A year after Johnson Wiley joined the Marines Corps in 2001, straight out of high school, he found himself on a plane to a base camp on the Kuwaiti boarder of Iraq. Almost two years later, the stench of sulfur filled the sky, marking the beginning of the “shock and awe” campaign, and the US invasion of Iraq. Today, after two long deployments, Wiley is finishing his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University in English and Philosophy, with plans to get an MFA and PhD after graduation. The Nation spoke with Wiley about his time overseas, the difference between his experience and his father’s – a Marine in Vietnam, and undergraduate life after the Marine Corps and what it's like to be a student coming out of the military. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up actually adjacent to New Brunswick [where Rutgers University is located] in Piscataway [New Jersey]. It was fairly close to the American Dream. We had a house, both my mother and father worked. My father was a truck driver, and is still, my mother at the time was a math teacher at a town called Plainfield. As far as the outward appearance of life, there was nothing bad.…There was an imbalance due, possibly, to the dynamic that was in the house. My father was often times on the road, busy, and he would come home usually every night but he was gone during most of the day, so he would come home, eat, and go to sleep. My mother was working during the day as a teacher. She would go to work, teach, come back, do her lesson plan for the next day or help us with our homework, plus make dinner, plus do laundry, plus clean, get my father’s stuff ready. Someone or something gets lost in that. I was one thing that happened to get lost in it. I had a mind of my own, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t a troublemaker as a kid…. I made my own decisions. I could have done better in high school but there was some tension in the house between me and my father that made it difficult to always concentrate on my schoolwork, in light of being frustrated when he was around. He had this way of throwing everything off – throwing off the tranquility or the focus of whatever the group, the group being me my mother and my sister, was on, he just disrupted everything. And I think I took that frustration out on my schoolwork, so I ended up taking it out on myself, though I didn’t know that [at the time].
Did you always want to join the Marine Corps after high school?
It’s interesting. When I was a little kid in the ‘80s, action figures and action cartoons were the thing. If it wasn’t GI Joe it was something similar, where you have the good guys and you have the bad guys – there’s an army on earth or in space, whether in the future, present or the past. So I bit into that part of American life, that “Grow up and be a hero. Be all that you can be” — that was me as a child. And I’d say up until my teenage years I did want to join the military wholeheartedly. I was going to maybe join the Special Forces or be a Navy SEAL, like my favorite G.I. Joe character, Snake Eyes, which I still remember, to do all that cool stuff. And then once I got a little bit older and got more frustrated with the fact that I was getting more negative attention from my father, I wanted to remove myself from certain things that he was attached to, because my father was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. I didn’t want to be like him. …I found myself removing myself from the idea of growing up to be a part of a strict system of rules because I had that in my house. I had to deal with that with the way my father was. …What happened, what turned that around, was actually September 11. I was always patriotic…but when the World Trade Center went down it’s like the smoldering fire that was in me to want to protect the country in some way got reignited. You know, someone took the fan and blew those flames hotter. [I thought], I wouldn’t want my family to suffer in any way due to people overseas that don’t even know us but would like to kill us or destroy what we have. So I said, “I’ll join the military, we’ll see what happens from there.”