CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, Iraq -- When Benjamin Gay was walking around the Temple University campus in Philadelphia where he studied criminal justice, he wondered where his schooling would take him. He soon realized it would be the other side of the world when he saw the crimson, blue and gold uniform of the United States Marines.
Gay, now a lance corporal, did not complete college before joining the Corps, but his Montgomery G.I. Bill will ensure he gets the chance to do so on the government’s dime. Gay is an armorer and motor transportation operator with Truck Company, Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division here in the Al Anbar province.
The 23-year-old Philadelphia native has traded his cheese steaks and pretzels for tray rations and trail mix, but according to Gay, it’s all worth it.
“I knew the path of the scholar wasn’t for me at the time and I didn’t want to just sit idle and waste money,” he said. “So I consulted with some of my friends who came home from the war in their uniforms.”
Gay deployed for his first time to combat earlier this year with his battalion. He is one of two armorers in his company who maintain the weapons systems the Marines use for security on their convoy operations. With a secondary military occupational specialty of motor transportation operator, he gets to drive those same vehicles that he arms. To him, it doesn’t get any better.
“Like everything, it has its ups and downs,” he said. “In my first year it was hard to adjust to military life, but as I worked harder and made friends in both the armory and the motor pool, I made my way just fine.”
His main job in Operation Iraqi Freedom is to maintain the weapons and ensure they function well for both training and combat. He knows the ‘ins and outs’ of serious weaponry like the M2 .50-caliber machinegun, the MK-19 grenade launcher and the M-16 A4 service rifle. It’s a lot of pressure for one person to handle, which is usually the case when he’s out on an operation. Without weapons, the Marines have no firepower and no means of protection against insurgent attacks.
“First of all, I love to shoot,” said Gay. “Second, I love the idea that the Marines rely on me for their safety. But it’s not all just me – I rely on my sergeant for those tough times.”
“Gay and other lance corporals like him really carry this unit,” said Sgt. Sean Charles, a 32-year-old Waterbury, Conn., native, and dispatcher with the company. “He’ll do a good job if he stays in. He already knows a lot and what he doesn’t know I’ll teach him.”
Gay also has mentors back in Philadelphia like officer Ed Ryals of the Philadelphia Police Department. Gay was part of a police explorer’s program, where he would ride-along in the squad cars, visit jails and participate in fundraisers for the Boy Scouts of America internship program. Many of the officers were former Marines themselves and inspired him in his teen years.
“Officer Ryals told me the Marines is how he got his start,” said Gay. “I saw that he had passion and discipline in his life and that was just the thing I was looking for when I decided to leave college.”
With nearly four years in the Corps, the opportunity to enlist for a second time has presented itself and he’s ready to take the challenge one more time. Though he’ll be deployed with the Marines awhile longer, he’ll never forget the people in Philadelphia.
“The Marine Corps started back in Philly at Tun Tavern, where the first Marine was recruited,” said Gay. “And that’s where my heart will always be.”