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A Working Vocabulary for the Parents of New Marines

Welcome to the family. And make no mistake, when your son or daughter becomes a Marine, you become a Marine family. And if you didn’t realize that Marine families are different than other – civilian – families, then you need to come to terms with your new reality. If you don’t, then the ride you are on – the one for which your Marine volunteered, but to which you were drafted – can get bumpy.

Think of yourself as the member of a fairly exclusive club: the loved ones of a Marine. And like a club there are certain words or phrases you should know. It’s all part of walking the walk and talking the talk.

And now a word of caution: just because I’m sharing some of my experiences doesn’t mean you will have the same ones I did. Please keep that in mind. On the other hand, if what I say relates to you and in any way helps, then I’m glad. So here we go:

Pretty soon your Marine will be using words that may confuse you. Don’t worry. You’ll soon learn that a rack is a bed, a cover is a hat and birth control goggles are the ugly glasses they used to issue recruits and boots who needed them.

Your Marine may be using other words that may leave you scratching your head for a while, but before you know it you’ll understand when you hear him using “yut” or “pogey” or “butterbar.” By the way, one is an affirmation – sort of like “oorah” – while another means a person other than a grunt – you can figure out what a grunt is on your own – and the third refers to a brand-new lieutenant. You may even find yourself calling a door a hatch, a wall a bulkhead, a pen an ink stick or an ashtray a buttcan. One word of caution, however, don’t use these words around your Marine unless you want him or her to think you are definitely a mototard. (You can figure that one out, too.)

And while it’s nice to know these words, it’s not necessary. There are words or phrases, however, that every Marine parent should know and try to understand. To do so will help in your journey as a Marine parent, which can be bother frustrating and pride-enhancing – and sometimes at the same time. Think not? Give it a few years and you’ll understand.

 The Two Most Important Words Any Marine Parent Can Know

Semper Gumby.

Really, that’s all you need to know. Semper Gumby. Always Flexible.

Remember the cartoon character Gumby, with his buddy, a pony named Pokey? (Eddie Murray portrayed him as a crusty, over-the-hill Hollywood prima donna on Saturday Night Live, if that helps.) Anyway, Gumby could bend in any direction and snap back into shape unchanged and unharmed. It’s good stance for a Marine parent to take, too.

So, if you don’t learn anything else, learn this: Semper Gumby.

Let this be your working mantra daily regarding you, your Marine and all things green. It will save you lots, mainly in tears shed, hair pulled, stomach distressed. Stay light. Stay loose. Stay flexible. Semper Gumby.

I read a columnist in one western daily newspaper who explained Semper Gumby in action: a Marine family was moving from California to North Carolina and was spending the night at a motel in Mississippi when a call came saying the Marine’s orders had been switched – to Japan. Right away, too. Semper Gumby got them through it.

In other words, expect the unexpected. And try to look on the bright side. Semper Gumby.

Chanting Semper Gumby in unison, we were able to get our two Marines married (with each serving as best man in the other’s wedding) within six days of one another two Christmases ago. Our sons hadn’t seen one another in two years and each wanted his brother to stand up with him as best man, but the surge in Afghanistan pushed up deployment schedules. And so, two weddings within a week became a necessity and all on about two weeks planning.

Semper Gumby, right? You better believe it.

You’ll use this strategy a lot when dealing with schedules, too, especially homecoming. We once languished outside of Camp Lejeune for four days while waiting for one of our Marines to come home from Afghanistan. Turns out they were held up – of all places – in Yugoslavia. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the continual downpour of rain that caused local flooding, stranding us for a day and a half when the parking lot flooded knee deep. It was all worth it when our Marine stepped off the bus into the loving arms of his wife, his mother and his little sister. (By the way, mothers of Marines, I know you gave birth to him, but that’s a pretty good order to follow when getting hugs.) Anyway, despite the fact that it was still raining heavily, it was suddenly a sunny day.

Semper Gumby. Stay flexible and keep things in perspective.

The Next Five Most Important Words You Can Know

No news is good news.

Haven’t heard from your recruit or your Marine in a while, maybe even a long while? That’s OK, because no news is good news. If something happens, especially something unpleasant, you are going to hear about it and quickly. The Marines are expert at notifying people. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

If your Marine is in a combat zone the chances of your hearing from him are spotty at best. He has a job to do, but so do you. Put your worries aside and start putting together care packages. Those are the lifelines to your world that he depends upon to make his life a little better. There are whole sections on this network about care packages. Go to them. Use them. Send them. And get the names of one or two Marines who never seem to get any mail. Your Marine will know who they are. Then make up a package or two and send them off with a note saying you heard the Marine was a pretty good guy and you just wanted to show your appreciation. You’ll make his day, and you’ll feel pretty good about yourself, too.

An added bonus: you are going to get to know the folks at your post office service counter. One of them, Tom, who was a Marine rifleman about 30 years ago, is now someone I consider a friend. And although I wasn’t a Marine he usually greets me with an “Ooh-rah” when I put yet another care package on the counter.

Five Other Words Which Explain Why Things Happen the Way They Do

The Needs of the Corps.

As in “the needs of the Corps” take precedence over everything else. And understanding those needs is like trying to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle in less than 60 minutes, and with a pen (excuse me, with an ink stick) too. In other words, it usually can’t be done – not from our civilian world perspective. Orders are orders, even if they don’t make sense to you.

A retired Navy admiral once explained to me that everything done in the military has a reason, and usually a good one too, even if it doesn’t make sense to those further down in the chain of command. So, I asked him if – when he was still on active duty as an admiral – he sometimes got orders that made little sense to him. He said he did. And what did he do about them? He obeyed them and promptly. That’s one of the reasons he got to rise from an enlisted post to admiral’s rank in the course of his career.

So, when your Marine says he has liberty for the weekend, but can’t come home because it’s too far from base, listen to him. Don’t try to entice him home by saying you had planned a big steak fry for him and his buddies. There’s a reason he can’t be far from base, i.e. he has to be close at hand in case his battalion is mobilized for a national emergency. And you wouldn’t want to mess that up, would you?

The needs of the Corps also explains why your Marine, who is a mechanical genius, ended up toting a rifle on patrol in a distinctly hostile environment. Sure, he may have had experience taking apart and putting together again all sorts of motors, but ask yourself: How many people before they joined the Marines had experience shooting bad guys 600 yards down range? Right. Chalk it up to the needs of the Corps.

Four of the Scariest Words You Will Hear

“I’m going to deploy.”

First, take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. You knew this was going to happen eventually. Your Marine certainly did. It’s one of the reasons he joined the Corps. In fact, he’s achieving one of his life’s goals. So, the best way to deal with a deployment is to prepare for it ahead of time.

There are two approaches to this:

1.)    Learn everything you can, or

2.)    Ignore everything you can.

Personally, I like to know as much as I can. I read this website and all the postings, I Google place names where the Marines – especially my Marines – are going, I read books and articles. (Tip No. 1: because of budget cutbacks to U.S. news gatherers, i.e. newspapers and TV, some of the best reporting out of Afghanistan comes from British newspapers. You can find them on the Internet.) Others I know take the no news is good news to an extreme and purposefully don’t pay any attention to whatever reports are coming out of whatever hot spot to which their Marine is deployed.

I also found someone who knew what it was like – combat, that is – with whom I could talk. Actually I found a couple of someones. Otto was a Marine in WWII who saw plenty of action. I met him through a secretary at our church because he had called to get a list of Marines who were serving in Iraq during Christmas because he wanted to send them cards. (And like the outstanding Marine he is, he sent them cards whenever they were deployed in combat zones, be it Iraq or Afghanistan.) He said he always has remembered how lonely Christmas was in a fox hole in the South Pacific. The other guy I talk to is Glenn. He was my sons’ youth pastor, knows them both well and also is a retired Special Forces guy who can add a whole new perspective to the word “hairy.” Both Otto and Glenn helped a lot when my sons were in combat. They knew how to listen.

My wife found someone else with whom to talk: my mother. She’s 90 now, but once upon a time she was the bride of a Marine officer sailing off to Iwo Jima and other spots. The two of them spent lots of time talking when sons and grandsons were deployed. It made it easier for both. And my two daughters-in-law also used my mother as a sounding board when deployment frustrations built up a little too much.

There’s one other thing you can do during deployment: have faith. Have faith in God (and show it by praying) and have faith in your Marine and his/her buddies. They really do know what they’re doing. Remember that kid you had to scream at to make his bed two days before he left for boot camp? Well, you’ll probably still have to remind him to pick up after himself, but he can also lead a patrol through hostile territory and get all his men back, can coordinate an air and ground attack, can get a million-dollar piece of equipment up and running again. Have faith. And pray.

A Few Other Words You Will Hear

Then there are some other words you probably should know or at least expect to hear.

“Boot”. Yes, I know, I know. Your Marine went through boot camp, conquered the Crucible, won his Eagle, Globe and Anchor and graduated from his specialty school and is now at his first permanent duty station. No matter. He’s still a boot. And he will be until he makes at least one deployment. Hey, don’t get mad at me. That’s just the way it is. He’s on the bottom rung of a whole new ladder and will be reminded of it by his senior Marines. Here’s the good news: they’ll also be teaching him a whole lot of other things, too, most of which will help keep him alive when he does deploy. There’s nothing tighter than a Marine squad, especially when in a combat zone. And when the deployment is over and your Marine is Stateside again, he’ll no longer be a boot. He’ll be a senior Marine.

“F-Bombs”. Prudence dictates a word of caution. Your Marine drops f-bombs in his daily speech, especially when talking with or about other Marines. Actually, when talking to or about just about anything. Don’t despair. It just shows he – or she – is soaking up the culture and rapidly. Most Marines I’ve known – and I’ve known quite a few – will tell you they can’t converse without a frequent sprinkling of f-bombs in their speech. Generally they won’t use them when speaking with you, but not always. I’m not advocating their use, mind you, I’m just saying that sometimes those words will pop up in unexpected ways – usually to the surprise of both you and your Marine.

“Oorah”. A form of affirmation known throughout the Corps. Scholars attribute its use to originating with recon Marines during the Korean War, although many other theories – some of them quite absurd and like many Marine Corps stories sometimes profane.

An example of how it may be used: “The padre told me he wanted to see me in chapel again. I gave him a big oorah.”

The story may be apocryphal, but a young Marine wife I used to know swears it happened to her. She and her girlfriend were leaving a store when they passed a white-haired old man in the parking lot. Seeing the red Marine Corps sweatshirt the young wife was wearing, the old man said “Oorah” as he ambled on by.

“What was that all about?” her friend wanted to know.

“Oh, well he obviously was once an active duty Marine and he was acknowledging my Marine shirt,” the wife said.

“OK,” said her friend, “but why did he have to growl at us?”

Oorah indeed.


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Comment by Broncosfaninva on August 26, 2015 at 1:55pm

I'm curious what the acceptable response is to an Oorah. Do I reply with Oorah or do I just nod in recognition?

Comment by vette44 on December 22, 2014 at 2:17pm

This is really helpful thanks

Comment by FAITH not FEAR_ny on November 17, 2014 at 12:14am
Thank you for the info, very helpful!
Comment by Mema on November 28, 2013 at 10:14pm

Thank you, this helped alot!!

Comment by mommatrix on July 21, 2013 at 11:37am

Thank you for sharing your helpful!

Comment by ProudClydeMom on April 29, 2013 at 9:07pm
Thank You!
Comment by jonromika on April 23, 2013 at 6:21am

Thank you.Double Dad. I have made a copy of this for the family to read.

Comment by Laura Mom on April 20, 2013 at 4:46pm


Comment by wolfdragon on January 18, 2013 at 6:53am

Loved This!

Oohrah, indeed!


Comment by BirdManOfCT on August 31, 2012 at 6:29pm

Another great Double Dad blog. Thanks!

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