“Get Off My Bus!”

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.

Once a Marine, always a Marine.

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).

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