by Bill Kurtis | October 4, 2013 | Lifestyle
Bill Kurtis observes the presentation of the colors at the 2012 Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Dinner.
Kurtis at a Navy holding yard.
Kurtis was a member of Platoon 154 in Parris Island, later joining the United States Marine Corps Reserve and the United States Navy Reserve.
General John F. Kelly joins First Sergeant Timothy La Sage and family at last year’s event.
Sarah Daughenbaugh shares her husband Donny’s story of being wounded in Baghdad.
Families at last year’s Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Dinner.
Donna LaPietra, Craig J. Duchossois, and Bill Kurtis at the 2012 Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Dinner.
After being honored, Corporal Donny Daughenbaugh USMC (Ret.) celebrates with his wife, Sarah, and their two children.
My father had been in the Marines as an aviation officer since 1936. He was going to make a career out of it: It was in the middle of the recession, he wanted to fly.... He became an instructor and was stationed at Pensacola, where I was born on September 21, 1940. We stayed for six months and then went to Quantico, and eventually Miramar, Florida—my early life was spent moving around like a typical military child. The culture is really something, because we always lived on the base. It’s like living in Berlin when there was the Berlin Wall. All you know is the military lifestyle: the commissary, the dispensary, the schools, the officer’s quarters, the enlisted barracks, the bachelor officer’s quarters.... You have to move every two to three years usually, and—at that moment—you are sad because you have to leave your friends and make new ones, and that means going into a new classroom, establishing yourself with a teacher, with extracurricular activities, trying out for an athletic team. In other words, you have to establish yourself all over again. That experience is enormously beneficial. Lester Holt was an Air Force child. Ann Curry was a military brat. It’s like a training program for going into broadcasting because on your first day of school you have to assess the room, the people, and come out of your shell and “sell yourself.” There’s no hanging back.
Now, what are the negatives? Flying is a risky business, and these pilots were flying everything from a dull-winged F4U Corsair to jets, making the transition to jets during the Korean War. Essentially, they’re riding on top of a rocket, they’re going fast, and there are a lot of accidents. They also deal with weapons—the planes were designed to kill. So, it was not uncommon for your mother to say, “I’m going over to Mrs. Smith’s because there was a plane crash, and her husband was killed.” My dad—I think it was during an air show at Millington Naval Air Station just outside Memphis, Tennessee—was in charge of the air show in which a squadron of planes would come over in formation. In the last four, one of them had an accident and the wings came off, and the pilot didn’t even have time to parachute. I still remember that scream from the women in the crowd; none of them knew if it was her husband. The women—the wives, the mothers—lived with that all their lives.
When it comes to the Marines, I say, “I was born in the Marine Corps.” I’m glad I went to Parris Island as a PFC [private first-class] and stayed in for six years. Eventually, I came to Chicago because I was traveling a lot; I switched to the Navy and got a commission as a junior-grade lieutenant, but it wasn’t like in the Marines. The Marines’ bonding, the closeness of that fighting unit, was extremely valuable. I’ve never forgotten rifle squads and learning how to operate weapons. To this day, I feel like it was an initiation into a fraternity. They do make you a man. When the first Marine casualty in the Second Gulf War came in, I had—out of nowhere—a surprise: I wanted to be there. I wanted to go because it’s like a piece of you; it’s like a brother. I felt better upon graduating from boot camp than graduating from college just a few months earlier, because I had achieved something. You sleep it; you eat it; you get up in the morning and recite all the parts of your weapon. It’s a perfect learning situation: Every time you go to the mess hall to eat, you march in formation; every time you get up at 5 am, you fall in for your morning run; and you learn how to march as a unit together.
I’ve done pieces on boot camp, and they ask, “Well, what’s the advantage?” It’s about having a mission and accomplishing that mission at all costs, and translating that to young men who don’t have the opportunity of finishing school. That’s a work ethic, and that’s hands-on training you do from start to finish to the best of your ability until it is complete.
When you’re a private, the Commandant of the Marine Corps is so far up the scale—beyond your company commander, beyond the regimental commander, beyond the division commander—that you literally think you will never see anybody with four stars on their shoulder, and if you do, you just go weak at the knees because you are taught to regard that person as the ultimate, godlike figure. I did a piece on the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, and I got a letter in the mail from Washington, DC. I opened it—it was from a commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles C. Krulak—and my hands started shaking. It’s almost like Saint Peter sending down a message from the pearly gates. I swear to God, it’s one of my most memorable moments.
The Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation is often associated with the Marine Corps Ball. Around November 10 of every year—the birthday of the Marine Corps—they have a ball. It’s tradition. They then started sponsoring scholarships: “Let’s not only have a dance, but let’s do good at the same time.” An organization called Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation (MC-LEF) evolved out of that. I was the first emcee of the MC-LEF organization, which helped children of Marines killed in action get scholarships, and we raised money for these kids to go to college. Congress passed a law that they would pay for the college education of the children of KIAs (service members killed in action), and the local focus morphed into the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation as it is today. It’s wonderful; all of the money goes directly to the benefit of individuals. You can never replace what these children have lost, but every year I do my part, and last year Kurtis Productions made a video about it. It’s always moving; you have veterans with their families showing respect, and the commandant is often there. It may be 50 years after my service, but it’s still a fresh memory to me.
photography by Richard Shay