I spent the flight goofing around, joking around with others in my same predicament. I’m sure all of us were wondering in the back of our minds what we got ourselves into. I’m also fairly certain none of us were fully prepared to find that answer out.
We arrived at the airport and found our way to the man who would get us to our final destination. He immediately had us sit cross-legged with our hands on our knees facing forward. “Sitting at attention” if you will. I heard a young boy from somewhere ask, “Mommy, what are they doing?” Again, I’m sure none of us could answer that question.
We were directed onto a bus which drove for what seemed like hours. It was raining outside, which was a perfect match for my mood. I was becoming uncertain of myself, sitting in the quiet with all these boys. Yes, all of us were boys. We were a long way from being men.
We pulled up and came to a stop near a large building. I couldn’t see much because of the rain. We waited, yet again. I would learn very fast that waiting is a common thing to do in this new adventure I was going into.
Finally, a man came into the bus and in a deep voice that resonated throughout said, “My name is Drill Sergeant Smith , you are now the property of the United States Marine Corps! The first and last words out of your mouth will be sir! Do you understand me?”
As you might imagine, the voices in the bus replied back meekly, “Sir, yes, sir.”
Again, the booming voice, “I SAID, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” “SIR, YES, SIR!” was the more confident, or maybe more terrified reply.
We were ushered into the building where one of the first things they did was shave our hair completely off. Then we were moved into a room where we were given uniforms.
This is where I did my first stupid thing of many while I was in boot camp. I had been told previously that when we got here that the drill instructors yelling at us would not brook us wasting time. “So when you’re changing from civilian clothes to your uniform, don’t go slow. Rip off the clothes and be done with it.”
I did just that. The problem was I was wearing a shirt that buttoned all the way down the middle. I like to imagine I looked like Clark Kent as I grabbed that shirt from the middle and ripped it open. What I really looked like was an idiot as my shirt buttons popped off the shirt all over the floor.
The next several days are a blur to me. The first several days you are put into a “processing platoon” so you can get all your shots and paperwork done. Finally you are delivered to your drill instructors who will take you from there.
We were brought into an open squad bay and told to sit – at attention again. Three men walked in front of us. The senior drill instructor was in the middle with two junior drill instructors at his side. The senior drill instructor spoke for several minutes in a very relaxed voice – which I now know was only to lull us into a false sense of security.
When he wrapped up his monologue, he concluded with seven words that should bring fear into any person’s heart: “Drill Instructors, They are all yours.”
The roar from these two men was deafening. They were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They yelled for us to do something and then were mad because we were doing it wrong. Within moments we were out in a sandpit by the barracks, doing bends and thrusts, sit-ups, push-ups until I felt like I would throw up.
If you’re curious what a bend and thrust is, imagine yourself standing up. You then bend down until you are in a squatting position and then you put your hands on the ground and thrust your legs out as far as you can behind you, ending in what looks like a pushup. Then you stand back up and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
I had been there a few weeks when I found out that I had made a serious error. It’s not easy to admit, but I went through a kind of depression because I was away from home. I’d never been away from home this long and the sadness I felt upon missing my family combined with the mental stress I was going through was causing me to kind of withdraw. So I was not performing up to par.
In the Marines, there is no such thing as sub-par. I was brought into my Senior Drill Instructor’s office and informed that I was being transferred to another platoon that was just starting. I was going to have to start over.
It took a lot out of me but I think that what the Senior Drill Instructor did that day was force me to grow up. I wasn’t going to slide through boot camp just because I missed my family. I had to shape up.
Now if this was a TV show, the star (i.e. me) would be seen not only improving, but going to the head of the pack. This wasn’t reality TV. I wasn’t at the head of the pack, but I was no longer at the end of it either. I can honestly say, with some pride, that I gave the best of myself for the remaining weeks I was in San Diego. It may not have been the best the Corps has ever seen, but it was the best I had.
The new drill instructors were just as tough as the old drill instructors. One of them, Staff Sergeant Turner was the one we spent the most time with and probably the one I feared the most. I know that’s how they train them, but I think he liked the fact we were all afraid of him.
I can remember one time; many of us had been asking if we could call home. So he had us out marching and he marched us over to a telephone booth. He walked over to it, put a quarter in it and made a call. He then looked at us and said, “There’s your f**king phone call!” and then marched us back.
There was another drill instructor that was in charge of us who ended up losing his job. He had been yelling at one of us for some reason or another and was right near the guy’s ear when he bit it. He ended up being reduced in rank and losing his drill instructor position.
I ended up having to tell them that this same drill instructor had gone over the top with me as well. It was early on and I was guarding the barracks. One of the weapon racks was unlocked and I hadn’t thought to check it. He came in and noticed it. I was standing behind two foot lockers stacked on top of each other and he walked over to me and kicked one of those foot lockers into my chest.
Looking back on some of the stories now, I can laugh and see the humor in what they were doing.
There was one time when I was on guard duty again and the Senior Drill Instructor came into the barracks and ordered me to go downstairs and get some papers from the Senior Drill Instructor of that platoon. I ran down stairs and reported in. Before I could tell him what I was asked to get he yelled at me to get out of his barracks. I complied and ran back upstairs at which point my Senior Drill Instructor yelled at me to go back downstairs and get the papers. This went on for a little while, me being the little yo-yo toy for two bored Senior Drill Instructors.
There was another time when we had moved to the barracks where we were going to be for a while during our rifle training. There were three platoons together and so the drill instructors were torturing us and enjoying the fact they could torture recruits that weren’t in their platoons.
I mentioned previously that I feared Staff Sergeant Turner. That was true, but I was TERRIFIED of the drill instructor that had me at this moment. He had me up against a wall bending down with my arms out. He got in my face and yelled, “Lower! I said LOWER!”
I then made a fatal flaw. Through clenched teeth, I said, “I can’t.” For those that haven’t served in the Marines, the flaw was two-fold. During boot camp, you NEVER refer to yourself as “I”. It is always “this recruit”. The other flaw was saying that I couldn’t do something.
That was all it took. He got close to my ear and started whispering, “I? I??? What’s wrong, recruit? Do you need your mommy?”
“Sir, no sir!” I replied.
“No I think you do, recruit! Call out to your mommy!” he whispered again.
“Sir, no sir!” I tried again.
“I TOLD YOU TO CALL FOR YOUR MOMMY!” he roared in my ear. So there I was, back against the wall, arms out trembling and now going, “Mommy! Mommy!”
One of my proudest moments of boot camp was during our time at Mount Mother. It’s called Mount Mother in polite company; an extra word is added to it around not-so-polite company. We climbed what seemed like Mount Everest to me with full backpacks and then we camped for a week with no shower and then back up Mount Mother we went.
I was exhausted. I wanted to quit, but I wasn’t going to. I looked over at another guy who looked like he was going to quit. I walked over and stood behind him and told him that I wasn’t going to let him quit. Between the two us, we were making it up that hill.
I’m proud of that moment because I think it was the first time I “got it”. I realized it wasn’t about me, it was about the platoon. It’s a small moment in my time in boot camp but one I’m pleased with.
Towards the end of boot camp, something happened that to this day I still find very strange. We were going through our “guard duty” training where a group of us would stand on guard over an area for the night – in shifts.
We were all outside cleaning our weapons and I was told I was the first one to stand guard. Oddly though, I was given our Platoon Leader’s weapon to use. What that meant then was that weapon was going to be the sole weapon used for the entire night. Each guard would give the weapon to the next guard as he was relieved.
I came into the barracks the next day from somewhere and saw all the other guys that stood guard that night in the back of the barracks doing various exercises with a drill instructor yelling at them. The drill instructor saw me and yelled at me to get over there and join them.
I found out that the weapon we used had apparently had sand dumped in it. That was bad enough, but the fact that it was the Platoon Leader’s was worse because now it had to be re-cleaned prior to the Platoon Leader competing with other Platoon Leaders the next day.
The drill instructor said he was going to keep us there until one of us admitted we did it. What turned out to happen is that ALL OF US admitted to doing it, even though I knew I didn’t do it. The drill instructor was supposedly unconvinced of the veracity of any of our admissions. Eventually he let us go. To this day, I have no idea if the weapon had been vandalized as we were told and if it was who did it.
Eventually the day came for us to graduate. I will tell you that there have been several things in my life that I’m proud of. The day I graduated high school. The day I married. The birth of both of my kids. The day I became a black belt in TaeKwonDo and then the day I earned my second degree black belt.
The day I graduated boot camp is right there at the top of that list. I’m not sure if it had more effect because I was put back or what I felt that day was what every Marine feels. All I know is that I had accomplished something that a rare group of people can claim do have done. I was – and still am – a Marine.
The next three and a half years were a roller coaster of experiences for me. There were times I hated it. There were times I couldn’t wait to be done. However, there are just as many where I was filled with a sense of wonder at what I was. Who I was.
The United States Marine Corps made me a man. They drug me kicking and screaming into it at times, but they got me there. I do not believe I would be the man I am today if not for my time in the Marine Corps. I am proud to be a Marine.