James Wendell, a 2021 graduate of Manchester Essex Regional High School, told me calmly of his post-secondary plan to join the U.S. Marine Corps as his friends sorted out a run-in between a pole and their RV in a Washington campground. His voice was steady, his plans for the future unwavering before him.
Wendell mentioned the difference between him and many other students at MERHS; most go straight to college or university in the fall, but he will begin basic Marine training for three months before entering into the Marine Corps Intelligence Schools at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach, Va.
His experience with higher education will be integrated with intense physical and mental training. Wendell plans to earn an associates degree during his four-year enlistment with the Marine Corps, though he is still undecided on a path of study.
That’s something he hopes to figure out as he ventures into a future that’s much more certain than the trajectory of his cross-country road trip, which he and his friends will finish in a duct-taped van.
The trials of teenage camping in the rural United States are far simpler than the grueling training Wendell will have to complete in order to advance his career in the military. If he chooses to remain in the Marine Corps after his preliminary four-year enlistment ends, he will make a lateral move to the infantry to become a Scout Sniper, he said. Wendell cited a 50% washout rate for the program. If he gets through that, he said, he will have gained a lifelong military career.
Whether or not Wendell continues to serve after his first four years, he plans to continue his education to receive a bachelor’s degree.
His plan for higher education looks much different now than it did a few years ago, he said.
“I always thought I was going to go to college, even though I’ve always been interested in the military,” Wendell said. “Everyone around me was going to college.”
During his sophomore year, he said he began to recognize the aspects of his life he most enjoyed. Wendell was a track and field athlete in high school, where he specialized in the 600 and 800 meter events.
“Track and backpacking, just doing things that are more physically strenuous and difficult, give me the most enjoyment. Those are my favorite things to do,” he said.
“Physically pushing [himself] to the maximum” is something that Wendell said he finds rewarding.
“Special forces is the way that I see to push my body physically to the highest point— to be physically in the best condition I can be,” he said. “Military training... there’s nothing harder in the world.”
Wendell said his cousin was in the army and inspired his choice to pursue a similar path.
“He deployed to Iraq a couple times, and he’s the coolest guy I know. I’ve known him for my whole life, and he’s just very, very, very strong— a strong-willed person— and I really respect that,” he said.
Despite being surrounded by friends and peers who chose to attend college immediately after high school, Wendell is not influenced by the uniqueness of his decision in a school district like MERSD.
“Anyone who you ask about predicting your career and what you should do in your life, they always say ‘do what you think is right,’ and I’m pretty confident that this is the thing I want to do, and this is what’s right for me,” he said.
Over the phone, garbled by the poor cell service somewhere between Seattle and the boys’ latest national park, Wendell sounded driven. His excitement was measured, subdued.
Just an hour after his group’s minor accident, he sat in a wobbling trailer and spoke with unshaken conviction about his enlistment, something irrefutably steady in the distance, bright and visible across desert roads and mountain passes.