MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- In cosmopolitan metro areas across the world, people come in contact with myriad ethnicities, faiths and lifestyles. Often times, their preconceived notions about one group or another quickly crumble upon realizing that stereotypes are anything but a “one size fits all” idea.
Lance Cpl. Richard Pharris of Nashville, Tenn. realized firsthand how especially true this was in a diverse organization like the U.S. Marine Corps. His eye-opening moments occurred when many of his brothers-in-arms also find themselves maturing: in times of war.
Upon enlisting in the Corps in Sept. 2002, fresh out of Hunters Lane High School, Pharris said he expected to come into a desk job after completing recruit training and his administration clerk schooling. However, he soon realized that the Marine Corps’ adage of “Every Marine is a rifleman, first and foremost” was anything but a cliché. In March 2003, he was assigned to the infantry unit, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment’s, administrative shop, or S-1 section.
“I came into the S-1 and was shadowing everyone else doing their job, because they all had designated tasks already,” 22-year-old Pharris explained. “Because of that, I was also the guy picked to go into the field and do grunt training whenever things like that came up.”
The chance soon arose, as Pharris was sent to train alongside the grunts in June at Fort A.P. Hill, Va. Underneath a downpour that lasted nearly three weeks, he fired the Corps’ arsenal of machineguns. These included the MK-19 automatic grenade launchers and the M240G 7.62 medium machineguns.
Pharris excelled in operating these weapons systems, and his battalion commander personally offered him the chance to train with one of the battalion’s Combined Anti-Armor Teams, highly mobile infantry units proficient in operating medium and heavy machineguns. Prior to that, he had been primarily serving as his unit’s mail clerk.
“I’ll never forget one time up in A.P. Hill,” Pharris said, recalling one particularly ironic moment. “I’d been blasting away on the 240 all day long, getting soaked in the rain just like everyone else, and later, I overhear this grunt corporal saying, ‘Man, I was I was a ‘pogue’ (non-infantry Marine) right now. It’d be awesome to be behind a nice, comfortable desk.’”
“I told that corporal, ‘Hey, I’m a pogue, and I’m still here,” Pharris continued. “I realized how many misconceptions there were out there.”
Later, Pharris was sent to the battalion’s Company A to be their clerk, where he would once more often dive into field training, sometimes quite literally.
“I’d be getting soaked during beach assaults,” he stated. “While I was all doing all my field stuff, though, I was still performing the admin clerk side of the house.”
This constant training would help him prepare for his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan from February through September 2004. There, Pharris worked primarily as the unit’s mail clerk, along with performing a few voluntarily picked extra duties.
“In Afghanistan, I’d have to travel on convoys and helicopters just to deliver mail, because we were so spread out all over the place,” he explained. “When I went to drop off mail to the guys at Alpha Company, I volunteered to go on patrols through the market areas and local town meetings with them since I knew them from before. I was issued a SAW (squad automatic weapon), so they saw me as extra firepower.”
Having proven himself as competent an infantryman as an administrator, Pharris would spend little time in the S-1 office before being assigned to another infantry platoon shortly before his unit deployed to Iraq in March 2005.
“When they told me I was going to be part of the (main) camp’s guard force, I was like, ‘Here I go again,’” he said. “A lot of the people here already thought I was a grunt.”
The long days and nights spent standing posts and performing perimeter patrols were far from thankless. Instead, Pharris’ leaders recognized his expertise as a seasoned machine gunner and entrusted the training of several younger, less experienced infantrymen to him.
“It was really crazy, because here I was, an admin guy, being the lead machine gunner and teaching grunts how to do their own job,” Pharris recalled. “I was like their squad leader, teaching them all about the SAW and the 240G.”
Currently, Pharris, a combat veteran with two overseas tours of duty underneath his belt, reflects on his experiences as a Marine and having “walked a mile in another man’s shoes.”
“I’ve never been someone who judges others without getting to know them first, but I know that there are a lot of misconceptions out there,” he said. “Grunts might think we have it easy sometimes, just like ‘pogues’ might think a grunt’s job doesn’t require lots of thinking. But I’ve realized that it takes a lot of nerve and thinking skills to do the equations guys like mortarmen do to hit their targets accurately, and the split-second decisions grunts have to make when fighting in an urban environment.”
As Pharris’ multi-faceted Marine Corps enlistment draws to a close, he looks forward to attending Middle Tennessee State University or Tennessee State University. He will soon end his term of service, but not leave behind his Corps values.
“This has been a really big stepping stone in my life, and I don’t regret doing it at all,” Pharris said. “I’ve definitely matured because of it, and I’ve realized that you can’t ever judge a book by its cover.”