By VAL OLIVAS, Four Points News
Zach Becker, a 2014 Vandegrift High School graduate, finished his 13-week United States Marine Corps boot camp last month with a graduation on Oct. 10. The Steiner Ranch resident returned home for a few days before heading back to San Diego for Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to complete his second stage of training in the School of Infantry.
“I like to be challenged,” said Becker. “I chose the Marines because they hold themselves to a higher standard. Everything they do, they try to do ten times better than other [military] branches. When you join, you join for the chance to be a Marine and earn the title.”
Becker notes it’s not necessarily the tangible benefits of the military that he found attractive. “I already feel like a better person. It’s a chance to hold myself to a higher standard.”
Britteny Clifford’s 2nd grade class at Steiner Ranch Elementary sent letters and pictures to Becker during boot camp and offered their support. Private Becker went to thank them when he was in town last month.
Becker’s parents initially expressed opposite reactions to Zach’s desire to enlist. “My dad was excited and said, ‘Do it!,’ but my mom was hesitant.”
His mother Brenda, said, “My husband, Don, enlisted to receive GI bill funding for college. I wanted Zach to go to college first, and then go into the military as an officer.”
Zach approached his parents about enlisting when he was a junior at VHS.
“A lot of bad stuff is going on in the world. It’s difficult. But once we approved his desire to enlist by signing off when he was 17.5 years old, I was completely behind him. I now know this was 100 percent the right thing for Zach to do and I fully support him,” Brenda said.
Upon arriving in San Diego, recruits are allowed one 30-second phone call home to let their families know they’ve made it safely.
“Zach had to follow a 30-second script announcing his arrival and couldn’t deviate from it. I started just saying ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ repeatedly during the call until he had to disconnect,” said Brenda.
Brenda wrote to her son daily. Smiling Becker said, “I definitely received more letters than anyone else there. We could only write letters through snail mail. I would spend time on Sundays writing to her about my week.”
A Facebook page was created just for parents of the recruits’ family members which Brenda felt was a great resource for families. “We didn’t receive letters back from Zach as quickly as we thought. When we did, we could tell he hadn’t read our letters yet, so we were concerned they weren’t getting to him.” Having the connection to other families through the Facebook page helped to keep everyone informed about the delays the recruits would experience in receiving mail.
Recruiter at VHS
Currently serving as a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter Staff Sergeant Christopher McLaughlin — who is onsite at VHS three-to-four times per month — responded to Becker’s original request for more enlistment information.
Becker was in search of a challenging and rewarding career, remembers SSGT McLaughlin.
SSGT McLaughin — a 10-year enlisted Marine — makes himself available to students by setting up a table during the lunch and even offering a pull-up challenge for those interested. But he waits to be approached by the students.
“We don’t want everyone to say yes,” said SSGT McLaughlin, explaining the military is not for everyone. “Depending on what an individual wants — education, money, tangible benefits, the various branches of the armed services offer the same thing, but what makes the Marines different is we ask what prospective recruits want in life.”
The Marines administer an Armed Services Vocation Aptitude Battery which yields students’ career interests and strengths.
SSGT McLaughlin also works with VHS College and Career Transition Coordinator, Sarah Spradling, to coordinate the best interests of the students. If one expresses an interest which seems better suited for the Army or Navy, SSGT McLaughlin will make appropriate introductions.
“Vandegrift is a wonderful school. I love it, and I couldn’t ask for more. The staff is phenomenal. The students are confident and happy,” he said. “VHS is more outgoing than any other school.”
Vandegrift HS was named for Marine Corps First Lieutenant Matthew R. Vandegrift, a 1999 graduate of Leander High School. Vandegrift was killed during combat operations in Basra, Iraq in April 2008 supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To date, a handful of VHS students have enlisted in the Marine’s. In 2011, there were none, in 2012, three enlisted, in 2013, six students enlisted and in 2014, one Marine enlisted — now Private Becker.
Becker signed up for Reconnaissance. He is set to complete training in six to eight months, and will then be stationed in San Antonio — 4th Reconnaissance Battalian (4th RECON BN).
“(By joining) I’ve seen a change. I am three steps ahead of everything now. I’m more responsive to things. I double-check. Think twice and act once,” Becker said.
He also likes having an extended family in the form of a military brotherhood. He has noticed in his short time of being there that Marines help each other out. When Marines are away, their families are taken care of. If there are financial or physical problems, Marines take care of each other, Becker said.
His parents are proud of him.
“Our journey has just begun,” said Brenda. “You know that level of respect you expect your children to have for their parents? Now I have that huge amount of respect for Zach.”