by Natasha Brennan
photography by Ariel Torres
“I love peanut butter and jelly. Yum! Yum!” she yelled as her thighs burned from lactic acid building up in her hamstrings. “I love peanut butter and jelly. Yum! Yum!” she screamed louder, crunched on the ground with her pencil shaking. She worked out four times a day to make weigh-ins. She measured her body and the chevrons on her uniform down to the centimeter. She drove through Africa, with an ammo-less rifle, while being attacked by locals. She searched people for suicide bombs in other countries. But it all ended with a cookie.
Amanda Calhoun had just turned 18 during her last week of boot camp—a week of hell the Marine Corps dubbed “the Crucible,” that according to the Marines Corps Times, 75 percent of women fail.
Because one of her peers swiped peanut butter and jelly packets from the chow hall, in the South Carolina heat, the drill sergeants forced the entire unit of women to take a test crouching, professing their love for peanut butter and jelly. They brought out a jar of peanut butter and jelly and made the guilty marine rub it all over herself while doing crunches. “They loved to mess with us,” Amanda, now 25, says.
In the small town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Amanda grew up with three siblings and out-of-touch parents. “I started as a teenager getting in trouble and partying too much, not doing well in school.” She often found herself in trouble for fighting and partying. After a fight, her parents and a judge agreed to send her to military school. In the end, it was the right choice. “Military school refocused me. In a structured environment where there’s discipline and rules, I excel and do very well.”
Amanda earned her GED and began working two jobs, at Taco Bell and as a nanny. Then her previously rambunctious cousin returned home from the Marines Corps, now a disciplined young man. It inspired her to join at age 17, with the written permission of her parents. She found it particularly hard to join with a GED, but her experience in military school and the need for female marines got her in the door. “My family lived below the poverty line. Joining the Marines was my way out of Bartlesville and an opportunity to see the world.”
She served in the Marines Corps from 2011 to 2015, spending eight months in countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Djibouti, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Israel. While attached to a Navy ship, Amanda learned combat tactics and leadership skills. She was then put into a female engagement team. “The teams were made of female Marines so that when we were in Muslim countries we can respect the fact that any man outside a woman’s husband can’t touch her. So they train female Marines to do this job. They attached us to grunt units to search and assess for guns and suicide bombs on women,” Amanda says.
To train for this job, Amanda and her unit entered a giant simulator setup like a city in Africa with actors who spoke many languages. “Bombs were going off, and people were screaming at us for help. They had an actor who was a real amputee. They rigged her leg to squirt blood. We had to decide as a group if we treat her or search her first. It was chaotic.”
Amanda was an authoritative figure, even among her peers, who would jokingly call her Sergeant Major, a rank much higher than hers. “I would measure my chevron, and I’d see others and tell them, ‘It’s off, fix it.’ But that was before I deployed. Deploying changed me.” During her combat deployment, she became accustomed to the loose uniform rules. “When you’re deployed no one cares your cammies are dirty, but when you’re back on base you just might have to stand outside when it’s hot on a Friday for four hours in your blues for a uniform inspection.”
In 2015, Amanda had served her four-year contract with the Marines Corps. She debated heavily on turning in her reenlistment package. “I was a good Marine. I was bleeding green, screaming, ‘Oorah’ all the way. But I didn’t know if my re-enlistment package would be accepted.” At the time of her re-enlistment, the Marine Corps was experiencing financial cutbacks and were more selective of whom they accepted. Throughout her four years, Amanda was often over weight by Marine Corps standards. Because of her good reputation and perfect fitness test scores, her commanding officers would often let her weight slide. “Sometimes, I would be 10 pounds overweight, and if I knew a weigh in was coming, I wouldn’t eat much and work out sometimes four times a day.”
After her four-year contract was up, Amanda started researching apartments and schools as a back-up plan. “I knew I would get approved because of my reputation, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them comparing my package to someone else and see my weight. And the thought of having my own place and getting an education kept calling to me.” She recalled a time when she was sitting in the chow hall before making her decision on re-enlistment. “I was stressed about making weight for my package, and that’s when I saw a plate of cookies. I grabbed one and took it back to my seat. I agonized over that cookie, contemplating, ‘Do I eat it and not make weight? Do I make weight and stay in the Corps for four more years? What if they deny my package anyway, and I could’ve eaten this cookie?’ So I said, ‘Screw it!’ and I ate the cookie.” It was the beginning of Amanda’s discharge. Amanda saw herself as a career Marine. “I always thought I would do all 20 years, but I just couldn’t anymore. The stress of being perfect all the time got to me.” She soon earned her massage therapy certificate and enrolled in Citrus College. When completing her program, she decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at the University of La Verne in the fall 2018 semester. After graduating, her goal is to open a holistic spa centered around homeopathic ways of healing.
Amanda currently lives in a small studio apartment in Hollywood with her two rescue dogs. She works as a bar waitress and sales team lead at Massage Envy Spa to support herself. At work, she often bridges the gap between her younger peers and older supervisors. “My training in the Marines helps me every day. I can communicate effectively. I can adapt to any situation,” Amanda says. Since her discharge, she has moved three times. “Everywhere I go, I can become established in a community, make friends and be OK. It comes from always having to be ready to pick up and go.”
The Marines taught Amanda many useful life skills, but she also lost some. “I don’t have the ability to relax anymore. I’m always on alert, thinking, ‘That person is acting weird. That car looks sketchy.’” Her training and experience made her equate predominantly Muslim languages with danger. “If I hear it, I have to remind myself I’m not over there anymore.”
Like many other veterans, Amanda struggles with alcohol. “A lot of times, all there was to do was smoke cigarettes and drink. There was a time I was drinking a fifth of Captain every day.” To combat the problem, she tries to work out or reach out to other veterans. “Many of us come back depressed. So it makes me feel better talking to other veterans and trying to help. Most people don’t relate to what we’ve seen, and even if they do, we don’t always want to talk about it.”
Amanda believes veterans programs in college are extremely important. “We should be cut some slack because we’re going through a lot—many have traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress disorder. People always want to ask, ‘Did you kill anyone?’ That’s not a good question to ask. Because when you’re in a grunt unit in a war zone, and there’s a 7 year old shooting at you, what are you going to do? You have to shoot back to survive. Day-after-day of that is going to change your personality. And when you come back, you’re expected to go to the mall like it was nothing.”
The Veterans Success Center on campus is a place of refuge for Amanda. She completes homework on a Center computer, eats or naps between classes, or asks coordinator Diana Towels for help. “There’s a need for a place where veterans can help each other. In the military, they don’t encourage you to go to medical. If you hurt your knee, you need to get up and go because a war isn’t going to stop because you have a boo-boo. A lot of us keep that mindset and don’t seek or get the help we need.” ■
As a teen stuck in a small Albuquerque neighborhood, Christopher Livingston dreamt of life outside the city limits—traveling the world instead of staying the young, insecure high school boy he was. “Have you seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s just like that. There’s nothing to do there but get into trouble.” He knew the military was his way out and decided to join before he knew what branch. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I joined the military as a delaying tool until I found that out,” Chris says.
His search for the perfect branch began as a high school junior when he was introduced to a recruiter for the National Guard, but he quickly moved on. As a senior, his cousin introduced him to a Navy recruiter. He almost signed up, until he met Marine Sergeant Montez. “I envied the way he carried himself. Any time he walked into a room, he got instant respect, the complete opposite of the Navy recruiter. I thought, ‘Do I want to be like this guy or that guy?’” Montez promised he would see the world, but also the intangible thing he was looking for—respect. “If you look at me back in high school, you would’ve thought there’s no way this guy was a Marine. I was young and insecure, and I was ready to become the opposite.” Chris joined the Marine Corps in 2008, at age 17, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant.
“I went into boot camp with a chip on my shoulder. I knew I wasn’t the biggest guy, the strongest guy or the most athletic guy,” Chris says. “My family told me I wasn’t going to make it; I didn’t have the mental toughness. I went in with the fire inside to prove them wrong.” After boot camp, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton for combat training and was then given his Military Occupational Specialty of engineering at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Soon after, Chris deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a combat engineer from 2011 to 2012. While oversees, he almost lost his life, but enjoyed serving with his military family. “Some of the best moments of my life were when I was serving in Hell.” The following summer, he was sent to Durango, Colorado to become a recruiter. “I wanted to be a drill instructor, and I signed up for that, but the Marines said, ‘We need recruiters right now,’ so I got thrown into it.” For the position, the Corps looked into his history as a Marine, his mental health history and asked whether he had tattoos. “I made it through that with flying colors. I had to stringently look into the recruits the way I was thoroughly looked into—no criminal history, drug use, clean records and high school diplomas.”
The Marines Corps was everything he expected it to be. “I knew I would travel the world. I knew it would be challenging. I knew I would make a lot of great friends. But the Marine Corps I left was way different from the Marine Corps I joined. There were more and more changes that I didn’t like, and I found myself thinking about the next step.”
“When I joined, I wanted to be a career Marine, but when I became less interested I remembered the Corps was my delaying tactic to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew when it was time to move on.” Toward the end of his last contract, Chris started to like the idea of becoming a broadcast journalist. He left the Marines with an honorable discharge in January 2017. “It was one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken—leaving the structured lifestyle where everything is provided for you to living life as a normal adult. While stationed at Camp Pendleton, Chris and some friends bought passes to Six Flags Magic Mountain and would ride the roller coasters every weekend they could. “Sometimes, I would be at the top of a ride as the sun set.” Those moments made him fall in love with California and decide to live in the state permanently. He is now in his second year at the University of La Verne studying broadcast journalism and serving as LEO FM’s sports director. He chose ULV for the hands-on experience broadcast journalism classes offer and a suggestion from an alumnus, his best friend’s father-in-law. “He told me La Verne was a great place, it was near where I live, and they love veterans. Sure, enough that night I applied. The next day I was called to visit the campus, and the next week I was starting classes.”
Chris can be found on the couch of the Arts and Communications Building basement, working on his laptop, preparing for class or a sports broadcast. “I’m on this couch all the time. When I first came to this school, I was uptight and still in Sergeant Livingston mode. A lot of veterans have trouble with the transition back to civilian life. For me, I was a recruiter so I had to make that transition anyway. I quickly realized if I want to be successful at this school and get the opportunities I’m looking for, I needed to break down that barrier and be a college student.” His academic motivation paid off. He worked as a summer intern at Fox Sports radio. Chris’ dream job is to be a sports broadcaster, but he says he uses his platform to tell his story. “I think the more people know what Afghanistan was about from someone who was actually there shifts their opinions and understands what we vets are like. People think we’re like the movie, ‘Thank You for Your Service,’ crazy with PTSD. But it’s not necessarily the case.”
As LEO FM’s sports director, Chris announces most of the home games. As a teen, he played football and is now in an adult soccer league. Currently, he is developing his sports podcast, “Sports Chatter,” discussing hot topics in sports on Apple Podcasts. Off campus, he can be found in a sports pub drinking beer and watching games, always studying the announcers. He enjoys going to the gym and lounging in his own, fully furnished apartment—something he never had before. After graduation, he wants to jump into the workforce. “I’ve considered grad school, but I’m on the dark side of my 20s. By the time I graduate, I’ll be almost 30. Right now, I’m focused on working, establishing myself and a career, and hopefully starting a family soon.” ■