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Every Marine has a different story about how they came into the nation’s service. Some enlisted during their senior year of high school, shipping to recruit training days after graduating. Some went to college, met the officer selection team and earned a commission after earning a degree. Some blended those paths in various forms, but once people become United States Marines, they share a common bond that largely erases many of their past differences.
Corporal Zachary Shelton, an embarkation specialist with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Crisis Response—Central Command, understands what this bond means. He is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, and while he falls into that third category of blended beginnings, he functions as part of a successful team.
“I always knew that I was going to join the military,” said Shelton, from Washington. “I also knew that I wanted to experience other things in life first, like college. Looking back, I probably would have come into the military sooner, but to me, the important thing is that I am doing something that holds value in my life during the present moment.”
Shelton said he grew up surrounded by family in the service. For the first 14 years of his life he lived abroad, moving from South Korea to Germany, then finally to Okinawa, Japan, where he spent 10 years of his childhood.
“I only had a concept of what it was like to live in America as a kid growing up,” said Shelton. “But I did have a strong sense of what life was like in the United States military. My father was in the Navy and many of my family members served in various other branches. I knew at some point in my life I would serve, but getting to that point came much later than I expected.”
Shelton said seeing Marines and the way they carried themselves while living in Okinawa played a part in influencing his decision to serve in the Marine Corps. He moved to the United States in his early teens, and as he grew older he decided the Marine Corps was the branch that suited him best. He also felt it would be best for him to go to college and get some work experience before enlisting.
Shelton earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and worked many different jobs, from bartender to union representative. He said it was during this period he got a grasp of what it meant to be well founded within the civilian work force, and it gave him a perspective of work place professionalism and work ethic that otherwise may have been lacking in his repertoire.
“The military is based on merit. My age, skills, and past experience don’t mean much if I don’t measure up as a Marine,” said Shelton. “It’s a humbling experience when an 18-year-old can be in charge of me. It reminds me that improving yourself is not a goal to be achieved. It’s a continuous challenge.”
As an embarkation specialist, Shelton is responsible for manifesting and tracking weapons, equipment, and personnel that travel by air. Working in a deployed environment adds another dimension to Shelton’s work because many times hazardous materials, ammunition, or fuel must be transported and extra precautions must be taken to ensure safe transport. This type of work varies greatly from anything Shelton had previously done and offers new challenges but also new benefits.
“Having worked civilian jobs for ten years has had its benefits and difficulties during my short time in the Marine Corps,” said Shelton. “It’s just a different way of working and thinking. There can be times of friction at work because I have such a different perspective, but I also understand that everything done in the Marine Corps has its purpose and has been tested through time.”
The primary difference between the civilian sector and the military is the personal family-like bond formed among co-workers, said Shelton.
“When it comes to job second chances in the civilian world, there are very few,” said Shelton. “If you are late for work, you get fired. If you do poor work, you get fired. The Marine Corps has its remediation methods; you are always afforded a chance to improve yourself.”
This allows you to improve yourself while also understanding people you work with on a more personal level, said Shelton. Not only do your bosses care about how you are doing at work, they ask about your home life, your finances, and your family. That would rarely, if ever, happen at a civilian job.
Shelton said the close personal bonds, constant interaction and values-based leadership stick out most to him as examples of the institution’s strength. No matter how one comes into service with the Marine Corps, those aspects of the experience are nearly universal.