Read the Reader story on Camp Pendleton advanced recruit training.
The 727 lands with a boom and bounces its human cargo uncomfortably against the restraint of safety belts; wing flaps dig into the flesh of air and tug back the plane’s speed. We taxi to a stop. Exiting through the front hatch, I wobble up a carpeted umbilical into the mother of my memory and a terminal’s ending; I meander past unknown faces to sliding glass doors that open and hiss my passage into soft sunlit air and the reminiscent scent of San Diego sea and palm trees. I have been here before. Dropping my bags where the bus had picked us up, I remember 1968: the end of my youth, the war, and the Marine Corps.
It was night then. The ethereal glow of street lamps transposed a time for day to end with the certainty it had just begun. We stand in our first formation, a slovenly rendition of parade rest, while around us, above us, behind us, the omnipotent presence of a Marine sergeant glares; he has hard arms, a thick chest, and a square-jawed countenance devoid of compassion. Civilians walk by and stare with curious and unenvious faces; their cynical eyes seem to say we are miscreants — teenagers who volunteer to kill in an unpopular war. The early tingle of anticipation begins to wane and mingle with an insipid ache growing in my feet.
We stand for an hour. All civilians are gone. An old school bus painted gray-green rumbles up a curving incline and brakes to a sharp stop in front of us; the engine coughs dead, and mechanical doors flap open. The sergeant steps in front of us and reads from a clipboard; “On behalf of the Armed Forces of the United States, this bus is here to take you to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. Our country is presently engaged in a hostile conflict overseas, and you are hereby advised that any attempt to walk away or not board this bus will be considered an act of desertion. When I give the word, you will board by rows in quick and orderly fashion taking the farthest seat back.” The sergeant lifts his eyes from the clipboard. “Now, move!” Like school children eager for the best seat, we dart for the door.
“Get back in formation, dimwits.”
We scurry back.
“I said orderly fashion.”
The sergeant turns his head to our right and points at a gangly black kid at the end of the front row.
The black kid glances furtively at the sergeant.
“Yeah, you with the lips. Lead.”
The black kid steps, then hesitates.
The black kid leaps into the bus, and the rest of us follow. The driver is yelling, "All the way back, three to a seat.” I am ninth to board and sit on the right, one row from the back; two large recruits to my inside take up most of the seat, and the crack of my ass rides the edge. In 30 seconds all the rows are filled. “Fill up the aisle!” shouts the driver. "Fill up the aisle!”
The sergeant follows the last recruit on board and tells those in the aisle to face the front. “Squeeze it back,” he orders, “asshole to belly button.” He pauses and points to the back. "Hey! Tons o’ fun — ”
A Mexican with a belly looks around at the sergeant and whispers, “Me?”
“Shut up, lardass! and sit on someone’s lap.” The fat Mexican wiggles into the seat behind me. I hear the blacl^kid mumble — "Sure don’t like this shit.” The sergeant explodes.
“WHO THE FUCK IS TALKING?"
For the first time his voice carries the maniacal tone of imminent violence. I was an athlete and was used to the animated histrionics of coaches. He is no coach. This is a man whose chosen profession is to kill. Even the sound of our breathing stops.
“The next cocksucker who talks will not live to get off this bus. Is that understood?"
We respond in diffident unison. “Yesss sir."
“That’s ‘Sir, yes sir.’ "
“Sirrr yesss sirrr.”
"Can’t hear you.”
“SIRRR YESSS SIRRR!"
“Don't drag it out like a bunch of lisping faggots!"
“SIR YES SIR!”
Anyone possessing cigarettes, matches, or lighters is ordered to pass them forward. Bodies squirm and dig. The contraband items are passed to the front where the driver stuffs them into a bag. Recruits standing in the aisle are ordered to sit on the floor. Starting from the back and working forward, each recruit sits, spread-kneed, and shoves his backside into his "buddy’s" prostate.
“Enjoy it, girls," the sergeant says, turning to the driver. “Let’s go."
The door-flaps closed and the engine rumbled alive. As the bus pulled away into the night, I could hear muffled grunts. And for the first of countless times, I thought of home: everyone I knew — girlfriend, family, lifelong pals, even my dog — were asleep.
The gate sentry — who looks no older than 20 — holds an old gray military ID card close to his face and studies the picture; his eyes shift back and forth from me to the card. "This doesn’t look like you, sir,” he says. "Do you have any other identification?”
Through the open window of a Hertz rental, I hand him my blue retirement card. "I just got this one,” I explain. "They issued me the other one when I was 19.”
"Retired at 19?" he asks, without any hint of credulity.
"I got wounded.”
"You’re not supposed to have two ID cards, sir.”
"They told me I could keep it. Old times’ sake.”
"Well, I wouldn’t try to use it again,” he says, handing both cards back.
"You don’t look like that anymore.”
Thanking the young Marine, I shift into drive and enter MCRD for the first time in 22 years. Following a curve of smooth pavement, I pull into a half-full lot and park. Still in my hand are the two ID cards, their laminated faces staring back: one is a teenager barely back from war; the other is a man with two decades to think about it.
I wander from the car in search of where the bus had taken us. My gait reveals a slight limp. Most of my body is scarred — one eye is blind. Sounding like the snap of a twig, an invisible shard of glass cracks under the sole of my shoe. Memory drifts. Through a cloud of time, the moon from behind a jungled mountaintop catches the silhouette of a charging sapper; strapped to his torso is a bag of plastic explosives, peppered with bolts and nails and packed with shit. Bullets from my M-16 tear into his chest and face, blowing his heart and brains out the back. His body falls where I kneel and explodes into several large pieces in a vapory spray. Paper-thin shreds of floating flesh and viscera settle on the dead branches of jungle trees like schizoid Christmas decorations. The crack of glass sounds again, and I stop to scrape my shoe. I look up and see it was here the bus had dropped us off.
I stare into the seam of an L-shaped building, the base of the L to my right, its stem to the left. Stuck in the nook between the two is a cube-like addition with a single wooden door padlocked shut. The overall structure has two stories, a flat roof and — like almost everything at MCRD — is stuccoed and painted dull yellow. Most of the windows are tall, multi-paned rectangles trimmed in white. A back foyer on the right — its double-doors windowed and crowned by a Spanish arch — reflects the depot’s architectural motif and belies a brutal past. This is the old Receiving Barracks.
It was midnight. Spurred by the sergeant’s screams to move our "slimy asses off this bus," we stumble and race to eight columns of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt, parallel to the base of the L. The footprints position our feet at 45 degree angles, heels together. Bright lamps beam down into unprotected eyes and create sharp shadows. All around frightful Marine clones lurk. They wear flat-topped white hats with polished black bills hiding their eyes; short-sleeved khaki shirts showing the insignias of corporals and sergeants; their left chests boast two and three rows of strangely colored ribbons — some with gold V’s, some with darker star-like clusters; chromed "Expert” badges for rifle and pistol dangle and glint; their trousers are royal blue with a red stripe down each outside seam. They scream, curse, push, and punch. I try to breathe without being noticed. One step every 90 seconds, our row of eight advances. Ahead is a large sign painted in Marine Corps colors — red on yellow — listing what we can keep (nothing) and what we can’t keep (everything). For the benefit of recruits who never learned to read — and there are several — a sculpted corporal with obtruding cheekbones recites in a coarse voice the litany of dictates; he even defines for the deficient in vocabulary any polysyllabic words (" ... rubbers, for you dipshits”).
In 15 minutes my row reaches the front. The yellow footprints require us to turn 90 degrees — my first right face — and point single-file into the open doorway of the small cubelike addition. Inside, two barbers shave heads madly. The corporal warns about unreported moles getting clipped off. I step into the room and move to the far chair. The barber wears glasses and has a puffed, pale-pink face topped by receded wisps of yellowish-white hair; his enlarged eyes show the bored impassivity of the kill-man in a slaughter house. Throwing a white cloth around my upper body, he shaves my head — six strokes, 20 seconds, bald — and sends me on. Another sergeant gives me a shove into an adjacent room. I am issued a metal bucket and ugly clothes; with the exception of the underwear, sweatshirt, and jock strap, everything is green. Every one of us looks the same from the head up — stupid. To the insane cadence of screamed obscenities and physical threats — I’ll break your motherfucking arms, cocksucker!” — we move methodically to a room with three long tables, each table divided into 25 cubicles, inside each cubicle a cardboard box. We are ordered to strip and put everything into the box. Naked, we are quickly shuffled off to the showers, dicks flapping — 75 of us. The multiple showers’ stall is designed for 20, and yet the sergeants and corporals scream and shove until every last sweaty, stinking body is crammed into one undulating mass of rubbing torsos, thighs, butts, and penises. They scream "GET OUT, GIRLS!” Barely wet bodies peel off bodies to race back to where our clothes are.
We are told when and how to dress, item by item. First the boxer shorts — I have never worn boxer shorts in my life, only briefs; I grew up in briefs, snug and secure; at night I slept in briefs; certainly we are to wear the jock underneath! — "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING, NUMNUTS?” The Marine’s spit hits my ear. Hopping and almost tripping, I remove the jock and pull on the baggy white shorts and think in horror of training for war with unprotected balls.
Next come the green socks (which pull to above my knees), followed by green trousers (two sizes too big), web belt (12 inches too long), gray sweatshirt (one size too small), and finally black canvas Converse hightops (that thank God tit).
Following canine-level orders, we close and seal the parcels that contain our pasts; using thick black pens we address them as told, to our homes, wishing it were us we were mailing instead of our clothes. Across from me a white kid with rotting teeth and a 15-year-old face raises his hand. Told to speak by the bellicose staff sergeant giving instructions, he asks,
“Wha? ... sir! What should someone do who don’t know... he can’t spell? ... sir!" The staff sergeant — who surprisingly doesn't scream — asks who else has a problem. Two hands go up. A Marine descends toward each and takes his pen and then the screaming starts: “What’s your address? ... Your address!... Where you live, shitbrains!” The body with rotting teeth answers, “Sir, Oregon, sir!”
Time plods. From one agonizingly structured procedure to the next, we are processed like civilian sewage through a decontamination tube. Into green seabags we stuff gear: laundry bag, brush, detergent, and clothespins; thongs and white towels; sewing kit, shoe polish, and brush; plastic toiletry bag, retractable razor with double-edged blades, shaving cream, toothbrush and paste, bottle of Listerine, foot powder, and Right Guard deodorant — the things of our future routines. It has been a lunatic’s ride on a demented train of change: physical appearances, vestiges of past identities — any presumptions of self-worth — have been swept off the floor or stuffed in a box. Herded into a room like imprisoned gypsies, we face two life-sized pictures of one person — the before shot: a surly-faced hood in jeans and sleeveless shirt; the aftershot: an honor graduate dressed in blues. We are neither. We are now the Manifestations of Utter Nothingness: human waste with the shit squeezed out of it. From now on there is no myself or me, just the private; there is no you or they, just The Drill Instructor. And the DI hasn’t arrived yet. And won’t — until I’ve heard a thousand times over, Your mommy can't help anymore, Your girlfriend’s a whore, Your balls are for war, Your slimyasshole belongs to the Corps. And won’t — until the sleepless dark has slithered its vulgar way through yet another day.
The yellow footprints are gone, except for the final row that still points toward the cubelike addition. Standing on the last set of prints before the padlocked door, I think of the experience, the change, the metamorphosis that began inside. And I think of how it worked: strip away civility, turn into soft clay, mold into efficient killer. I was a boy who wanted to be a Marine, who wanted to go to Vietnam, who wanted to feel what it was like to kill. I didn't know then that — pull a trigger, pull a pin, stick a knife — it feels like nothing. A giant, monumental nothing I shrug off every day as Something I Was Trained To Do.
I walk to the front of the building and look at its long, low, arcaded facade, its pleasant Spanish colonial style, and wonder about the ghosts of dead Marines.
It has been 23 hours since our heads were shaved, 40 since I slept. We stand in formation with heavy seabags balanced on our shoulders, awaiting the command of the Senior Drill Instructor to march. He is the Platoon Commander, adorned with the emblems of omniscience — stripes of staff sergeant and ribbons of war: Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Combat V — and the symbols of omnipotence: the broad-brimmed campaign hat and patent-leather belt of God. He stares at us with the eyes of a drunk Indian screwed into sober sockets: ageless and demonic, consumed by hatred, exhumed by anger — he is a man who has seen men die and prefers killing.
To his barked and sporadic cadence, we march across an open blackness like little fish through the sleeping gape of a toothed whale. We know nothing about marching and bounce and skip in futile attempts to keep together. Our loads become heavier with each step and turn shoulders into centers of pain. We move one pace slower than a run. The sounds of grunts and gasps and jostling gear fill the air. The Platoon Commander chides our whining slovenliness and makes us stop and run in place. Pain evolves into torture and then becomes agony. Grown boys begin to cry. In the darkness I close my eyes and remember the suffocation of wind sprints under an August sun. I see Coach Hobbs with a whistle in his mouth and hear its tweet! “Never quit! Never quit!" Tweet! Around me bigger players fall to the ground and puke. “Never quit! Never quit!”
One recruit drops his seabag and falls to his knees sobbing. The Platoon Commander gets in his face.
The boy struggles to his feet.
“Pick up that seabag!... Move your feet! ... Stop whimpering, cocksucker!... I’ll break your dickstick off and shove it in your mouth!”
Suddenly the Platoon Commander tells us to halt. For a moment there is only the sound of heavy breathing, then, slowly, a prolonged stillness descends like a fog. The Platoon Commander moves away, wordlessly, from the petrified recruit and stands distant to our left. Each of us, feeling his stare, disguises his discomfort and tries not to blink. A boy in front of me begins to tremble visibly, his courage deserting at the thought that he might be singled out. The tense silence is broken when the Platoon Commander questions, “Ready for bed, girls?" and we hurriedly answer, "Sir, yes sir!”
Guided blindly through the night by this atavistic voice, we come finally to a place of strange metal buildings called Quonset huts. Partitioned from the open blackness by a row of palm trees — each tree heading a column of five huts — these tube-like structures squat in mock formation like giant mailboxes. Between the columns are asphalt “roads” five yards wide, down one of which we march to a halt. The flat face of each Quonset stares blandly at the road, its two square windows and single wooden door arranged as eyes and nose.
In groups of ten, we enter the huts and empty our seabags into assigned footlockers; from the clutter we gather toiletry items and race back to the road. Marching a short distance to two rectangular wood-frame buildings, we enter the one on the right — the heads. Twenty naked toilets protrude from the walls. In four shifts, the entire platoon is ordered to lower trousers and shorts, sit (thigh to thigh) and shit. Yeah, right. Everyone takes a healthy piss, grunts a lot, strains, and — when ordered to, absurdly — wipes his ass. Not a bowel has moved. From the heads we herd to the building on the left — the showers. We strip, enter the welcomed spray, and wash by the numbers: scalp and face, torso, legs, crotch, ass. The Platoon Commander gives a quick lesson on how to operate the double-edged razor and explains that from now on we will shave twice each day. Twice a week for me would do the job, but it makes no difference. I shave the skin off my Adam’s apple and bleed profusely. Outside we align and shiver, waiting until the entire platoon has completed the cycle.
Back in the Quonsets, stripped to boxers and T-shirts, we stand poised to mount our bunks as if they were horses. Tonight the beds have no mattresses, no sheets, and no pillows — just a green blanket. The Platoon Commander shouts, “Mount!” and we lurch into the bare springs and lie motionless, face up. In one final scatological diatribe, we are reminded that we are not Marines, that we are the lowest things on earth, lower even than whale shit — recruits. Warning of severe consequences for talking, the Platoon Commander flips off the light and disappears with a slam of the door. For several seconds there are no sounds; then, faintly, I hear the lugubrious whimper of a boy with his face stuffed in a blanket. Through the window above my bunk, I see stars that look as far away as home. Carefully, quietly, I wrap in my blanket and lie like a chrysalis, dropping into a dreamless sleep.
Morning comes before the sun; a cacophony of violent voice and empty garbage can clanging across concrete brings bodies exploding out of racks. Bleary-eyed boys scramble dizzily to attention, chests out, stomachs in, thumbs to seams, hard-ons sticking out of boxers. One recruit is still asleep in the corner; the Platoon Commander swoops down on the poor bastard’s ear and screams, "GET THE FUCK UP, SLEEPING BEAUTY!” As the vociferous dawn of enlightenment struggles to reach the boy’s brain, the rest of us stuff our dicks back in our shorts. We are given 60 seconds to dress and be on the road; arms flail through poorly placed piles of clothes, fingers fumble with shoestrings and buttons, and finally bodies scurry out the huts.
A diffuse light from scattered bulbs bounces off pale faces and blends with green utilities, creating a brownish dim. With the Platoon Commander are two sergeants wearing the “Smokey Bear” hats and wide green web belts of assistant Drill Instructors. Their names are Nicholas and Baum. Nicholas stands six-four, has a Kirk Douglas jaw, looks mean; Baum is five-ten, stares with chilled eyes barely visible under a forward-tilted brim. The Platoon Commander’s name is Taylor. We can call them by title but never by name or rank. Speaking to a DI follows a slavish procedure.
”Sir! Private Edwards, Platoon 2093, requests permission to speak to the Platoon Commander, sir!"
"Sir! The private requests permission to make an emergency standing head-call, sir!”
“Sixty seconds, move!"
"Sir! aye aye, sir!"
In the days ahead, we will learn that speaking incorrectly results in a spit-spattering harangue of spliced expletives delivered in the colloquial rhythm of an obscene poet. Often, this is followed by physical exercise to the point of exhaustion. The guilty party screams his own cadence, "One — two — three — four — I — love — the Marine — Corps.” Calling a DI "you" is a major iniquity ("A ewe is a female sheep!”) and incurs debasement — kneel and kiss the DI’s posterior or stand in front of everyone and repeatedly yell, "Sir! the private is a sexual pervert, sir!” Indoors, chastisements take the form of tortures: Elbows and Toes, The Chair, The Hang, The Chinese Thinking Position, The Rack, The Stretch. The most feared consequences (for even minor offenses) is to be called to the Duty Hut — alone; here, the "official” interdiction against corporal punishment is ignored.
Executing a right face, we march back through the row of trees and into the gaping mouth of the open blackness; ahead, the first languorous signs of dawn soak into the sky above a distant ridge. Although we have learned the barest rudiments of marching —right face, forward march, halt — the seemingly simple task of rounding a corner betrays our ineptitude. The new, deeper voice of Sgt. Nicholas commands, "Column left, march!" We collide like mating frogs. Halted, insulted, instructed, we begin again, over and over, until we have it right. The silver-white light above the ridge expands; birds snug within the fronds of palms wake and chirp, indifferent to the gawky thump of our feet; around us, the open blackness evaporates like charcoal mist, distilling to a quadrangular sea of asphalt and a distant shore of colorless buildings. Sloppily, we move across the heart of MCRD — this immense parade-ground — that we learn is called The Grinder.
The sights and sounds of other platoons, far more advanced than we can imagine becoming, fill our eyes and ears; they march like machines, their multitudinous feet landing as one, each step the sound of sandpaper blocks rubbed to the rhythm of a Roman metronome. Their DIs do not bark "Left, right, left, right” as do ours; instead, they sing in guttural cadences, deep and yodel-like, each unique. The recruits in these platoons look different: their trousers are bloused at the tops of their polished black boots — ours hang loose over tennis shoes; their shirts are open at the collar — ours button to the neck, the mark of Phase One recruits.
It took several days before the realization trickled through our numbed psyches that — even though we were drilling for hours on The Grinder; even though we were being taught the Marine Corps’s way to make racks, mark, fold, and store clothes, clean huts, wash clothes by hand; even though we were being called individually to the Duty Hut, tortured, and taught how to talk; even though we were receiving letters and learning the consequences for "pogey bait” — our 56 official training days had not begun. MCRD was swollen with 15,000 recruits working through a frantic eight-week "wartime cycle" to replace the thousands of dead, wounded, and rotating Marines in Vietnam. There wasn’t room for us yet.
During these 13 foot-dragging days, we receive more clothing (combat boots and dress clothes), are introduced to PT. (Physical Training), copy notes for future tests, and (memorably) get our bodies examined. We stand naked in two facing rows; Navy corpsmen stroll between and eye our genitals for disease. Suspects are sent to a Navy doctor who sits bored behind a desk, his head resting in his left hand. Instructed to do an about face, we widen our feet and grab our ankles.
The view is disgusting. "Looks good," a corpsman mocks. We are then told to dress and sit. The doctor stands and invites anyone who thinks he made a mistake joining the Marines to come forward and explain his problem. A line of 15 recruits quickly forms. One by one, they give their excuses — My Feet Hurt, I Want To Finish High School, My Mom Is Sick — and one by one, they are sent back to sit, the doctor and corpsmen laughing, the whole thing a joke.
On the seventh day we pack our gear in preparation for moving to new billets after lunch. Something is worrying me. We fall in and march to the mess hall. Three times every day — 5:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and 6:00 p.m. — we eat in stressful fashion. Our four marching columns consolidate tightly into two outside the T-shaped building. While we stand, individuals are singled out for torment. Private Wirth, whose eyes had glanced at a swooping sea gull, is pulled out of formation and ordered to hold a salute, repeating over and over, "Sir! Private Asshole likes to watch birds, sir!" Private Eastburn — the boy who had collapsed sobbing on the Grinder — is called out every meal. Surrounded by simpering DIs from other platoons, he is chided until he begins to cry.
The lines move quickly. Inside, we grab metal trays and hold them flat to our chests. The long food lines are manned by recruits who have completed Phase One and will soon be leaving for the rifle range. They are confident and surly and regard us as contemptible new meat, undeserving of respect. Potatoes and gravy, meat and fish, salads and desserts are scooped and slapped onto our trays as we shuffle sideways down the line. "Hurry it up, recruit!” they bark, enjoying their status. "Keep it moving!" We have 20 minutes to be served, eat, return our trays, and be back on the road. At each table, recruits stand until all spots are taken and the command given, "Ready, seats!" We eat with spoons and shovel our food; when the first recruit is finished, we all are finished — no one wanted to be second. Together we stand and hurry toward the garbage cans. On the way we pass the Drill Instructors’ table. Eastburn sits there whimpering, his hands in his lap, a forkful of potatoes held to his lips by a grinning DI.
At the Quonsets my fear is greater.
All this food — I know I’ve eaten at least 20 meals. I don’t feel sick, I’m scared. I’m 18 and I’m scared. Even when I was a wrestler — dieting! — I never went more than two days. The idea of facing the Platoon Commander is horrifying; so is being sliced open and scooped out.
“Sir! Private Westberg, Platoon 2093, requests permission to speak to the Platoon Commander, sir!"
Taylor glares into my face. “Speak.”
“Sir! The private is seven days constipated, sir!"
I expect him to laugh at me or make me stick my finger up my butt or something like that. Instead he says, "Get your slimy ass up on that shitter and sit until you shit.”
“Sir! aye aye, sir!"
I scamper to the head, drop my drawers, sit and strain so hard I get light-headed. Nothing. I breathe deep, I rock back and forth, I knead my guts like bread dough. Nothing. Time is passing, and I’m afraid to stay, afraid to leave. I leave. Rounding the corner into the squad area I immediately sense something is wrong. It's too quiet. Slowly opening the door to my Quonset, I peer into the dark and feel my heart explode. The Quonset is empty.
The 26 columns of Quonsets beside the Grinder are gone; a small cluster on the south side of the base is all that is left. As I walk down this forgotten row of huts, overgrown with prehistoric plants, I watch a 727 roar into the sky and remember dreams of home. A tall wooden fence separates the grounds of MCRD from the dangerous runways of San Diego International Airport, where, we were told, fleeing recruits had been crushed under the giant wheels of screaming jets. Day and night we saw these planes, heard them, felt them — tried to imagine being on them. I peek inside one of the wood-frame buildings, its old paint peeling, and see the protruding rows of naked toilets. I feel uncomfortable, standing here, thinking about the tensions that build up when men so completely dominate boys. I leave and wander down the road, feeling the fear.
With the help of a passing DI, I found my platoon on the second floor of an H-shaped, three-story complex. Expecting the worst from the Platoon Commander, he says nothing. I join the other recruits, who are busy making their racks and stowing their gear in the large, upright lockers located at the north end of the squad bay. Two rows of bunks fill the long room. My top rack faces the west-side windows and provides an unobstructed view across the obstacle course to the adjacent airport runways. Soon, we are ordered to dress for our first PT. My heart begins to race — I've been longing for this!
With the eagerness of a child on the first day of summer, I pull on my jock, socks, shorts, and sweatshirt, tie on my tennis shoes, and bound out the door ahead of the others. For seven days I have been a “simple, sawed-off” version of everyone else — a worthless recruit. I know I’m more. Sgt. Baum leads us on a short jog to a grassy area, where we stop for calisthenics. At this, I am an expert: I don’t just touch my toes, I put my palms flat on the grass; I do sit-ups with the quick elasticity of a bow; when we do pushups, my arms feel hydraulic and indefatigable. I feel proud that others do not share my enthusiasm. Private Quintana — who calls himself "The Mighty Quinn” when the DIs aren’t around — grunts and groans. I think what I’d like to say: "You big sack o' goo! Wanna see me do pushups from a handstand!” We finish off with a one-mile run. My legs spring to Sgt. Baum's double-time cadence, and I wish we could do sprints. I want to wrestle someone. Or play tackle football without a helmet. Anything!
That night I write four letters, revealing in each my newfound pride and motivation. “Boot camp," I write, “isn’t as tough as football." Just before lights-out, the Platoon Commander calls me to a small room at the south end of the squad bay — the new Duty Hut. He points to a bare wall. “Get in the chair.”
With my back against the wall, I squat until my thighs are parallel with the floor. He tells me to hold my arms out straight. After two minutes my knees start to bounce. Sweat oozes from my brow. The Platoon Commander waits until I show the signs of agony. I grit my teeth and begin to groan like Quintana.
“Are you a pussy?”
“Sir! no sir!”
“What are you?”
“Sir! The private is tough, sir!"
“Sir! yes sir!"
“Sir! ye… " (Taylor’s fist smashes into my gut) ”... sssirrr!"
"Can’t hear you.”
“SIR! YE... ughh... sssirrr!”
“Going to get lost again?”
“SIR! no... ughhh... sssirrr!"
“Sir! N... ughhhh... sss... irrr!”
“Get the fuck out o’ my hut, slime-bag!”
(I start to move.)
“Get back!... Forget something?"
"Sir! yes sir!”
“Sir! The private forgot to say ‘aye aye,’ sir!"
“Sir! AYE AYE, sir!”
(I try to move — my legs collapse.)
“Get back!... Too slow... Get out!"
“Sir! AYE AYE, sir!"
Unable to straighten my legs, waddling like a scared duck, I fall on my hands and scramble frantically out the door. The other recruits don’t ask what happened — they know. Everyone gets their shot at it. Some, including me, just get it more often. I stay constipated for another 2 days, 9 total. Later, I feel lucky when a boy is taken away in an ambulance. He’d gone 18.
Our official training began on the 14th day — the day we got our M-14 rifles. A rifle to a Marine is more than a weapon, it is a sacred thing to be cherished, like a woman. Moving north from the forgotten Quonsets to where the combat area had been, I remember the little ceremony: "You may kiss the bride,” Taylor said, “and I better goddam hear it!” All 75 of us touched our puckered lips to wooden stocks and sucked air and then jumped into the racks with our “wives." We only did that once, but we got the idea. A combat soldier's relationship to his weapon is intimate: he undresses her, learns her parts by heart; he cleans her, puts her back together in the dark; he stays near, protecting, worshipping, holding her — “until death do us part.”
To lose or abuse a rifle meant jail; in boot camp, jail was known as “CCP” — Correctional Custody Platoon. Nothing kept a recruit more fearful than did the threat of being sent there; even the most recalcitrant recruit would lick a DI’s boots to avoid it. Where our mornings began at four-thirty, theirs began at three; where our nights ended at nine, theirs went to midnight. During the hot days, they could be seen in one of two places; running to or from the mess hall (where they had less time to eat than us); or in the open area of the massive sand spit (upon which all of MCRD is built). There they dug for half the daylight hours, excavating a hole 50-feet across and deep enough to hit water; after lunch, they filled it back in. Always in the middle of the flying sand and dust were three or four "lazy” recruits doing pushups and squat thrusts. Everywhere the CCP went, they ran. Atop their heads were chromed-steel helmets; carried in their blistered hands were their heavy shovels. That is what we could see. At night, behind locked doors, their obscene treatment was the stuff of nightmarish rumors. Sentences ranged from one week to 30 days. To be sent there a recruit simply had to talk back to a Drill Instructor or violate any order. In effect, all that separated a recruit’s normal anguish from the incomprehensible despair of CCP was the whim of his Drill Instructor.
The next 21 days continued the already established routine, designed more to tear us down — mentally and physically — than to teach us anything useful in war. We drill endlessly across the black Grinder, learning obliques and flanks and left-shoulder-arms and to-the-rear, and gradually the voices of the DIs begin to evolve into wordless songs. When things don’t go right (always), we do them over. And when the Platoon Commander feels like it, we are marched into an unoccupied Quonset and tortured: We do leaning-handstands, the toes of our boots supported by a top rack, forcing our body-weights downward through the rifles we hold and into our knuckles that scrape against the concrete floor. We get into pushup-like positions, weight supported by elbows and toes, our chins dripping sweat into our cupped hands. We kneel and sit on our heels and extend backwards until the backs of our heads touch the floor — sometimes with the help of the DI’s boot.
Inside sweltering classrooms (built of corrugated metal), we struggle to keep awake while sardonic instructors pontificate on the history of the corps and the evolution of the Marine salute and the three groups of officer ranks and the correct way to fold the flag and where to place the union when covering a casket. Recruits who get caught nodding are taken outside and “exercised” in the sand.
We do P.T. daily, running, exercising, climbing ropes, doing chin-ups, lifting logs, and working with weights. My physical ability separates me from the average. I become a squad leader. Then I screw up and lose my position. I earn it back. Then I screw up. Every night I am in the Duty Hut, sensing what I think is the personal dislike of the Platoon Commander. He puts me in The Chair, pounds his fist into my diaphragm, screams at me to respond without air. The relentless routine takes its toll, and each day I feel weaker; eventually, I can barely do a chin-up.
We learn hand-to-hand combat. A black man with a carved physique stands above us; he wears spit-shined boots, sharply starched green utilities — clinched tight around a 30-inch waist — and a skin-tight T-shirt. The muscles of his arms and chest bulge. Atop his head is the brown campaign hat. Selecting a white boy for demonstration, he explains his purpose: to remove 18 years of sportsmanship and fair play from our minds. “Killing with your hands,” he says, “is psychological.” He grabs the back of the boy's head like a cantaloupe and sways him back and forth. Then pow! he slaps his other hand sharply against the boy's right eye. “The trick is to intimidate.” The boy starts to lose his balance, but the instructor pulls him up by the head. “First, you tear out his eyeball.” His fingers dig into the boy’s socket. The boy grimaces. Black fingers mimic gouging and tug at the boy’s tightly closed lid. The instructor’s hand wraps into a fist. "Then hand it back, say, ‘Hey, boy... here’s yo’ eyeball!’” The black man slips behind the boy. "Or say you get ’im like this." He sticks his fingers inside the boy’s lips and pulls out the corners of his mouth. (We laugh uneasily.) The boy’s eyes widen. "Watch out for the teeth! — ’less you wanna lose your fingers — then rip his mothe’fuckin’ mouth back to the ears! Face jus’ tears in half an’ flaps down, drippin’ blood an’ spit an’ shit." He grabs the boy’s earlobes. "Pull back and up an’ they tear right off. Hand those back too! Know what? He ain’ gonna wanna fight no mo!” (We laugh.) "Then you kill him."
We are taught to fight with knives: how to hold them (thumb flat against the side of the blade); where to stick them (upward from just below the sternum into the heart); how to take them away (a wrist grab, a kick, even — as last resort — grab the blade). We are taught how to use our hands to garrote and crush a larynx and how to snap an enemy's neck. And we learn to fight with rifle-butts and bayonets. With instructors standing upon a wooden platform, screaming into microphones, we follow their leads, our knees flexed, rifles held diagonally, and slash, jab, horizontal butt-stroke, slash, and vertical butt-stroke. Three hundred recruits at a time take their step, slash, and scream "KILL-L-L-L,” step, butt-stroke, and scream "AHH-H-H-H.”
We imitate the real thing with violent pugil-stick battles held in a 50-foot ring of half-buried tires. Wearing old football helmets, we step into the ring, one on one, armed with four-foot-long padded sticks that look like giant Q-tips. A pair fight until one goes down and the DI says, "Stop!” If he doesn’t say stop, you keep smashing him. Winners advance against winners, losers drop out. I love the feel of the helmet! In high school I was a 140-pound lineman; the tackle beside me weighed 280.I fear no one bigger. In the ring, I beat five straight opponents. Two remain — a Mexican and a black. Against the Mexican, I slash the side of his head, butt-stroke him in the groin, hit him again in the head. He falls backward to the ground. I jump to his head and pummel his helmet with alternating strokes. "Stop!” Now it’s just me and the black, who towers eight inches taller than me. We flail at each other for 30 seconds — half the recruits screaming for me, half for the black. I slash and miss. He counters with a vertical butt-stroke that catches me under the jaw. I lift off the ground and fall with a thud. "Stop!"
Nightly mail-call — our only connection to the outside world — was the single event looked forward to by every recruit. Unlike the constant sight of departing planes — which made home seem so far away — mail, for a few moments, brought home to us. Like everything else, though, mail had its own element of terror. We had all written home imploring family and friends not to send packages or "treats” of any kind, and yet they sent the stuff anyway. Private Mouser received a dozen brownies, each wrapped in cellophane, and was ordered to eat everything — brownies, cellophane, box — in front of us. The term for contraband treats was "pogey bait” (an old sailors’ term for sex with cabin boys). Every letter was palpated by the DIs for hidden sticks of gum or flattened cigarettes. The DIs kept a grotesque glob of matter — gum, cigarettes, wrappers — in a tin can. When a recruit received pogey bait in a letter, he would be ordered to chew it whole, along with as much of the previously masticated goo as he could chew. The sticky bolus would then be spit out and added to the growing glob.
Forty miles north of San Diego is Camp Pendleton, a huge expanse of sharply rising hills, desert flora, and poisonous snakes. Showing the sentry my I.D., I ask for directions to Edson Range, the place where recruits are trained in rifle marksmanship. As I drive the several miles to this range, I remember learning to shoot here and of being told I was going to jail. Phase One had ended with a series of tests and then a week of mess duty. Even though we had to get up earlier and go to bed later, mess was like a vacation. Except to deliver us in the morning and return us in the night, the DIs were gone. The work was hard, the pace busy, but compared to what we'd been through, there was no stress.
For the first time it was we who got to do some bossing around; it was cathartic, adding to the hell of just-received boots. The rumor was that a week of mess was supposed to "humanize” us a little, before they put loaded rifles in our hands. Not all of us had made it this far; several recruits had been dropped into "special platoons" for various "rehabilitations.” Private Eastburn was gone: the DIs had flourished in their goal to make him crazy. Eastburn was what the DIs called a "shitbird" — a recruit who brought the platoon’s performance down. Every night they made him face a mirror, saluting, repeating "Sir! The private is crazy, sir!”
Marksmanship training lasted two weeks, with the first week called "snapping in” — a euphemism for agonizing pain. For hours each day, we lay on our bellies or sat cross-legged, contorting our elbows in response to the pull of rifle slings cinched around our biceps like tourniquets. We practiced "perfect sight-alignment" and proper trigger squeeze and (very important) how to breathe. Our training was conducted by specialists — "Marksmanship DIs" — one for each recruit. For the majority of us, destined to be grunts in Vietnam, this training was the most serious phase of boot camp. Although the atmosphere was more relaxed, the strict adherence to boot camp regulations was not. Two recruits caught "sneaking a smoke" in the head (a numbingly stupid act) were stood before the entire series of 300 recruits and summarily sentenced to 30 days in jail. The condemned boys had the pathetic look of cabbage thieves sentenced to hang. A van pulled up and took them away. And then, the next day, I committed an inexplicable error — I left my rifle unlocked.
Called to the Duty Hut by Sgt. Nicholas, he tells me flatly, "Pack. You’re going to jail.” Every horrible pain in my life combined into the present — a walking nightmare I cannot shake. I move stunned to my locker, unable to comprehend eternal fire, just knowing that into that furnace I go. Recruits ask, "What’s wrong?” My voice falters, tears ooze from my eyes, I tremble and choke — "CCP." No one says a word. No one can believe It. Then, from the Duty Hut, Sgt. Nicholas calls:
"Private Westberg... report.”
When I enter the Duty Hut he tells me to close the door.
"You made a liar out me," he says, no trace of emotion on his face. "There’s a price. Understand?”
There is no price I will not pay in exchange for his pardon. The stranglehold of fear releases my throat, and I enthusiastically bark, “Sir! yes sir!“
For 30 minutes he puts me through the old tortures — Chinese Thinking Position, Elbows and Toes, The Chair — and ones of his own invention. Hanging from the top of a bunk-frame by my hands and chin, I hold the position. The muscles in my arms and fingers burn; my gut feels like it’s going to rupture. I sink slowly, my throat and chin scraping against the iron frame. Exhausted, I am ordered into parade rest at a 30-degree angle to the floor, body straight, hands behind back, the back of my head supported by the sharp edge of a desk. The desk begins to slide across the floor — my feet scurrying to adjust — until it bashes against the wall. I drip in sweat. Final ' payment for my redemption is outside, in a sawdust pit. I am ordered to do 500 squat thrusts. Stripped to the waist, I begin, yelling my own cadence: "ONE — TWO — THREE — FOUR —I — LOVE — THE MARINE — CORPS!” The dust flies. Each one I do is counted off by an assigned recruit:" ... 21, 22, 23 ... 100 ... 200 ... 519, 520, 521.” I stop — chest heaving, stomach sucking in and out, face smiling broadly — and break into an intractable sob. The recruit keeping count — the black who beat me in the ring — shakes his head and mutters, "Shit, man.” For a few moments I just stand, glistening and glorious — in a hole two-feet deep.
The next week is spent firing our weapons. I get good scores — until the bridge of my rifle cracks. I am issued another, which means starting from scratch — aiming, shooting, adjusting, and recording sight-settings in a little notebook. We shoot at targets from three different distances: 200, 300, and 500 meters. The day before we are to qualify my scores plunge. That afternoon, in the squad bay, the Platoon Commander has me hold my rifle by the front sling-attachment (using thumbs and index fingers only) straight out from my body. As I stand grimacing, he speaks of the ignominy of a Marine who can’t qualify with the rifle. On qualification day, I score 202 points and earn the badge of “Rifle Marksman.”
We return to MCRD cocky and — so we think — ready for war. The DIs treat us with the deference accorded Phase Three recruits. We are allowed to blouse our trousers and unbutton our collars. We march with pride and discipline, the euphonious shoosh, shoosh cadence of our worn boots proclaiming our superiority. We snarl at the “boots” who serve us in the mess hall and feel contempt at the sight of Phase One recruits in their tennis shoes and sweatshirts. The Platoon Commander is now concerned with our final standing in the series. Recruits who are having "knowledge problems” are assigned high-school graduates for tutors: I spend 45 minutes with Private Newman, teaching him that the spiral groove within the barrel of his M-14 is called “rifling.”
One day, two of the biggest recruits — Privates Blitzer and Penn — are sent into a small storage room with two smaller recruits. Then he sends me in with the only recruit smaller than me — Private Myers. I have no idea what is going on until I enter the storage room: Blitzer and Penn are manhandling the two smaller recruits. Private Myers — who looks like a mouse with a caved-in chest — looks petrified, his eyes glazed, his face trembling. Blitzer yells, "Hit him!” I say, "I can’t do that.” Blitzer and Penn grab Myers and start throwing him around the room.
That night, Private Quintana and three other Mexicans corner me in the head. The Mighty Quinn gets in my face.
"Why beat on Myers?” he yells.
I shove him back. "Hey! Eskimo Pie!” I say. "Fuck off! I didn’t touch him!”
On the final physical fitness test, I finish first out of the 300 recruits in our series. For this I will receive a meritorious promotion to Private First Class (one of only six in the series) and the Physical Excellence Award. The day before graduation, the Platoon Commander tells us what our specialties will be. Most of us will become 0311s — riflemen, grunts! — and cheer at the announcement. Private Newman will become a Forward Observer — a Marine who calls in artillery strikes. That night, a few of us sit inside the storage room, adding the final touches to our spit-shined shoes, polishing our brass buckles, removing loose threads from our new uniforms, and talking about how great it will be after we graduate. Mostly, we talk about what we have been through, the hopelessness we once felt, the tortures and degradation we endured. For the first time in 11 weeks, we feel relaxed, unscared — happy. Vietnam seems as far away and splendid as the stars. And, as our final hours tick away, we laugh so hard we cry.