For a time, congressional hopeful Jared Golden hoped to become a high school history teacher.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center, charred the Pentagon and seared a nation.
Golden, a student at the University of Maine then, grappled with a growing desire to join the military like his grandfathers and help track down those responsible.
Looking for “something bigger” than himself, he signed up with the U.S. Marines and embarked on a four-year “love-hate relationship” that he’s sure is “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“You’re in this big family, in every aspect,” he said, where “you’re never alone” whether in the barracks in boot camp or blowing down doors searching for bad guys in Iraq.
It’s miserable sometimes, he said, recalling how he was “cold, wet and outdoors for days on end” or sitting beside a buddy bombarded with shrapnel after an enemy explosive device went off beneath their vehicle.
He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, lugging a rifle and developing an expertise in small explosives. It was, by turns, ugly or inspiring for Golden, offering the chance to hunt for terrorists, help people vote and fight off insurgents.
Looking back, Golden called those years “the proudest moments of my life. It’s the core of who I am.”
The Marines had “very high standards,” where nobody makes excuses for mistakes and where the stakes are as high as they can be, Golden said. “It’s all about the team, the unit, the mission, the country.”
And then one day, on returning to civilian life, “all of a sudden you’re on your own.”
It’s a tough transition, one Golden readily admits left him a little shaken, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and searching for something that the Marines offered but the world at large often doesn’t.
On his return he pushed a broom in a factory and worked part time in the evening at George’s Pizza in Lewiston, where he’d had a little job during high school. One day there he met a Bates College dean who suggested he apply.
Golden, who’d been a solid B student, thought he didn’t have a shot of admission to an elite college that typically accepts those with near perfect grades and test scores. But Bates took him.
“I was just ecstatic,” Golden said, recognizing the opportunity he’d been given by a college that could provide enough aid to make it possible for him to attend.
There, he said, he got “an amazing education” from professors who “force you to think outside the box” and pile on an extraordinary amount of reading.
Golden majored in politics and in American history, emerging from the experience “a much more thoughtful, intelligent individual” determined to make a difference.
He decided to return to Afghanistan as a civilian, to help fix the country where he’d fought insurgents as a Marine.
It didn’t take long, though, for Golden to recognize that Afghanistan wasn’t an easy place to repair. He said he saw too much corruption and waste, once eyeing a warehouse full of unopened computers that would have to be junked because they’d become archaic while they sat in storage.
Looking for another job, Golden wound up getting hired by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, to work as a professional staffer for the homeland security committee, where he wrote memos on issues facing the senator and wound up impressed with her savvy and interest.
He moved on to work in the Maine State House as a staffer before jumping at the chance to run for an open House seat in Lewiston in 2014. He worked hard on the campaign, he said, and emerged the winner.
In the process, Golden said, he discovered that politics offered him something he’d missed since the Marines: “a sense of purpose and direction.”
“I’m not drowning in cash, but I still feel like a fortunate person living in America,” Golden said, where war remains distant, nobody’s trying to cut off his head and there’s no reason to worry that schoolchildren on their way home will get caught in a bomb blast.
Like many veterans, he said, he wants to continue to serve the country he loves.
“We’re all searching to reconnect to that sense of service and commitment and being part of a team,” said Golden, who hopes Congress can provide it.