Boot camp begins with rude awakening

By: Robert Lee - Contributing Columnist

When I was in high school, we had to write papers on different subjects from time to time, as all of us have. One time I told one of the teachers that I had no idea what to write about. The teacher responded with “Write about what you know,” and I did.

When I told a fellow Marine that I was going to write a column about Marine Corps boot camp, he asked which points I was going to try to bring out. There are no points to bring out, I responded, it’s just about a life experience and nothing more.

Now all of these years later that is what I write about — what I know. I know about Marine Corps boot camp. I know about it only too well. Even though there have been Marines in my extended family for well over 100 years and I had heard all of the stories of our Marines, I had no idea of the truth of boot camp.

Until you have experienced the discipline of boot camp, you truly have no idea what discipline is all about. I had been told the stories by my father and my uncles. I thought I understood, but I did not.

I was 17 years old when I boarded Delta Airlines for my trip to Parris Island Recruit Depot. We were taken from Charleston, South Carolina by bus to the island.

We were brought in to the island at about 2 a.m. on purpose. Reason for this was to disorient us and make the shock of the first Marine drill instructors we met stick in our minds forever. It worked all too well. There is no Marine who can forget that first morning in his or her life as a Marine recruit.

We are all scarred to one point or the other because of that first day. For me, that experience will never fade away to memories forgotten. At 17 I thought I was tough, I wanted to be a Marine like my father and his father before him. Watch out for some of the things that you wish for. Those wishes might come true.

When the bus made its last stop of the night, we were there. After the bus stopped, we were at what is known as Indoctrination Platoon, or Indoc for short. A taste of the hell that was to come.

When the first D.I. came on the front of the bus, he told us all to shut up in his bullfrog voice. Most did. But not this little bigmouth at the center of the bus. I kept on talking — this was not to last long.

I knew nothing of the D.I. who had come onto the back of the bus. He was just like Moses parting the Red Sea, only he was parting the recruits to get to me and my big mouth. My first experience with a D.I. was not a good one. When he got within striking distance, he let me have a taste of Marine discipline. Or rather it was the taste of a rolled-up Charleston Sunday morning newspaper to the back of the head.

At that very moment, I knew I had made a big mistake. I was not tough any longer, I wanted my mama. I wanted to be at home with my mama. I didn’t get that wish.

We were run off the bus and told to stand on these yellow painted footprints and not move. You better believe we did not. This took place as the D.I.’s were screaming at us as loud as they could with their bullfrog voices. I guess that was how they got this voice — no I don’t have to guess, it was how they got it. The fear that ran through us was overwhelming.

Anybody who went through boot camp in the late ’60s to the early ’70s and was not scared was not really there. It was at a time in Marine Corps history that the D.I.’s could still beat you openly, and they did. I know it still happens today, but it’s at the back of the barracks. Good or bad, it’s all about discipline and taking orders.

That first morning we were not allowed to go to sleep. We were locked up at attention in the Indoc squad bays. This lasted for more than four hours — you just stood there and stared at the recruit in front of you. By 7 a.m., our heads had been shaved. We were rushed off to the chow hall. This was such a sight to see, hundreds of raw recruits. Some with uniforms and some like us with none.

That all changed by 9 a.m. that morning. We were all the same, we were all green, in these uniforms that did not fit. I saw men who were so big, I could only think “How can this be?” I could not believe the faces of some of these men.

It’s hard to explain what took place on this first day, but I know now it was a form of shock. Nothing that would destroy a young man, it was just a bewildering experience. With so many more to come.

All of you old Marines who read these words will go back to that day in your own mind. That’s not to say that you have not revisited that day many times, as we all have. It lives with us, it’s almost as if it has a life of its own. Those few days in Indoc were where you waited to be picked up by our training D.I.’s.

When we were picked up, we were sent to the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. All these years later, I still remember our senior D.I., Staff. Sgt. Still, and his aid D.I.’s, Sgts. Toomy and Crews. Staff Sgt Still was hard but fair. Sgt Toomy was mean and crazy as hell. Sgt Crews was in the middle.

For the next three months, these D.I.’s were to be our fathers, our mothers, our brothers and our sisters, and that was what we were told. I’m sorry, I just never felt that family love that they talked about. I did feel like I was in reform school, or maybe on Alcatraz Island. Because it was an island that we could not get off.

Our platoon was know as Platoon 345 of G Company. The days of wine and roses were over. I never had days like those, so it did not matter. The training was endless.

Our day started with chow. That first morning we ate, we didn’t know any better. However, we did learn real quick. After chow we were to run P.T. — physical training. Have you ever tried to run 2 miles on a full stomach? It doesn’t work. Trust me, before the 2 miles were over, your stomach was not full anymore. I think you understand why.

Second morning we did not eat, or most of us did not. It was all about trial and error, and there were to be lots of errors. In boot camp you were taught early on that if the individual recruit made a mistake, the whole platoon paid for the mistake of the individual. To the D.I.’s it was that simple — to the raw recruit, it was hell to pay on a regular basis.

That was why at the end of our 3-month training period, we were a well-oiled machine — 43 bodies with the mind of one Marine. It did come at a price. On our first training day, we had a total of 120 recruits. At the end of our 3 months we graduated a platoon of 43 Marines.

There was just one thing about that number. There were only 17 originals of that 120 man platoon that started out. For one reason or the other, 103 men had been cut from our training platoon.

The reason for the cuts were numerous. They were removed because of dental problems, mental or physical issues or just getting sick. Some just could not take the physical part of training. Guess what? Just because you were not strong enough did not get you a ticket home to Mama. It got you recycled to another training platoon to start all over.

This was a true personal hell for those recruits. When you came into another platoon, you were treated like dirt by the D.I.’s and the other recruits. You were a loser, you could not take it. That was the way that we all looked at it. You had already let your last platoon down, so we expected you to let our platoon down also. Being recycled was the last thing that you wanted as a Marine recruit. We all knew that in some cases it was not the recruit’s fault, but it did not matter.

The D.I.’s had already gotten into our collective mind. The brainwashing had already started and we did not even know it. Mindgames, they were as numerous as the days and the hours in this 3 months of living hell. I remember thinking to myself one real bad day in training, “How can one human being treat another this way?”

It was only at the end of our training would I understand the harsh discipline of Marine recruit training.

Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and former U.S. Marine who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo. His column appears here each Saturday.

Robert Lee

Contributing Columnist


This column is the first installment of Robert Lee’s four-part series on his experience as a Marine Corps recruit in boot camp. Read Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Journal for the second column in the series.