GASTONIA, N.C. --
GASTONIA, N.C. - U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Fidel Chidandali, a canvassing recruiter at Recruiting Substation Gastonia, Recruiting Station Charlotte, sits at his desk with his younger brother, Ushindi Phanuel, on June 21, 2021. Phanuel patiently waits as his older brother finishes up the final paperwork for his enlistment into the Marine Corps. After the last few signatures, Chidandali sets his little brother on a path that he paved many years before. Chidandali was the first person in his family to become a Marine, and his younger brother is on his way to be the second. But many years ago the opportunity to become Marines was something they would never have dreamed of. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a time of civil unrest, their family was forced to flee the Congo and start new lives in Kenya as refugees.
“When we first got to Kenya there were nine of us living in a one-room, tin-roofed house,” explained Chidandali. “Every morning we had to fold up our mattresses, tie them up with a rope, put them to one side of the room, and go to school. We’d come back home at the end of the day, have our family meal, take our mattresses back out, and slept. That’s how we lived for a lot of years before our family started getting more opportunities.”
As refugees, their parents weren’t allowed to work or own a business while in Kenya, so during their time there, they were living off of aid from the United Nations and donations from local churches.
“Things were tough; everything was just a struggle, whether it was for meals, clothes, or even an education. We had to keep our grades up just to get to stay in class,” says Chidandali. “When we were told we were going to the United States, it was one of those magical moments that we couldn’t believe was real.”
“During the vetting process to get to go to the United States was actually the first time I met a Marine.” Chidandali goes on to say, “I was about 13 or 14, and I remember we were at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya finishing up some paperwork. There were these guys handing out boxes of food and supplies in these fancy-looking uniforms. After I was given a box of food, I looked up at the man and asked if he was some kind of cop or in the American Army. He chuckled for a second and shook his head. With a smile on his face, he looked at me and said, ‘No I’m not in the Army. I’m a United States Marine.’ And I don’t know what it was, but ever since then I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a Marine.”
After a six-year-long process, their family was finally able to move to the United States and settle down in Tucson, Arizona. It was not until Chidandali’s second year at Pima Community College that he would have his second encounter with another Marine.
“The funny thing is that now that I look back at it, I know there were Marine Corps Recruiters in my high school, but I didn’t recognize them because they were in a different uniform than the Marine at the embassy,” said Chidandali. “But I remember being on my college campus, sitting in the library and seeing a Marine walk by in his Dress Blue Deltas. I stopped everything I was doing and ran after him. After I caught up to him, everything was pretty easy. My family was against it at first; coming from a war-torn country, they weren’t very happy about me joining the military. Fortunately, I told them only a few days before I went to recruit training in October 2012.”
Chidandali spent 13 weeks at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in Oceanside, California. During the last week of training, recruits must complete their final challenge: a 54-hour exercise called “The Crucible” that tests the physical, mental, and moral training they went through while at the depot. In the final hours of the Crucible, the recruits must conquer a challenge unique to MCRD San Diego. At the end of a 9.7 mile hike stands a 700-foot tall mountain called “The Reaper.”
“That was a big moment in my life. It took me a while to realize what I’d really accomplished.” Chidandali said, “Standing up on that mountain, I was exhausted. I’ve never been so tired in my life. I remember standing in formation, my face covered in dirt and sweat with maybe a few tears mixed in. My Drill Instructor walked up to me, I put my hand out, and he handed me my eagle, globe, and anchor. He said, ‘Congratulations Marine,’ and then it finally hit me, I had done it. I was a Marine.”
In October 2021, Chidandali had the opportunity to watch his little brother, now Pfc. Ushindi Phanuel, walk across the historic parade deck at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, not just as his brother but also as a fellow Marine.
“Seeing him graduate really brought me back to the parade deck at San Diego and my family watching me graduate.” Chidandali said, “Going into it I felt like the black sheep of the family for just suddenly leaving them to go to recruit training. A lot of people close to me and my family thought me going was a mistake. But I proved them wrong. Now they see what the [Marine Corps] has done for me and what opportunities it has given me. I’m glad I took the leap of faith, and I’m glad I took the initial burden of all the doubt. All that was worth getting to stand by and watch my little brother take the same leap and seeing my family proud of the both of us.”
“He has gone through the same hardships I have, but him graduating and becoming a Marine, that was all him. He has earned his seat at the table, and I know he’s going to be better than me, and that just makes me feel even more proud to not only call him my brother, but a Marine,” said Chidandali.
“Neither of us would have had these opportunities if it wasn’t for the Marine at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya that day. It might have just been an insignificant thing to him, but looking back at it, that man put food in my belly and clothes on my back and that small gesture stuck with me. That made me want to be a Marine, and it made me want to help others like he did. He may not ever know the impact he had but he changed my life,” said Chidandali. “If I could see that man again I would tell him he’s the reason that hopeless child in Kenya, who never dreamed of becoming anything, now lives a life that he couldn’t have even imagined. But most importantly, I’d tell him, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”