ABOARD THE U.S.S. PELELIU -- One Marine sought the road less traveled while the other sought the path to self discovery. Both found that their road was one in the same, and it began at the yellow footprints.
Lance Cpl. Ryan J. Heist, operations clerk, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Pendleton, never set out to be a Marine. Heist grew up in affluence, a self-described privileged kid who had everything handed to him right up until he joined the Marine Corps.
Lance Cpl. Christopher K. Morgan-Riess, tactical data network specialist, 11th MEU, came from an upper-middle class background. Morgan-Riess, who was the only child of a college professor and book publisher, graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelors degree in philosophy. Growing up, Morgan-Riess said he lived in the sheltered world of academia with his face buried in books.
Both young men had everything going for them. They had money, nice homes, nice clothes and a pedigree that destined them to academic success and monetary wealth.
Heist would later realize that money wasn't everything and Morgan-Riess soon learned that the lessons of life he was searching for could not all be found in books.
So they both joined the Marines.
Now, both Marines find themselves sailing off the coast of Camp Pendleton, aboard an amphibious assault ship and part of one of the most elite fighting forces the world has ever seen. As Heist puts it, he is on a personal journey of discovery, while Morgan-Riess describes his quest as one for knowledge. Aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu, they are conducting dangerous and important training that they may one day have to use in Iraq or in some other war-torn place. Both are just a couple thousand miles from home, but almost a million miles from the life they used to live.
Before enlisting in the Marines, Heist spent his days going to college and working for a popular Jazz restaurant in Dallas. He played basketball and football, went fishing, and spent his time listening to music and going to the movies with friends and family. If he needed money, all he needed to do was to make one call. Until then, "everything was just handed to me, and I never had to earn it," said Heist.
Although extremely intelligent, Heist was uninspired in school and after a couple of years he had had enough.
So one night after work, Heist stopped and took a hard and honest look at his life. "I had no direction," said Heist. "I didn't have the discipline to go to class and do all my work at the time. I needed a place where I could get some structure and stability, and I couldn't think of a better place than the Marine Corps," said Heist.
Although their friends and family respected their decision, both Marines said most of their loved ones were not too happy at first.
"My father was pretty shocked. It took a couple of weeks of long dinners explaining to him what my reasons were for enlisting," said Morgan-Riess. "He was expecting for me to go on to pursue higher degrees right away," he said.
Heist's family had a similar reaction.
"But I think after boot camp, they really saw the change in me," said Heist. "saw me standing taller, being able to look someone in the eye and being able to express my opinions in a confident manner," said Heist.
It was this newfound confidence and an inherent intelligence that Heist brought with him to the 11th MEU more than one year ago. These were all traits that he would need, if he were to function aboard a ship loaded with aircraft and equipment that housed more than 2300 Marines and sailors packed like sardines.
"Life aboard a ship is a culture shock like no other," said Heist. It's like a small floating city inside a pressure cooker streaming toward the horizon, where the heat begins to rise and the pressure starts to build as soon as the warning order is dropped and a mission is assigned, he said.
Most Marines and sailors would say that the MEU is not a place for the meek, soft-spoken, thin-skinned or those accustomed to a full night's sleep. The sounds of Harriers taking off and landing is deafening and the rattle of chains being dragged across a hard-coated steel deck can be heard way down into the bowels of the ship. It's a place for those who are driven, undeterred and maybe just a little bit crazy.
It is a place where tensions can sometimes run high, where time off and a good nights sleep are virtually non-exist because everyone is focused on only one thing, accomplishing the mission, said Heist. It is also an environment in which Heist and Morgan-Riess have flourished.
"Morgan-Riess is the type of Marine I would want on my team," said Sgt. Mauricio A. Febres, computer technician. "He is one of the most capable troubleshooters in the MEU. He is extremely intelligent, very mature, and needs no supervision," said Febres.
According to Morgan-Riess, the work is endless and there is little time to sleep. Despite this, he said there is no other job he would rather be doing and he is confident that joining the Corps was the best decision he ever made. Morgan-Riess said he remembers the exact moment that he knew he took the right road. It was in basic training, while marching in silence to the chow hall on a cold dark and miserable morning. "I happened to look up at the stars and at the faces of the Marines around me, whom I had been sweating and bleeding with for the past two months," he said.
"I remember having this feeling of complete camaraderie and a certainty that if I ever needed them, they would help me, and that I would help them," he said. "I had never felt anything like that before."
"When you've worked 36 hours straight and you're sitting around talking about how tough that was with Marines from all walks of life, there is a certain amount of bonding that I don't think can be experienced anywhere else," said Morgan-Riess.
"I see friends of mine who have gone on to pursue Ph.D.s and they still have only those five friends they've always had going through school," said Morgan-Riess.
Although it's nice to form close relationships, life in academia has a tendency to insulate you from the rest of the world, he said. "At that point in my life, I wanted to see the world and experience how the military works from a first person perspective rather than reading it in a book," he said.
According to both Marines, since enlisting in the Corps, both have learned lessons in leadership, teamwork, mission planning and accomplishment in a setting like no other. And they have learned lessons that they could never have learned anywhere else.
Heist, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, has seen the devastation of war and the devastation that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on Americans here at home. Heist was with the MEU when they traveled to Gulf Coast Region to assist the victims of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States. Given his background, Heist said one of the most important lesson he's learned while in the Corps is to not to take so many things for granted. That as Americans we are very privileged and we that we should appreciate everything we have."
Both Marines plan to leave the Marine Corps after their first enlistment and to continue their education. Heist plans to continue to pursue his degree while in the Marines and then use the leadership, logistical and technical skills he has learned to open his own restaurant. Morgan-Riess plans to pursue a degree in Law with a specialization in International Human Rights after fulfilling his commitment to the Corps. His dream is to some day work to prosecute war criminals in international criminal courts.
Both Marines say they are confident they will look back on their experiences and at the lessons they learned with the MEU and consider them as the focal point in their character development. For his part, Morgan-Riess said that when the time comes to look back at the road the he has traveled, a segment of the famous Robert Frost poem "The Road Less Traveled" will probably come to mind. "…Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."