One month after his return to the U.S., Inthavong competed in the first annual National Breaking League's "Kingz of the Carolinas" b-boy competition in Raleigh, claiming first place in the one-on-one competition. He's currently a member of Asheville's own Hunab Krew, which welcomes b-boys and b-girls to join their weekly Wednesday practices at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center from 7 to 9 p.m.
Mountain Xpress: Why did you enlist in the Marines?
Phil Inthavong: Every 19-year-old where I grew up was kind of like, if you're going to do something, go all out. I didn't know what service to join, so [I chose] the toughest one. I picked the Marine Corps really not knowing, and the reason being that I was getting into trouble. Instead of trying to make myself go to school or do the right thing, it [became] an outlet to take me out of my surroundings.
How long were you stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq?
In Afghanistan, I was there for eight months in Qandahar in 2004. I came home for about a year or two and then went back to Iraq, for the first time five months, then came home again for another year and went back to Iraq for seven months, stationed in Al Taqaddum.
What were your basic duties and responsibilities as a sergeant?
It was an eye opener, you know what I mean? It doesn't matter what age you are ... the duties of a sergeant are the same. But as you build rank, you start getting more responsibilities and command. In my MOS [military occupational specialty], there were so many different areas: We were tactical air-traffic controllers, data-link coordinators. We basically had to stop and control the aircraft where there was no airfield.
Do you feel that you and your peers were adequately prepared for service in the Middle East?
Well, for my job, definitely. What we did was act like a stoplight for our own aircraft. In Afghanistan, I was the youngest doing my job and the lowest-ranking. All [of my] deployments are kind of like a blur, [they become] a pause in your life. Once you are in the airplane flying over the green trees back in North Carolina, it's the best feeling in the world, instead of [seeing] desert all the time.
Tell us about your experience in the war.
How could I describe that place? Everyone there didn't think about the bad situations; everyone still joked around or [would] walk where they needed to go. The military has MWRs [morale, welfare and recreation] and recreational things out there, so life still went on, but people didn't think about the bad things. You would see them from time to time, but it was kind of brushed under the rug. No one ever wants to confront those things; you just put it aside and keep moving. The only reason people keep themselves sane is because of the date [of their departure], instead of thinking I'm going to be stuck here forever. That's what everyone is looking forward to, plus care packages, phone calls and e-mails home. I found myself a million times talking to my family and friends, asking them to tell me something new, because you get so bored. If you didn't like a specific person in the states and you were deployed with that person individually out there, they would become your best friend, regardless.
How were you able to maintain your practice and lifestyle as a b-boy while stationed abroad?
They had an aerobics tent that was never used, and that's were I went to dance. I would never be bothered, because it said "Aerobics" on the front of it, and no Marine is going to do aerobics. It was an outlet, to keep me busy and to help me sleep at night.
How would you describe b-boying to someone who's never heard of it? How is it different from break dancing?
You can create a movement that no one else has even imagined doing. It's [about] enjoying yourself while controlling all this. There is a lot of group participation; you get better by dancing with other people. It's internal, and it is not set in stone. As long as you're dancing to the music and have an edge, it don't matter what you look like: There are no limits.
Where and when did you start b-boying?
I was in middle school, I remember, and there was this big crowd. I tried to make my way to see what was going on, and I saw these kids spinning. One was really good, spinning on his back really fast. I asked him, "How did you do that?" He said, "Just practice." Ever since then, I fell in love with it. As I got better and better, I stumbled upon other crews. The last crew I was with I'm still really good friends with. It's called S.O.S.; they're a really old-school crew based in Modesto, Calif. We competed, but for the most part a b-boy's career is short, because it's not accepted in society as a true working sport. You develop a family, get a 9-to-5, and it dies out into responsibility.
Did your war experiences change your style of b-boying? If so, how?
When I was dancing out there, I had no fear, because I wasn't scared of breaking a bone or something -- I was scared of something else. It was more along the lines of what was going to happen outside the tent. I started learning how to move without thinking. When I was out there I was training, because I knew there was a [b-boy] competition a month after I got back to the states.
Has the transition back to life at home been challenging for you?
It's been different. You definitely feel like you accomplished something, even though you didn't feel like you accomplished anything while you were out there. [When they tell you you're going home] you just have a huge smile on your face. The transit is the worst experience ever; it can take a day-and-a-half or a week. But it doesn't matter; you're just so happy. It's definitely all worth it once you step off that plane. After I got back, I went to the N.B.L. competition in Raleigh and actually won first place.
If a friend were going to serve in the Middle East, what advice would you give them?
It's not as bad as it seems. That's the only thing I can tell them: It's not as bad as it seems.