fight the next battle. It should come as no surprise that many of us looked over our finances with aggressive irresponsibility, if not outright malevolence.

If you might die very soon, why on earth should you care about your bank balance? They can’t squeeze car payments from a dead Marine, can they? Then borrow the money for the car at a criminally high APR from one of those jalopy dealers outside the base. Say yes to that credit card. And yes to that one as well.

I’d always planned to leave the Marine Corps after four years to attend college. I was in that fourth year and I’d saved exactly zero dollars beyond the $14,000 in my GI Bill. I’d lived with the fantasy that the GI Bill would see me through an undergrad degree and on to graduate school and that I’d not have to work.

When I started looking seriously at colleges, I realized that that government money wouldn’t pay for more than a few semesters of tuition and rent. Beatnik fantasies cost more than I’d ever realized.

I began to panic.

A Marine I knew who had three kids and an unemployed wife had been delivering for a Pizza Hut out in town. The moonlighting Marine was a common enough sight. They worked as bartenders, taxi drivers, and motel clerks, but most of those guys were married with kids.

One afternoon I headed out to the Pizza Hut. The manager looked like a cousin to the Mario Brothers. He hired me on the spot and gave me a uniform and told me to report the next day, a Friday, at 4.

Depressingly, the Pizza Hut uniform shared a color scheme with the vaunted Marine Corps dress blues: the polyester pants were blue and the shirt was blue and red with blue piping.

After a 5K run in the morning and an afternoon on the rifle range, I shed my battle dress camouflage uniform. I made the horrible mistake of donning the Pizza Hut threads while still in the barracks. At the time I was a co-leader of my platoon, and as my men changed into shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, and prepared to party like it was 1999, I walked a reverse walk-of-shame from the barracks to the parking lot. My subordinates howled in delight as they watched their fearless leader scamper off to deliver pizzas.

I could find my way on foot, with a map and compass, through any landscape on earth, but in my truck I was rather lost in the sprawling exurbs of the high desert. I bungled more than a few deliveries and received multiple cold pizza complaints.

I delivered to a number of military families, and I recall these people averting their gaze when something in my bearing or my haircut tipped them off that I was a Marine.

As I recall, I made about $40 that night.

When I got back to the barracks after midnight my men were sufficiently drunk and passed out that I was able to slip into my room unnoticed. I looked at myself in the mirror, hair askew, a little puffy at the eyes.

The pizza-stained uniform made my combatant’s body look like a sack of bloated dough. I did the simple math: In eight months I’d be out of the Corps and my moonlighting would have netted me a few thousand dollars at most.

I never went back. Better to be a very broke college student than a member of the world’s most elite fighting force schlepping deep dish on a Friday night.

VIGELAND: “Jarhead” author Anthony Swofford’s latest book is the novel, “Exit A.”

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