Sandspur push-ups and water survival

By: Robert Lee - Contributing Columnist

The weeks of training came and went. I think it was about week four or five and we were at the rifle range. I had been made first squad leader — I got fired the next day.

So it went, back and forth, with Recruit Lee and Staff Sgt. Still. It was almost like a love-hate thing between us. If I did well, he was happy — I just did not know it at the time.

Like the rest of our training, it was endless, it was intense, so much packed into those three months. The rifle range was no different, it was just much more on the physical side. All Marines remember rifle P.T. This was where all of our running was done with our M-14 rifle. It might have only weighed 9 pounds, but after a 3 mile run it felt like 50.

We were getting stronger day by day. We were not Marines by no means, but we were taking on the look. The snap and pop was coming together for us all.

All Marines are riflemen. We are the best at this. The Marines push this on you hard. At the range after a week of what is know as snapping in, then you are ready for live fire. Snapping in is nothing more than aiming at a point on the target barrel and pulling the trigger over and over for hours on end.

Live fire for a Marine is from the 200, 300, and 500-yard line. This takes place in the last week at the range. Four days of practice fire and the last day is when you see if you are a Marine rifleman.

The hills of Tennessee and my great grandfather taught me well. This range time just brought out the best in me and our platoon. We won the title of the best platoon in our battalion. We had more experts than any of the other platoons.

After the range, we went back to what was known as main side and to our old squad bay. That was when Sgt. Toomy decided it was time to introduce us to his rose garden.

Sgt. Toomy was mean and crazy. At times I thought it was just a sick pleasure that he got out of our pain. His rose garden turned out to be a sandspur field.

Here we go again — drop and give me 50, give me 50 more. On and on, all the way through those three months of training. Would it ever end? Of course it did, but not soon enough.

I know I said that Sgt. Toomy was mean and crazy, and he was to this raw recruit. I know now that he was just a good D.I. and that he wanted his recruits to be the best Marines he could produce, and he did his very best. Some months later I did meet Sgt. Toomy at another training camp. He was no different from any other man in this one-on-one meeting.

It’s funny as I sit here writing down these memories of long-gone days. I remember that Sgt. Toomy also made his mark on my very soul. Truly another day that can never be removed from my mind — being introduced to Marine Corps water survival.

On the day we were turned over to the water survival D.I.’s , at that point our platoon D.I.’s had no control over what was to happen to us. That day we were to meet Staff Sgt. Hignight. One tough Marine is all I will say for the moment. I will get back to him.

Every time it was your turn in the pool, which was very often, you added another item of clothing. You started with shorts, then you added a shirt, then trousers. Then the boots came, then add the rifle and the helmet. Each time something was added, you swam about 100 yards. Then the field marching pack was added.

In this stage, you had to jump off a tower into 18 feet of water. The fun part: You get to tread water for the next 20 minutes. For some it was no problem. The ones who paid attention to the instructors made it, the others did not.

They taught us how to us our blouse (your shirt) to trap air. It would only keep you up for about 30 seconds, but it worked. So you did it over and over. After the 20 minutes of treading water, we were allowed to rest for an hour and have chow. No one could eat. Our nerves were too raw. Some did, but it came right back up.

The rest was over and back to the pool we went. Now we were to tread water for the next hour, nothing but dread. The tower itself was about 15 feet off the water. You jumped with a rifle, full pack and helmet.

The pool was full of recruits who just wanted to pass. There were those who used the other recruits to stay above water. Some were pushed so far under that they almost drowned and had to be pulled out.

Staff Sgt. Hignight was standing on the deck and was watching me — I had no idea why. I know now I was staring at his wounds. Sgt. Hignight had been captured out side of the wire at Khe Sanh in 1968 during the Tet offensive.

Sgt. Hignight had been bayoneted from the back of his legs all the way up his back to his head. He then was rolled over and bayoneted from his ankles to his thighs into his stomach, chest and throat — and left for dead.

He was stabbed more than 60 times and lived. I could not help but look. This all came with a price.

My hour was up, time to get out. Sgt Hignight did not think so. He took a long pole and pushed me back out. We played this game for about 5 minutes. I went under several times, but he would hook and pull me back up.

It was at one of those moments while on top of the water I saw Sgt. Toomy looking at me. I could see my own fear in his expression. He knew that Sgt. Hignight had taken it too far. Sgt. Toomy could do nothing for me. I was on my own with a madman.

It only got better — Sgt. Hignight got into the water with me. He had played this game many times. I now know that drowning is not that bad, you only choke one time and you are out. It’s the pure hysteric terror that is overwhelming — you fight like a wild animal for your breath of air.

Sgt. Hignight came close to me with a life ring, he would let me touch it, then pull it away. This went on for only a short period, because I had lost all of my strength. The last time he pushed the ring to me, I did not go for the ring. I went for the sergeant.

He moved to the side and I was punched in the side of the head and went out. He did drag me out of the pool with the help of Sgt. Toomy. That was Marine Corps water survival.

Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and former U.S. Marine who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo.

Robert Lee

Contributing Columnist


This column is the third installment of Robert Lee’s four-part series on his experience as a Marine Corps recruit in boot camp. The first column was published on Saturday and the second was printed Tuesday. Read Thursday’s edition of the Daily Journal for the final column in the series.