The remarkable redemption of a gangster turned hero
By Chris Lawson - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Nov 3, 2007 8:16:24 EDT
The moral of this story is pretty simple: As impossible as it may sometimes seem, people can change. Even small-minded, petty and violent criminals like Marco Martinez.
Ponder the highlights from his 2004 Navy Cross citation:
“After his squad leader was wounded, he took control and led the assault through a tree line where the ambush originated. As his squad advanced to secure successive enemy positions, it received sustained small arms fire from a nearby building. Enduring intense enemy fire and without regard for his own personal safety, Corporal Martinez launched a captured enemy rocket propelled grenade into the building temporarily silencing the enemy and allowing a wounded Marine to be evacuated and receive medical treatment. After receiving additional fire, he single-handedly assaulted the building and killed four enemy soldiers with a grenade and his rifle.”
Not bad for a soulless former gangbanger, a self described “sh--head” who, before joining the Corps, was on a bullet train to loser land.
His is an epic tale of the redemptive power of military service, the glories and horrors of war and the constant quest for forgiveness and acceptance.
It’s also a love story, of sorts. Love for his “brothers from other mothers” and for the Big Green Marine Machine itself.
“All I ever am, or will become, I owe to my beloved Corps,” he unabashedly says.
“They say that those who experience combat never see the world the same way again. That’s been true for me. I’ve seen the world through rifle sights. Everywhere I go, the war is present.”
It’s 10:45 Pacific time, and former Marine Sgt. Marco Martinez has just gotten out of class. It’s day three of the Southern California wildfire disaster, and the skies are choked with black smoke. Martinez describes the scene in a cell phone call to a reporter as he drives to work on an Orange County back road.
“The smoke is so thick you can barely see the sky,” he says. “I’m just eight miles from one of the bigger fires. It’s really sad. People are losing their homes.”
Just yesterday, the Santa Ana winds that are driving the fires ripped a branch from a tree and slammed it down onto the hood of Martinez’s brand-spanking-new 2007 GMC Sierra Denali.
“I don’t even have 400 miles on it, and it’s already damaged,” he laughs.
Still, despite the dangers and frustrations, life is good. Real good. When you’ve dodged the reaper’s scythe as often as he has, wildfires are wussies.
Three years as a teenage New Mexico street thug and four more as a fire team leader in a front-line infantry unit during a time of war will shape that sort of worldview.
“Every day is gravy since I’ve been back from Iraq,” he says. “I’ll take the good with the bad. As long as I’m living and have all my limbs, I’m doing fine.”
In the three years since returning to civilian life in 2004, Marco has made yet another transformation. He’s gone from Navy Cross-decorated Iraq war stud to college puke. Now he has added published author to his pedigree.
“Hard Corps,” Martinez’s gritty, gripping memoir of going from gang member to Marine hero, was released in October. It’s a teeth-rattling, E-4 insight into gangs, grunts and Iraq war gore. It’s also a riveting, poignant and, yes, inspirational story. You can’t help but root for the guy as he struggles to right his moral compass, shake his shame and, later, face down terrorist attackers. His battalion was one of the first into Baghdad after the Iraq invasion.
“We couldn’t wait to go. I wanted to go to Iraq,” he said. “It’s what I joined the Corps to do. I wanted to serve and see combat.”
Just a few pages into his book, however, it’s clear to see his enlistment was about something far more: a search for honor, courage, commitment.
The troubled, aimless son of a 20-year Army Ranger needed the Corps as much as his country needs men like him to serve. In the Marines, he certainly found his path, his purpose, his muse.
“Sometimes when I lie down at night, my mind rewinds to that exact moment. There I am, sitting in that car with that gun, an insecure, violent, cocky, disgraceful little sixteen-year-old punk. I want to reach through time and kick my own ass.”
All it took was one look at the 6-foot-tall, dark-skinned, Mexican-American USMC recruiter to help a troubled teen find his future.
Staff Sgt. Marquez — Martinez never dared to ask his first name — was barrel-chested, with bulging forearms and a commanding presence. He was a real badass, the kind of man who ate street toughs for breakfast.
“Seeing him walk through that high school hallway made me feel like everything I’d ever done meant sh--,” Martinez recalls in his profanity-laced book. The Marine was everything Martinez longed to be.
For the first 17 years of his life, Martinez says, he was a “sh--head.” A gangbanging, trash-talking thug.
“I was the kind of loser who today I — and probably you — can’t stand,” Martinez writes. “From stealing cars to beating the hell out of guys because I could, to ‘tagging’ [writing graffiti] to sporting a gang tattoo, you name it and I probably did it.”
Gang life was adventurous, never boring. The familial culture and camaraderie fascinated him.
But in 2001, after years of staying just two steps ahead of the police — and constantly disappointing a mother and father he loved — he wanted a way out. Staff Sgt. Marquez was the prism he used to see that better life.
“I knew I wanted to change ... to really, really change. Thank God I never shot anybody, even though I was prepared to. My lifestyle was just a lot of crap,” he said. “The Marines were willing to bet on me. Words just can’t describe how grateful I am.”
In the first part of his memoir, Martinez recounts in graphic detail the dangers and drama of small-time street gangs. He admits taking penitentiary chances for petty stuff nearly every day. He’s never proud of that past, but painfully peels back the curtain.
Readers are then quickly thrown into the deeply bonded world of Marine Corps boot camp, the School of Infantry and life in the Fleet Marine Force. The last third of the book is devoted to his unit’s combat street brawls in Iraq.
For example, after missing the chance to deploy to Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, Martinez’s unit later learns it will deploy to Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. It’s time to form for war, and the team is stoked.
“This is where the road divides between those who wear the uniform and civilians,” Martinez writes. “This is where what I’m about to say will either make you nod knowingly or shake your head in confusion, maybe even revulsion: The Marines of 2/5 [2nd Battalion, 5th Marine regiment] — myself most assuredly included — began cheering and smiling and high-fiving and celebrating.
“Here’s why: We were the ones who were going to get the privilege of doing something about what the hell just happened on your television screen. We felt honored, privileged, God-blessed — and ready to rip the mother-f------ face off the enemy.”
“Not everyone was meant to understand what it takes to keep a nation free. Not everyone was meant to understand hardcore devotion to military service, or to our beloved Corps. Not everyone was meant to value a brother’s life as much as you value your own. But that’s ok. That’s as it should be. Not everyone was meant to be Hard Corps.”
When he traded his Tec-9 gang gun for an M16 used to defend his nation, Martinez found his focus for life.
In his new world view, as reflected in his book, things are pretty black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, and Marines wear the red capes.
“Violence isn’t senseless,” he now says. “Senseless violence is senseless.” Marines help resolve those issues.
These days, however, the violence is mostly purged from his system. No more gangs. He’s now a former Marine.
He attends community college nine credits a semester while working full time “in the nuclear security industry.” While there’s no violence, there’s apparently still some adventure in his life.
Martinez hopes to earn a business degree and perhaps write another book. The advance he earned from “Hard Corps” has helped set up that bright future.
Still, despite his hard-earned hero status in Corps and country, he struggles with his past. He ruefully, shamefully sighs “God” when he shares gang stories. He wonders if “hard corps lifer” Marines will like a book written by a former gang member.
“I hope people can understand,” he says.
But as he drives off under the smoke-filled California skies, his mood is infectiously upbeat.
This isn’t some movie. It’s his life. And all he wants — all he needs — is still out there.
Read: An excerpt from the book
Mr. Martinez is also a columnist with Townhall.com. Read his columns Why Do Conservatives Love the Military? and Marine Hero: The 5 Things I Saw that Make Me Support the War