Jan. 1, 2006 — -- Matt Pottinger was a reporter, but he's no longer so sure that the pen is mightier than the sword.
The 32-year-old former Wall Street Journal reporter has joined the U.S. Marines.
"The life of a reporter versus the life of someone in the military -- it is a radical departure," he mused.
In seven years covering China for The Wall Street Journal, Pottinger got a sense of how American liberties are a rarity in the world -- especially when he got arrested for writing about corruption.
"I was standing over a toilet," he recalled, "with a bunch of Chinese policemen standing around me shredding my notebook, page by page, and flushing it down a toilet."
From afar he could assess America's strengths and its weaknesses.
"I would come home, and you didn't feel coming home to the United States from abroad that we were a country at war," he said. "I was surprised by that … and that disturbed me. It gave me a sense that we were being a little bit too complacent."
It's hard to pinpoint the genesis of his decision to join the Marines. Maybe it was the murder of his colleague Daniel Pearl. Maybe it was the night he saw a video on the Web of the beheading of an American in Iraq.
"I watched it," he said, "and it was so obscene and so deeply disturbing to me that I felt a bit of the terror."
Not long after that, he found himself wandering around the Intrepid Museum -- a decommissioned former aircraft carrier anchored in New York City -- looking at the Marine officers' recruiting office.
"I'm wondering whether I'm nuts," he said later.
Inside, they told him at age 32 he'd be facing some pretty tough physical requirements.
He recalled them telling him, "You're going to have to do a three-mile run, timed; maximum score is 18 minutes for a three-mile run. One hundred crunches, which are like sit ups, in two minutes. And then 20 pull-ups."
At the time, when he tried to do a pull-up, he could only get half way.
"It was pathetic," he said, laughing.
Now, "I could probably knock out 20, but don't make me do it."
Initially, Pottinger was discouraged, but his decision was sealed when he covered the Asian tsunami and saw firsthand the marines leading the relief effort.
"Watching U.S. Marines and other military personnel on the ground helping people there amid that devastation … it's really indescribable what we saw there," he said.
He started training hard, and eventually was able to come back to the Intrepid and run the three miles in a passable time.
"I was sort of foaming like a mad dog," he said, "and I ended up throwing up all over the tarmac."
He made it as an officer candidate, and two weeks ago graduated.
"I wanted to actually be participating in an incredibly important period in our history," he said, "as opposed to just observing and reporting events. … I didn't want to watch the movie and not have a part in it."
At his swearing in ceremony, Pottinger hugged his brother Paul who said, "You're making us proud. We're proud of you."
An officer at the ceremony congratulated Pottinger by quipping, "It's an honor, you know, to get somebody from the dark side to come over to our side."
Pottinger realizes the consequences of trading the pen for the sword.
"There's a war going on right now, and there's a very good chance that I'm going to end up in Iraq," he said. "I'm a bit scared. But I think anyone who would end up facing combat would be scared."
Pottinger's life will change in 2006, and he hopes Americans will change too -- by becoming less complacent and more prepared to conquer new economic challenges.
"Get off our sofas and get involved," he said. "Start improving ourselves. We're competing now. … We can't take our eye off the ball. This is going to be a big 10 years. A lot's going to change in the world over the next 10 years. And we've got to be on our toes."
ABC News' Dan Harris, Tom Giusto and Lenny Bourin originally reported this story for "World News Tonight."