By Terese Schlachter
When Deron Johnson wandered the halls of a recruiting office in Highland, Indiana, in the winter of 2007-08, he was looking for his place in the world. He hadn’t planned on becoming a Marine. He hadn’t planned on joining any branch of the military.
“I wasn’t a good student,” Johnson recalls. “I didn’t have the money to go to college, plus I figured I’d flunk out and waste my mom’s money.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d searched for a path. He’s biracial. “When I lived in a white neighborhood, I dressed like a white kid. When I lived in a black neighborhood I dressed like a black kid. I never knew which box to check.”
A bunch of his friends were enlisting in the Marine Corps. They kept talking about it and wearing the T-shirts, so he called his uncle, a retired Marine master sergeant.
“He told me to join the Coast Guard,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure if he was trying to protect me from something, [but] I was really surprised.”
But on that winter day, in that hallway, each service branch displayed a sign on their door – each branch except the Coast Guard. Johnson paced up and down looking for the office.
“I walked by the Marine recruiter about four times. He was the only guy in the building.”
And that is how Deron Johnson became a Marine.
Two deployments later, he enrolled in Texas A&M University after being let in on what he calls the Corps’ best kept secret: the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program. Essentially, he gets his full pay and benefits to attend college. When he graduates, he’ll be a lieutenant.
The program put him on campus in November 2015, but classes didn’t start until January. He didn’t know anyone. He tried hanging out at the local bars and restaurants, but he didn’t feel like he fit in.
“It was weird being military and being a student. I went from the USMC band of brothers – we do everything together – to just me.” Once again, Johnson was looking for his place.
He said he never considered joining a fraternity, but during rush week, he found himself at the Theta Chi house.
“They were super-welcoming to military. I did more with them in that week alone than I had for the previous three months.”
When he discovered that Theta Chi’s official philanthropic partner is the USO, he knew he was home.
“I remembered how much I liked getting USO packages,” the former security detail Marine said. He was in Afghanistan twice, the first time in 2012, providing security for Maj. Gen. John Broadmeadow in Helmand province. During his second deployment, he was assigned to Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Johnson is now a Theta Chi chapter president.
“Theta Chi gave me a sense of brotherhood. There were amazing acts of … people going above and beyond to help another brother. I was shocked,” he said. “I thought coming out of the Marine Corps, I’d never find that same companionship. Knowing I can rely on these guys and confide in them made me feel that much more comfortable.”
He works with Theta Chi chapters all over the country to organize veteran-oriented events. Each year, chapters are asked to create a fundraising opportunity to benefit the USO. The Iota Sigma chapter at Towson University in Maryland is by far the most successful.
Kevin Reynolds was chairman of Towson’s “G-I Theta Chi,” a weeklong series of events where students are encouraged to do everything from write letters to deployed troops, to run obstacle courses and take whipped cream pies to the face. Reynolds said the first year he helped out, the chapter raised $11,000. for the USO. The next year, he raised the bar to $25,000.
“Everyone thought I was out of my mind,” he said. “But when the competition was over … we had raised around $21,000 in cash, along with $2,500 in non-perishable goods. I owe my fundraising ability to the support of those around me and the belief in myself to accomplish the impossible.”
Reynolds never served in the military, but was able to hand-deliver a donation to USO personnel in Florida.
“It was truly humbling,” he said. “My life would not be the same without the USO and the opportunity to organize G-I Theta Chi.” Johnson said he learned leadership skills from his Marine bosses, but since he became a chapter president, he’s learned those skills can be questioned.
“It was incredibly challenging. … Going from leading Marines to leading college students forced me to be dynamic. College students are going to question everything, unlike the military. You have to be sound in your decision. It made me a better leader and taught me lessons to take back to the Marine Corps.”
Johnson is majoring in political science, but he said politics, even in the current climate, isn’t “a thing” among brothers. Neither is religion or race. It’s a tradition that traces back to the Civil War, when brother was sometimes pitted against brother.
Theta Chi was created by two cadets at Norwich University in Vermont in 1856 when Frederick Norton Freeman and Arthur Chase made Theta Chi the first Greek organization at a military academy. Freeman went on to become a colonel in the New Hampshire State Militia. And Chase, at the outbreak of the war, worked as a drillmaster for a regiment of volunteers.
Michael Mayer, Theta Chi’s executive director, said the organization is particularly supportive of the military because of that history. “It’s a 160-year-old organization, so back in the 1940s and ’50s a large percentage had been to war,” Mayer said. “We have a large number of veterans in our alumni ranks.”
Military alumni include four Medal of Honor recipients. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili and Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman were both Theta Chis.
“Theta Chi recognizes the debt we owe to those in the armed services,” noted former vice president and G-I Theta Chi co-chairman, Dave Kralick.
The words “Theta Chi” mean “assisting hand.” In some ways, the mantra emulates the military’s “leave no man behind” tradition. “Lending an assisting hand goes as far as being with a brother when they are at their worst and sticking with them until they are excelling,” Kralick said. “It’s exemplified in our actions, deals and efforts to ensure our brotherhood is as tight knit as possible.”
“We take oaths to have each other’s backs. You go out of your way to be sure your brothers are becoming the best collegiate Greek they can be,” said Iota Sigma Chapter (Towson) President Ronald Pitts Jr. And, much like the military it supports, the Theta Chi brotherhood is forever.
“We work to bring each other up, celebrate the good times, be there for the bad, challenge each other and push everyone to their extremes. This I how our family works. Brothers are for life,” Kralick said.
When Johnson returns to the ranks of the full-time Marines, he said plans to be a Theta Chi advisor. “Both will always be with me.” Terese Schlachter is a Maryland-based freelance writer and videographer.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.