“Think big (bigger than now)!”

By Sue Wolinsky (Family Member, Army National Guard, IL)

So what does it take to be a Marine? Willingness…. Determination… As the USMC website says, “Recruits learn quickly in Marine Corps Recruit Training that what doesn’t stop them only makes them more purposeful.”

Meet Norman Atha, a scrawny 17-year-old recruit in 1976 (a few years before US military equipment  left Vietnam). His growing up experiences unknowingly prepared him to be a Marine.

Determination – A sense of resolve.

AN INTERNATIONAL CHILDHOOD: The Tijeras, NM, resident and Marine veteran was born in Miami in 1959 and spent most of his youth growing up in Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico, while his dad worked as an international home-building architect doing covert operations for the US government. This was during the time of the Bolivian Revolution and Cuban Revolution in the 1950’s that erupted into the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

He learned a mix of Spanish and English as a tot in these countries, far from the American experience of baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. “I played in the yard with rabbit hutches, wood piles, and other things. Mom indulged me in letting me attach matches around a match box so it could go to the moon.  It didn’t fly to the moon but I did burn my fingers. From very early on, I was encouraged to think big, to try things,” he recalled affectionately.

Think big. Try things.  

He and his three siblings did not realize at the time that they were living through a revolution in LaPaz, Bolivia. “We had to hunker down in our stairwell for a while. All the houses were pockmarked with bullets. They kidnapped leaders. I’ll never forget we were told to never leave the stairwell (by the GI’s who were protecting them). I was 5-6 years old. Our military guys were in the attic and maids’ quarters. The residence was where the Cuban ambassador had lived before he left the country. It was the capital, in LaPaz’ most expensive neighborhood. The revolutionaries had targets they had to kidnap.  While we were on the stairwell, it felt like an inconvenience. To me, standing on that stairwell was like waiting in an airport. One of the things we had to do… I didn’t know until years later what it really was. I just knew we couldn’t get out of the stairwell…. It made me feel that anything can happen. There’re no guarantees in life,” he said slowly.

What doesn’t stop you only makes you more purposeful.

During the next move, to Mexico City, his dad started him on a path of balsa wood airplanes and craft kits. This experience led to his love of woodworking, which he practices to this day. They learned a little about US culture when an American family moved in down the road before his family moved back to the US (Coronado, CA).  He left the US when he was 18 months old. He was returning as a middle school student.

BACK IN THE US: He was 12, a slightly built, fair-skinned kid who spoke more Spanish than English. He knew he was different. “I was getting in fights at school. My dad started my brother and me in judo there. I love judo. I learned how to be strong. When the white boys would bully me, I found myself tossing big kids who thought they could push me around,” he said as he recalled his immersion into American boyhood. “And my school had my Spanish accent drummed out of me during two years of speech therapy. I felt like there was something wrong with me – that I had a speech impediment. My parents said it was something I had to learn. I didn’t understand that, but my mom said I had to do it. So I did.”

Determination – To endure. To survive.

He had one haven in Coronado, though, and that was the tools in the garage. “In Mexico, I didn’t have a garage or tools. But here, dad said I could use everything in the garage but the circular saw. We built trenches, ramps, tree forts, things that go boom,” he recalled excitedly.

“My parents divorced in 1973, so we took a hiatus to New Mexico, in Alamogordo for a few years,” Norm said. The family then moved to the outskirts of Austin, where, as Norm says, “I lived an American Tom Sawyer life with my best friend. I had a minibike, a dog, and a gun. It was a unique experience. Would anything feel as good as living in the woods? I count myself lucky to have learned how to make friends with white boys and to fight white boy bullies in Coronado. In Austin, I learned to love the outside. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to have to share this joy with my children.’”

FROM TOM SAWYER TO THE US MARINES: Adjusting to the Austin high school social scene was not easy. Cradled by his cultural roots, he became best friends with Arnulfo Alonzo Jr., the son of a Mexican groundskeeper who was not accepted by the kids of doctors and lawyers at the high school. The two teens cashed bad checks to keep up with the fast pace there. “As 16- and 17-year-olds with fake IDs and cash to spend, all winter long we were living in a disco dream,” he said. “But the dream ended when we were given 24 hours to leave town permanently or go to jail as an adult. So that morning, instead of going to school, we drove to the USAF recruiter. My dad was in the USAF National Guard, and my family had a history of both military and civil service. Arnulfo and I weren’t good enough for the USAF. So, we went down the road and saw the USMC recruiter, who offered us three- or four-year enlistments. ‘If you sign up now, you get Vietnam GI Bill.’ That was a good deal,” he said. He took the four-year option.

“We signed up in November 1975. We went to boot camp in San Diego just after the new year. I graduated with a promotion to Private 1st Class (E2). I found a new life, but I lost my friend. The next year, I went on leave to attend Arnulfo’s funeral. Arnold couldn’t speak English, so in boot camp they put him in an infantry unit. It’s hard to relive this, but I don’t mind, because it honors his sacrifice, when he put his life on the line for his country,” he reminisced.

“After aviation electrician’s training in Memphis TN, I was stationed in Southern California for the remainder of my four-year enlistment.  I was deployed to Central America for 1 month and Okinawa Japan for 6 months, prior to discharge in 1980.  During my enlistment, my right middle finger was partially amputated in an accident with a broken floor fan in the barracks. After discharge, the Veteran’s Administration enrolled me for the benefits I’m still receiving today,” he said. “I got out by the ‘skin of my teeth’,” he added. “A misconduct charge busted me down to E1, but I knew what I had to do to stay in long enough to get those benefits!”

Determination – To do the job that is needed to meet my goal.

“My most enjoyable days were when I got to ride up (fly) to observe whatever reported electrical/instrument malfunctions we were attending to. Our airships were superb platforms to watch the ground, through open hatches and gunner’s windows, rushing by just a few hundred feet below.  All my life, I’ve always been thrilled to ride in aircraft. Our warships that we tended to with our own hands provided another level of engagement with the thrill of being aloft,” he explained. Norm took advantage of his California location when off duty, doing body surfing, strength training, Japanese snorkeling, amateur boxing, and generally carousing in town over weekends.

Willingness – To try new things.

CIVILIAN LIFE: Norm has been living his post-military life with determination and with willingness. Since 1980, he has attended undergraduate college at SMU in Dallas TX, and UT in Austin. He then had a 14-year EMS career in Texas. “I was a long-haired hippy. We had to recruit volunteers for the county EMS. I already knew little children liked me and I liked them back. But I learned that I could make the farmers and ranchers cry (in training).  I had their attention and I motivated them to test top in the state! I’d never seen myself as a schoolteacher until I was teaching a room full of 45-year-olds in EMS training. That was a shining moment,” Norm recalled.

Think big, or bigger.

He and his first wife had three children. “I fathered and raised them in the Texas Hill Country and El Paso, before earning a degree in law from the University of Houston in 2005.  They had the best program in health law, so I thought that was a good fit for me. I went to law school at night and worked full time starting in 2003. For four years, I worked at several of the city’s successful plaintiffs’ wrongful injury/death firms,” he said, adding, “but that wasn’t enough; rather, it was too much of the wrong thing.”

“I had married again, to a Cuban immigrant, during this time. When she decided to go into teaching, I investigated it too. Harkening back to my early years in South and Central America, I took the transition training and taught high school Spanish for 19 years in two of Houston’s most challenged Title 1 high schools, including George Floyd’s old high school in Houston’s Third Ward,” he said. 

“After our divorce, I raised my three kids as a custodial father, until they each graduated high school and moved out on their own. My second wife helped me share my love of the outdoors with my kids,” he said, referring to his Tom Sawyer years in Austin. “I pushed for custody for many years, knowing that dads did not often get awarded custody at that time. But I knew I would have to live with myself until my last breath on earth. I had to do everything I could to get custody,” Norm emphasized.

Determination – To do the right thing.

MOVING TO NEW MEXCIO: Norm retired from teaching in 2022 and moved to Tijeras, NM. “Here, things clicked. I got into a PTSD group in three weeks, I found an acupuncturist, and a great community at the yoga, Brazilian jujitsu and judo studio here,” he said. “I even share my woodworking skills at the studio when needed. I divide my time between exercising both my own 64-year-old self and my two Great Pyrenees dogs, attending yoga and Brazilian Jujitsu and judo, studying Buddhism, and participating in local political and social life. I enjoy attending music recitals at the university and at local churches.”

Norm became involved in local politics after attending a monthly meeting of the East Mountain Democrats. Since then, he has been a poll worker and volunteers with the VMFC to advocate for veterans’ issues during state legislative sessions. During the 2024 session, Norm testified about the importance of reliable rural broadband service to veterans, especially veterans who may be in crisis.

Willingness – to take risks.

IN RETROSPECT:  Norm’s life continues to give credence to the Marines’ recruit training mantra that what doesn’t stop you only makes you more purposeful.  Determination has been guiding the transitions throughout his life. It continues to do so. Thinking big pushes him harder. Willingness to put it all on the line is his hallmark. “After all,” the man with an unconventional life asks, “shall my last act on earth serve myself, or what I stand for?”

Semper Fi.

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