Hunting Down The Mojave: Portrait of David Denslow

“Combat is not fun,” the ex-marine says crossing his arms tightly in front of him.

I press my thumb into the map and observe. It does not fill the gray patch of area that represents a massive drag of dessert in southern California’s Mojave where young men outfitted with weapons learn to gamble their lives all inside the vacuum of a humongous playground where the trials of war are understood as best as they possible can be.

I move my eyes southward across the map, and see that there is a space roughly equivalent in size. Another swath of government land.

Joshua Tree National Park is a 1,235.37 sq mi property where Californians arrive in droves to feast their eyes on the natural beauty of the park and wonder over its alien-like Joshua Trees.

What I learn from David Denslow, the man who I meet in the desert, is that the land underneath my thumb – that gigantic gray patch – is not the same paradise that Joshua Tree National park is. The gray patch on the map is a different sort of desert – another desert that David Denslow used to know all too well. The gray patch on the map is Twentynine Palms US Marine Base, Twentynine Palms, California.

The gray patch on the map, according to David Denslow, is more like controlled hell.

“The base is the world’s largest base. 944 square miles of training area. So they can actually do a mini-Afghanistan over there. The only thing they don’t have are camels. They got oil. They got … They have an Iraqi village built out there so they can practice combat insurgency and all that. The only thing they can’t do is drop nuclears. They can shoot drones out of the sky. They can drop 500 lbs. bombs. It’s real life training.” David Denslow tells me in an empty auditorium at Joshua Tree National Park.

When I walk through the door I spot him. David Denslow has his hand raised high above his head. He does not look at me. He ignores me. Or maybe he’s simply absorbed in his own train of thought, a concentration magnetized by a soldier’s discipline. Raising his hand, David Denslow stares down two young boys in front of him. He says a pledge. The boys recite it.

David Denslow does not smile.

David Denslow wears sand-colored canvas, a moustache, and commands a wiry figure. His hair is silver and straight. And it seems that the blood is always rushing to his beat, red face. Maybe it’s just the Mojave and the sun and the dust and the West, I think.

Pure Mojave Man. That’s my guess.

I’m wrong.

“Michigan Man.” David Denslow spells it out and lets it sink in like hot steel, and then he continues. “I was born in Lansing Michigan. 1954. Middle class family. Nobody rich. Nobody poor.”

David Denslow’s life began to unfold fast when he became a rifleman for the US Marines. Between years of 1973 and 1976 he was on active duty and completed tours in South East Asia.

“In the fall of 73’ I was stationed in the Phillipines. That’s where I met my first wife. Then we moved back to United States. From there we went to Hawaii. Things didn’t work out. We got divorced.”

After the pledge, David and I enter an empty auditorium and pull up two chairs. The walls around us are plain. Tightly wound, David Denslow talks bullets. He talks sharp. He talks hard, like Michigan steel.

But what he says takes me by surprise. David Denslow is not the aggression-crazed man one might expect to find wound up in an ex-marine. In fact, David Denslow is very much his own man.

“In the marine corps we don’t have black, white, Mexican… there was never a color difference in my 20 years of experience. If you stab him in the arm and me in the arm, then what color is the blood? It’s the same!,” he exclaims passionately.

But then the ex-marine tells me about his duties, not as a soldier, but as a human resources manager, as if those times were the golden years of his military tenure.

David Denslow was a personnel manager during the US Military’s Desert Storm operation, where he was responsible for processing thousands of marines for training at the base in Twentynine Palms.

“It was the uncertainty that was tough. I was getting the emergency stuff set up. Wills set up. Power of attorneys set up. Making sure service records were current. And I was an office manager at that point. So I was running an office with 50 marines in it.”

“So when desert storm hit in 1990, 50, 60 thousand marines would be called up. They’d have shoved them through Pendleton, but then they realized, oh wait, we’re going to be sending them to a desert, so maybe we gotta give them some desert training, so they’d send them up to us. Camp Pendleton got all the glory for the activation process, but all the training happened here, and Twentynine Palms didn’t get anything, but we’re the ones that trained them for our country,” he says vigorously.

David Denslow holds a Masters in Human Resource Management. He says that he believes he has out-educated himself. Now, in addition to his Ranger responsibilities, David Denslow oversees the Operation Wounded Warrior and Post to Parks Program at Twentynine Palms, which helps young former marines unwind and cope with the monsters that often come hand in hand with traumatic tours of duty as well as help them find jobs. The Post to Park program works by letting tired, troubled, and anxious soldiers wander the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park.

“Some of these young marines – now even though they’re not physically damaged, they’re mentally damaged.”

David Denslow says that the purpose of the programs is to prevent disturbed marines from ending up on the street.

“This is a place for you to unwind, a place for you to forget about it, a place for you to relax.”

The aspiration to join the marines followed from observing his older brothers’ choices, David Denslow explains.

“Growing up in HS I didn’t really have a specific aspiration. But after seeing my older brothers go into the military… I didn’t want the Army, Navy, Airforce because the other three were already there. And the Marine Corps is a challenge. It’s not an application it’s a commitment… so in 1972 I entered the Marine corps.”

“That was one of my aspirations. I knew it would be hard work.”

David Denslow says it without hostility, without arrogance. He says it with a calm, somber, but tired-as-hell satisfaction. He says it as though he is happy it is over, but he is happy to own it as part of his history.

It was hard work, too, explains David, when it came to growing up in Michigan as the son of two alcoholic parents, whom David says caused damage, but that he only realized that later in his life.Both of his parents died of alcohol-induced dementia, he says.

“At one point, I just knew I had to get away from Mom and Dad. I had to get out of dodge,” says David Denslow pensively, thinking about his decision to join the corps.

He also remembers how his father used to believe in the parks and how they kept David and his brothers away from the ubiquitous drug-use that became a normal for kids growing up in the 1970s.

And he also remembers how his father liked to hunt.

“My dad hunted. My Dad liked pheasant. He owned a gun,” says the ex-marine.

And then he shifts his posture and puts his head up in the air, as if trying to present a dignity others might not let him have.

“But I never owned a gun,” he says.

May 2012

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