As I reflected on Veterans Day, a memory haunted my heart. It was a memory of someone who had as much to do with shaping and molding my character and the very fabric of my being as anyone I have ever known. It was a memory of pain, sacrifice, hate and love as well as one of regret for things left unsaid and debts left unpaid.
His name was Sergeant John Pinsonneault. I was an 18-year-old recruit 22 years ago, and Sgt Pinsonneault was one of my four drill instructors with Platoon 2083, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. He was the “heavy,” which meant he was the will-breaker; the ass-kicker; the walking, breathing nightmare that stalked you relentlessly in your dreams and until the sound of “Reveille.” He was a brutal, profane man. He was tall and strong and louder than a hellhound baying at the moon. He was indestructible, invulnerable and insane.
I loathed him and I feared him. I re=main convinced to this day that the devil himself would have laid on the deck of our barracks in a fetal position calling for his momma had Pinsonneault unleashed his wrath on him. I had already seen at least two recruits do that very same thing. They were taken away and I never saw them again. They left, but Pinsonneault remained, like an angry, dark thundercloud ever threatening to unleash its fury on everyone.
I feared him until the day we graduated. And then I feared him for the next 20 years. He was the only drill instructor no one got to shake hands with after we were dis-missed on the parade field; no longer recruits, but Marines. He had disappeared. From a distance, however, I thought I could see his profile standing in the hatchway to our barracks. He was alone and standing quietly with his head lowered. His shoulders were slightly slumped and I believe the man was silently crying.
As my life progressed, I found an ap-preciation and indeed a reverence for this man, this myth, this symbol of unbending will. This was but one of the same traits that I realized I had carried away from that island. I came to understand that he had given me gifts along with pain. They were gifts of tenacity and an unwillingness to compromise your duty.
Sgt Pinsonneault made me into more than a Marine. He turned me, irreversibly, into a man. I can see his influence now in my daily life and in almost every decision I have ever made. I realized that I owed him a debt that I could never hope to repay. I thought perhaps I could at least honor him by passing it along and becoming the kind of man he intended for us all to be.
Last year, I felt compelled to find him, wherever he was, tell him thank you, and finally get that handshake. I wanted him to see that his work had paid off and that he could be proud of me. Thanks to the Internet, the search didn’t take long. I found him at last.
John Pinsonneault died Oct. 14, 2004, in Baghdad, Iraq. He was one of several killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the Green Zone. He was 39 years old.
I would never be able to tell him thank you. He would never know the difference he made in my life. It was devastating. I wept.
But then I remembered my Christian faith: John Pinsonneault is not dead. In fact, he is more alive than he ever was. He knows my gratitude and he can see the results of his work. He doesn’t need a letter or a handshake. He can see and hear it all.
“For no greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” I know now that Sgt Pinsonneault loved me. He loved us all.
Sgt Tim Killen