CENTERBURG — Jake Davidson has a certain air about him as he sits, contemplating his thoughts and answers to a barrage of questions about his life as a Marine. It is a quiet confidence. A strong jaw. Tight posture and square shoulders. He certainly has the look and the demeanor of how most civilians would perceive a member of the elite “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”
Like many young men and women, Davidson heard the calling to join the military after innocent American lives were lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
“After 911, I felt like I had to,” Davidson said of enlisting. “I had a feeling that was what I should do; like it was my duty to join.”
The decision to be a Marine was an easy one for Davidson as his father and uncle were both Marines in the Vietnam conflict.
“I didn’t want to be a on a ship for six months at a time, no disrespect to sailors. I wanted to be in combat. I wanted to go put my life on the line for this country. I took an oath and if my life was asked of me, then I would have,” he said.
During his four-year contract with the Marines, which started Sept. 2, 2003, Davidson would spend a total of 14 months in Afghanistan and Iraq. In that time, he found himself in situations no training would prepare him for — situations he would later like to forget.
“I spend a lot of time trying to forget. I really don’t talk about it much,” Davidson said of his time in war zones.
Trained in the School of Infantry, Davidson’s occupational specialty of machine gunnery did prepare him, in a few shorts months, for combat in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of Iraq.
“The first place we went to in Afghanistan, we had to set up our own little camp on top of this mountain,” he said. “There was nothing on top of that mountain besides dirt and rocks. We went with humvees, truck loads of tents and concertina wire and we made our own camp. I don’t think I took a shower in at least a month.”
Life in a war zone is far from easy and the creature comforts of home became a memory of when a nap on a couch or a hot shower were taken for granted.
“Sometimes it was, a lot of times, it was sleeping in a hole that we dug and living in the dirt. Other times, when we got to base or main side, it was pretty good. It went from very low survival extremes to, like in Iraq, we would go back to Camp Al Qaim every two weeks for a couple of days. We could take a shower, get a nice meal at the chow hall, make some calls home, get on the Internet and just relax,” Davidson said.
Days and weeks without showers, sleepless nights in ditches and the constant threat of attack became a way of life for Davidson and his fellow Marines. Simple cards and letters from home could change everything, even if for only a few minutes.
“It made me feel good and lifted morale. Sometimes it was from people I knew and sometimes you get mail from total strangers. It was good to know there is someone out there who cares,” he said.
Not every day was a bad day, Davidson said. If there was downtime, the Marines would look for anything to occupy their time and perhaps even find enjoyment in an otherwise desolate area.
“There was a lot of uptime when you were really, really busy when you got minimal hours of sleep,” Davidson said. “There was downtime, too, when we had to find ways to entertain ourselves. We would do whatever we thought was fun. It could have been something as simple as throwing rocks at a plastic bottle — just guys messing around.”
Although he was open to any question, there were times during the interview when the conversation was easy for Davidson. At others, there were long pauses while he searched for the right word or when he stopped to hold back the emotion you could see in his eyes or hear in his voice.
Davidson escaped injury during combat, but some of his fellow Marines — his friends, his brothers — were not so lucky.
It was when Davidson talked about fallen Marines that he struggled the most to tell his story.
“Over there, you couldn’t let it get to you, because, if you did let it distract your thinking, it might not have been a good thing,” Davidson said. “You just have to accept it and move on and do your best for them. You just have to push forward and move on.”
Davidson lives by that same philosophy of moving on as he pushes forward with his life to find peace with his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when there are so many that didn’t make it home.
“The things I experienced affect everything I do in some way. It bothers me but when people go through traumatizing things it’s going to affect you. But, is that to say that I regret it or I’m ashamed, not at all,” Davidson said.
This past Memorial Day, Davidson and a friend made the trek to Pennsylvania to pay respects to a fellow Marine who did not make it home.
“This Memorial Day …,” Davidson stopped, slowly ran his hand across his beard and dropped his head to maintain his composure. After a few seconds, he raised his head and apologized. “It’s starting to get touchy.”
Only knowing the name of the town where his friend lived, Davidson eventually stumbled upon his friend’s cousin who took Davidson to the Marine’s parents.
“They actually came to see us when we came home,” Davidson said.
Being able to pay respects to his brother in arms, at his grave site, was an emotional experience for Davidson.
“It was awesome. Word’s just can’t describe,” he said.
The family opened their hearts and home to Davidson and his travel companion giving him the opportunity to see, that despite their loss, they too have moved on with their lives.
“It was good to see them doing well, you know,” he said.
Regardless of age, branch of service or actual war experiences, being a veteran bonds men and women from several generations and various backgrounds.
“When I meet a veteran somewhere, we can relate,” Davidson said. “We are all veterans. We understand and relate with what we’ve been through and what our experiences were.”
Celebrating Veterans Day is a special event for Davidson.
“Veterans Day means a lot more to me than most people interpret it as,” he said. “I think a lot of times people get Veterans Day and Memorial Day mixed up. Memorial Day is to remember guys that are no longer here. Veterans Day is for all veterans, but it’s different, it’s for us (living) veterans.”
At only 25 years old, Davidson said he is finally starting to settle back into civilian life. Recently starting a new full-time job, he is optimistic about his life in his hometown of Centerburg and his unwavering loyalty to the Marine Corps.
“Being a Marine is always being a Marine — forever faithful,” he said.