Luke Martinez served in the Marines.
Luke Martinez served in the Marines.
Courtesy of 5280 High School

Memorial Day 2019: Meet Marine Luke Martinez

5280 High School is a project-based learning school in Denver; during project-based learning, students do the real-world work of professionals. In the case of “Sharing Their Stories,” it was the work of journalists. For this project, students in Cody Miller’s ninth-grade humanities class interviewed and photographed veterans to capture their experiences and share them for Memorial Day. On May 2, students Dugan Sear, Diego Estrada-Borjas, Rowan Hager and Jayla Lee spoke with Marine Luke Martinez.

Martinez grew up in Durango and has lived in Denver since 1989. He's a genealogist and writer and joined the Marines from 1980 to 1988.

5280 High School: What were you doing before the military, and what made you want to join?

Luke Martinez: That’s a really good question. I was born in 1962, so I’m probably old enough to be your parent or grandparent. Growing up in Durango was kind of interesting. We lived right on the edge of town, so our back yard was kind of the mountains, very much a wilderness area.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my parents made the unexpected decision to move to central Oregon. I kind of felt uprooted; Durango was all I had known. Central Oregon is kind of like the high desert, like over here except not as many people. I had played sports all through high school. I guess I was assuming I would go to college after high school, but coming from a large family, I knew my parents probably couldn’t afford to send me to college, so the military seemed like a really obvious option for me. I joined the delayed-entry program just a couple months into my senior year of high school. I guess that’s kind of what propelled my decision, knowing that I was not going to be able to afford college. I knew the military had some college opportunities. I don’t want to say I was a brilliant student, but I definitely liked math. I was good at numbers. I liked science, although it was kind of hard for me. Chemistry? Forget it. I mean, high school chemistry was so difficult. But I knew I liked to study. My mom was a Head Start teacher and my dad had always been a teacher, so we were definitely expected to do well in school. To some extent, I did fairly well, but I definitely had challenges in school. I had a speech impediment when I was in elementary school, and I remember I had a speech therapist named Mrs. Love who worked with me. I think I had a pretty good foundation on education;, I just didn’t have any college scholarships or anything. Going into the military seemed like a pretty good option.

So, you joined the Marines, right?

I did.

Did you have a choice in what branch you were in?

It’s kind of an interesting question. I’ve known people, even one of my dad’s first cousins who was in the Air Force and the Navy. I think he was in two different branches, and I’ve known people who have done that before, which I think is kind of unique. Usually people will pick a branch and stay with it. Sometimes I kind of felt like being in the Marines, you didn’t always have the funding that other branches of the service had. In Kansas City, we didn’t have our own military stores. We would go to Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri, to buy our groceries. It was kind of a drive; it took maybe 45 minutes or an hour to get there. Sometimes it felt like we were spending money on gas that we could have saved by staying in town and using coupons.

My uncle had been in the Marines, and I thought, “Maybe it would make him proud of me if I went into the military and served in the Marines.” He is also my godfather, and we have a pretty good relationship. He actually moved to Denver from Durango just a couple of Septembers ago. I felt that the Marines is really prestigious, and so by joining the Marines, maybe that would make me stand out as a person, or people would maybe look up to me.

What were some memories from training?

Harsh brutality I was not expecting. Going into the military is definitely a culture shock. The military is like a subculture of normal society. There’s a lot of indoctrination, there’s a lot of discipline, doing your best. I kind of learned that in Boy Scouts, but I had no idea to what extent that I was expected to excel. In the military, what they do is they kind of grind you down to build you up. Boot camp is maybe six weeks, eight weeks, but in the Marine Corps it’s three months. There’s a lot of training. You have physical fitness tests, and you have a lot of different classes on military history, military tradition and camaraderie.

In the military, you know the people in your platoon or in your unit. There’s a cohesion, and you try to work together. Of course, there’s going to be personality conflicts, bad chemistry, and sometimes people just aren’t going to be able to get along. The key to being in the military and in initial training is to learn how to get along with people even if you don’t like them.

There’s also a spiritual component in the military. I was the Catholic lay leader in boot camp, so me and the Protestant lay leader took turns leading prayers before we all ended the day. Boot camp was really fast-paced; everything was scheduled out. You woke up, you got dressed, you made your bed, and everything had to be so perfect. There’s an expectation to try to achieve perfection. Sometimes that’s not too healthy, because as humans, we’re just prone to make mistakes.

I remember the recruiter came to pick me up in Tumalo, Oregon. We lived in this home with a real pretty lake, and being removed from that is a very traumatic experience. This recruiter was big and well-built, kind of like what you would expect from a recruiter: very well dressed, very well spoken. We drove to Portland, Oregon, a several hours' drive, just me and him in the car. We talked a little bit, and then he dropped me off at this hotel. I remember having dinner, being with other recruit candidates, talking to them. One person I could tell was a lot different than me. I wanted to talk about my family, and he was not very family-oriented. I knew that there were going to be people a lot different than me. We spent the night there in the hotel. The next morning we took an oath before we got on the plane. It was kind of like a little ceremony, an enlistment ceremony.

Then, once we got to San Diego, the Marine Corp Recruit Depot was again more trauma. They shaved off all of our hair, and my hair was pretty long at that time. So, you see how my hair is now? I actually had, like, no hair at all. It was almost like removing your identity. So everyone was totally bald. It was all men, no women, because all the women get trained at the Recruit Depot in South Carolina. It was strange because the Recruit Depot for the Navy was adjacent to the Marine Corp Recruit Depot, so we could see some of the Navy recruits doing their drilling and other things. But, yeah, just kind of a loss of identity to begin with.

Training day number one, the meals were at 6:30 in the morning and then sometime around noon and maybe around 5:30 and 6. Everything ran on a very intricate time schedule. You would have your physical training and then some kind of military school. There were three drill instructors, and they were not very nice. They would call you names, they would never hit us, but in the ’50s and ’60s, when my two uncles went to boot camp, they would actually get slapped in the face or slugged in the shoulder. Nowadays they can't do anything like that, but they can still call you names like dirtbag or wimp or sissy or anything to demean you. It was a very demeaning process.

In time, you realize you were getting better at it, but you always feel like you're not quite good enough. And then there are some people that have more physical capabilities than others. The people who had more physical capabilities were the ones that got the really good positions in boot camp.

There was definitely a pecking order of different types and levels of status. The platoon guys were the most muscular and handsome people, then the wimps were in the very back row. Kind of like what you would suspect in society: homeless people are in the back and the wealthy in the front. Boot camp helped you learn your place.

What was the hardest drill exercise you did?

So every few months you had to do a physical fitness test, and that was very grueling. You had to do as many sit-ups as you could do in two minutes or less, but the goal was to do eighty sit-ups. The second component was pull-ups. The goal was to do eighteen to twenty. Some people just pumped out eighteen or twenty. There was no time limit for pull-ups. For each component, there were 100 points. Then there was a three-mile run that you had to do in eighteen minutes or less, and that was really hard. I never did get a perfect score, but I got close. Instead of getting 300 points, I would sometimes get like 293, 294, 295. That was kind of like my average. That was a very difficult obstacle to overcome, trying to get a perfect physical fitness test score. The second month of boot camp we went to Camp Pendleton for our marksmanship training, where you learn how to fire a weapon and hit a target to get the best target score you could.

There was another element of that second month where we go out in the field and pretend like we were fighting in a war or fighting in a battle. We had to go up this really steep incline with our packs on, and it was so hard. We got like half an hour of sleep that night. It was just all about trying to re-create a wartime experience. In the military you’re always training for war, but then you have your normal job. You’re always focused on the possibility of being deployed or going somewhere where there's some kind of military confrontation. That whole mindset of always being on edge, thinking that you could be shipped out to some danger zone at any time, is just stressful. Just wondering if you're going to make it through boot camp is stressful. We saw a lot of people that just didn't make it, and you always wonder what happened to those people. I'm assuming that a lot of them just got medical discharges or whatever. You just knew some people weren't good enough either physically, mentally or emotionally. In a way it's kind of sad, but they definitely weeded out people that were not fit.

What did you do and where did you go after boot camp?

I was in San Diego for three months, then they sent me to a dispersing school. They figured out that I was really good with numbers, so they sent me to this three-month school at Kampli June, North Carolina, to become a pay clerk. The school was kind of interesting. I mean, I was already pretty good at typing because we had a typewriter at home and my sisters and I used to like practicing on the typewriter. You actually had to reach a certain number of words per minute in order to graduate from the school. That was an expectation that I wasn't thinking I would have to accomplish. We learned a lot about military pay, military travel and military fiscal. The fiscal people keep all the numbers and codes. You can imagine there are about 200,000 Marines in the world, so they all get paid a certain amount of money. People that work with explosive disposal, they get special-duty pay. People that don't have a military base often would be given basic allowance for quarters and basic allowance for subsistence.

Say you’re a recruiter and you have to travel from one place to another. You get so many cents per mile. You get through reimbursement because, obviously, cars don't run for forever and you have to get them fixed every once in a while. In order to maintain your vehicle, you get this travel pay and travel allowance.

It was a very complicated school but I did learn a lot, and after three months in North Carolina, I got transferred to Camp Pendleton, California, and that was my first duty station. I was there about a year and a half working with military and civilian people. For some reason, I always worked with civilian people. One component of military pay is to have civilians working with the military. Even in Okinawa, I worked with a lot of civilian people, like Japanese people that were helping us. I was in Okinawa for a year after I left Camp Pendleton, and that was very isolating. I kind of felt like I wasn't part of the country anymore, just living in a foreign place. That was very interesting, and I didn't have access to things that Americans did. Okinawa was only sixty miles long and two miles wide; it is a very small island. I went to the Marine Corps finance center in Kansas City, Missouri, when I left Okinawa. I was there for three years. During that three years I was sent to the advance dispersing school in North Carolina, where I had gone to the basic dispersing school. Then they sent me to the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., before I got discharged, so almost eight years all together.

We were told that drug use during your time of service was rampant. What was your stance on the problem?

So, yeah, it was really interesting. In the early ’80s, when I was at Camp Pendleton — this is in Southern California — I was kind of surprised that people openly used drugs and snitched on each other. Fortunately, I had not been one of those people who used drugs, so I kind of felt safe, but there was definitely a crackdown on drug use in the military. I remember one guy, he would just get high on the back steps of the barges, and I was shocked. All of a sudden someone wouldn’t be around anymore and then you figured, oh, they got discharged because they were using drugs. I think drugs detracted from military cohesiveness, and I think that was one of the reasons why there was a crackdown.

What was one of your favorite memories from when you were in the service?

Growing up, I was always very athletic. I did cross-country in high school. My parents figured out that I wasn’t the kind of person that would really enjoy football and basketball, so they threw me in the pool with all these really good swimmers, and I competed in swimming and diving growing up. I was on a bowling league in middle school, and I lettered in tennis all through high school, so I think I was pretty athletic.

In the military, the physical challenges weren't so hard for me, but I remember just always loving running. I joined a marathon platoon, and we would run up to nineteen miles for our workout. Running ten miles, twelve miles, fifty miles, was not uncommon. The dining facility made special lunches for us so that we would always have something to eat, because running really burns up your calories. You also get a running high, where endorphins are drugs to athletes. They just make you feel good. I used to always love running, and that was actually an outlet for me. If I was ever having any issues with my command or some issue at work, because military pay is very complicated — if I ever had any problems, I knew that I could go run or swim and just feel better. That was definitely one of my favorite things.

I grew up in a really religious family, so most people just go to church on Sundays, but my dad took me and my brothers to church every day. In the military, I figured I'm just supposed to do this every day, so I'd try to go to church every day, and sometimes I'd make it and sometimes I wouldn't. I would definitely go on Sundays. I remember meeting a lot of really wonderful people at the chapels at all the different bases I went to. It wasn't too surprising that I ended up in the seminary when I left the military. I was in the seminary for three years after I left, and I eventually figured out it wasn't really for me.

Did you serve in Desert Storm?

The Desert Storm happened right after I got out, and I was actually in the seminary at the time. I remember thinking, like, “Wow, I can’t believe how fortunate I was to serve during peacetime.” Of course, you never knew what would pop up, but when I got out I remember thinking, "This could’ve been me." Maybe it’s good I got out when I did. But I definitely feel for people that were still on active duty or in the reserves that did have to deploy. Just thinking, like, “Wow, I’m still alive, and I survived the time I did in military," knowing how many people didn’t come home.

Did the Beirut bombing affect you?

It did. I’m actually working on a manuscript about how it did affect me. October 23, 1983, was just a couple days before my birthday. I was about to turn 21. All of a sudden, we heard that 200-plus Marines died in these twin bombings in Beirut, Lebanon. I was already feeling a little bit isolated, living on this tiny little island, and for some reason I just felt so vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable is never comfortable, so it was kind of like adding insult to injury. I kind of hurt inside, and just overcoming that pain was difficult. I was thinking that I was next, so it was pretty traumatic. That is why I’m trying to write about it, because for me, writing is therapeutic. It helps me overcome some of my emotional wounds, and I guess that's why I encourage others to use writing as a tool. But, yeah, that was definitely a difficult time. I was actually working at an officers' dining facility, and I remember talking to some of the officers who would come in for their meal, and I would listen to their story and how they felt. I think we were all just traumatized; we didn’t even know how to process this information. I think it was very difficult.

How did your experience of serving in the military affect your personality and how you reacted to things?

I’m really glad you asked me that question. I was writing a couple of notes this morning. Maybe I had some nervous energy about coming here, and I didn’t know who I was going to be meeting with, so fear of the unknown. I actually did write some notes and I think...I’ve talked a little bit about feeling a little isolated when I was in Okinawa. But when I was in Kansas City, see, they don’t have any military bases there. I was getting extra money because we had to find our own residences, but for some reason the amount of money I made didn’t seem to match the amount of money I was paying for my townhouse. Plus I was sharing it with a guy for a while, and I think he got out of the military or moved in with someone else, and then I was forced to pay for this townhouse all by myself.

I eventually got a smaller townhouse, but during that time I took a part-time job at night, working at a little gas station really close to where I lived. I was moonlighting. This gas station I was working at was like a little convenience store,  and it got held up. This guy came in and held me up at gunpoint. I didn’t really know what was going on. It was just really scary. I called the police right after he left. Of course, I just let him take all the money, and later I had to identify him in a lineup, and that was really kind of freaky. Then I had to go testify against him in court, so that really did affect me. What was really weird was that this guy was born the same day, the same month, and the same year as me. Anyway, I think I was feeling isolated there, too. I remember going home on leave one time, I was only like 22, 23 years old. Maybe the traumatic experiences that I had gone through up to that point caught up to me, and for some reason, I just started crying when I went home. Luckily I was in the bathroom, but my sisters could tell that something was going on with me. I was just releasing all that trauma.

When you came back from Okinawa, did you feel like the world had moved on without you?

Absolutely. If you’re removed from a situation that you’re comfortable with, and you are placed in a very foreign situation, I think there is that natural tendency to feel like you are missing out, or your life will never be the same. I did feel like that for a long time. But then going back to the United States a year later, you realize, “Oh, I didn't miss out on so much.” Then you start learning about things and you realize, “Well, maybe I did miss out on a few things, but I survived.”

I remember that I was always working out, and I was just so skinny back then. I remember that no matter how much I worked out I couldn't gain weight. Metabolism at that age, you just burn everything off. I was trying to do everything I could to adapt. I was missing my family. My parents were going through a divorce, and I remember thinking that if I just got back to Colorado, I could make everything better again. I know now that my parents' divorce had nothing to do with me. But those were some of the things I was thinking about at that time, like the family falling apart, my poor sisters. But they survived, they adapted.

What kind of relationships did you build after service?

I was starting to come out of the closet when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, and when I went to Okinawa I went right back into the closet. When I got to Kansas City, I started to come out of the closet again. By the time I got to D.C., I identified as gay, but I kind of had a hard time. I knew my family wouldn't approve, so it was frustrating. When I got out, I was in a seminary in Glendale, and almost everyone there was gay. By the time I left, the pendulum had swung the other way, and a lot of the gay people had either transferred or left the seminary. So that was a little bit demoralizing. After I left the seminary, which was three years after I got out of the Marines, I met my first partner. We traveled to India together for three months; that was really cool. It kind of felt like I was coming into my own self. I came out of the closet pretty late, but I finally started to feel more comfortable with myself and to do some activism work. I did that for quite a few years and eventually got burned out and started to do other types of what I call a "civil responsibility," like being on a board of directors. I have been involved with that for many years. Yeah, just that was kind of my progression of human sexuality, learning to become more comfortable with who I am, and that was challenging. I don't think it matters if someone is gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, but learning to love yourself is really important.

How did your relationship with your family change before you joined the military and after you were dismissed?

I think there was a natural evolution. Growing up in a big family, I always felt that family was really important. I was really close to my brothers and sisters, but they got married and had children. They are focused on their own life, and you start growing apart. I guess in my life I always try to continue to build bridges with my parents and brothers and sisters, because it is really easy to grow apart from your family. Your aunts and uncles start dying, your parents, your grandparents.

I think in the military, there's an extra impediment, like you’re always so focused on your job you don't always have time to make a phone call. I think being intent on having the effort or trying to make the effort to continue to nourish relationships is really important. But I think being in the military is difficult because you have so many responsibilities to uphold, and sometimes it does get in the way of being close to your family, so that is frustrating.

Watch for other interviews by the students of 5280 High School with local veterans over Memorial Day weekend.

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