Dersam, who was a Spec 4 or E4 soldier, went to Vietnam seven months into his Army career, after spending four months in Germany.
“I spent a year in Vietnam,” Dersam said. “Vietnam was really different. Really, really different. People who live in this country have no clue how good they’ve got it. People living in mud huts, no electricity, no running water. That’s their existence. Unbelievable. And bombs going off everywhere, and it’s just unbelievable.”
That was the experience of a young man in the Vietnam War, back when rebelliousness at home raged through college campuses across the nation, when a single country could consume itself with the hatred of war, but when the veterans themselves were scarcely acknowledged at all. That was when local music and commercials served as the only glue to hold a soldier’s sense of culture together.
“Everybody had reel-to-reel tape decks,” Dersam said. “I guess they used to use them in the newsroom when they’d splice the tapes together, and they’d write to your hometown radio stations and they’d send you an hourlong show with all the music.” Dersam welled up with tears at the memories. “That was the way you stayed connected.”
It isn’t hard to see that the Armed Forces have changed a good deal since then, but it has always been a solid organization of determination and passion. With strong moral ethics and diverse opportunities, the U.S. military has proven to provide a generous career.
“The financial stability of it is pretty much unparalleled,” said Amherst native Staff Sgt. Joseph Derringer, a local recruiter for the Marines, on the plethora of opportunities and benefits provided by joining the Armed Forces. “You’re guaranteed a paycheck, every single month, you’re going to have housing benefits, medical and dental benefits.”
He also mentioned that the personal gains are infinite.
“The kind of pride and confidence you get out of that experience is something I can’t just explain easily,” Derringer said.
But taking the road less traveled often proves to be quite a challenge. Many teenagers leave that last bell of high school thinking about college, wondering whether the upcoming academic explorations will carry them well into the next phase of their lives. But for those who desire a different kind of life, the military awaits.
Pfc. David Suchyna, 19, a 2012 Williamsville South High School graduate, found himself in a Marine recruiting station on a whim of curiosity in the spring of 2012.
“I wanted to go to the recruiting center just to see what it was like,” he said about his early interest in joining the Marines. “I loved how the Marine Corps carried itself. It seemed like a great organization.”
Suchyna, who completed boot camp training in April, became involved in physical training sessions with the Marine Corps every Thursday and every second Saturday of the month during his senior year of high school.
“It was pretty cool. It was pretty motivating,” Suchyna said about the training sessions, which were held locally.
Derringer said that it all starts with personal analysis.
“Very first step is just to come into the office and talk to us about it, if they’re qualified, what they’re really looking for,” he said. “We sit down and we get kind of personal with people, and we kind of want to see where they’re headed.”
“Poolees,” as recruits are often called in the pre-boot camp condition, are encouraged to go to a Delayed Entry Program, a program for those not yet ready for boot camp in order to mentally and physically reach their peak before shipping out.
The Delayed Entry Program is specifically designed for high school seniors or high school graduates who can’t ship right away,” Derringer said. “My job is to go out and find people that are qualified and interested, and that’s to help them prepare for the mental and physical challenge of recruit training.”
Dylan Abbey, a senior at Williamsville South High School and a future Marine, said he has developed a true fellowship with the poolees he has gotten to know through the program.
“I was like a fish dropped into a new tank,” he said. “But they all welcomed me and they made me feel so comfortable. They’re like your second family.”
Derringer noted the effects of the Delayed Entry Program on the poolees.
“It’s like magic; it’s really something to experience,” he said. “I watch them develop from essentially children into young men and women. They start to really embody what our institution stands for.”
All of the work, sweat and resulting friendship during those last months is designed to prepare the poolees for boot camp.
Suchyna, who is in the School of Infantry in North Carolina for more training, said it was “not fun.”
“Mentally it was a struggle the entire time I was there. It was being away from my family for the first time,” he said. “It molded me into a person that was more appreciative, more respectful, disciplined, gracious.”
The Marine boot camp, which is held at Parris Island, S.C., is a grueling three-month experience that involves extreme discipline, tremendous mental and physical obstacles, and learning about the history of the Marine Corps, and it concludes with a two-day crucible that serves as the ultimate challenge.
When he graduated in April, Suchyna was ecstatic beyond measure.
“When I got the eagle, globe and anchor, they hand it to you, and it’s just a piece of metal, you know it has no value, but to every Marine it’s priceless. You hold it in your hand and you realize, wow, the hell is over,” he said. “There are tears everywhere, and people just realize it’s finally done. And it’s an experience like no other, when you finally know you’re a United States Marine. It’s amazing. It really is.
“It’s great to have this other family, if you will,” he continued. “It’s always with you, you know they’re always looking after you. Overall it developed me into a better man, a better person, a better brother, a friend. The Marine Corps transformed me into the person I’ve always wanted to be.”
Dersam, who joined the Army only eight months after graduating from high school, is a strong advocate for military service from all.
“I really think everybody should be forced to do two years of service, whatever it is,” Dersam said. “Just to give something back.”
When asked what it takes to be a Marine, Derringer said, “Determination, probably more than anything. People use the word heart a lot, I would say that’s all you need to succeed in the Marine Corps is heart. As long as you can allow yourself to be pushed past a little bit of pain, a little bit of suffering from time to time, which is something we‘re all going to have to deal with in life, you can get through boot camp.”
“I’d say one of the best parts is just knowing what you’ve accomplished,” Suchyna said. “Knowing that you can push yourself to those limits and succeed. You know what kind of person you are because you know yourself better. You know you can really accomplish any difficult task because of what you’ve done. It’s a learning experience.”
Dylan is eager to become a Marine himself.
“I feel that there’s a lot that a person can learn and become from being in the military,” Dylan said.
“I’m choosing to go into the Armed Forces right out of high school because I’m a more hands-on person. ... I feel that with the discipline the Marines can provide through my future career, I will become a better person,” he added. “I feel that there’s a lot that a person can learn and become from being in the military.”
“The people you meet, the friends you make, the places you see, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Dersam said. “I have a lot of respect for people who join the service now … I think it’s a good experience, and it sets you up for the rest of your life.”
Pride, passion, dedication and a whole lot of heart. From veterans looking back on their experience to young men just signing up, the United States military changes lives.
“I think the service makes you a better person,” Dersam said. “I think the service gives you a sense of responsibility, a sense of loyalty, a general sense of how lucky we were to be born in the United States and not born someplace else.”
Rachel Whalen is a sophomore at Williamsville South High School.