The heart of a Marine
All Robert Lewis ever wanted to do was join the military. It was a decision no one could understand. Everyone argued against it. Would his dream come true?
Robert Lewis talks like a Marine.
BY JEFF SEIDEL • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • April 6, 2008
"May I use the latrine?" he asks, sometimes by mistake, and the civilians -- check that, his teachers at West Bloomfield High School -- look at him like he's from another planet. "I mean, can I use the bathroom?"
He walks like a Marine -- shoulders pulled back, chest pumped up, eyes focused straight ahead. He looks like a Marine, with a high and tight haircut, shaved on the sides, a little left on top. He acts like a Marine, lowering the school's flag to half-staff when he is notified that a service member from Michigan has died. It is only right and proper. Nobody else at the school knows how to do it correctly.
And he plays like a Marine. He headed into the woods for spring break, carrying a backpack with 25 pounds of gear, marching for miles, sleeping in a tent, boiling water and living off the land for 10 days, just for the heck of it, while his classmates went on cruises and trips down south. They don't understand him. At a time when the military is searching high schools and struggling to find recruits, Robert Lewis is the exception. He went to them.
Robert Lewis thinks like a Marine, spouting a motto that has become his mantra: "Honor. Courage. Commitment."
"Ooh-rah!" he says.
And in his mind, he is a Marine, a 17-year-old Marine. It is the only thing he has ever wanted. He is still a high school senior, too young to sign up and officially commit, but in his heart, he is a Marine.
In his heart: That his where this story begins.
In his heart: That is where this story will come to an end.
With the death of his dream.
Nobody understands him. Nobody wants him to be a Marine -- not his friends, not his classmates and certainly not his parents. They have peppered him with so many questions he can recite them from memory:
"Why do you want to become a Marine? You're just falling into the government's trap. Why die for Bush's stupid war? You really are an idiot, Robert. You are too young to know what's best for you, Robert. Why, why do you want to be a Marine?"
His girlfriend of two years didn't want him to enlist and they broke up a few months back.
His classmates can't fathom why anybody would put their life on the line for a war that, in their eyes, doesn't make sense.
And his parents, Jay and Kim Lewis of West Bloomfield, can't think of a single family member, on either side, who was involved in the military. When Robert was accepted into the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, it was one of the happiest days of his life. His father was devastated. "I was crushed that day," Jay Lewis said. "That's when I knew this wasn't a joke."
Nobody, at least none of the civilians, supported his decision. They begged him to change his mind:
"I don't want the person I love coming home in a box. I can't fall in love with you because you're going away to war, I'm sorry. Stop talking about the stupid Marines, it makes me cry, Robert."
So how did it happen?
How did a kid who grew up in an affluent suburb in Oakland County -- an Eagle Scout and member of the National Honor Society -- decide to join the military when everybody was so against it, when we are at war.
David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has told Congress: "Never in the history of the all-volunteer force have our armed forces faced as challenging a recruiting environment as they have during the past several years."
Congress has pumped millions into the Pentagon, increasing advertising, trying to lure recruits by giving bigger enlistment bonuses. In February, Chu testified before the House Armed Services Committee and said that youths' willingness to serve "has declined" and parents and teachers are "less likely to recommend military service."
But Robert didn't need to be sold on anything. "It's what I've always wanted," Robert said. "It's in my heart."
When Robert was in elementary school, he joined the Cub Scouts. He felt like he belonged to something important. When others would question him, he would point at the flag on his shoulder and say: "Do you see that flag?"
Robert advanced into the Boy Scouts. "For most kids, it is an extracurricular activity," Robert said. "In my mind, it was getting me ready for the military."
Nine years ago, when Robert was in third grade, he went to Disney World with his family. On the flight home, he sat next to a soldier, who gave him military patches. They became pen pals.
When the war in Iraq began in 2003, Robert joined Every Soldier Inc., a nonprofit program that sends care packages to service members. Robert went to area hotels and collected boxes of soap and shampoo, anything he could find to send to the men and women in Iraq. His bedroom became a storage facility, filled with toothbrushes and candy and books and packets of letters written by area schoolchildren. "I was doing my duty, as a civilian, as much as I could, to be a part of what they were doing," he said.
When Robert was a child, his parents brushed off his fascination with the military. "We'll see," his mother would say. "We'll see."
She hoped it would fade.
After Robert entered high school, he kept talking about joining the military. "Then it wasn't funny anymore," Jay Lewis said.
He argued constantly with his parents.
After countless sleepless nights, Robert came to a compromise with his mother and father. Robert could join the military but he had to go to college first. Robert decided to go to Florida State University because it has a top-notch criminal justice program.
After graduation, he planned to serve in the Marines for eight to 10 years. Then he planned to go into the FBI or the CIA or the Secret Service.
For military recruiters, Robert Lewis was a dream candidate. He was a good student and a leader.
"I know just about every single recruiter in Michigan by name and they know me."
He picked the Marines because it felt right.
Sixth hour with Mrs. McQuillan.
The arguments were hot, intense and explosive in an English class called Points of View.
"I don't want you to go, Robert. I want you to think about this Robert, this is a huge decision."
Jennifer McQuillan, 33, is a young, energetic teacher who wants her students to do more than learn facts; she wants them to think for themselves; she wants them to question authority; she wants them to read and argue and listen and learn.
The collection of students is diverse and complicated, like a miniature United Nations. White. Black. Asian. Middle Eastern. Christian. Jewish.
McQuillan assigned the class to read "Johnny Got His Gun," an antiwar novel by Dalton Trumbo. It is based on World War I, but the themes apply to Iraq.
Robert sat in the middle of the room surrounded by the other students.
When they discussed the book and argued about war and politics, it was 20 against one. Everybody against Robert.
"Robert took on the entire class, for an hour and a half every day," said Ezra Simons, 17. "He'd tell us all off. It was vicious stuff. It was awkward in here for a couple days. We didn't dislike Robert. We all love Robert, but we were all arguing with Robert."
Every day, Robert had to defend his decision to join the military. He had to defend his heart.
McQuillan asked to have Robert in her class. She wanted him to read Trumbo's novel, as well as "Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut.
McQuillan supports the soldiers, but she is against the war. She didn't want Robert to join the military without thinking about the risks. "It didn't matter to me what decision he made," McQuillan said. "I can't pull him from the jaws of danger. That's not my job."
In the class, Robert came to symbolize something bigger than a single Marine -- he took on the voice of the military. Meanwhile, the rest of the class took on the voice of the country. The discussions and debates became grandiose. It was a group of high school students grappling with everything the country is debating. Why are we at war? Should it continue? Where are our tax dollars going? Is it worth it?
"I can't tell students what decision to make," McQuillan said. "But they have to pay attention to what is happening around them."
Most of the time, Robert defended the military by falling back on clichés.
"Be all you can be."
"Freedom isn't free."
And McQuillan was frustrated -- clichés and slogans are easy, she said -- she wanted him to dig deeper.
So she gave him a challenge: Write a paper and explain it to me, but don't use clichés, don't use slogans. She wanted to understand and he took the challenge. It wasn't an assignment. It was something bigger.
He began to write:
When you are finished reading this paper, I can only hope that you will look up at me with tear-filled eyes and understand exactly why I want to be a United States Marine.
He spent days writing the paper. He went for a run -- that's when he does his best thinking, when he is running and his heart is pounding and sweat covers his forehead; that's when everything becomes clear -- and he'd go to his bedroom and pound away at his laptop.
"I want to become a United States Marine because I feel it is my duty to my country, to family and to my community... The cost of freedom is blood, the blood of the very courageous men and women who sacrifice everything to keep us safe and to keep us free. It's the tears of the mothers, the fathers, the brothers and sisters who lose a soldier to the defense of our freedoms."
After two weeks, he was nearly finished. It was 10 pages. It was more than a school paper. This was his manifesto. This was his heart and soul. He wanted to finish but he couldn't. He had to go to a doctor's office. On March 13, Robert went to see a cardiologist. A few months earlier, at a screening program at the high school, a doctor spotted something unusual with Robert's EKG.
Something that required more tests. So he sat on the examining table, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.
The cardiologist walked into the room at the University of Michigan hospital.
"Is it a false alarm?" Jay Lewis asked.
"No," the cardiologist said. "This is the real deal."
Robert has a heart defect. One of his valves doesn't close properly.
"So can I make it through basic training?" Robert asked.
Maybe you could, the cardiologist said. But you won't be allowed. They won't take you with this kind of preexisting condition.
A military career was out of the question, and Robert started crying.
"You could see that somebody had literally punched him in the stomach," Jay Lewis said. "He was bent over sideways, without the ability to breathe."
There was good news. The cardiologist said that Robert is going to live a long, healthy life. He doesn't need surgery. He can live with the defect, by taking a few basic precautions. He will need to take an antibiotic before going to the dentist and he can't do any heavy weight lifting.
Robert couldn't stop crying. He wanted to die.
Robert and his father went home in silence. Robert was mad at the doctor. Mad at the world. He went to his room and kicked a fan across the room.
Jay Lewis was relieved. His son was going to be fine and the military wasn't an option anymore.
The pain was indescribable. All his dreams were crushed.
Robert went for a run. He ran long and hard, until he got sweaty and he could feel his heart pounding, deep in his chest, and he hoped it would explode.
"I was pissed at the world," he said.
He went four days without talking to his dad. His mother gave him space. "Oh, God, it tore me up," she said.
Robert went to the Marine recruiting station in Howell and told his recruiters. He sat in the office and cried. "Robert Lewis would have made one hell of a Marine," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Stamper, who recruited Robert. "He was highly qualified and would have become a great officer."
"Robert had heart. He was a natural born leader. He would have been an outstanding Marine. It's a shame we can't get him in."
He finished writing the report to McQuillan, adding a final paragraph about his heart condition:
"It's a death, a death of something that I have loved and dreamed about, a dream I was so close to obtaining and lost so unexpectedly and so unfairly. It was more than just guns and glory to me. That dream was more than just who I aspired to be, that dream is who I am."
A few weeks after learning about his heart condition, Robert was sick of being pitied.
"I hear, 'Oh, it's God's way,' " Robert said. "If I hear that one more time, I'm gonna puke. I understand people go through things much harder. People get the short end of the stick, but I'm pissed off."
Jay Lewis took a more pragmatic point of view. He sees a teenager with an amazing drive, with an amazing focus and determination.
"As hard as it is, it's a life experience," his father said. "I don't know what he will do with his life, but he will be successful. He's not gonna quit."
Both Jay and Kim Lewis see a happy ending.
"But I don't know," Kim Lewis said, "if Robert knows it yet."
Sixth hour. One week later. Robert was back in the classroom, sitting in his usual chair. And the argument had changed. Now, the class was rallying behind him, trying to encourage him, trying to give him hope.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Dan Lowrey, a classmate.
"I'm still going to go to Florida State and major in criminal justice," Robert said.
He lowered his voice. "I just can't jump out of airplanes."
He looked depressed.
"But you've got this mind," McQuillan said. "This amazing mind."
She dropped her head. Frustrated. She wanted him to see everything that is out there, knowing he is still too frustrated to get past the pain.
"You've got a second chance at life," said Mirna Kassis, 17. "You didn't die. We might be relieved, but we are crushed for you."
The pain comes and goes. Sometimes he is depressed. A few minutes later, his attitude changes. He becomes a Marine again. His chest pops out with pride. His eyes get focused. His voice is strong and determined. "I still have a mission to complete," he said. "I've got the rest of my life to live. I'm gonna live long and healthy like the doctor said. I've got a mission to complete. Quit being a pansy. Get up. Brush off. Say your swear word and get on with it. That's where I am now. Yeah, I'm gonna be OK. I'm gonna be all right. I'm gonna find something else."
He still speaks like a Marine, he still looks like a Marine, and he still has the tenacity of a Marine. But right now, he doesn't have a plan. He can't figure out his mission, and that's killing him.
Now, he's like so many other seniors who look into the future, unsure what to do, trying to find a path.
The other day, he said something surprising. "I'm thinking about becoming a chef."
His mother was shocked. "That's not you," she said. He told his classmates and they were stunned. "That's not you, Robert."
And that's the problem. He doesn't know who he is anymore. But he loves cooking and he knows he should follow his heart.
Because the Marine is dead.