MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- When Cpl. Leon Shatkin first came to America in 1994 from Latvia, he knew he was going to experience new things and a different culture.
What he didn’t know was that after high school he would make a decision that would alter his life forever.
Growing up in Elizabeth, N.J., just outside of New York, Shatkin didn’t exactly walk the straight and narrow path. In high school, he got involved with the wrong crowd and often was in situations where he could’ve been arrested.
“I was tired of always running from the law, and I needed to change the way I was living my life,” explained the 2002 Elizabeth High School graduate. “I decided to join the military because most of the role models in my life were in the military at one point in their lives.”
One day, Shatkin was approached by a Marine Corps recruiter and shown a video tape that ultimately swayed his decision.
“I saw the Marine dress blue uniform, and that sold me right then,” he explained. “I became the only person in my class to join the Marines, and I was proud of that.”
The 23-year-old’s family wasn’t exactly thrilled with his decision to join, until they saw him graduate from recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot Parris Island, S.C.
“Once they saw me graduate, they we’re all about it,” he said.
After Shatkin’s training was complete, he was assigned to 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division as a light armored vehicle mechanic.
He made his first deployment to Kuwait at the start of Operation Iraq Freedom in 2003, repairing a variety of military vehicles including tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, light armored vehicles and seven-ton trucks.
Shatkin worked 40 hours straight without a break to ensure that these vehicles were ready for the fight.
“I felt that what I was doing was very important because we were preparing those vehicles for combat and making sure they were operational,” he said.
He spent his first five months in Kuwait working on vehicles before he packed his bags and headed into Iraq to conduct patrols back and forth from An Nassariyah to the Kuwaiti border.
“That was the first time I was ever shot at and at first it was scary, but after a few seconds I quickly got used to it..We continued those patrols for a few more months and then we went back to Kuwait to finish the job we started before we came home to the U.S.”
Shatkin would later realize this first eight-month deployment would be his first and only of his enlistment, due to an injury he suffered during his time in Kuwait.
“I had separated my shoulder a few times while I was working on vehicles,” he explained. “Once we got back, I found out that I was going to need surgery and that would make me un-deployable for the rest of my time in the Corps.
Although he could deploy again, he said that he still felt that he was a part of something greater than himself, helping keep the Marines in the fight.
“It’s been hard to watch my friends and brothers return to Iraq,” he said. “But I feel lucky I had the chance to be there for the beginning of it and help out.”
Shatkin is getting out of the Marine Corps in June to become a New Jersey state trooper, but he says without the Marine Corps, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“I owe a lot to the Corps. It pulled me out of a rough situation in high school and put me on the right path, and I’m grateful for every thing I’ve experienced and learned because of joining. I’m proud to have served my country.”