Ihe building in Los Angeles where we were sworn in was so nondescript that it appeared to be deliberately chosen for its non-threatening appearance; so there would be no reason for volunteers like me to back out at the last minute.
Taking the oath was as easy as saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But as soon as we lowered our right hands, the mood of our adventure turned somber from the stern tone of the sergeant’s orders for us to leave the room and file down the stairs and onto the sidewalk.
While waiting outside, another recruit pointed out the Superman building, home of the Daily Planet newspaper in the old TV show. It was a welcome distraction as we got on the bus.
Passing through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was an easy transition onto the base because the Spanish style of the buildings looked like just another San Diego neighborhood. With such beautiful grounds and so few people, the place looked almost serene.
Then the bus stopped, the door opened, and a drill instructor ran up the steps, yelling, “I want every swinging dick standing outside on those yellow footprints in thirty seconds! Move! Move! Move!”
He gained control like the police do in a raid when they storm into a room without warning. We swarmed out of the bus and arranged ourselves on the eighty sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt—four columns of twenty recruits each, all pointed in the same direction and standing more or less at attention.
My girlfriend’s brother had been in the Marine Corps, and I had quizzed him about it before I enlisted. Nothing he’d said had me worried. And I had felt lucky to sit next to a marine on the plane ride to San Diego just days earlier. His only comment had been “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.”
For me, not being easy was part of the appeal; I would become part of an elite group. Knowing what to expect and being a year or two older than most of the others, I felt above the intimidation tactics of the DIs while standing on the yellow footprints.
The DIs herded us into a nearby building for the sheep shearing—electric clippers mowed our hair down to the skin four recruits at a time. Except for the humming of the electric clippers, it was a silent ceremony, highlighted only by a pronounced smell of lubricating oil and the growing pile of hair on the floor. We now looked more alike than different. After exchanging our civilian clothes for green Marine Corps utilities, I scanned the room of eighty recruits but could no longer identify anyone I knew from the bus ride. Everyone now wore the same dark green utilities, blank but obedient expression, and bald head.
We packed a few essentials into our duffle bags and marched off on an ocean of asphalt into a desolate expanse so vast that it blended into the darkness at the horizon. I stayed in step but my casual attitude caused me to drift off-line from the recruits around me. The DI calling cadence to my left, veered toward me, shouted, “Keep your alignment!” and slapped me a couple times against the side of my head. The blows were not hard but surprised me because they were totally unexpected. I decided to shake off the incident.
When we arrived at our Quonset huts, I glanced around at the other recruits who were standing at attention and smirked inwardly. I thought they looked overly intimidated. I considered myself mentally stronger, and was determined not to let the DIs get to me. To demonstrate my courage, I dropped the duffle bag off my shoulder to the ground. But my resolve was ambushed when I got walloped twice to the back of my head. The DI had come up from my blind side and hit me much harder this time as he yelled in my ear, “Who told you to drop your duffle bag, maggot?”
This second encounter with the DI really jolted me. In our isolated quarters, the DIs had turned up the heat. I was so stunned by the force of the blows that before I could think about it, I was overcome by the same fear I saw in the other faces and had joined the fold. Getting hit is the ultimate violation of your space and caused a jolt of emotional pain. I realized we were now under the thumb of the DIs because the only option to avoid more of the same was to do exactly as we were told. I remembered that the first word out of my mouth was always “Sir.” So I bellowed, “Sir, nobody, Sir.”
The Spartans probably had better living quarters. Our Quonset huts were like elongated igloos skinned in sheet metal with only a concrete floor, footlockers and metal racks for beds. Outside was bare dirt and just a strip of asphalt path running between the huts. We were isolated in the northwest corner of the base and insulated by the many other rows of Quonset huts surrounding us.
I spent that first night trying to remember how to make up my rack in the morning so I wouldn’t get slapped again.
When the reveille bugle sounded, we dressed, made up our racks and fell into formation on the asphalt. Surprisingly, nobody was roughed up.
Two DIs brought us into a Quonset hut and introduced themselves. Our platoon commander was Gunnery Sergeant Allen. The older of the two, lean and darkly tanned, and with a fatherly air, Gunnery Sgt. Allen looked experienced in this role. Years of the Marine Corps were visible in the extra lines on his face. He talked to us in a conversational manner for the first time, as though he was trying to connect and establish a rapport. Maybe the rough stuff was behind us now? I liked Gunnery Sgt. Allen OK.
Sgt. Frazier was more robust and looked very serious about his mission of transforming us into marines. His face was uncomplicated, from a simple black and white world. It had the solemn, threatening gaze of an executioner.
They both wore Smokey the Bear style covers, and, in contrast to our rumpled appearance, their utilities were without a single wrinkle, and their boots shone like obsidian.
Gunnery Sgt. Allen explained the program to us. Boot camp would teach us discipline, instant obedience to orders. The Marine Corps had rules against the DIs striking recruits and limits on the amount of PT we could do.
But they could not give us the training we needed to fight in Viet Nam by following the rules.
He looked like he had been to Viet Nam and I got the feeling he had our best interests at heart.
“If you screw up, there are no excuses; we will kick your ass,” said Gunnery Sgt. Allen. “Is there anybody who disagrees with what I just said?”
Of course, nobody raised their hand.
He asked us not to talk about the tough parts of boot camp in our letters home because it would just make our families worry, as though he was saying, “I hope you’re man enough to get through this without crying to your mother.” Stretching the rules to increase our chances for survival in Viet Nam seemed like a fair trade. So I bought into Gunnery Sgt. Allen’s program.
By noon chow of our second day we were exhausted by so many pushups, sit-ups and squat thrusts. But before we were halfway finished eating Sgt. Frazier yelled, “Get up! Get out!” A milk carton missile hit the guy next to me in the forehead and went splat. “Get up! Get Out!” We shoveled in food as we rushed to put our trays away but no one’s hunger was satisfied. At our next meal, we stuffed ourselves as fast as we could, but still not fast enough. We learned to eat faster and faster before we ever completely finished a meal.
Learning the basic marching maneuvers was easy for me and most of the recruits. The problem with learning to march was the promised ass-kicking whenever a mistake was made. Our marching formation was the same as when we stood on the yellow footprints—four squads each in a column of twenty recruits. The first recruit in each squad was the squad leader. They had to be good marchers because any mistake by them would ripple through their squad. Slow learners were called “shitbirds” and positioned at the end of the squads.
On our third day of training, we met our third drill instructor, Sgt. Parker. He was only about 5’6” with a wiry build. His face narrowed to a pointed chin that thrust forward baring his lower teeth like a bulldog. The way his ears stood out added to his comic appearance, and he wore his cover tilted forward, apparently an attempt to make himself look more menacing.
We were in the process of learning a new marching maneuver when he became disgusted with our performance and shouted, “Platoon halt! Face half-right!” We had never heard of that maneuver. But we all shuffled forty-five degrees to the right. This would give us more room for doing PT. “Give me thirty squat thrusts! Ready begin!”
In unison, we called out: “One!” as we did a full squat and put our hands on the ground between our feet.
“Two!” we kicked our feet out behind us into the push up position.
“Three!” we brought our feet back next to our hands.
“One, Sir!” for the number of completed squat thrusts as we stood up again.
Sgt. Parker stopped us before we reached thirty because someone had fallen behind. Parker told us to thank the straggler before starting over. Squat thrusts are not as hard as doing pushups, but that is the diabolical thing about them—no matter how tired you are, you can always do one more.
After a hundred, I was totally exhausted and thought we must be near the end.
Two hundred is more than anybody would ever do without a DI standing over them.
At three hundred, I felt like I weighed five hundred pounds and was beyond agony.
The unrelenting pain radiating throughout my body would subside with the hope of stopping after thirty repetitions and then kick in at a higher level every time we had to start over. I had never been in a situation like this before. The uncertainty of how long it would continue ratcheted up the mental pain. Sgt. Parker’s tirade continued until my legs were so heavy each step was like pulling my feet out of deep mud. From then on, whenever Sgt. Parker yelled the dreaded words, “Face half-right!” we knew we were in for a session of “Squat thrusts forever.”
Mail call was after evening chow but before we hit the rack. The DIs would inspect every letter before calling out our names. Sgt. Frazier examined one letter closely before telling Private Borders to open it in front of him. Inside the envelope was a stick of gum, so Sgt. Frazier went into his Quonset hut and returned with a bottle of hot sauce. He told Pvt. Borders to pour hot sauce on the stick of gum and chew it up without taking off the wrapper. After the effects of the hot sauce began to wear off, he then ordered him to swallow it, paper and all. Other privates would occasionally receive a stick of gum and the consequences were always the same.
I wondered who would send the gum and why? It must be someone who knew about the consequences. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they send something better to eat? But if they knew the consequences, why would a friend send it or even an enemy, who would surely receive some payback? It must be from someone who had also received gum in boot camp and felt entitled to carry on the tradition, like a rite of passage.
At the end of another long day, Sgt. Parker showed up while we were all in the shower and climbed on top of the sinks to look down on us. While stalking back and forth, he ordered us to turn on only the cold water.
“On your gut!” he shouted. Eighty naked recruits fell to the floor, slipping and sliding against each other like worms slithering in the bottom of a bucket.
“On your feet!” and up we jumped.
“On your gut!” before everyone was standing again.
“On your feet!” as we heaved and sloshed around in the cold water.
There wasn’t any way to arrange ourselves that wasn’t disgusting and degrading. But it was just a tune up for the next drill. After we returned to our area, he ordered us all into a Quonset hut just big enough for sleeping twenty recruits and began shouting, “Move back! Move back! Move back!” to pack eighty of us tighter and tighter against the back wall. It was like mass hysteria when someone yells “Fire!” and the only exit is blocked. I didn’t have time to plan ahead and was in a bad spot—too close to the back wall. The force of the recruits pushing against me was like being compressed inside a garbage truck. I couldn’t expand my lungs, so breathing or even moving was almost impossible inside the huge mass of meat.
I sometimes tried to step outside the action as a way to feel like I still had some control. I suspected the last two incidents were part of the process to tear us down as civilians so they could later build us up as Marines.
We were beginning to lose recruits to the Physical Conditioning Platoon or Fat Farm, and to Correctional Custody Platoon. The Fat Farm was where you went if you were too weak or overweight to do enough push-ups or pull-ups. Whenever we saw that platoon around the base, they were always doing PT. At the mess hall, I never saw them eating anything but lettuce and drinking only water. I didn’t immediately recognize one of our recruits only two weeks after being sent to the Fat Farm. His face was much thinner and his utilities had become several sizes too big from the weight loss.
Correctional Custody Platoon was for the recruits who needed an attitude adjustment, the defiant ones who didn’t want to “get with the program.” We would sometimes see them marching off in the morning with buckets and shovels over their shoulders.
Pvt. Wirth joined our platoon from CCP and told us it was basically punishment all day long. One of the drills was to divide up the platoon into two teams. Each team would use buckets and shovels in a race to move their huge pile of dirt from point A to point B. When they were finished and collapsing from exhaustion, the winners got to make the losers do PT. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Then you won the booby prize—an extension of your total time in boot camp because time spent in CCP or in the Fat Farm was “bad time.”
Sgt. Frazier told us that Pvt. Dean had complained to our commanding officer about the beatings he received from Gunnery Sgt. Allen. The bumps, cuts and bruises on Pvt. Dean’s head and face were apparently all the proof needed for Gunnery Sgt. Allen to be relieved of his duty as our platoon commander. Even though he was tough on us, Gunnery Sgt. Allen was fair and not someone we feared like the other two DIs. So we felt bad about losing him. Pvt. Dean was considered a traitor by Sgt. Frazier and I thought what he did was cowardly and selfish. The DIs’ rough treatment was not something anybody else complained about because it was necessary to teach us discipline. Pvt. Dean was transferred to a different platoon but I wondered how he would be treated down the road.
Pvt. Boyd was a big, goofy, good-natured guy, and slow to learn. He struggled physically too. Of course, he was always catching hell from the DIs. Despite his extra hardships, he generally had a cheerful attitude and was amazingly resilient. One day Sgt. Parker took Pvt. Boyd with his bucket and shovel off for some “one on one time.” They returned about an hour later with Boyd looking dirty, tired and very scared. Parker positioned Boyd in the middle of the asphalt path with a row of us on each side.
Parker blared, “Tell the platoon what Pvt. Boyd did to Sgt. Parker!” “Sir, Pvt. Boyd tried to hit Sgt. Parker with a shovel, Sir!”
That really surprised me because Boyd was such a gentle soul. And whatever his shortcomings, they were not for a lack of effort. So I questioned the need for whatever Parker did that caused Boyd to snap and wondered again about sadistic tendencies in Parker. He then began his assault on Boyd, issuing reprimands as he punched and kicked him. Parker seemed to be practicing his hand-to-hand combat and Boyd was the punching bag. Wham! Parker struck Boyd in the groin and then Wham! struck him in the face as he was doubling over from the first blow. Then Parker faked a blow to the groin and when Boyd covered up, hit him in the face and then in the groin. Parker then began circling his target so that Boyd couldn’t see half the blows coming.
We had all received some of the same and usually never even winced when another recruit was catching hell. We were more concerned with our own welfare and had turned callous. “Better him than me” was the attitude.
But this violent attack on Boyd was hard to watch. By the end, he was completely broken, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Whether it was intended or not, this spectacle was an example of what could be endured because Boyd bounced back and graduated on time with our platoon. He had an innocence about him that may have worked in his favor. Maybe, in his mind, he had done wrong and deserved the punishment.
Three weeks into our training, we marched over to the medical building for shots and a physical exam. As we passed by the women’s Marine Corps boot camp, I heard a woman DI shout, “I want to hear those cunts suck wind!”
The medical building was run by smug Navy corpsmen who slapped us and taunted us when the DIs were not watching. By this time in our training, we had been so stripped of our self-esteem that anyone else was viewed as a superior, so we didn’t even consider retaliating.
I was incensed that the corpsmen, who never had to endure what we were going through, could get away with treating us this way. We accepted the rough treatment by our DIs because they had earned that right by having been through boot camp, spending time in Viet Nam and going through DI school, which was like boot camp all over again. They were entitled. But the corpsmen had no right. I hoped to meet one of these guys off base after boot camp and remind him of this incident before getting my revenge.
I started out as the second person behind the squad leader when we were in marching formation. After the first squad leader got fired, I moved behind the new squad leader and when he got fired, I was left standing at the front of our squad as the new leader.
I was confident of my marching ability but not in the role of being responsible for nineteen other guys. One of my first duties was to march my squad to the area where we would be standing guard duty one night. That went OK, but I sensed my voice wasn’t loud enough for the role.
And I think Sgt. Frazier thought I needed some leadership training because the next day one of the recruits in my squad ran up to me with eyes wide, panting, “Sgt. Frazier wants to see you!”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know. When I knocked on Sgt. Frazier’s door and asked to make a head call, he said ‘Tell your squad leader I want to see him.’”
I ran to Sgt. Frazier’s Quonset hut, knocked three times and barked, “Sir, Pvt. Larsen reporting as ordered, Sir!”
Sgt. Frazier ordered me to come in then calmly walked up and grabbed me by the throat with one of his huge hands, cutting off both my air and blood supply. He held me firmly in place as he slapped me across the face several times and ordered me to teach my squad how to properly address a DI. His hand felt like it had the weight of a car door. When he was finished, I gasped, “Sir, yes Sir!” and ran back to my squad.
I felt more like a leader after the choking and instructed my squad in my strongest voice on the right way to address a DI. Two weeks later, I was replaced as squad leader by Pvt. Schulz. I wasn’t aware of anything I had done wrong, but I suspect I just wasn’t enough of a badass. I wasn’t hard enough on the guys in my platoon. The shit I took from Sgt. Frazier wasn’t rolling downhill to them.
I thought Pvt. Schulz was better suited to the job anyway, and I didn’t see much of a future in it. He seemed to relish the role and even slapped me across the face the next day for cleaning my rifle improperly.
In a sense I had failed. But I was OK with that. The recruiter had told me that I would probably get an office job because of my education and typing skills. So I didn’t want to shine too brightly in boot camp and increase my chances of being assigned to the infantry, of becoming a grunt. They were the guys getting killed. I knew I was rolling the dice when I enlisted, but I didn’t want them to come up snake eyes.
Halfway through our training, it was beginning to feel like we were always in a survival mode, like we were constantly treading water in the middle of an ocean. And yet with so many ordeals, it seemed like we were always waiting for whatever it was we were doing to be over. Being so aware of time caused it to pass excruciatingly slowly. One day was a long time. A week became a month, and a month seemed like forever. Halfway through our training it seemed like we had always been there and always would be.
I briefly escaped to the outside world whenever we ran the obstacle course. We had a perfect view of the 737s taking off from the airport. While waiting my turn, I could see them lift off from the runway and then sharply increase their angle of ascent as they flew off to another land. I don’t know if I’ve ever been homesick but I’ve had few experiences as powerful as the yearning I felt to be on one of those jets.
I felt terrible when I saw that Sgt. Parker was on duty again. I knew the pattern by now. No matter how hard we tried, he would find fault and we would pay the price. So I was not surprised when, after making too many mistakes during our manual arms drill, Sgt. Parker ordered us to stop and shouted, “Face half-right!” He told us to wrap our hands around the barrel of our M14 rifles and assume the push-up position. We were in the up position, with our knuckles contacting the asphalt and the heel of our hands pressing the rifle against our fingers. Our fingers were sandwiched between the asphalt and the rifle. It felt like we would break all the bones in our fingers as the asphalt dug deeper into our knuckles. We stayed in this position doing pushups and receiving motivational kicks in the ribs long after we were quivering from exhaustion.
During the rare quiet times, like after hitting the rack but before falling asleep or on Sunday afternoon when we polished our boots and cleaned our rifles, I learned more about the others in our platoon. Many had belonged to street gangs, been kicked out of school or were petty criminals in their prior life. One former gang member casually described eliminating a rival gang member by pushing him off a roof. So it amazed me how quickly everybody had given up their old ways when we were all ordered to stand on the yellow footprints our first day. Violence was the great persuader, the universal language understood by everything that breathes.
A couple guys could barely read or write and we had two college graduates. One was Pvt. Johnson. He was our guide, one notch above the squad leaders. He was smart enough to always avoid the costly mental mistakes. Physically, he was only average. But that made him more impressive as a leader because, even though the PT was no easier for him, he accepted everything in stride and refused to show any discomfort from the physical strain. I really admired the guy.
Another guy who inspired me, but in a different way, was Pvt. Trickey. He was totally average in every way except nothing ever seemed to faze him. So I would get strength from him during the bad times by simply glancing his way. No matter what was happening, his body language was always saying, “You can’t break me. I can handle this.”
It was also during the quiet times that I would hear the stories of why the others had joined the Marine Corps. For a few, it was an alternative sentence offered by the judge: go to jail or go into the Marine Corps. For others, it was a reaction to something gone wrong in their lives, like breaking up with their girlfriends. But for almost everybody, boot camp was not what they expected and most said they would not have joined if they had known what they were getting into. Then I realized why we couldn’t anticipate what we had signed up for. Feeling imprisoned like we were was totally alien to anything we had experienced in civilian life so the only way to understand this life was to live it.
There was only one recruit I never saw get roughed up by the DIs—Pvt. Terrell. He was not an original cast member of the yellow footprints but joined our platoon after the first two weeks. He sure didn’t come from the Fat Farm because he looked like a NFL linebacker: all muscles, about 6’2” and 240 pounds. His scowl never seemed to leave his face, so it was hard to tell if it was an expression or just the shape of his features. His behavior appeared to always be more of a reaction to what was going on around him than something he thought out. When one of the DIs once asked if anybody ever beat off at night, Pvt. Terrell raised his hand without a trace of embarrassment.
I accidentally tripped him from behind one day while we were running in the flip flops we wore to take our evening shower. He pitched forward to the ground but bounced back up like a hard rubber ball and was facing me by the time he was erect. I could see the bad intentions in his eyes and knew his reaction would be to either pull my head off or punch holes in me, so I instinctively started apologizing as fast as I could to distract him long enough for the platoon to sweep us forward. As I kept asking if he was OK, he realized it was more important to get showered and back to our Quonset huts in time for the hygiene inspection than to spend time on me. Except for his physical prowess in doing PT, he did not perform any better than Pvt. Bray. So I knew he was only escaping the wrath of the DIs because they were cutting him some slack. Maybe they were afraid to get physical with him. So he was our one exception; someone the DIs thought would make a hell of a marine as long as they kept their distance.
By week six, the thought of being able to sleep late into the morning was my idea of heaven. I tried closing my eyes once in a class when Sgt. Frazier turned around to write on the blackboard and then opening them when he faced us again. It didn’t work. A few of us got caught dozing in that class and were told to report to him when we got back to our area. We took our punishment and then all gathered inside a Quonset hut for another lecture after noon chow. I was sitting at the opposite end of the building from Sgt. Frazier and immediately began to get drowsy again. To stay awake, I reminded myself that I’d be killed if caught sleeping twice in the same day. But I still could not keep my eyes open.
Then I heard Sgt. Frazier shout, “Stand up, maggot!” I opened my eyes and saw him looking toward me. I was so stunned, I couldn’t move. I knew that standing up would be the beginning of the end.
When he repeated the order, Pvt. Sutton sitting next to me stood up before I could react. My mind was racing. Had Pvt. Sutton been sleeping too? Or was Sgt. Frazier pointing at me? I stayed put and Sgt. Frazier barked, “Report to me after class!”
Private Sutton said, “Sir, yes Sir,” and sat back down.
When Sgt. Frazier returned to his lecture, my heart and breathing started up again.
I felt like we were getting down to some serious work during week six when we began hand-to-hand combat training. We paired off with a partner to practice moves taught by special instructors. Fighting with bare hands or a rifle and bayonet reminded me of medieval warfare. I dreaded having to use these skills in Viet Nam, but if not there, maybe they would come in handy someday in a dark alley. I tried to execute the blows and moves without seriously injuring my partner, who would get his chance at me when the roles were reversed. So defeating our partner probably deluded us into feeling more capable than we really were.
The biggest difference between what we were learning and street fighting was the emphasis on dirty fighting. We learned several ways to attack the groin. Why not? I doubted there would be a referee in the battlefield to take points away for low blows. My favorite move was the choke hold because there is no escaping it; the victim goes to sleep temporarily within seconds and permanently within a minute.
After learning the kicking, punching and choking moves, we used pugil sticks with heavy pads on each end to simulate fighting with a rifle and bayonet. We finished this training with a tournament to determine our company pugil stick champion. The winner was about my height and build. I decided to use that fact as inspiration, even though I was eliminated in the first round.
A couple of privates near the back of the platoon were caught scuffling while we were marching back from chow. Sgt. Parker saw them, and when we got back to our area he had them fight inside a circle we formed around them. The rules were no punching to the face and continue fighting until Sgt. Parker said to stop. After several minutes of thrashing around in the dirt, one private began to lose and was taking quite a pummeling before it was stopped.
I thought the first fight was a fair way to resolve the scuffle. But Sgt. Parker then asked for a volunteer to fight the winner. Several privates were eager to be the next gladiator but the original winner prevailed again—barely this time. Smelling blood, several more privates volunteered for the third round. I didn’t like the vicious look of eager anticipation in their eyes. The next round would not be a fair fight. This time the winner was so tired that he could barely defend himself and got thrashed unmercifully before Sgt. Parker called it off. I wasn’t sure if the spectacle was for Sgt. Parker’s entertainment or to teach us a lesson, but there was never any more scuffling.
I now realized that none of what we were going through was causing us any permanent harm. We always recovered quickly and I was actually in the best shape of my life. So the fear of getting knocked around and pain of the PT was losing some of its power over us as we toughened up.
We finally all became good at marching. In a competition with the other platoons, we placed second and our DIs seemed genuinely pleased for once. One time, while we were marching the length of the parade deck, we managed to synchronize our tempo so well that it sounded like only two giant feet hitting the ground.
After a successful running of the obstacle course, we were standing in formation ready to march off to our next activity when Sgt. Frazier asked us if we would like to call home. We all replied with a hearty, “Sir, yes Sir!”
Sgt. Frazier said he couldn’t hear us so we revved up our enthusiasm and volume and again shouted “Sir, yes Sir!”
“I still can’t hear you!”
“Sir, yes Sir!” we blared at full volume.
After whipping us into a frenzy, Sgt. Frazier said “OK, you can call home . . . now face home.”
We all turned to face in different directions and began calling “Home . . . Hoome . . . Hooomme.” Instead of performing as one, we were like a bunch of seals all barking at different times. Soon the calls were mixed with laughter, the first humor we had experienced since beginning boot camp. The tension released by this comic relief catapulted our spirits but then we had to quickly march off to our next activity.
The next day we really did get to call home. Coincidentally, the night before I had dreamed that one of my brothers had joined the Marine Corps and would be going through boot camp. I felt terrible for him and thought that one marine in our family was enough. So when my brother answered the phone, I told him about my dream and tried to discourage him from joining without going into too many details. My brother said that he had just talked to our aunt, who told him she was going to send me cookies. I almost panicked knowing I’d have to eat them all at once, right after chow and covered with hot sauce. I asked him if he knew whether she had already sent them. He said he didn’t know, so I told him to call her immediately and tell her not to. Mail call for the next couple of weeks was an anxious time but they never arrived.
For the last couple of weeks, we were bused north to the rifle range at Camp Pendleton for our rifle training. Before firing our M14s, we went through a process called “snapping in.” This required learning the four different positions for shooting—standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone—without actually firing the rifle. Prone was the tough one because of the position required for our left arm. We had to stretch the muscles in the left arm to attain the proper form. There was no time for slow stretching though—the DIs would speed up the process by pushing our elbow underneath the rifle then pushing down from above to bend the left arm into position. It was so painful I was sure some arms would break, but that never happened.
During practice, I became very accurate at shooting from each position and, because of my competitive nature, tried to score as high as possible during the qualifying round. I lost focus briefly while shooting from the kneeling position, though, and missed qualifying for the highest level of expert by two points. At first I was disappointed but later was glad to only be a sharpshooter because experts had a greater chance of becoming snipers or going into the infantry.
During our last week, Sgt. Frazier had some final words of advice about life after boot camp. “Half of you will be dead a year from now, so learn everything you can during your four weeks of infantry training.”
I did some quick math to test his claim. I knew that about two hundred Americans were dying every week in Viet Nam and most were marines. So based on the number of recruits who were entering boot camp every week, he could be right.
The possibility that he may have been exaggerating didn’t change the impact of what he said though. His statement suddenly made me realize that the odds of getting killed might be much higher than I thought. It was a big-time wake-up call. Until then, I had been confident of getting an office job, enough to volunteer for the Marine Corps rather than be drafted into the Army. But maybe the recruiter had lied to me or maybe I had flunked the typing test I took our first week in boot camp. I imagined myself in Viet Nam ending up in one of the Time magazine pictures of that week’s body count. But there was no turning back, so I refused to think about it anymore.
A couple days later, we learned our military occupational specialty and where we would be stationed after boot camp and four weeks of infantry training. Names were called one by one to announce our fate. Most were going into the infantry and then to Viet Nam. I later realized that my entire future was largely decided that day. But the innocence that allowed me to voluntarily enlist in the Marine Corps now helped keep me from fully appreciating the magnitude of that moment.
My MOS was 0141, personnel administration clerk. The recruiter was right about my education and typing skills keeping me out of the infantry.
But I also got lucky: after infantry training and two weeks in the classroom, I would join an artillery battalion and be stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA, for the remainder of my enlistment. Hearing that gave me the most serene feeling of relief that would kick in again whenever I recalled that moment.
Infantry training was at Camp Pendleton, not far from the rifle range. It was mostly learning how to shoot all the other weapons. One of our troop leaders was Sgt. Kenoyer, a real free spirit. He looked like he had been an all-American boy in his prior life—blond, athletic, brash, possibly the quarterback of his high school football team. He would seek out the fastest marines from every platoon and challenge them to a foot race that he always won.
Our company of 320 new marines would occasionally be assembled as one unit, seemingly at the whim of the troop leaders. At one of those formations, Sgt. Kenoyer asked for the Four Tops to come up and sing him happy birthday. Nobody moved. So he shouted “I better see the Four Fucking Tops up here next to me in thirty seconds or there’ll be hell to pay!”
So four black guys, who obviously didn’t know each other because they came from different platoons, wandered up one at a time and gathered next to Sgt. Kenoyer. They took just a moment to discuss their performance and then sang a soulful rendition that sounded like they had been singing together for years.
It seemed our camp was Sgt. Kenoyer’s playground, his own reward for the time he had spent in Viet Nam. He told us that, when he was on leave after returning from Viet Nam, he and a friend corralled two civilians in an alley of his hometown. They made them do pushups and squat thrusts in their business suits. I laughed at the image of that and understood completely.
He was entitled to that much harmless fun.
Writing this memoir was a difficult but rewarding process. When I began, all I knew was that I felt compelled to write it. I had talked about boot camp over the years, but it was only through the writing that I could relive the entire experience in sufficient detail to flush out and deal with the lingering issue of the violence.
Although it was a very long time ago, boot camp was such an intense experience that the memories came back to me in vivid detail. My first goal was simply to tell what happened, to satisfy my desire to “get it out” and to make it as real as possible for the reader. All the events are true to the best of my recollection, except I did change the names of the recruits and DIs to respect their privacy.
About halfway through the writing, I heard a radio program about a youth counselor who believed gang violence was perpetuated because people who are treated violently then feel entitled to treat others the same way. I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I experienced in boot camp,” and decided to make his theory a theme of my story. There was a definite feeling that the rough treatment we endured in boot camp then gave us the right to act the same way. It was like having a license to carry on the violence. That license coupled with knowing how effective force can be made it an easy option for resolving conflict throughout my two-year enlistment. A certain amount of that aggressive behavior was commonplace in the Marine Corps, but it carried over into my civilian life where it is less socially acceptable or even illegal.
Fortunately, the times I have used aggressive tactics in civilian life have all ended well. That tended to reinforce that behavior, but I’ve always worried about a situation arising that would spin out of control and lead to a bad outcome. This created a tension between trying to live by the civilian rules and continuing to handle conflict the Marine Corps way.
Writing this story has helped me to confront this dilemma of which rules to live by. I decided there are no absolute rules of right and wrong for moral behavior. The rules are whatever work best in a particular culture. The Marine Corps rules are what work best for it to function well, but they don’t apply in the civilian world and vice versa. It was time to let go of that sense of entitlement and live exclusively by civilian rules. But if violence is learned it is hard to unlearn. Trying to be a small part of living in a more civilized world has helped me to change. And with that has come a sense of relief and peace.