by Anne Boaden
At the height of summer in 2005, I found myself at Officer Candidate School onboard Marine Corps Base Quantico. I had trained my body and mind for three years to endure this six-week make-or-break course in Virginia. It was essentially boot camp for officers. Passing was a requirement for keeping my full-ride college scholarship and not repaying out-of-state tuition for the past 36 months. It was also mandatory for commissioning as a Marine Corps officer after earning my baccalaureate. I was in the best physical and mental shape of my life.
I was full of nervous anticipation those first few days. In-processing took ages. My fellow candidates and I spent hours sitting on our camouflaged camp stools in two long rows, just waiting. Sweat pruned my fingers in the southern heat and humidity. We weren’t allowed to make eye contact with the staff. We weren’t allowed to nap. We weren’t allowed to talk, eat, or walk around. But we were allowed to write. So, I tore a piece of paper from my knowledge binder and started scribbling my twin sister a letter. It would be the first of two dozen letters I wrote to her in stolen fragments of time during the most important training of my Marine Corps career.
Our Sergeant Instructors withheld mail from us the first week. There was always an excuse: the mail room hadn’t processed our letters; the platoon had finished the night hike too late; we hadn’t earned the privilege today. The course had already physically and mentally beaten me down by the time my name was announced at the first mail call: “Candidate Armstrong!” I grasped the envelopes with both hands, afraid they would be taken away, and returned to my place in the platoon line-up. Holding the letters, those tangible mementos of love and support, felt like clutching good luck charms. I knew I would pass.
My friends wrote me; my parents wrote me; my siblings wrote me. In fact, my twin sister wrote me every day and sent daily Get Fuzzy cartoons for a laugh. I crawled into my top bunk and read each letter after lights out, sometimes by flashlight, delaying precious sleep. In an environment where nothing was under my control, not even what I chose to call myself, the link to the outside world gave me a sense of freedom. I always found time to write letters in return, even if my chicken scratch handwriting became illegible because I fell asleep halfway through. Writing and receiving letters kept me sane.
Six years later, during my first deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, I remembered the power of that connection. I mailed letters to friends and family every Wednesday. I knew they would appreciate holding a piece of paper that had traveled from a combat zone halfway around the world; evidence that I was thinking of them during my down time, that I was alive and well because I was writing. And sitting down to write allowed me to slow my kinetic schedule. My deployed life could, for a few moments, dissolve into the stillness of a ballpoint pen moving over lined paper in the middle of the desert.
As I sit in my spare-bedroom-turned-office watching neighbors cope with the 19th week of lockdown in England, it’s that experience of stillness in chaos that prompts me to pick up my pen again. Although FaceTime and WhatsApp and Zoom have given us immediate means of talking to each other, old-fashioned cards and letters allow us the space to think, process, and compose. The pandemic has made most of our lives more complicated, more stressful, and more uncertain. But like my time in Quantico, the physicality of the page anchors me to the present moment.
I sign my name at the bottom of a letter to a college friend who just announced her engagement, then press a stamp to a white envelope, scrawling down an address I took five minutes to find. I think about the smile that will spread across her face as she opens her mailbox in a few days to find this little ray of unexpected brightness in a still-dark world.
Alumna Anne Boaden served on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps from 2006-2015, deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as an AH-1W Cobra pilot in 2011-2012 and 2013. She earned her MFA from Goddard College. Her writing has appeared in The Pitkin Review, NELLE, Brevity Podcast, and The War Horse. She currently lives in England and is working on a memoir. You can follow her on Twitter @captleatherneck and on Facebook @captainleatherneck. She blogs about her life at captainleatherneck.com.