From The Grio — I hated the woman from the moment I laid eyes on her. She called me trash, said my belongings were trash. The only redeeming thing about me, she said, is that I was her trash. I stood by as she upended my suitcase, spilling its meager contents out onto the asphalt in one of my first days of training as a U.S. Marine.
Over the following days and weeks, she pushed me harder than I had ever been pushed before. She tested my mental capacity, worked me physically until I cried out in pain, and then, as my spirit waxed and waned, she poured on even more punishment. She stared over my broken body with a brand of pitiful resolve.
Hers was the first voice I heard with every dreadful sunrise and the last ugly thing I heard before I drifted off to sleep. She force fed me the worst food I’ve ever eaten in my life and made me run countless miles with a 100-pound pack on my back and an M-16 strapped across my chest. My every sentence began and ended with “yes, ma’am!” because she said so.
Her name was Glenda Jones.
She was my Marine Corps drill instructor, assigned to turn a wayward street urchin into a polished, disciplined woman of distinction. It wasn’t easy for her. For the first few weeks, I fought to hold on to the disaster of a life I’d left behind. The harder I fought, the tougher Sgt. Jones pushed me. As soon as I would reach the bar, she would raise it even higher. Everything, it seemed, was just out of reach. I wanted to give up, to quit and go home. She wouldn’t let me.
“Ain’t nothing out there for you, Taylor!” she shouted. “I’m all you got!” And she was right.
Before my enlistment, I barely made it out of high school, flunked out of a semester in college and lived on my sister’s sofa. At 18, I was barely eking out a living, running pizzas for Domino’s in my beat up Honda and ringing up lottery tickets on the graveyard shift at a 7-11 store. I drank anything I could get my hands on and dated anybody who paid me two seconds worth of attention, one of whom enjoyed planting his fist in my face. I’ve long said that if drugs had been involved or if Mark ever got hold of a gun, I would be dead.
Whatever future I would have rested firmly in the hands of Sgt. Jones.
It wasn’t long before a new me was born. In time, I figured out what it meant to be a leader. I learned something about accountability, integrity and honor. The woman next to me was my sister, the man my brother. If I would ever know a modicum of success, I knew then, it would be because I worked for it. Lack of self worth, the thing that kept me trapped in an abusive relationship, evaporated. For the first time, I was an important part of a team.
Sgt. Jones quite literally saved my life.
She stood by gleefully as I mastered every new challenge. She shouted with joy the day I out-shot all 40 of my classmates on the firing range and went on to break academic and physical training records, setting myself up for a meritorious promotion upon graduation from bootcamp. I took on obstacle courses and the gas chamber like a zealot chasing after the first supper. The world was my kingdom.
And then, Sgt. Jones was gone. I woke up one morning and didn’t hear her voice. There was no explanation, no long heartwarming good-byes.
She was just gone. I never saw her again.
For the first time in weeks, I broke down in tears. What would I become without her? Two days before bootcamp graduation, the lead instructor Sgt. Whitmer called the entire class to the head of the squad bay. As we sat cross-legged before her, she explained in painful detail that Sgt. Jones had been Court Marshaled and dismissed from the Marine Corps. There had been an administrative proceeding, but despite supportive testimony from other Marines, she had been given a dishonorable discharge.
Her crime? Sgt. Jones was gay.