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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Related: Reader story on MCRD basic training