Turning his life around
LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Brandon Mundos displays the United States Marine Corps flag that served as a daily inspiration for him to realize a dream of becoming a Marine.
Fresh and newly minted as a recent graduate of Parris Island, Brandon Mundos stood straight and proud as a United States Marine. He wore his hard-won uniform of dress blues with dignity at the Veterans Day ceremony at the American Legion Post 927 in Gilbert. He was only a Marine for two days but he already felt part of a unique brotherhood. It was "a belonging" he had been searching for all his life.
His early growing up years is fodder for a Lifetime movie.
Mundos' parents separated when he was just two years old and he and his older brother, Sean, 4, were placed in foster care. Two years later, their mother regained custody of her two sons. After two years, his brother moved in with their father and stepmother in Long Island, NY. Their half sister, Jennifer was born when Brandon was nine years old.
When his mother moved to Florida, Sean went with her and Brandon moved in with his father and family. At 13, he went to live with his mother again, in Florida. By this time, he had been in about 13 different schools.
"It was hard for me to keep up. I was doing my second time in 9th grade. So at 16, I quit school. I was playing bass guitar in a band at the time and thought I was going to be the next big rock star," he laughs. "We played in bars but I tried not to do anything too stupid."
His home life is something he doesn't like talking about.
For the next two years, he drifted about, playing in the band, mowing yards and doing odd jobs. At 18 he began working at a Walmart in May, quit in November and moved back in with his dad and family, now living in Effort.
"I had no high school diploma and no money. My mom (which is what he calls his stepmother who he considers to be his mom) made a deal with me ... I could move in with them, but I had to get a job, get my GED and I had to go to college."
While earning his GED at Monroe County Technical Institute, he worked at Dollar General in Brodheadsville 35 hours a week.
"I had no car, no bike. I walked three miles to and from work every day. In all kinds of weather."
After he earned his GED, he began working at Burger King in addition to Dollar General.
After earning some money, he got his motorcycle running so he could at least ride to work.
Brandon worked alongside Steve. He learned they were both New York Giants fans and also had very similar backgrounds, which featured a dysfunctional family life.
Steve, a retired union carpenter who works part-time at the Brodheadsville store, saw the similarities. He thought Brandon was a bright ambitious young man and was wasting his potential. "This job is great for me. I can walk to work and it gets me out of the house. But Brandon is smart and I just knew he had more to offer than stocking shelves," says Steve.
One day, after working 15 hours, Brandon was on a break outside at Dollar General. Steve was on break, too.
"I saw a tattoo on his arm, 'USMC' and said, 'Oh, you were a Marine. That's cool.' Steve started talking about being a Marine, Parris Island, Japan. After that, we started taking breaks together and every chance I got, I asked him questions about being a Marine. Steve told me about its history and Chesty Puller and John Basilone, (two heroic Marines) Iwo Jima ... I could listen to him for hours."
Steve also shared with Brandon about what his life was like at 17 and how in desperation, he joined the Marines in 1972, serving four years. The phrase "Band of Brothers" often came up in conversation. Steve found a family he never had at home.
"I saw Brandon's discontent. I felt bad for him and thought maybe the military would be the answer for him, as it was for me," says Steve.
So one day Brandon made the realization, "Wow, I should join the Marines."
He told his parents what he wanted to do.
"They looked at me like I was nuts," he recalls. "They said, 'No.'"
But Brandon called the recruiter in Stroudsburg. He told the recruiter he had a GED and the recruiter told him he couldn't enlist unless he had 15 college credits.
Never one to let obstacles get in his way, Brandon looked this one in the eye and hit it straight on.
"Here I was, 20 years old and a former straight F student. I told my mom, 'Let's get me into college.'"
He went to Northampton Community College and took a reading and math test. He passed and was accepted.
But he wasn't eligible for financial aid because of what his parents earned. At the time, he was working at Dollar General and Tractor Supply. By September 2011, he had saved $1,500. He sold his motorcycle, cashed in his 401k, but he still had to take out a student loan. He quit his jobs in December and started school in January 2012. He got up every morning at 4:30 a.m., walked two miles to catch the bus that took him to the NCC Tannersville campus.
"It was rough. I had bought myself a Marine Corps flag and had it hanging in my room. Every morning I'd look at it to keep me motivated."
At the end of May, he had finished his 15 credits. He even won first place in the Monroe Campus public speaking contest.
He wasted no time and went to the recruiter's office and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps June 16. He shipped out to boot camp on Aug. 13.
He says there is nothing that can prepare you for boot camp at Parris Island. No matter how much you wanted to get there.
"I remember the recruiter telling me that there would come a moment when I'd doubt my choice. I thought, 'Not me.' But within 30 seconds of arriving at Parris Island, I had doubts. Getting off the bus, I hit the yellow footprints. All was calm. Then came the D.I. All 6'1" of him. I've never been screamed at like that before in my life. But I kept thinking about Steve and letting him down and everything I did to get here, freezing while walking down the mountain to get to work, to get to the bus to go to school. I knew I had to do it. We'd be doing runs, and I hate running, I'd be throwing up. But it was nothing. I'd tell myself, 'If you can go up that mountain to home in freezing rain, you can do this."
And he did.
He also found what he was looking for ... comradery, brotherhood, family.
"I don't have a lot of family outside my dad, stepmom and sister. I haven't seen or heard from my brother or mother in years. But by Day 2, I formed strong bonds. I definitely found a Band of Brothers."
He graduated on Nov. 8.
"Being a Marine means everything to me. When I received my Eagle, Globe and Anchor pin at graduation from my commander, when he handed it to me at the Iwo Jima statue and heard him say, 'Congratulations Marine,' I got chills. And tears. I remember thinking, 'Holy Crap, I made it! I'm going to be part of a legacy.' It sunk in ... I'm a member of the team now."
He was now one of the few, the proud ... he was a Marine.
His one regret? His father couldn't be there to see him graduate. In December 2011, he suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke and was in a coma for a month. Recovery has been long and slow. Traveling a long distance was out of the question.
"But my mom was there. That meant a lot to me."
Coming home, the airplane staff wanted to upgrade his seating to first class but there wasn't room for him and his mom, so he declined. As they were heading to their seats, a lady in first class stopped his mom and said she must be very proud of him.
"She said she was. That was the first time she ever said that. I'd go through those 13 weeks at boot camp all over again to hear her say that."
When going through the airport, people approached him and said 'Thank you.'
"When other Marines said 'Welcome to the family,' well, that meant a lot to me."
Brandon's friend Steve wrote to him all through boot camp. Semper fi.
"I had slept in the same barracks Steve did. I fired my gun on the same rifle field he did. I always felt connected to him."
So of course, when Brandon arrived home, Steve called him up Nov. 10, the U.S. Marine Corps' birthday, and said, "Happy Birthday Marine," to which he replied, "Happy Birthday, Devil Dog." Steve asked him if he had any plans for Nov. 11 and offered to take him to breakfast at the American Legion in Gilbert. Brandon wore his dress blues with dignity. Steve told him he was proud of him.
"It's opened a whole new world for him. I had a strong idea he would have what it would take to be a Marine," says Steve.
They were sitting at the Legion when the Post's chaplain introduced himself and started talking with them. He asked Brandon if he would be willing to say a few words at the Veterans Day ceremony, which he did, very eloquently.
When asked why would he enlist when the world is in such a military turmoil, Brandon pauses before he answers.
"I don't think about the war or the cause. I only know there are Marines over there doing their duty. Some haven't seen their families for a long time. If it means one of them can come home for a hot meal and a hot shower and be with their family, I want to do my part."
Brandon is now at Camp Legume in North Carolina, attending Marine Combat Training. From there he will head to Pensacola, Florida for Military Occupational Specialty training. He'd like to train for either crash fire rescue or aviation ordinance.
"I definitely want to go back to school, perhaps major in political science and communications."
But for now, he has only one goal, one focus and that's to be the best Marine that he can be. Oorah.