A study in hats

As I was going back through pictures of past jobs, I noticed that some of my favorite roles included characters wearing some kind of hat (I’m including helmets and wigs).

Interesting wardrobe allows an actor to disappear into a character much more easily than when I hear “and can you bring a bunch of your own clothes for wardrobe options?” I realize that using your own clothes is part of the deal on a lot of low budget films, but I love it when a director has a vision for their characters that’s super specific. It tells me that they’ve done the work to honor their characters, and it puts me at ease.

Just something to ponder for you directors out there…


Projects (left to right from top to bottom):
Popeye the Pizza Man
The Originals
Travis Manion Foundation PSA
House of the Righteous
Popeye the Pizza Man
Marine Corps training video
Burt’s Eye View

A Taste of Hell

gas mask

Standing outside the squat concrete hut with the blistering afternoon sun beating down on my shaved head, sweat rolling into my eyes, I watched the group in front of me hustle in while the drill instructor at the door—looking like some zombie apocalypse survivor in full MOPP gear—shoved them. Muffled shouts began almost immediately.

“If you know what’s good for you when you go through that door,” my DI nonchalantly tightened the straps on his mask and double-checked the seal, “you go in, you stand with your back to the wall, and don’t you dare come off it.”

He grinned, “We had a recruit try to bust out earlier. He actually got out the door before they caught him. They sent him back through seven times. In a row. So, get in, do what your told, and get out. Believe me, you don’t wanna go more than once.”

He was right. I didn’t want to go more than once. I didn’t want to go at all, but this was Parris Island, and there were only three ways off this little island of paradise—graduate, refuse to train and get yourself bundled off for exit processing that would leave a mark on your record for your entire adult life, or kill yourself. The second week of training, a recruit in another platoon tried cutting his wrists. I had to help stand suicide watch for him until they could process him out. A few months before that, some poor soul took a header from the third floor stairwell onto the asphalt. Game over. I felt like graduating was my best decision; unfortunately, graduating also meant that I had to go through this introductory party with a riot control agent. The training is designed with two purposes in mind: to make sure we knew how to properly use our gas masks in the unfortunate event we actually encountered life-threatening nerve agents, and also to expose us to the effects of the gas so we’d know how to respond and adapt.

“Alright, ladies, don’t be idiots in there.” He donned his mask, not because he was going in with us, but because the clouds of gas escaping the door each time it opened were enough to start our eyes watering from thirty yards away.

“Put ’em on!”

My fingers slipped on the elastic bands as I ripped the mask over my face. I yanked the straps, slapped the heal of my hand over the filter, and sucked in a deep breath to seat it tightly.

The door opened and the ten of us were moving. My DI gave each of us a shove through the door before slamming it behind us. The room was barely bigger than a small bedroom, in the middle a burner pulsed, splashing everything in an eerie glow; the temperature hovered somewhere just south of Hades. A drill instructor in full gear dropped CS tablets into the burner and a white cloud bloomed upward sweeping around us. He hunched over the burner, a demon from the abyss come to claim the souls of the damned.


You couldn’t have paid me to come off that wall. Already my sunburned skin around my jaw and sides of my head was on fire as the agent worked into the skin like rubbing alcohol in paper cuts. I slowed my breathing as much as possible. The fun was about to start.


I sucked in a huge breath, closed my eyes, and pulled of my mask. Beside me I sensed my recruit buddies all stripping off their masks along with me.


My mask went straight out away from my body. My eyes were already burning. The gas was a living thing, leaching into me, sulfur fingers ramming up my nose, setting my mucous membranes on fire.


Bastards. It didn’t matter how long you could hold your breath, they had their games.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—“ I stopped to take a tiny, puffing breath through clenched lips.

“—8, 9, 10!” My saliva glands exploded in a waterfall of lava as the gas mixed in my mouth. I swallowed involuntarily and sent the the toxins straight down my esophagus. A racking cough exploded out of me. I could no more have controlled it than I could have parted the Red Sea. But the worst part was the following inhale. There was nothing I could do. My lungs sucked in a full dose of gas, and my body went into full melt down.

There’s something about pain that both clarifies and muddles time. I was somewhere in the middle—somewhere where disorientation meets burgeoning panic. My lungs were exploding, on fire, my eyeballs liquefying in their sockets while I whooped racking coughs, forcing myself back against the wall, willing back the spasms shuddering from my legs all the way up my spine. Around me, the others retched deep wet coughs into the darkness. Panic spiraled through me. It had to almost be over. It had to. I was nearing my limit as my oxygen levels dropped. Make it stop. Make it—


I slammed my mask into my face, clearing it with one explosive exhale and dragging in a wondrous lungful of clean air. The inhale kicked off another round of coughing, and I retched and snotted into my mask, sucking in breath after breath of filtered oxygen.


The pack of us, barking like chainsmoking seals, tumbled out the door.

“Get the masks off, ladies! Get ’em off. Arms straight out. Keep your grubby fingers outta your freakin’ mugs if you know what’s good for you—you’ll only make it worse.” My DI stood by the wash barrel as we stumbled toward him. My mask dangled from my hand, and I lurched toward the barrel while the snot dripped off my chin. It felt like someone had poured liquid fiberglass down my throat. Behind me one of my buddies retched and vomited into the grass.

“Let’s go! Let’s go, ladies, I don’t have all day!”

I tottered toward the barrel. One more tick in the requisite box. Almost there . . . only thirteen more sleeps and a wake up.
Just get through today . . . just get through today.

I Am Eighteen

*go ahead and listen to the soundtrack while you read

Sometimes I drive at night to clear my head. There’s something about moving aimlessly in the dark that brings a certain perspective to all the chaos. And I listen to music. I love listening to music while I drive.

I was listening to one of my “Libera” albums when the theme from “Gladiator” came at me out of nowhere. I pulled it up on YouTube and a wave of memories hit me . . . hit me and rolled me under.


I am eighteen.

It’s Thanksgiving break. I am a high school senior. My younger brother, Noah, and I are house-sitting for some friends over the holiday while our folks go to visit our big brother who’s off at college. We fill the weekend with movies, and “Gladiator” is high on the list.

The movie begins and I am swept away by the sheer magnitude of Maximus’ world—the warrior, the journey, the loss. A month ago, I signed the paperwork and sold my soul to Uncle Sam. In May I will leave for boot camp. I will be a warrior too. What is it in the spirit of every boy that screams for something to test his mettle? Give me a battle; let me prove myself. I don’t know . . . but I will find out; I will find out what I’m made of. September 11 is nothing but a date right now. The world spins in peace. I know nothing of terrorist attacks. My perception of warfare comes from the films I’ve watched, the books I’ve read.

The passion, the weight of Maximus’ love for his wife rocks me. I have never loved a woman. I have never had my heart broken. Noah will one day be my best man, but I do not know this. Dating is not allowed in my small high school. I’m too busy anyway with school work, church, sports, piano. In the spring, I will win a writing contest and travel to Washington, D.C., where I will spend the weekend with other state winners from across the country. We will go to the White House and meet the President, we will go to Ford’s Theatre, we will celebrate, I may develop a crush, I will slow dance with a girl for the first time. This will all be new to me. But something inside me yearns for a woman to win and love. I tell myself I will do it well. I will not mess up.

I fight for achievement, for recognition. I am driven. My parents push me. My dad pushes me hard. I will graduate at the top of my class. I need these breaks from school, because high school is brutally hard. 5AM mornings and late nights will serve to make my upcoming freshman year in college almost a breeze. But I do not know this yet. All I know is that I have an inner voice that does not allow me to slack. I want to be the best. I have much to live up to.

I have not experienced great loss yet. My good friend is not dead. The tree he will be climbing while I am at boot camp this summer—the tree that will fall while he is still working in it—is still standing, but it is rotting even now. I do not know this. I do not know what it is like to get a letter that tells you your friend is dead. Standing by gravesides and asking unanswerable questions is not familiar to me yet.

Christmas will come soon. I will get together with my whole family—uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmas. I feel so much older than my little, innocent cousins; knowing I am leaving soon for the Marines makes me feel old. I feel a weight inside I cannot explain. I am scared. But I will not let anyone know. It will be a wonderful Christmas; they always are. Because I am surrounded by love. Because the entire world is open before me. Because life is still simple.

I am eighteen.

gladiator 3

Travis Manion Foundation

Earlier this year I got to go down to Atlanta to work on a shoot for the Travis Manion Foundation 9/11 Hero Run/2015 PSA. I got to spend a few days in flashback mode and do a bunch of stuff I haven’t done since my time in the Marines.

Grateful to be a small part in promoting the wonderful work this foundation does.

Blood Stripes

I remember the quiet.

The quiet … and the blows; it sounded like a wooden baseball bat hitting a heavy bag—muffled, methodical. Occasionally, a hiss of air followed a blow as a breath whistled through clenched teeth.

The other newly-promoted corporals and I stood in the gear room. The sounds were coming from the other side of the row of lockers that split the room. A moment after the blows stopped, Cpl Branson came back around the lockers to join us. His face was controlled, the only thing giving him away was his fists; they were white-knuckled balls welded to the ends of his lanky arms.


Cpl Carter and Cpl Lewis nodded at me. I walked around the lockers.

A group of sergeants stood waiting for me. I’m not really sure what I was expecting. Maybe a grin or a catcall. But there was nothing; no smiles or crazy looks, just business, like they were waiting to supervise a new Marine’s gear assignment.

Sgt Vance turned my left shoulder toward the other guys while he held my right arm, and—almost gently—turned my face towards him. Before I realized what he was doing, the first punch rocked my left arm. Bulls eye. Direct hit, sir, thank you very much. My biceps jumped under my skin, and I swayed into Vance; he was expecting it. A moment later, I had my footing back and absorbed the second hit, and the next, and the next. He watched me calmly, and I watched him right back, trying to catch the telltale hint his eyes betrayed before each punch landed.

My left arm was done. Sgt Pratt took over from Vance, and turned me around, leaving my right arm exposed.

Pratt was a cheerleader at the school where he was finishing up his degree, and he looked the part—handsome, trim waist, and shoulders wide enough they could hold the entire girls squad while he wondered which protein shake to drink with lunch. He braced my body, but this time I was ready for the first blow and took it. I thought my arms would hurt more than they did, but somehow the first hit seemed to numb them. Don’t get me wrong, they hurt, but I was pretty confident I’d be able to steer my car home.

Lewis,” Sgt Smith called out. He had a baby face that guaranteed he’d be getting carded for the next decade at least. It was almost difficult to take him seriously at times. Almost.

I passed Lewis as I made my way back around the lockers and gave him a nod. Branson still hadn’t unclenched his fists. Carter was staring holes in the ceiling.

The whole bat and bag scenario repeated itself as Lewis and then Carter took their turns. As Carter made his way back around to join us, we heard Branson’s name called again.

The games were only half-way over.

Except this time there were other noises. We all heard the first impact, and there was something deeper about it, something you felt yourself, and with it came a grunt. Another blow, another grunt.

Blow. Grunt.

And before I knew it, I was back around the other side again. This time Sgt Vance wasn’t taking any chance with “spotting” me. He squared up beside me, turned my face towards him, and that’s when the horse kicked me. Or at least that’s what it felt like. The strike I’d just taken in the side of my left thigh teetered me, leaving me fighting for balance as little explosions of light splattered across my eyes. I coughed low and hard, sucking air back into my lungs, trying to make myself believe the rest of it wouldn’t be that bad. Vance grounded me, and I steeled myself for the next hit. Or at least I thought I did. The second strike somehow amplified the first. There was no numbness this time. Just another horse.

A knee strike is one of the most devastating blows you can deal in close quarter combat. If you can get a grip on your opponent’s head and bring it down into your knee, the cumulative effect of the downward pull and the upward torque that stems from your opposite foot all the way up through your core pretty much guarantees that when your knee hits home, it’s going to splatter the bad guy’s nose like a cauliflower, knock his teeth down his throat, and maybe send him off into never never land with an orbital fracture or two for good luck.

The guys weren’t delivering full-force knee strikes, but dammit, it sure felt like it. Each impact left me reeling, trying to figure out where all the mesmerizing constellations on the gear room wall had suddenly come from. A minute later, it was all over. This time I didn’t volunteer to move by myself; I couldn’t. Sgt Pratt grabbed my shoulders and guided me back around the lockers while I wondered if the long wooden stilts attached to my waist were still legs. The electrical bursts of pain that were lighting up my brain like New York on New Years’ Eve confirmed that, hell yes, those legs still belonged to me.

I stood (make that swayed) in a fog as the other corporals went around those lockers and then came shuffling back. When Carter finally came back around to join us, he looked like he’d seen a ghost and maybe was contemplating going off to join it. Wherever it was, there was no way it was hurting like we were.

The sergeants came back and stood facing us, serious, but with a touch of respect. We’d done well.

Sgt Smith looked at each of us as he spoke, “Congratulations. You just earned your blood stripes. You’re NCO’s now … don’t fuck it up.”

And with that, they turned and filed out, leaving us like half-slaughtered lambs granted a reprieve on life. I managed to maneuver my way into the head where I semi-collapsed against the sink. I wasn’t so sure about that whole driving thing anymore.

You okay, Stratton?” Branson shuffled by behind me. I looked up at him in the mirror.


He nodded; he didn’t talk much. The door whispered shut behind him as he left me wedged against the sink. Gradually, I got my legs under me. The radiating pain spasmed, then receded, but I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew I’d be walking like an old man for the next week or two. Leaning into the mirror, I studied the chevrons on my collar: two stripes up, crossed rifles underneath.

You’ve earned your blood stripes … don’t fuck it up.


*author’s note: This story is correct to the best of my memory. Names have been changed for privacy. The military does not endorse hazing of any kind. In writing this, I am not interested in starting a debate either for/against it. My goal is to share the seriousness that the Marines hold for our ethos and the core that forms the backbone of Marine Corps leadership—the NCO’s.