DI Sergeant Dennis Bruner: “We’ll give them some physical training so they won’t get bored."
I nod in silent greeting to the grim-faced sentry as he checks us out through the gap in the crisscrossed pattern of barbed wire. His lips move as he counts to himself. Fourteen of us are going out on the patrol, and all fourteen should return — but no more than that. Bad guys, such as Victor Charlie sappers, have been known to latch on to the tail end of a returning night patrol; their faces darkened with camouflage paint, they pass for good guys and get inside a defensive perimeter. Once inside, they would often inflict beaucoup casualties before getting zapped or escaping back into the night in the confusion they'd created. So we are counted going out and returning.
Sergeant Bruner marches them off to wooden bleachers that face a chalkboard. Another sergeant arrives to teach a class in defensive tactics.
Just past the point of departure, I turn and survey the vague shapes of helmeted Marines in the gathering darkness. Their fighting holes bristle with the barrels of M-16s; they offer a hint of security to the departing patrol.
One recruit has dead branches protruding from his helmet cover. “You look like Phyllis Diller.”
Security. That is our mission. The patrol leader has briefed the squad: we are to poke and prod as we walk through the gullies and dry creek beds that run dangerously close to our perimeter and make sure no bad guys are hiding there waiting to do us harm during the night. One good patrol is worth a dozen bunkers, I always say. But seriously, folks, active patrolling is the only way to ensure security around a defensive position.
1st Squad, Platoon 1005, Bravo Company. At the end of the 15-day phase, they are tested. Failure of any aspect of training can result in the dreaded “recycling.”
There is a half-moon directly over our head, and visibility is good. Rats! I prefer pitch-black darkness, counting on my recall of the terrain to navigate nocturnally. The patrol is now moving silently across one of the creek beds, each man feeling for solid footing before putting his weight down on the loose rocks. Equipment is minimal, so there is no noise from the sloshing of half-filled canteens or M-16 magazines rattling in their pouches. Great! Even if the bad guys can see us, they can’t hear us. Well, I'll take any little advantage I can get.
Young recruits swing from ropes, clamber up walls, and run across narrow logs.
As the bed widens, the patrol spreads out like a giant black spider web connected only by night vision and the silent commands of the patrol leader. Step. Stop. Look. Listen. Step again. Christ, sometimes it seems as though I’ve been doing this all my life — Vietnam, Nicaragua, Surinam — and nothing ever changes but the racial characteristics of the bad guys. Who’s that to my left? The flanker, you idiot; who the hell do you think it is? He’s wearing the same uniform as the rest of us, carrying the same weapon, and walking in the same direction. Relax, I tell myself. At night, when your pupils are dilated maximally and all your senses are operating at full alert, thoughts can and do take leaps to illogical conclusions. And more than one casualty has been inflicted by friendly fire as a result of nighttime nerves.
At the end of each day, the rifles are locked up in huge Conex containers sitting in front of the rifle range and are reissued each morning.
The patrol leader raises his hand in the signal to stop and freeze. Oh Christ! Are we in a minefield? I experience a momentary flashback. Nicaragua, 1985: I lose seven people in a Sandinista minefield as we infiltrate through a cacao grove just across the Costa Rican border. The Czechoslovakian anti-personnel devices rip apart two of our comrades, splattering us with limbs, blood, and viscera. One of the casualties is a beautiful young Costa Rican girl who had volunteered to join the contra forces of Comandante Fernando “El Negro” Chamorro. Ignoring my shouted command to stop, her boyfriend and four other Nicas rush forward and meet the same fate. The man standing beside me is hit in the face with a severed arm. He quits on the spot — throws down his rifle and starts walking back to the border. I hear him mutter the Spanish equivalent of “Take this job and shove it.” Yeah, well, what can I say? War is heck.
"Break up the outlines," they are told by the DI. Several emerge from the brush looking like walking trees.
End flashback. The patrol leader signals us to move on. No, we’re not in a minefield; we’re not even in Nicaragua. The rifleman to my left — the flanker — stumbles over a trip wire, igniting a flare. The patrol is illuminated in the incandescence of the burning magnesium. An M-16 opens up, its popping sound muted by the blank adapter on the end of the barrel. “You are a dead Marine, Private Michaud,’’ the drill instructor tells the flanker.
Private Charles A. Michaud, formerly of Deer River, Minnesota, and now of 1st squad. Platoon 1005, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of the Recruit Training Regiment, is smack-dab in the middle of what the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Michael C. Bell, calls a “minor miracle.” He is being transformed from a typical American teen-ager into a United States Marine. This transformation is taking place in an 11-week period known as “boot camp.”
Private Charles Michaud has been a woodsman and a hunter since childhood, killing his first deer at the age of ten.
Upon arrival at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Barnett and Rosecrans in San Diego, new recruits are given medical and dental workups, issued uniforms, turned over to a drill instructor, and given an initial strength test. Next they are taught how to stand at attention, salute, make beds, and observe the unyielding niceties called “military courtesy.” According to Col. Bell, they learn that, possibly for the first time in their lives, they must do exactly as they are told. Physical training begins: minimum standards require three pull-ups, 35 sit-ups in two minutes, and a three-mile run completed in 28 minutes. The average recruit exceeds these upon arrival and, typically, doubles his strength during boot camp. They learn first aid, rifle training, of course, and good of close-order drill. Hut, toop, treep, faw; yo’ lef, ri’, yo’ lef. The young recruits swing from ropes, clamber up walls, and run across narrow logs in the confidence course; they crawl with their M-16s through mud and under barbed wire in the obstacle course; their bodies shed fat and add muscle.
At the end of this 15-day phase, they are tested. Failure of any aspect of training can result in the dreaded “recycling,” and the recruit’s time at MCRD will be extended by a remedial period. This extension and the humiliation of even partial failure makes recycling for some, at least, a fate worse than death. Reasons for recycling include being overweight, failing to qualify as a marksman with the M-16 rifle, or tailing the physical fitness test. Weak and underweight recruits are fed high-calorie, high-protein diets and put through intense physical exercise that includes weightlifting; the rotund recruit will find his rations reduced from the regular 3500 calories daily to a medically supervised diet; and the slow-to-learn will receive remedial training.
From the spit-and-polish of MCRD, the recruits are transported to the Recruit Field Training Division on Camp Pendleton. They will live in the field for the next four weeks. Here the men will spend a total of 67.5 hours on the rifle range. Hot water will become a distant memory, as will soft mattresses and heat. They will sleep two-by-two in pup tents with a thin piece of foam rubber and a sleeping bag between them and the ground. They will eat most of their meals from plasticized bags containing the new, vacuum-packed rations that replaced the late, generally unlamented C-rations. They will learn to crawl on their bellies in anticipation of that day when how low they can go may determine how long they can live. And they will walk. Lord, will they walk. Hikes, carrying a 60-pound pack and an M-16, of 5 miles, then 8, then a 15-mile gut-buster over the looming peak known as Mount Mother as they reach their final day of combat training at Pendleton.
It’s still dark at 0530 the morning of 15 February, 1989. Private Charles A. Michaud is awake; the shouts of DIs have seen to that. He grits his teeth to steel himself against the pre-dawn chill and extricates himself from his sleeping bag. He feels the other man in the small pup tent wriggling and knows he is doing the same; they unbutton the tent flap and emerge into the chilly darkness.
The other 66 recruits of the platoon stumble from the rows of tents and into a gully; most of them are stiff-legged from another night of sleeping on the cold ground in near-freezing temperatures. They line up in four rows. Their Dl, Sergeant Dennis Bruner, addresses them in a hoarse whisper. Anyone sick? Four or five men respond; they are sent to the medical tent near the rifle range. Already I see a difference between what’s going on here and the “old Corps.” My DI would have sarcastically called for the “sick, lame, and lazy” and sent them off to the dispensary with the threat that they had “better be sick.” There is no need for such scorn here; these men will often hide injuries or suffer through sicknesses rather than miss any training. The dreaded specter of recycling pervades their thinking, often to their detriment. The DIs have to watch carefully for signs of untreated blisters that can fester into crippling abscesses and persistent colds that can develop into bronchitis, then order the men to report to the navy medical corpsmen that attend to the Marines.
Sergeant Bruner calls for a detail to pass out breakfast to the men of Platoon 1005: MREs — Meals, Ready-to-Eat — the latest in field rations. They can be eaten cold or heated by immersion in hot water; they provide a dietician's delight of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Michaud and the other men wolf them down cold. There is a considerable amount of coughing in the still-dark morning; some men shiver in spite of themselves. Not Michaud; he sits stoically. He is from the far north woods of Minnesota. These people don’t know what cold is, he thinks. The meal ends after Bruner makes sure everyone is finished; the detail men gather the scraps. Again, the hoarse whisper elicits a conditioned response: shaving gear is produced; another command and the men lather their faces; still another bark and they begin to shave using the cold water in their canteens. This ritual completed, they go on to brush their teeth, also to the DI’s command. The sun is now inching up and a breeze stirs, adding a slight wind chill factor. The recruits have been up almost an hour now and have yet to relieve themselves. I admire their control. Finally, mercifully, they are marched off to the portable toilets lining the rifle range; route step over the rough ground gives way to unisory cadence when they reach the road. Yo’ lef, ri’, yo’ lef.
They line up again, this time to draw their M-16s. There was a time when recruits in the field slept with their weapons, but that was before the rash of suicides. The sergeant in charge of Range 314 related the story of a young recruit who was having adjustment difficulties. He was homesick, the unyielding discipline was onerous, and then he got the infamous “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend. He made some suicidal comments, but his buddies thought they had handled it among themselves by talking to him and trying to cheer him up. He seemed to relax and behave cheerfully. What his buddies didn’t know was that he had pocketed a live round after practice on the rifle range and that his cheerfulness was classic pre-suicide behavior. One night, after his platoon’s return to San Diego, he sat in his barracks, loaded his M-16 with that round, and blew himself away. Now, at the end of each day, the rifles are locked up in huge Conex containers sitting in front of the rifle range and are reissued each morning when, once again, the recruits are under the watchful eyes of their DIs.
Recruits have been known to choose suicide over even the unstated threat of being recycled. Within the past 12 months, three recruits have killed themselves at MCRD. On 16 March, 1988, Private Jason Bricker was found hanging by his neck. On 1 July, 1988, Private Ernesto Wales died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound from his M-16. On 1 December, 1988, Private James Montgomery died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound from his M-16. One of these young recruits reportedly was heard to say, “I’d rather be dead than be recycled.”
"They were not considered problem recruits,” Col. Bell said. “They may have had some problems in training, but they had overcome them." Each had made some suicidal comment, but these had not been taken as actual threats to harm themselves by their peers or the DIs. The Marine Corps has added courses and seminars in communication skills, sensitivity training, and suicide identification to the drill instructors' curriculum, and recruits are now instructed to report all such statements.
To those whose knowledge of the United States Marine Corps was gained from watching John Wayne movies or even from personal experience in past decades, this reaction represents a major shift in attitude and philosophy. If any of my fellow boots at Parris Island back in the mid-1950s had been stupid enough to threaten suicide, the DI would probably have fashioned a noose and made him wear it around his neck. And God help the man foolish enough actually to attempt suicide. When the DIs got through with him, he’d have wished he had been successful. Also, the scuttlebutt was that you could be court-martialed for destroying government property if you harmed yourself.
There are other platoons ahead of 1005; they sit in their places, and a squad leader rises and walks in front of the ranks. A recruit himself, he has been identified as a potential leader by the vigilant DIs and given an opportunity to fulfill this position of responsibility. He queries the rest of the platoon, "What is your weapon?” “The M-16A2 rifle is a shoulder-fired, gas-operated....”
Finally, every man in Platoon 1005 has his individual weapon that he was issued upon arrival at MCRD; he will remember its serial number for years to come. Sergeant Bruner marches them off to wooden bleachers that face a chalkboard. Another sergeant arrives to teach a class in defensive tactics. Even though the majority of the recruits will go into support roles (for every two Marines in combat arms — infantry, armor, assault helicopters, and artillery — there are five backing them up in noncombat units), any and all Marines may be called upon to guard and defend a perimeter or an airstrip. The Ninth Marine Amphibious Brigade arrived in Da Nang, Republic of South Vietnam on 8 March, 1965. Their only mission was to provide security for the air base.
The instructor talks; the recruits listen. He speaks matter-of-factly; he has information they need, and his job is to impart it. I recall the monotonic drones I was subjected to in the summer heat of Parris Island, South Carolina.
Sometimes, only the crack of a swagger stick upside your head delivered by a roving DI could ensure wakefulness. Sergeant Bruner and the other DIs do not roam through the class, glaring balefully at the recruits. The DIs use this opportunity to eat and relieve themselves. The class is short, 30 minutes or so; but there are questions from the recruits. They are interested; they want to make sure they understand the material. They will be tested. Michaud has no questions.
It is now 0830; the sun has cleared the last of the hills, and the ground is rapidly warming. A dry breeze kicks up in response to the disparities in air and ground temperature, and a dust devil plays on a nearby knoll. I shed the sweatshirt under my uniform as I tag along behind Platoon 1005. The young men stride along without effort toward the site of their next class.
The platoon’s senior DI, Sergeant Ashley — whip-thin and soft-spoken—lectures the men on fire-team tactics. They lean forward almost imperceptibly, straining slightly to catch every word. The fire team is the basic fighting unit of the Marine Corps. It is also one of the Corps’ greatest contributions to modem military science. In most armies, including ours, the squad of 12 or 13 men is the smallest tactical unit. Below the squad leader and his assistant, there is no trained leadership. This makes the dozen or so men the least that can be committed to a situation. Marine Corps squads are composed of three fire teams and a squad leader. Each fire team is made up of a team leader, a light machine-gunner and his assistant, and a rifleman; each team is capable of independent action. This mini-unit was developed in World War II and Korea, during the days of the M-l rifle — a semiautomatic weapon with an eight-round clip of .30-06 bullets — and the Browning Automatic Rifle and was damned effective, as some of the surviving veterans of the Imperial Japanese, North Korean, and Chinese People’s Armies no doubt remember. With modem weaponry, the M-16A2 and a new light machine gun capable of spitting out up to 15 5.56mm rounds per second, these four-man teams can kick a lot of ass when properly deployed. That’s what Sergeant Ashley is teaching this morning — the formations and deployment of the fire team — as he guides each team through a course where they meet obstacles and simulated enemies.
Michaud is the second fire team's rifleman and walks at the point of the team. The rifleman is always the point man, probing into the unknown with responsibility for each life behind him. A good point man can spot the doublepronged fuse of a “Bouncing Betty’’ mine — a mean mother introduced by Hitler’s Wehrmacht; its fuse, when stepped on, ignites a small charge that sends a canister laden with high explosive and jagged pieces of metal flying up waist-high before it explodes, usually causing traumatic amputation of everything south of the belt buckle. He should also spot trip wires or hidden machine guns or any of the other toys and goodies of modem warfare. The point man also sets the compass course given him by the team leader and leads the team to its destination. Michaud has no problem with this; he has roamed through the thick forests of northern Minnesota since early childhood.
Private Berg, a native of Kodiak, Alaska, gives the order for his team to move out. Michaud looks at his compass, sights a tree in line with the bearing, and heads toward it. The other men move out in a wedge formation: Michaud is in front; ten meters behind him and to the left is Berg; to his right, the light machine gunner; and to the rear center, his assistant. “Fire team leader, why are you walking on the left side of the formation?" Ashley wants to know. “Sir, I’m right-handed and can exercise better control from this position,” comes the confident response. Recruits are actually encouraged to think. I marvel.
Berg controls his team with hand signals as they pass through the course. A sign informs them they are under chemical attack; the men put on their gas masks and continue walking. The formations change in response to other simulated conditions and the running critique of the senior DI; echelon left; skirmish line; the team crawls through the mud under a barbed-wire obstacle and assaults a hilltop position. Sergeant Ashley gives Berg a mild chewing-out for allowing his team to spread out too much in the thick underbrush; the remonstrance expands to include the rest of the men. “You don’t kill each other and you don't commit suicide by running in front of someone’s rifle," he tells them. He then gives Berg a compass bearing to the assembly area and heads back to take the next team. Michaud leads the way, stopping once to check his bearing.
We arrive at Bravo Company’s defensive perimeter, a series of camouflaged fighting holes protected by rolls of barbed wire. There are aiming stakes in front of each hole, delineating that rifleman’s responsibility in the field of fire. Berg’s team slip into their positions. He and Michaud share the same hole. “We may sit in these holes all day long," Berg sighs.
I take this opportunity to talk more with Michaud, a six-foot-tall, dark-haired young man. Under the quarter-inch of hair permitted to Marine recruits is an open, honest, darkly handsome face. He is a native of Minnesota. His parents were divorced during his early childhood, and he lived with his mother until his enlistment.
Michaud went to high school in Deer River and played quarterback for its football team. After graduation, he went on to auto body repair training but could find no work in sparsely populated northern Minnesota. So he joined the Marines. Why the Marines? “Because of what people say about them,” Michaud explains. “Because I always want to be the best.” He credits his high school football coach with instilling this drive to excellence. Michaud later told me that his own father had been a Marine drill instructor but that he had not consulted him about the decision. On 15 December, 1988, Michaud went to Fargo, North Dakota, and signed up. He was guaranteed training in the area of mechanical engineering and hopes to work on vehicles after his technical school. Within a few weeks, he was on his way to San Diego.
“It’s a lot more disciplined than I thought,” he smiled ruefully. Like most recruits, this taste of unflinching discipline coupled with the usual homesickness made the First two weeks pretty rough, he admitted. But then, he had adjusted well to the discipline and the training and has no doubt that he will graduate. His drill instructors and Bravo Company's first sergeant consider him to be a "typical recruit.” The average man loses five pounds during his time at MCRD; Michaud has gained both weight and strength. When he arrived at boot camp, he could manage only seven pull-ups and 40 sit-ups; it took him ten minutes to run a mile. His goal is to make a perfect score on the final fitness test: 20 pull-ups; 80 sit-ups within two minutes; and a three-mile run in 18 minutes. Michaud is confident of his ability.
It’s 1230 hours; the first squad’s leader passes out MREs. I am offered one that all the recruits passed over; their first choices are the chili and the beef stew.
My meal is chicken stew with large chunks of tender white meat and cubed mixed vegetables; it is surprisingly tasty. There is even a miniature bottle of Louisiana hot sauce in the accessory package along with a bag of M&M’s, salt, pepper, Handiwipes, coffee, nondairy creamer, and sugar. Other packages contain powdered lemonade and dried fruit. I mix the powdered lemonade from the MRE and the Evian I’ve brought along in my canteen. The product tastes better than the old C-ration lemonade; we used to clean rifle parts in that stuff. Michaud celebrated his 19th birthday with an MRE feast just four days ago. The squad leader comes by with a box to put the scraps in. Recruits are not allowed to eat between meals; everything not consumed goes in the box.
The afternoon sun feels good, especially contrasted with the memory of the morning cold. Helicopters drone overhead, ferrying troops and supplies around the 1% square miles of Camp Pendleton. It’s a good time for a nap.
Aggressors have infiltrated to within hand-grenade range of Bravo Company’s perimeter. At 1300 hours, they rise and charge, directly in front of Michaud’s fighting hole. They are met with an immediate firestorm of blank cartridges. “We saw them crawling out there 15 minutes ago,” he says, trying not to smirk. Overconfidence is unseemly in a Marine recruit.
Platoon 1005 is assembled by Sergeant Bruner at 1330 and marched to another open-air class. This one deals with the construction and camouflage of fighting holes and positions for the M-60 machine gun. Some of the recruits aim their M-16s at the camouflaged figures inside the demonstration holes, zapping imaginary bad guys. At 1400, they are sent to cut fresh foliage to conceal their own holes and to camouflage themselves: faces, uniforms, and weapons. "Break up the outlines," they are told by the DI. Several emerge from the brush looking like walking trees. “Don’t overdo it,” they are admonished. One recruit has dead branches protruding from his helmet cover. “You look like Phyllis Diller,” another recruit razzes him. Without breaking stride, he shoots back at his antagonist, "You look lovely with that mud on your face.”
For a moment the recruits are American boys on a really neat camping trip. There is little macho profanity from the young men or their DIs. In the new Marine Corps, the instructors are forbidden to curse at or belittle their charges. And where profanity was once part of being considered salty, it is now seen throughout the Corps as conduct unbecoming a Marine. Only 20 percent of active-duty Marines even smoke.
The DIs assemble the platoon at 1430 hours. “We’ll give them some physical training so they won’t get bored," whispers Sergeant Bruner. Platoon 1005 marches off to a line of chinning bars. The recruits leap up and get as many as they can, squeezing out every repetition possible. Michaud does 23 with good form. Everyone does a second set; Michaud still manages 20. Then they buddy-up for bent-knee sit-ups, one man holding the knees of his partner, who curls up from the waist rapidly; this is a timed two-minute exercise. Then they switch to the command of Sergeant Ashley. Michaud manages 76 the first set, 70 on the next.
Candy has fallen from the pocket of a hapless recruit. “Pssst, pssst,” his friends hiss, but he doesn’t hear them. Sergeant Ashley does. Drill instructors are like moms; they know when you’re even thinking about doing something you shouldn't. “What have we here?” Ashley queries. “I found it on the ground,” the recruit mumbles in lame reply. The platoon is marched off for “incentive training”; group punishment is a more apt name. They bend at the waist and put their palms on the ground, then thrust their legs to the rear, over and over until agony appears on many faces. The recruits call it “getting bent.” “It’s necessary," puffs Michaud.
Michaud does not enjoy humping up and down the Pendleton hills weighted down with pack and rifle. According to Col. Bell, stress fractures of the feet are common. Captain Jammal, a Jordanian-born graduate of Long Beach State, is the training officer of the Recruit Field Training Division; he agrees with the CO that the civilian practice of wearing sneakers as normal footgear contributes to this problem. He says that a young man thinking of a tour in the Corps should accustom himself to wearing hard shoes and walking more than to and from his car. Even in the age of the helicopter. Marines walk. Sometimes weather doesn’t permit flight; in some places there is no level ground for a landing zone; and in others, enemy firepower makes helicopters sitting ducks and the last place in the world you want to be. Michaud has had no trouble with his feet. Nor has he had trouble with the M-16A2 rifle he carries. He qualified as an expert rifleman, scoring 226 points out of a possible 250. No big deal; he has been a woodsman and a hunter since childhood, killing his first deer at the age of ten. Besides, the Marine Corps rifle range has stationary targets, and he has been hitting birds on the wing since he was a teen-ager.
The recruits have a special treat tonight; hot chow — steak, Brussels sprouts, carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, cake and lemonade await the hungry young men. The first sergeant himself, an amiable giant with a rumbling basso voice, serves the steaks as the recruits file by, trays in hand. Platoon by platoon, Bravo Company is fed under the watchful eyes of the company commander. Captain Siebenthal, and his DIs. The captain is an 11-year veteran of the Marine Corps, having served one hitch as an enlisted man before attending Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. Before assuming the command of Bravo Company, he was assistant director of the Drill Instructor Academy. He will go on to paratrooper training and advanced infantry training with the U.S. Army after his stint at MCRD. Siebenthal will supervise the night training after the men have eaten.
As their men sit, bent over their trays, the DIs pass out mail. The young men cannot keep from grinning as they read the treasured letters from home. Michaud looks forward to a letter from his girlfriend, Renee, back in Minnesota. After the last recruit has been fed, the officers and sergeants fill their trays. There is food remaining in the serving containers. The first sergeant asks for volunteers to clean up and load the containers on the truck that brought the chow. They will be rewarded with the remaining steaks and cake. ‘‘Anyone still hungry?" he inquires. I leap back to avoid being trampled in the rush.
The platoons reassemble. A recruit drops his M-16; my heart leaps to my throat at the clatter. After 34 years, I experience a classically conditioned emotional response: pure terror. I’ve seen men forced to stand for as long as an hour with a heavy M-l rifle held at full arm’s length while they sang verse after verse of the Marine Corps Hymn as punishment for dropping their rifles. But in the modem Marine Corps, no one even looks up. The recruit bends nonchalantly and retrieves the weapon. "They tell me they’re smarter than ever,’’ says the first sergeant, “and I guess they’re right. But," he added, “they seem to lack mental toughness. They think they’re young studs, but when it gets cold out here, a lot of them come to me and say they want to quit ” I remember reading about George Washington complaining about the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot ”
“The Corps reflects the mood of the country," adds Gunny Crutchfield. “People just won’t take the old discipline anymore.” I agree that the stark terror that marked most of my waking hours at Parris Island is not the best motivator in the world, but I wonder if the Marine Corps might not have swung a little too far in its efforts to humanize the training.
I have detected no urgency in the training; there is no all-expense-paid tour of Southeast Asia waiting for these guys after MCRD. When I went through boot camp, the Korean War had just ended; the DIs were all combat veterans and gave us as good a taste of the real thing as was possible. Few of these non-coms have heard shots fired in anger. When I trained contras in southern Nicaragua and the bos-neger (bush-Negro) rebels in eastern Surinam, I knew that I would be in combat with these same men in the very near future and it was incumbent upon me and my cadre to ensure their combat-readiness. That criterion does not exist here. These recruits will not be ready for war after 11 weeks of boot camp, but they will be ready for their next level of training. After graduation in another six weeks, they will be United States Marines. Will they be lean, mean fighting machines? Well, not quite. But they will have achieved entry level in the world’s second oldest profession. If I ever train another group for combat, I muse, I wouldn't mind having these men.
Bravo Company takes up its positions in the gathering dusk. One squad at a time will go out on security patrol, while the remainder defend the perimeter. Patrols are selected at random to become aggressors and will then turn and attack their fellow recruits. Parachute flares are fired off periodically from a grenade launcher. You can read a newspaper by their light. Eventually, smoke from the flares clings to the rapidly cooling ground, giving cover to the aggressors low-crawling close to Bravo Company’s positions. The drone of night-flying helicopters and the flicker of dying flares create an eerie approximation of the reality of a combat zone. The recruits fight off the aggressors and are assembled by the DIs.
They march off to turn in their weapons. That completed, there is a final piss call before they’re marched to their tents, where they stand and disrobe, piece by piece of clothing, to the commands of a Dl. Michaud and his tentmate crawl into the hooch. It is 2130 hours — half past nine in civilian — when Michaud buttons the flap of the shelter.