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SEMPER FISTORIES OF THE UNITED STATES MARINES FROM BOOT CAMP TO BATTLE
Thunder's Mouth PressCopyright © 2003 Clint Willis
All right reserved.
Chapter Onefrom Making the Corps by Thomas E. Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks tracked a platoon of Marine recruits through basic training in the spring of 1995.
It begins just like in the movies: A busload of recruits traverses a causeway across the tidal swamps of Archer Creek and arrives at the Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island. It is 1:50 a.m., the middle of a chilly late-winter night on the coast of South Carolina, when the bus' air brakes sigh and the bus rolls to a halt outside the red-brick receiving station. Most of the thirty-six recruits on the bus already have been awake twenty hours or more, since they reported to military processing stations at dawn Wednesday. They won't sleep for another eighteen, until sunset Thursday. A haze of cigarette smoke hangs in the air of the silent bus. It is the last tobacco they will smell for eleven weeks.
Staff Sgt. Gregory Biehl, his face half-hidden by his big flat campaign hat-drill instructors hate it when tourists rail it a Smokey the Bear hat-charges up the metal footsteps of the bus and faces the thirty-six faces, all male, most adolescent, many strained with fear.
"Now!" begins Staff Sergeant Biehl. It is the first word they hear on Parris Island, and it is entirely appropriate. For the next eleven weeks, every order they hear will carry a tacit insistence that it be executed immediately. That first word locks them into the present, and that is where they will remain. For nearly three months, no one in a position to know will tell them anything about their schedule. All they really have to go on are the movies they've seen on television, such as Sands of Iwo Jima and Full Metal Jacket, plus a few tall tales from older brothers and neighborhood kids who have come home wearing Marine uniforms. In their new lives here on the island, they simply will be ordered to march, and will find out what they are going to do next when ordered to stop marching.
At Parris Island, officers think about the weeks ahead, drill instructors think about the days ahead, and recruits think about the task at hand. The recruits don't know it and won't be told, but the Marines' theorists of boot camp indoctrination break the eleven-week process into five distinct phases. First is the initial receiving of recruits, which lasts about four disorienting days. Next is a period of similar length, the "Forming" of platoons, when the recruits are turned over to the drill instructors who will take them through the rest of boot camp. Then comes the main body of boot camp, "Training," which begins with basic drilling and rudimentary fighting, proceeds to riflery, and then puts it all together with basic combat training. Then, because Marine boot camp is three weeks longer than the other services', comes an odd ten-day period called "Advanced Training" in which nothing much appears to happen, but is significant because it puts on the recruits the final touches of indoctrination, polishing the best and sometimes reaching the recalcitrant. Finally comes the series of ceremonies and rituals that constitute graduation into the Marine Corps.
Many of the bewildered young men staring at Staff Sergeant Biehl will never make it that far. Some will be gone within a few days. But even for those who will make it the whole way, graduation at this moment is an unimaginably remote goal. Simply getting through each next moment of boot camp will consume all their mental and physical energies. And for most of the rest of their careers in the Marines, their officers will strive to keep them just as tightly focused: Not on whether they might eventually die, not on whether the mission will succeed, not on where their wife or girlfriend is and what she might be doing, but on the here and now.
"Now!" the sergeant repeats. "Sit up straight. Get your eyes on me. If you have anything in your mouth, get it out now." They stare at the sergeant, not knowing he is a passing figure in their lives, one who will move them along for exactly an hour and then never be seen again. The actual moment of shock will come three days later, at the "Forming," when they will meet the three drill instructors who will dominate every waking moment of their lives, and even some of their dreams, for the next eleven weeks. But right now, the Corps wants only to disorient the arriving recruits, not shatter them. The job now is to strip them of their old civilian identities before building new Marines.
"Now, get off my bus," shouts Staff Sergeant Biehl. They hadn't known it was his bus-but they soon will realize that they are on his island, in his Corps, and playing by his rules. Every drill instructor they meet will talk to them the same way. Nothing here is theirs, not even the right to be called "Marine." They are simply "recruits." They will have to earn the title "Marine"-and that is why most of them joined the Corps. Staff Sergeant Biehl pauses a moment, sufficient time for any attentive Marine to get going, and then raises the volume: "Let's go. Now. Move. Move! Move!"
They charge off the bus onto rows of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt: in their first moment on the ground of Parris Island, they also have stepped into the Marine Corps' powerful and distinctive culture. The footprints, four to a row, eighteen rows, are so closely packed that the newcomers can't been seen as individuals. Standing nearly heel to toe in the dark night their faces are hardly visible, and their bodies become one mass. The effect is intentional: Marine Corps culture is the culture of the group, made up of members who are anonymous. Later, Lt. Col. Michael Becker, commander of the Third Battalion, of which these men will soon become a part, will make the point by gesturing to the framed reprint on his office wall of perhaps the most famous photograph from World War II, that of the Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. "Who are they? Just five Marines and a corpsman. It isn't Patton. It isn't Eisenhower. It's five Marines and a corpsman-you can't even see their faces." Indeed, two have their backs turned to the camera, two have their sides turned, and the fifth is hidden except for his arms and hands supporting the flag.
Who are these thirty-six recruits standing on the yellow footprints? Where are they from? How did they get here? Among them are an accountant fired by Ernst & Young because he flunked his CPA exam; a self-professed gang member from Washington, D.C.; the son of a Merrill Lynch bond trader, a Dutch-American who considers himself a pacifist, a former white-supremacist skinhead from Mobile, Alabama; a dozen former employees of Taco Bell and other fast food joints, and a handful of one-time workers at small, off-the-books construction firms.
They are mainly eighteen and nineteen years old, with a smattering of men in their twenties. The youngest is seventeen, the oldest twenty-seven. They come to Parris Island without strong prospects in the civilian economy. With a few exceptions, they are drawn from the 39 percent of young American males who don't attend college, and so live on the wrong side of the widening gap between the earnings of high school graduates and college graduates. To a surprising degree, they have been living part-time lives-working part time, going to community college part time (and getting failing grades), staying dazed on drugs and alcohol part time. They are, with a few exceptions, denizens of the bottom half of the American economy, or on the way there-poor kids with lousy educations, and a few wealthier ones sliding off the professional tracks their parents had taken. Consciously or not, they don't see much of a place open to them in postindustrial America. Most of them knew they were heading for mediocre jobs at wages that will always seem to lag behind inflation. They have come here from Shubuta, Mississippi, from Bayonne, New Jersey, from Destin, Florida, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and from forty other small towns and crumbling eastern cities to pursue one of the few rites of passage left in America. Here they can try to attain excellence.
In truth, society sees many of these kids more as threats than as contributing members. They are off the map-literally, in some cases. "You go into any high school in April, you'll see a map of the United States up on the wall showing where kids are going to college," says Staff Sgt. Michael Marti, a Marine recruiter in Boston who helped enlist Andrew Lee and Charles Lees III, two members of the group getting off this bus. "But that's only seventy-five percent or so. The other kids, the ones that are going the nontraditional route, they don't put them on the map at all. A kid who joins the military isn't honored, but the kid who goes to college is."
Spending their days in high schools, pool halls, and gyms, trolling for prospects, recruiters see a lot of adolescent America, probably more so than most parents of teenagers. Their reports are chilling. "I don't believe any of the statistics I see," says Sgt. Arthur Banester, who works the suburbs south of Boston. "I haven't seen one kid who hasn't used marijuana.
"It's rich down there," he continues. "It's midway between Providence and Boston, and there's a lot of nothing to do. So we get drugs, assault and batteries, breaking and entering. Alcohol's really bad."
Yes, echoes Staff Sergeant Marti, the chief of the recruiting station: "Alcohol's worse than anybody's nightmare."
The new recruits are propelled from home by fear of failure and drawn here by their desire to be Marines. That is very different from what attracts American youth to the other military services. One current recruiting pamphlet for the Navy carries the headline "What's in it for you." For years, the Army has advertised under the self-actualizing motto, "Be all you can be." The Marines, by contrast, take an ascetic, even forbidding approach: "Maybe you can be one of us," one of "a few good men," "the few, the proud."
For high-strung Andrew Lee, rippling with muscles and tension, there was never a question about where he wanted to be. He grew up just across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in South Boston. The first such monument in the country, it displays the names of twenty-five dead. Some fifteen of those names are followed by the letters "USMC." He grew up with the brothers and cousins of those names.
Suffering from dyslexia, Lee never liked school much. But he loved the summers. As a teenager he began working as a lifeguard at South Boston's Farragut Beach. "I met this guy Herb Cavellas there," Lee will later recall. "He's the reason I joined the Marines. He was a quiet guy. He wore a 'Semper Fi' hat. He talked to me about Vietnam, where he was a scout/sniper. He talked to me about the Marines being a true brotherhood. Despite everything they went through-I wasn't there, but, you know, government lies, hypocrisy-they still hold true to the Marines."
One day late in 1994, Lee went downtown and signed up with the Marines on a delayed entry program. Then he caught a bus back to South Boston and told his parents. His mother, a social worker in a Boston school, was distraught. For months she tried to talk him out of it. "My mother, there's a real generation gap between she and I," Lee will later explain. "She's a good woman, an excellent mother, but she comes out of the Vietnam thing."
"She wouldn't hang up on me," recalled Sgt. Rodney Emery, Lee's recruiter, who would check up on Lee two or three times a month. "But every once in a while she'd voice her opinion." Lee's father, the principal of South Boston's middle school, wasn't much pleased either.
On the morning he was to "ship" to Parris Island, his mother got up early and made him a big breakfast. She cried the whole time.
Traveling with Lee from Boston is Charles Lees III, a big two hundred seventy-five-pound Samoan with a Band-Aid on his forehead. The wound on his head was sustained while trying to qualify for boot camp; just getting to this point has been a struggle for Lees. A graduate of Holy Cross, Lees was looking for something more in life than computer sales. He came into the recruiting office heavily overweight. The recruiters determined that he would need to drop forty-seven pounds simply to qualify to begin boot camp. They had him visit once a day, then twice, to exercise him into shape.
He reported as ordered the night before he was to ship, in mid-February. But he was still six pounds over the limit. The sergeants at the processing station dressed him in a heavy sweat suit and kept him running all night. To keep the weight off, he wasn't allowed to eat. When thirsty, he was given an ice cube to lick. Toward morning, he later recalls, "everything went yellow." He woke up on the floor, looking up at the master sergeant. In fainting he somehow cut his forehead. He was sent home to recuperate for two weeks.
So, by chance, Lee and Lees ship out the same day. The two Bostonians with similar names will become the heart of their platoon at Parris Island. Assigned by the alphabet to share a bunk bed, they become a team: Andrew Lee, the small, wiry, inarticulate leader by example, and Charles Lees, the hulking, reflective recruit who has the intelligence to teach his slower comrades, the maturity to know how to do it, and the physical strength to ensure that they listen.
Also part of the Boston shipment is Paul Bourassa, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts who enlisted after being fired by Ernst & Young. He broke the news to his parents over dinner at an Applebee's restaurant in Methuen, up near the New Hampshire border. "She began crying, made a scene. She said I was gonna die. My dad said I was crazy..
Parents' resistance to their sons' joining the Marines is common among this group. "My mother and uncles tried to talk to me. They didn't want me to go anywhere dangerous," James Andersen, one of five recruits shipped here today from Pittsburgh, says later. "I said, 'It's my choice, and I need it.'" The nineteen-year-old had been a shift manager at a Taco Bell in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park, "partying" every night; he "didn't give a shit about anything."
In eastern Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, Nathan Weber, who had been sliding from one dead-end job to another, enlisted and then went to a friend's house for dinner. When his friend's father heard the news over the meal, he gave him a disgusted look and said, "Kids these days want to be so tough." Several other friends, and his parents, are puzzled by his decision.
Failing to persuade her son to renege on enlisting, the mother of another Pittsburgh recruit, Joshua Parise, decided to wrest from the recruiting sergeant a promise that her son would be safe at boot camp.
Excerpted from SEMPER FI Copyright © 2003 by Clint Willis. Excerpted by permission.
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