MADISON, WI—Troy Leffler, who spent four long years living under an oppressive, totalitarian Marine Corps regime, never knew how precious freedom was until he left the Marines, the former Private-First Class (PFC) said Sunday.

Ex-Marine Troy Leffler.

"The freedom to go wherever you want, do whatever you like, and say whatever you feel is what makes America great," the 22-year-old Leffler told friends at a backyard barbecue Sunday. "And it's something I really learned to appreciate after four godforsaken years in the military."

Though he spent the bulk of his 1998-2001 enlistment on U.S. soil, at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Leffler did not enjoy the freedom of movement taken for granted by many American citizens.

"A big part of American liberty is the right to come and go as one pleases," Leffler said. "For four terrible years, that freedom was denied me. Every minute of every day, I was told where to go and what to do. Except for an occasional weekend pass, the Marines made every decision in your life, from when you slept to when you showered to when and what you had to eat."

Added Leffler: "I just hope the people at this picnic realize how very fortunate they are to live in a place where they aren't told what to wear or how to walk."

According to Leffler, life under Marine rule was psychologically brutal.

"It's hard for free Americans to understand this, but from day one of basic training, Sarge tells you how and what to think," he said. "Not only are you expected to surrender your idea of the individual and begin thinking as a member of a group, but they actually regulate your speech. You have to call a wall a bulkhead, a floor a deck, a gun a weapon. You're reprogrammed to think like one of them."

Also denied Leffler were such basic rights as freedom of assembly, freedom from search and seizure of any or all items in his footlocker, and the pursuit of happiness.

"It's the little things you never think about that I missed most," Leffler said. "Having a beer for lunch. Taking in a ball game whenever I wanted. Getting into a car with a couple of buddies and driving off for a few days with nowhere special to go. Hanging out all afternoon in a bar. You don't realize how much these things mean until the Marines don't let you do them."

Leffler said his greatest hope is that his Marine experience will serve as an example to others.

"[Leffler] asked to come to our school and speak to the kids about what freedom means and how you don't have any as a member of the armed services," said Madison West High School principal John Posey, who turned down Leffler's recent request to address the student body. "I admire his dedication to his ideals and his desire to pass along some of his life experience, but I think we'll let the kids make up their own minds on this one."

That, Leffler said, may be the greatest danger.

"That's how they got me," said Leffler, noting that he was barely 18 when he made the decision to enter the Marine Corps. "I guess I really did it to myself in the end, and that's the worst part. We must all vigilantly safeguard our sacred freedoms, lest we squander them on four years of desert marches and shoe polishing."