The day I speak of came to me very early in our training, maybe the second week of training. In boot camp, from day one, you are taught to run everywhere you go.
It matters not where you are going — you better be running. I don’t care if it is 10 feet or 10,000 feet, you better run. I only made that mistake one time — not running, that is — but the punishment still rides within my very soul.
I was coming out of the 3rd Battalion chow hall after supper. I had only taken three steps, and was pulling my cover (hat in the civilian world) out of my back pocket. I looked up at the third deck of our squad bay to see that God was looking at me.
During those times, God was the senior D.I., Staff Sgt. Still. I took off running like a bat out of Hades. All I could think of was the price I was to pay and what he was going to do to the entire platoon. When I got into platoon formation the aid D.I., Sgt. Crews, marched us back to the squad bay. Nothing happened, the Senior had already gone home. I could breathe again, but not for long.
We were in the rack (our bed )by 8 pm. and up at 4 a.m. Not this child — the Senior had not forgotten about me.
I was awakened by the fire watch (a recruit guard in the squad bay) at 3 a.m. I asked him why. His only reply: Orders from the Senior. I was given another canteen to go with the one I had. Extra water — this is no good, I thought to myself. That extra water, I never drank one drop of it.
It was just for the extra weight. It was pure punishment and nothing more.
I was taken to the chow hall to be fed. After chow I was taken to the back of the barracks and the fire watch that had taken me to chow went back to our squad bay. As I stood there, more recruits started to show up, there were about 18 in all. No one knew why we were there. Nothing but questions from all of us. We had no idea we were all being punished. That would come soon enough — the punishment, that is.
No answers, but the cattle car (a transfer truck with a 40-foot box for transport of recruits ) was there to pick us up. The cattle car had already been to the 1st and 2nd battalions . This box was packed with about 80 recruits in total. We were taken into the swamps of the island.
When we got to the end of our short trip, the cattle car was emptied in about 10 seconds. We were welcomed with fear and panic. We were in the middle of a mock-up of a Viet Cong village. We were greeted with the fear of our first live machine gun fire.
Some of the D.I.’s were dressed up as V.C. sappers. Total fear and panic took over. We were knocked to the ground and told to shut up and not move. That order took hold real quick. It was at that point we were told we were problem children who could not follow orders and we were there to learn how to follow orders.
We were not conditioned for what was to come. Our physical training had just started we were not prepared at all. We were put into single file, all 80 of us, and it started. We were run for 200 yards and told to drop and give me 50. Situps were the first command. We got up and ran 200 more yards, then drop give me 50. Pushups were the command.
Two hundred more yards, drop was the command, give me 50. This time it was leg lifts. The next time it was a lovely exercise called mountain climbers. If you have never done mountain climbers, you will never understand the pain in the back of your legs and thighs. The burn is intense.
We did this all around the island, the whole island. As we ran, I saw a candy bar wrapper and a Coke can. These were things that I at one time had taken for granted, but not on this day — or ever again.
Halfway through this forced run, we stopped at the Marine commandant’s office. As we sat on the ground across the street from the office, there on the square was a World War 1 statue of Iron Mike. A bronze statue of a Marine with a model 1911 Colt .45 in one hand and a Browning 1919 machine gun on his shoulder. The vision of this Marine was burned into my mind for all time to come.
The words that came out of the mouth of the D.I. who was running us like dogs also are with me forever. He said, “None of you at this moment can or will understand what I am trying to tell you about what it means to be a Marine. But on the first day of you being a Marine, if I told you to move the commandant’s office across the street, you would a find a way.”
He was right — we had no true understanding at that moment.
Three months later, it was a different story. We were torn down to less than a human being only to be built back up as invincible Marines. Marines who were taught that Marines never die, we just go to Hell to regroup.
I know that does not sound too Christian, but that was just the way it was and how we were trained. You cannot train a Marine by playing goody goody two-shoes with the recruit.
After the pep talk it was back to the road. Give me 50. Give me 50 more — it was endless, over and over. Drop, get up, do it again, drop again, drop, give me 50. There were those who did drop and did not get back up. The heat was overwhelming. I now know the reason for the two ambulances and the ice truck that followed us. Heat exhaustion took its toll.
I would have never thought that a human being could sweat to the degree that we did during training. Sure, I had sweated during gym class while in high school, but not to the point that you could wring water out of my clothing. This was an everyday experience during boot camp.
Finally we had come full-circle around the island. The fun wasn’t over.
The D.I.’s went into the V.C. hooches to eat lunch. Now the game of, the fittest and fastest was to be played for the entertainment of the drill instructors. The ice truck that I spoke of, it carried two 55-gallon barrels full of what had been ice in the morning but now was nothing more than cool water and a few shards of ice.
This was the game: Kick the barrels off the truck and let the gladiators in training fight for the shards of ice — and we did. It was nothing more than a free-for-all that lasted for no more than 30 seconds, but it was brutal. Remember the extra canteen of water I was given that morning? As I said before, not one drop was drank from my canteen or the other recruit’s canteens.
The only compassion I was to see during training came from a recruit after that maddening fight for ice shards. He was standing in front of me with his hand open and holding 5 chips of ice. Our eyes were locked on one another; he could see his own pain in my sunburnt face as I saw his pain. He gave me two chips of his ice. At that moment, there was nothing that I could have done to pay back that compassion.
This one act tells the tale of why so many Marines in combat have given their lives to save their fellow Marines from certain death by jumping on a live grenade. This to was also part of our training and we did not know it was taking place. That day did come to an end. I never walked any more. I ran.
Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and former U.S. Marine who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo.