It is late August, 2011, as I write this missive, but it is as though I am scribing it through a fog of the past, from 35 years ago.
Strange, I know. Though it’s difficult to accept, it was 35 years ago that I stepped off a bus at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, one unnoticed step for mankind, but one giant step for me.
It was a step that changed my life and I’d like to spend a column or two…maybe more…recounting the experience.
Why? Well, I think it’s important because that type of service represents one of the few remaining rites of passage for young American men and women–the right to earn the title “Marine.”
Though much time has passed, the tradition is still the same as it was 236 years ago when the first Marine battalions were raised on November 10, 1775.
Also, I think some of the ideas we learned as Marines are especially important to America at this juncture in our history.
Few of our institutions have retained their original integrity; the Marine Corps is a shining example of one that does.
I have never reminisced about that day before, but I do now because my 16-year-old son has begun expressing interest in joining the Marine Corps. That interest makes me proud, but as a father, it concerns me. I know the great achievement and the great danger of being a United States Marine in today’s world.
On a sultry August morning at 3 a.m. all those years ago, I stepped off a bus and joined 40 or so strangers on the “yellow footprints”–the painted shapes forming a pair of boot prints, heels touching and toes at a precise 45-degree angle apart.
Those men were strangers then, but in a few short weeks we would be a band of brothers willing to die for each other.
Each recruit stepping (more accurately, being propelled) off the bus was urged on by blood-curdling shouts of “get off my bus!” We had our first encounter with that heretofore mythical creature we had heard so many fables of, the grizzled beast that eats nails for breakfast and has eyes in the back of his head: the Marine Corps drill instructor (DI).
Those instructors weren’t actually the ones who would put us through hell on earth and earn our respect, admiration, and everlasting gratitude along the way. Those initial instructors were the “Receiving DI’s.”
Their job was to get us off the bus, get us on the yellow footprints, and inform us of all the ways we could break the laws of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and end up being thrown in prison or kicked off the island–or both. In front of us on the walls were large yellow signs with red lettering, depicting the codes.
The instructors talked so fast and loud, and we were all so tired after being up for 24 hours or more, that it was just a blur. But it was not the words that had our attention as much as the tone, something like that of an enraged bull.
I vividly remember thinking about, as I cringed, which rule I would break that would put me in the slammer, “Man, what have I gotten myself into?” As it turned out, I didn’t get into the Marine Corps as much as it got into me.
After a few days with the Receiving DI’s, which included little sleep and the fastest haircut (or more accurately, scalping) we’d ever had, we did the “seabag drag,” hauling our new uniforms and equipment to the open squad bay that would be our new home for the next 12 weeks.
Here, we met the alpha monsters, the men who would be our “mama and papa” for the duration of our time there: the Marine Corps DI’s.
The DI’s were as fearsome as we had heard. There were three of them, working in packs. The two we initially met were the lesser gods, the assistant monsters. They wore the stripes of corporals or sergeants on their crisp, razor-sharp uniform sleeves, medals and ribbons of past battles on their chests, and on their heads the well-known “Smokey Bear” campaign cover (the term “hat” is not used in the Corps).
They harassed us, instructed us, and tried to find our weakness, all to prepare us for the arrival a day or two later of our leader, the One, He Who Would Be Our Idol, the Senior Drill Instructor (SDI).
The SDI normally had the additional stripes of a staff sergeant or gunnery sergeant. We knew he must be fearsome because the lesser gods parted the seas before him, screaming “make a hole,” meaning to move out of the way or be booted out of the way.
We all fell in (lined up) in front of our wooden, rectangular-shaped, scarred lockers at the foot of our racks (bunk beds), at attention, or what we then thought was the position of attention. We soon found out it wasn’t.
There were two lines of young men facing each other about eight feet apart, all sizes, all backgrounds, all colors. We soon learned there were only two colors in the Marine Corps–light green and dark green–and the Corps would treat us all the same.
The SDI strode down the middle of our ranks slowly, his hands cupped together behind his back, silent, deadly looking. He was probably not six feet tall, but to us he looked much larger. On his chest he wore ribbons and medals noting his combat service in Vietnam. As he took each step, he looked each of us in the eye, disdainfully, disgustedly.
When he reached the end of the squad bay, he pivoted perfectly and, without breaking stride, retraced his steps to the front, where he stopped, clicked his heels together, and executed what we later learned was an “about-face.”
He talked to us then, not in a scream, but in a low, slow, menacing voice that barely masked his intense anger: “You are by far the most pitiful bunch of maggots I have ever seen in my life. I cannot believe they would send you here to be Marines. You all belong home with your mamas.”
Then, turning on his heel, he barked over his shoulder as he left the room, “Drill Instructors, square these dirtbags away!”
At that point, we did look like a rag-tag bunch of misfits. Our freshly sheared, pasty-white heads made us stand out as recruits. Our rumpled, unstarched, unironed, sateen-green field uniforms resembled the clothing of a bunch of wayfaring refugees.
As a unit–at that point–we were a mob. We were still thinking in terms of “I” and “me.” Those two terms were banished from our vocabulary in short order.
We would learn that the strength of a unit is not in the individual, but in the group; this applies to any unit, from a Marine Corps training platoon to an entire country, like the United States of America.
We would learn that our focus had to be on helping our fellow Marines to be successful, because if they failed, we failed.
We would learn to never, ever leave our fellow Marines behind, whether on a three-mile run or on a battlefield. We started together, we finished together.
We would learn many things over the next 12 weeks, but the most valuable was the one Marines take to their grave, whether in for three years or 30: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Male or female, white, black, red, or yellow, short or tall, fat or skinny, we would learn that once we earned that title, we could always turn to another Marine and say “help,” and hundreds of years of tradition would demand it be given.
We would learn that united we are unbeatable, but divided we leave gaps in our ranks that the enemy will exploit. This is a lesson America needs now.
Next issue: The real training begins.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.