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In 1989, Buzz Williams walked into a marine recruiting office to follow in the footsteps of the deceased older brother he grew up idolizing by signing up to join the Marine Reserves. Over the course of the next year, he would earn money to pay his college tuition...
In 1989, Buzz Williams walked into a marine recruiting office to follow in the footsteps of the deceased older brother he grew up idolizing by signing up to join the Marine Reserves. Over the course of the next year, he would earn money to pay his college tuition by devoting one weekend a month and two full weeks in the summer to the grueling and often dangerous rigors of military training, while enduring the jarring readjustment that occurred each time he returned to civilian life.
But Williams had no idea that even the newest reservists could find themselves on the frontlines of a battlefield in a matter of weeks. On August 2, 1990óthe day that he graduated from Light Armored Vehicle SchoolóSaddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait, and Williams' life would change forever.
Spare Parts tells the story of Williams' harrowing deployment to the Persian Gulf, where he would be thrust into battle only 38 days after being called up. Enduring both the condescension of full-time Marines and the danger of his limited training, he managed to form a core group that the struggles to gain respect from a military machine that viewed them as mere ìspare parts.î In gripping, you-are-there detail, Williams brings to life the physical and emotional trials he would face on the killing fields of Kuwaitó where some of the woefully underprepared Marines are able to rise to the challenge and others are broken by the horrors of battle.
A powerful portrait of one man's experience in battleóand of the reservists who stand ready to leave civilian life to defend our nation at a moment's noticeóSPARE PARTS adds a moving new perspective to the literature of war.
About the Author
A Marine Reserve combat veteran of the First Gulf War, Buzz Williams rose to the rank of company master gunner and has six years of experience as a Light Armored Vehicle crewman. A former National Teacher of the Year, Williams now serves as a secondary school administrator with Harford County Public Schools in Maryland.
Much of what my brother wrote I didnít understand, but that didnít stop me from emulating it as best I could. I marched everywhere, because Lenny wrote that marching was the only way recruits were allowed to walk. Any adult who talked with me was bombarded with sirs or maíams, as one of the letters described how my brother had been poked with a rifle butt for forgetting to say ìsir.î After I read the letters describing Lennyís rifle training, my mother never saw her broomstick again. I imagined shooting across the creek with it so I, too, could qualify ìexpertî as Lenny had.
After thirteen weeks and a dozen letters, I would finally be able to see Lenny on the parade deck for his boot camp graduation. Or so I had expected. But that day at Parris Island I saw someone new. He was a stranger capable of pushing his new wife away, robotically reciting a rehearsed phrase about not showing public affection. Everything was differentóthe way he walked, the way he talked, and especially the look in his eyes. In the decade that followed, Lenny occasionally visited, but he would never be the same. He was now a stranger with a rank instead of a name. His visits were never more than a few days, and my curiosity about the man he had become remained with me long after he left.
Missing my big brother became a familiar feeling for me, and nostalgic a recollections favorite pastime. I missed him at dinner when I couldnít reach the potatoes, and at night when the dark scared me to sleep. But I missed him most of all on the streets of West Inverness, the working-class suburb in Baltimore County, Maryland, where my family lived. Our neighborhood was a place where a chubby kid like me, without a protective older brother, was easy prey for bullies.
As I read and reread the letters he had written from boot camp, I tried to imagine transforming myself as he had.
In 1980 we moved to Harewood Park in rural Chase, Maryland. At the same time, Lenny transferred from his active-duty station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, to a new civilian position as an ordnance specialist at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. This meant he could return home on weekends, and it felt as if I had my big brother back at last. During our time together Lenny taught me the Marine way to do just about everything. I ran with him while he sang cadence, made my bed like a rack in a squad bay, and even cut my hair in Marine buzz-cut fashion. More than anything else, though, was the confidence I gained by learning how to fight. He bought me boxing gloves for my twelfth birthday, and spent countless hours sparring with me.
I got the chance to test my new skills that winter when Butch, an eighth grade bully, threatened to kick my ass after school. During our bus ride home, I exited at his stop instead of mine, after which the entire bus emptied. Remembering what Lenny had taught me about the element of surprise, I drove my fist into Butchís nose as he stepped off the bus, sending him under the back wheels, bloody and crying. That fight helped me to make a name for myself in the new neighborhoodóliterally. Walking away from the bus stop, I overheard one of the kids say, ìThat kid with the buzz-cut can fight!î
Iíve been known as Buzz, or Buzz-Cut to a select few, ever since.
In 1982 Lenny divorced his wife, and soon relocated to an airbase outside Visalia, California. The next year he remarried. I wouldnít see him again until the summer of 1984óI was a sophomore in high school. At sixteen my life centered around my new driverís license and the motorcycle that gave me my independence. But normally it was parked by sunset, as my father considered night driving too dangerous. So when he allowed me to go out cruising on my motorcycle with Lenny at ten oíclock one humid Saturday night, when my brother was visiting us, it was a big deal.
We toured our old neighborhood, and the greater Dundalk area surrounding it, Lenny in front and me clutching on to him. As we rode, he yelled over the hum of the engine as he pointed out landmarks.
Our old house . . . the apartments where his first wife had lived . . . the woods he used to hide in when he hooked school . . .
We rolled to a stop at a red light in front of the North Point Business Park. Lenny pointed left to a lighted sign that read armed forces recruiting.
ìIs that where you joined the Marines?î I asked.
His helmet nodded in front of me. I was filled with questions about the recruiter and the Marines. That night I expected to be able to talk with Lenny, man-to-man for the first time, and have the chance to see the world through his eyes. But I wasnít prepared for half of what I saw when we stopped at the Circle Bar-B-Q.
The Circle was a favorite weekend hangout, and the parking lot was packed. Lenny reunited with some of his old hippy buddies there, and showed me how his crowd partied. That night Lenny gave me my first beer, introduced me to Led Zeppelin, and if I had not chickened out, he would have gotten me stoned and laid.
When I woke Sunday morning I knew that was the good-bye dayóthe day my brother drove off to wherever his other home was. After the night at the Circle, I felt as if I had just been introduced to my brother for the first time, and now he was already leaving. I cried as Lenny waved his last wave. It had always been that way on the good-bye day.
On Easter morning 1985 the phone rang and dad answered, expecting Lennyís voice; he always called during breakfast on holidays. But instead of Lenny, it was his new wife. She told my father that Lenny had fallen asleep at the wheel after a night of partying. He was in shock trauma in critical condition and it didnít look like he would make it.
When the second call came an hour later, I was in my room reading the letters Lenny had written to me from boot camp. For ten years they had been on the ledge of my headboard, ready to be read whenever I missed him.
My father came into my room to tell me the news I had been dreading.
My brother was dead.
As I sat beside the casket at the funeral, I searched for some way to connect with the memory of my brother. As the trumpet played ìTaps,î the Marines in the funeral detail began moving in unison with the precision of robots. As the solemn notes pierced the brisk morning air, echoing from the grassy hill in the distance, the flag was folded into a perfect triangle. It was amid the finality of the trumpet, and the folding of the flag, that I found my connection. That day I silently promised Lenny that ìTapsî would be something just between us. I vowed that I would never listen to it again as it played in honor of anyone else.
As our family made our final pass, my father, who had until then kept his cancer diagnosis from me, touched the coffin and whispered, ìYou wonít be lonely, sonóIíll be with you soon.î
Throughout the following summer I never admitted to myself that my father was speaking the truth when he had whispered to the coffin. Even as he lay bedridden, with a gaping cancerous hole in his side, I convinced myself he was just in one of his surgery cycles, and that heíd be well again soon. During my senior year of high school, though, it became tougher to hide the truth from myself. Dad was losing touch with reality, and his memory was fading. I still hadnít accepted the loss of my brother. Losing Dad was just too much. Vulnerable, and in the throes of depression, I found comfort within a new group of friends who taught me a new way to copeówith alcohol. The numbness of being drunk was welcome relief from the pain of reality, and the camaraderie among my beer buddies fed my hunger to belong.
During my senior year they had become my surrogate brothers, and we partied nonstop. My drinking intensified throughout the summer and into the fall, when I entered my freshman year at the University of Maryland. Being away from home and leaving my mother with the responsibilities of running the house and nursing my father seemed wrong. But going to college had always been expected of me, and during my fatherís last days of cogent thought he made two final requests of me: Take care of Mom, and graduate from college.
But being at college and being in college were two different things. While I resided on campus and was enrolled for twelve credits, I was hardly a student. On the rare day when I attended class, and even rarer occasion when I remained awake during class, my mind was elsewhere. By October my father had been moved to a hospice suite, where he lay helpless and emaciated.
Back at the dorm there was a red phone on the wall just outside my room. Every time that phone rang I feared that it was the call. There were many false alarms that month: a panicked call from Momóa ninety-minute drive to the hospitalóthen waiting, and waitingóand the long drive back to campus to carry on with the college-student charade. My beer buddies never let me down during those dark days. It only took one phone call to rally them, and before long I would once again be comfortably numb.
Dad passed away on November 1, 1987. Although I completed that fall semester successfully, I began to believe that fulfilling his wish for me to graduate from college was out of reach. The only thing I lacked more than motivation was money. My father had never been healthy enough to secure any significant life insurance, and my motherís pay didnít cover the monthly expenses we had. Our modest savings couldnít sustain us through the next year. College would need to wait.
Mom and I grieved differently. She turned toward God. I turned away. That summer I moved to Ocean City, Maryland, with my beer buddies. While I had convinced my mom that it was healthy for me to get away, there was nothing therapeutic about drunken teenagers sharing a beach house for the summer. Most of that summer remains blurry for me, the memories locked away in an unreachable corner of my mind.
When summer ended, my return home shocked me back into reality. Nearly a year had passed since my father had died, and I had honored neither of his wishes: I was neither in college nor taking care of my mother.
As September approached, I managed to pull myself together and enroll at Essex Community College as a physical education major. Being a gym teacher and coach had always appealed to me. While in high school I had looked up to my own gym teachers and coaches as mentors, and I liked the idea of being considered a role model for students.
To complement my studies I worked as a health club trainer, which also paid my tuition. Although I still drank heavily on the weekends, partying didnít fit the weekday schedule. I attended classes all day and worked in the health club until ten oíclock at night, Monday through Friday. During the week, studying replaced drinking as my escape from reality. Being lost in the books kept my mind too busy to allow my thoughts to drift back to Lenny or Dad, and it had the secondary effect of producing A grades.
Big Ray was a legend at the health club where I worked. He was a hulk of a man whose shaved head made him resemble Mr. Clean. He seldom spoke, but when he did speak he usually had something important to say, and people listened. Occasionally the room would fill with his voice, as he offered some political commentary or philosophical position on the discussion of the day.
Big Ray was interesting to me; he had been a Marine. Although I made it my business to talk with all the former Marines in the gym, telegraphing my obsession with the Corps, I had never talked with Big Ray. It was generally understood that Big Ray was to be left alone. The reason I knew he was a Marine was the faded eagle-globe-anchor tattoo on his right shoulder. I watched him from afar sometimes as he meditated between sets, always appearing to be in deep thought. While others looked at their reflections in the mirrors, Big Ray seemed to look through them, as if there was something on the other side of the glass.
After working at the health club for a year I had never talked with him, and probably never would have if it werenít for my compulsion to keep the dumbbells on the rack in numerical order. One day I had reached down to replace a one-hundred-pound dumbbell, but hadnít noticed that it was one of a set that Big Ray was using. Pushing my hand from the dumbbell, he wrapped his thick fingers around my wrist and jerked me into his face.
ìDo you have a death wish, son?î he yelled.
The room fell silent. Petrified, all I could manage to do was shake my head.
ìYouíd better have a good excuse for fucking up my routine!î
ìIím sorry, sir. I got carried away with straightening up and didnít realize . . .î
Big Ray started laughing.
He looked up at the other lifters still staring, ìOh, címon, people. Iím jerking his chain!î
Relieved, everyone joined Big Ray in a laugh at my expense. Helping me to save face, Big Ray called to me.
I was shocked that he knew my name.
ìI could use a spot here.î
Big Ray had always worked out alone. Bracing for another joke, I stepped up cautiously.
After his set he dropped the dumbbells to the floor and spun around to face me.
ìIím sorry about your brother and dad.î
Caught off guard, I fumbled for a response. ìHowíd you know about them?î
ìFor Christís sake! Iíve been listening to your soap opera for a year now. I think I know more about you than even you do.î
He was right. I saw some of the men in the weight room every night, and they had become like family to me.
Big Ray finished his last set, dropping the dumbbells to the floor with a crash. ìI know that life dealt you some fucked up cards. . . .î
Then he pulled something from his gym bag, and pressed it into my palm with both his hands.
Squeezing my hand closed within his grip, he leaned down, his face softening with a smile. ìSee my friend if you want to learn how to play your hand.î
He disappeared into the locker room.
Looking down, I saw a business card with red and gold embossed letters that read:
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RECRUITING
NORTH POINT BUSINESS PARK
STAFF SGT. W.D. STONE
The encounter with Big Ray kept me awake late into the night as I lay in bed thinking about the motorcycle ride with Lenny when we had passed that same recruiting station, and just how far I had drifted away from my childhood dream of becoming a Marine.
Just standing in the doorway of the recruiting office gave me chills. At the center of the room was a large oak desk, polished to high gloss, cleared except for a desk pad, miniñ flag stand, and nameplate that read, staff sgt. w.d. stone, usmc.
The far wall was covered with photos of Marines under the sign parris island graduates. The wall on the right was covered with an assortment of posters:
THE MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN.
THE FEW. THE PROUD. THE MARINES.
ONCE A MARINE ALWAYS A MARINE.
MAYBE YOU CAN BE ONE OF US.
The left wall was lined with bookshelves stocked with videos and binders with military acronyms stenciled onto their spines. Next to them was a gray metal wall locker with Marine uniforms organized meticulously enough to be on display at a museum. Atop the wall locker rested a white cap (I didnít know that Marines called it a ìcoverî at this point) with a gold eagle-globe-anchor emblem, and a shiny black billóthe same cap the Marines wore in the photos on the graduation board. As I was imagining how Iíd look wearing it, a hand squeezed my shoulder from behind and a powerful voice redirected my attention.
ìGood afternoon hard-charger,î he said. ìIím Staff Sgt. Stone.î
He towered over me, bending over to look me in the eye with a handshake and a Hollywood smile from ear to ear. Although skinnier than the Marines in the posters, everything else was as expectedóthe square jaw, flattop haircut, perfect uniform, and radio-announcer voice.
ìWhat can I do for you today?î he asked.
ìGood afternoon, Staff Sergeant.î I said. ìIím ready to enlist.î
Staff Sgt. Stone looked at me curiously. ìI donít usually hear that kind of commitment from the get-go. Whatís your story?î
ìI didnít want you to think I was undecided about joining,î I explained. ìMy brother was a Marineóaircraft ordnance at Cherry Point.î
Then came the rapid-fire recruiting questions.
Enlisted or officer?
What jobs interest you?
Have you taken the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery)?
Any ROTC or college?
When are you available to ship out?
Who knew there was so much to it? I just wanted to be a Marine, and hadnít thought the rest through. Staff Sgt. Stone spent the afternoon counseling me about my options. After learning that I was only one year from completing my associates degree, he tried to sell me the idea of going to Officer Candidates School. But as soon as I learned that officers didnít go to Parris Island, I dismissed that option. For me, Parris Island was the only passage into the Marines.
Changing his sales pitch to make active-duty enlistment attractive, he started talking about the aircraft ordnance MOS. My interest fizzled when I heard the minimum enlistment obligation was four years. Four years was a long time to be away, and after my tour Iíd still have two years of college left to earn my teacher certification. I didnít want to wait six years to begin teaching.
Feeling suddenly overwhelmed, I stood up to leave. ìWell, youíve given me a lot to think aboutóî
Reeling me back he said, ìWhoa. Donít leave yet. I havenít even told you about the reserve option.î
Although skeptical, I returned to his desk and listened.
The staff sergeant explained how being in the reserves was like having a part-time job that would pay me a salary plus provide tuition money through the GI Bill. All I had to do to become a Marine was go to boot camp the summer between the spring and fall semesters. Then I would serve one weekend per month until the following summer, when I would attend my MOS school. After that my obligation would become one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. Altogether it would be a six-year obligation. It sounded like the perfect option, allowing me to stay in college, experience boot camp at Parris Island, and even get tuition money.
ìAs a reservist . . . I would still be considered a real Marine, right?î I asked. The staff sergeant hesitated. ìIf you graduate from Parris Island, then youíre a Marine.î ìIs there a special boot camp for reservists?î
I wanted the same experience that Lenny had. I needed to stand on those yellow footprints.
ìAll recruits are mixed together,î he said. ìYouíll all be treated the same.î
ìCan I go to boot camp this summer?î I asked.
ìNope; you missed the window for reservists this summer,î he answered. ìBut if you sign up in the delayed entry program today, I can guarantee you a boot camp slot next summeróJune of í89.î
Satisfied with his answers, I asked what MOSs were available. He flipped through some more papers on his clipboard, stared at a chart on the wall, and then back to his clipboard. ìLooks like the only reserve billet available right now is armored infantryó0313, LAV Crewman.î
I was disappointed there were no aircraft ordnance positions, but in seconds my hands were filled with stickers, book covers, posters, and videos featuring the LAV. It looked like an amphibious tank with four wheels on each side instead of tracks. The clincher, though, was the latest edition of Leatherneck magazine. His pointing to that LAV on the cover sealed the deal.
ìMakes my dick hard just looking at it. Can you see yourself firing that bad boy?î
ìYeahówhere do I sign?î
A few days after enlisting in the Marine Reserves I first saw Gina, a petite Italian girl with silky black hair, tan skin, and an angelic face. She smiled whenever she passed me in the health club where I worked. Not only was she my type, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Gina was a beauty pageant winner, and way out of my dating league, which is why I never approached her. One evening, however, I took the advice of the health club matchmaker and asked her out. To my surprise she said yes.
Gina embraced the idea of being a Marineís girlfriend. During the six months leading up to boot camp she remained my steady girlfriend. It felt good to have someone who understood me, accepted me, and listened. Moreover, neither she, nor her parents, tolerated drinking. Since I wanted her more than I wanted to get drunk, I distanced myself from my beer buddies and dried out. With Ginaís support I was able to face my feelings about my brotherís and fatherís deaths for the first time. She was the only person with whom I had ever shared Lennyís boot camp letters, and she understood their significance.
In the months leading to my departure for Parris Island I read them regularly. They transcended written words and became portals into the past. Their pages fueled my passionate desire to experience that mysterious place where my brother had been transformed, and as June approached, the yellow footprints began to call louder than ever.
THE CONDENSATION FROM INSIDE the bus window made the foreign world outside barely visible. It was fitting that the first time I saw Parris Island it would be cast in a surreal haze. The interior lights came on, blacking out the windows. There was absolute silence. Then reality stepped aboardóa poster-perfect drill instructor.
ìGet off my frigginí bus!î he barked.
Suddenly there was mass hysteria and a panicked rush for the exit. I made my way out of the bus, riding a wave of human momentum that crested and crashed down right on top of themósixty sets of footprints stenciled onto the road with bright yellow paint. To everyone else they were training aids laid out to teach disoriented recruits how to position their feet in the platoon formation. To me they were launch pads into the world I had longed to be a part of for most of my life.
There we stood for the first time on Parris Island, four columns of fifteen bodies, perfectly aligned and covered. While most were shivering from fear and anxiety, I was in ecstasy. I was finally standing tall on the yellow footprints, as my brother had fourteen years before. The emotional rush lifted my spirits and cushioned my ego from the verbal assault being dealt by the receiving drill instructors. The rush was intoxicating. I was no longer just reading about recruit training. I was living it.
The yelling and shouting of the drill instructors became muffled as my thoughts raced forward. We were arranged tallest to shortest, which placed me farther back in formation than Lenny had been. If nothing else, I had to remember to say ìsirî to avoid being jabbed with a rifle the way Lenny was. But none of the drill instructors had rifles. That thought reminded me that I hoped to qualify as a rifle expert tooóif genetics played a part, I might.
The pain that shook me from my thoughts didnít register until I was facedown on the asphalt. I felt a dull ache at the back of my head from the drill instructorís blow, then strangulation as the back of my collar was yanked upward. My feet never touched the deck on my way up to vertical, and as I hung suspended by my cotton shirt I came face to face with the man who would make me a Marine.
Recruit Bell stood shaking at attention as Drill Instructor Sgt. Talleyís boots stopped and left-faced directly to his front. It was the first evening with our forming drill instructors, but each of the sixty rigid bodies of our platoon had already learned the bitter lesson that recruits should only look straight ahead. Bellís skinny frame wobbled from anxiety directly across the squad bay from me, and I struggled to stay focused on the nothingness just beyond his head.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley was a thick-framed, muscular Marine, with dark brown skin. Standing over six feet tall, he towered above most of us. His face was rigid, and his eyebrows seemed to be permanently fixed in anger. Although his entire uniform was immaculate, the thing that stood out the most to me was the way his sleeves were folded high on his arms, squeezing his biceps so tightly that his veins bulged in his forearms. The uneasy silence ended with a room-jarring bellow directly into Bellís face.
ìWhy did you join my Corps, recruit?î
I glanced for an instant to see his eyes widen, as his mind raced for a response. ìI asked you a frigginí question, boy . . . Now, why did you join my Corps?î
A second hesitation evoked an explosive reaction from the drill instructor, who snatched Bell from his feet, clenching the front of his collar with two fistfuls of material. Bellís boots rose six inches off the floor, swinging violently. My peripheral vision showed a blur of camouflage as Bell was slung around into the side of the top rack. The metallic ring echoed as the right side of his cheekbone caught the steel frame squarely. Bell shriveled to the floor, instinctively regressing into the fetal position. Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley stood above him, hands on his hips, looking around to catch any undisciplined souls giving in to the temptation to glance over at Bellís misfortune.
ìNow, listen up, recruits! Bell here is a nonhacker who apparently stumbled into our recruit training center without really knowing why he is here!î
My eyes darted down as Bell wiped the blood dripping from his mouth and nose onto his sleeve. Jesus, I thought. . . . Staff Sgt. Stone had told me we wouldnít be hit, or touched, or called names. This had to be a mistake.
ìHow about you, Nasty One?î Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley demanded of the next recruit. Recruit Hart stood scared, eyes wide, as he searched for the words caught somewhere deep in his throat.
Leaning into Hartís face, nose to nose, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley continued to escalate his volume with a rigor that shook the barracksí window frames.
ìWell, any day!î he screamed.
In desperation Hart blurted, ìSir, the recruit joined to be tough, sir!î
Smiling wryly as if he finally had some new material, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley backed off. He began pacing with his hands behind his back, staring at the floor as his heels struck the deck methodically with a hypnotic thud, thud, thud.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley was just warming up. ìSo you joined to be tough . . .î
He paused to let silence work its evil.
ìWell, I wouldnít want to disappoint you there, now, would I?î
More anxious silence.
ìWell?î he screamed, waiting impatiently for a reply.
We did not know yet that this was the standard cue prompting us to answer in unison. It was a new skill, and one in that was paramount in the world of recruits.
ìSir, no, sir!î rang out as every recruit gave it his best effort.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley refocused on Recruit Hart.
ìWhatís your name, tough guy?î
ìSir, the recruitís name is Hart, sir!î
ìPick up your footlocker and hold it over your head, tough guy!î Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley commanded, smiling. His evil grin widened when he ordered the other fifty-nine of us to raise our footlockers over our heads. ìLook at all these tough guys!î
The smile, we learned, was a deception. It always preceded a hellish series of games. The games were rote tasks, repetitive acts, and physical punishments designed to illicit frustration and rage within recruits. School was in session. Todayís lesson was ìWhy join the Marine Corps?î
Sixty recruits wobbled under the stress of their twenty-pound wooden footlockers. The sweat cascading down my forehead and through my eyes made the footlockers look blurry green.
ìDeck!î he ordered, and sixty footlockers slammed to the mirrorlike reflection of the squad bay floor. ìNope, too slow. Get íem back up, tough guys.î
The looks of fatigue from the first few repetitions were soon replaced with frustrated faces. Sensing our insubordinate thoughts, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley prepared to take us to the next level of game play. We stood frozen from anticipation in our places on-line. ìOn-lineî is the default position for all recruits in the barracksóthe position of attention with your boot heels touching the straight yellow line in front of the racks. The squad bay was a long rectangular room with thirty racks on each side, called starboard and port. That was where we stood, empathizing with Atlas under the increasing weight of our footlockers. Finally Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley gave us our next command.
Each of us handed our footlocker on to the next recruit to our right. The last recruit on the right passed his to the recruit opposite him to keep the suffering cyclical and continuous. The first few passes were rhythmic and orderly, resembling a human chain organized to move things efficiently. Only, there was no efficiency. There was, however, the futile passage of rough wooden footlockers that scratched and splintered against our forearms, exposed by rolled camouflage sleeves. I naively believed we would stop after about a minute. We were pitiful.
I would learn that pity was a foreign emotion to drill instructors.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley growled, ìFeeling tough yet, girls?î
A mixture of sir-yes-sirs and sir-no-sirs communicated our mounting confusion and signaled a breakdown in unity. Like trained dogs we would perform on command.
ìMove!î snapped Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
Sixty salivating dogs barked, ìFaster, sir!î reinforced by an accelerated series of commands.
The directions came faster. ìMove!î
Our response kept pace. ìFaster, Sir!î
Meanwhile the rhythm and order were giving way to the lactic acid building in our muscles and the desperation building in our minds. I was tossing each footlocker to my right and looking left without knowing, or caring, if Watkins managed to receive it. Wilson to my left was rushing, too, and I wanted to be ready.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talleyís threats were painful to hear. ìGo ahead . . . drop one of my footlockers . . . and I guarantee there will be hell to pay!î
Those were the last words before the inevitable happened. In hindsight itís clear that the goal of this drill was never success. The drill instructor would push us to the physical, mental, and emotional breaking point many times at Parris Island over the coming weeksóin this case that point was a dropped footlocker. Failure fragments personal security. Consistent failure replaces self-confidence. Absolute failure erases identity.
But the mind of a recruit tells him that he should have been able to meet the drill instructorís expectations. We had believed success was possible, and we had failed, yet again. Thus the punishment that followed was just and deserved. Lesson one. We were inadequate. We were worthless. We were the myriad of condescending insults that Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley sent washing over us like floodwaters that drowned our very being.
ìFine. We just want to piss off the senior drill instructor by abusing his gear. Oh, we are gonna play, girls. The games have just begun.î
I felt tears begin to well up. My muscles ached and my head was spinning. I knew that some of the smaller recruits were ready to pass out from heat exhaustion. The temperature on Parris Island in June was routinely in the high nineties, and the unbearable humidity left us sweat soaked from morning until night.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley pressed on. ìGet íem up. Now!î
Mustering enough momentum from the help of a lifted knee, my footlocker loomed overhead once again.
He sounded the next order. ìQuarterdeck!î
Confused recruits stood, gasping for air, hoping someone knew what to do. It was the first time we had heard that command.
ìGoddamm it!î yelled Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley. ìRun to the quarterdeck!î
He pushed recruit Lambert into recruit Lyons, and like dominos sixty recruits learned that falling and crawling toward an objective was preferred over standing and wondering. A chain reaction of scurrying bodies headed for the front end of the squad bay just outside the drill instructorsí officeóthe quarterdeck. I was close to it and among the first recruits to enter the lobbylike area. Relief at such a short move was soon replaced with the realization that sixty recruits and their wall lockers could not fit into the space. Nonetheless, the last recruits to charge were not going to be caught disobeying an order, so they rammed full force into the herd of camouflage. Wooden boxes crunched against flesh and bones, manufacturing bruises by the gross. I was smashed against the far wall and squeezed until I lost my breath. Over the sounds of agony and pain we heard the next command:
ìRear hatch!î called Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
The pressure released as the accordion effect reversed itself and the outer recruits headed for an equally small area on the opposite end of the squad bay. Before the last of us were able to avenge ourselves with our own violent assault on the group, he called out, ìQuarterdeck!î
Back and forth we ran, then hobbled, and ultimately limped. We had been reduced to a human slinky spring with which Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley could amuse himself.
Finally back on-line we were given a reprieve while the inquisition continued.
ìDo we feel tough?î
ìSir, yes, sir!î gasped sixty winded recruits.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley stopped at the middle of the platoon and left-faced smartly. ìWhatís your name, tough guy?î he asked.
ìSir, the recruitís name is Simons, sir!î
ìWhat question am I going to ask you, boy?î
ìSir, the drill instructor is going to ask why this recruit joined his Corps, sir!î Simons answered.
ìSo youíve been thinking of an answer, right?î
ìSir, yes, sir!î
I was praying he would give the right answer, if there was such a thing as a right answer. I know each of the others was saying that silent prayer, too, in the uneasy silence that follows such questions.
ìWell! Donít keep it to yourself, there, Simons. Let us all in on the secret.î
Not so sure about himself anymore, he hesitated before answering. ìSir, the recruit joined for discipline, sir.î
I looked across at Bellís face, flushed with emotion, one side still swelling from the earlier collision with the rack. His lip was the size of a golf ball, and his eye was already purple. Bell, like most of us, was fighting back tears. It was the kind of rolling emotion that starts in the pit of your stomach and crawls its way upward into your throat. Each time it creeps up you swallow hard to suppress it for a few moments, only to have it come back again even harder, forming a lump in the back of your throat.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley turned to look at his partner, Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner, just entering from one of the hallways emptying into the quarterdeck.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner was as tall as Drill Instructor Sergeant Talley, but much skinnier, and looked less threatening. His blond hair was long enough to part on the side, and his glasses made him look more like an accountant than a drill instructor.
ìIt seems as if Simons joined for discipline, Drill Instructor,î sneered Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
Simons, realizing that his response was about to result in more punishment for the platoon attempted to recant. ìSir . . . Recruit Simonsóî
But he was immediately stifled by the charge of Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
ìShut your suck-hole, you nasty thing. Did I tell you to run your suck?î
Again, Simons attempted repairs, but the damage had been done, and his attempts only worsened the storm headed our way. ìSir, the recruit thoughtóî
This time his words were cut short by the thick fingers of Drill Instructor Sgt. Talleyís right hand as he snatched Simons from the safety of his place on-line. He was gasping for air as the material of his collar closed in tightly around his throat. His feet were kicking and thrashing. The sheer strength of Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley left us in awe. He was able to handle a 150-pound man like a rag doll. Moreover, he carried out his barbaric acts without remorse or sorrow, or any of the traits we attribute to humans.
ìHeís right about one thing, Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner . . . he is an undisciplined fuck!î We were left standing at the position of attention, straining to hear Simonsís fate as he was pushed out of the rear hatch. The metal stairs rang loudly as Simonsís body was dragged unwillingly down three flights to some unknown fate. As we listened in horror, Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner noticed a recruit swaying from the dizziness that came from locking oneís knees for long periods of time. Knowing it wouldnít be long before we had a body fall out unconscious, he ordered us into the head to fill our canteens.
On his command, ìReady . . . face!î fifty-nine bodies pivoted toward the head while sounding off the ditty, ìCock and drive!î These ditties were the verbal cues that helped new recruits move in unison while facing and marching. The next command followedó ìReady . . . move!îóand the recruits on the right side of the squad bay stepped off quickly to file in front of the sinks. We waited at attention with our canteens clenched in our left hands, braced against our forearms, bent at the elbow ninety degrees, and held parallel to the deck. We moved like robots.
On the command ìReady . . . fill íem,î we hurried to turn on the faucet and jam our canteens in to get them filled. God help the poor son of a bitch who failed to get his canteen filled. Filling canteens and drinking lukewarm water were high-priority rituals for recruits at Parris Island. It was considered a sin to get sick from dehydration. We learned that heat casualties, as they were called, were the lowest form of scum on the island. They embarrassed the platoon with public failure. Worse yet, the senior drill instructor, or ìsenior,î as he was more commonly called, would catch hell from the company commander, and probably be investigated for negligence. Not a day went by that Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner didnít threaten us for even thinking about embarrassing the senior by falling out with heat stroke.
So we filled our canteens and waited to hear ìYouíre done!î After capping our canteens we faced and moved back on-line, but, as expected, not quickly enough for Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner.
ìSo we want to take our sweet-ass time getting on-line . . . fine. We can play.î He opened the rear hatch and called out, ìGot room for fifty-nine more bodies? Weíve got ourselves some lollygagging slackers!î
ìSend íem!î invited Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
Once we were told to get out, we charged the rear hatch. Fifty-nine racing frantic lunatics clawed and scratched to get through a thirty-six-inch hatch, afraid to be accused of not putting forth a maximum effort.
While sprinting for the hatch, and observing the futility of such an exercise, I flashed back to my first days of school. I thought of how my kindergarten teacher had worked all year to teach us to exit and enter doorways in an organized, safe, and linear fashion. In a single afternoon one Marine drill instructor had managed to undo twelve years of learning, and unleash the beast within all of us. Darwin would have been delighted to witness the fittest survive, and the weakest suffer, in the doorways of our squad bay that day. I was elated to fight my way out of last place, and stepped onto the bodies of those who fell before me.
Once bottom-side, we staged our canteens on the deck and fell out into the pit, a twelve- foot-by-twenty-four-foot rectangular sandpit bordered with railroad ties. We joined Recruit Simons and fell into formation. The next ten minutes would be the most painful and miserable of my life to that point. Every time Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley called out a new exercise, we performed it. Not just performed it, but executed it with a life-and-death passion.
The drill instructors called this type of forced calisthenics ìdigging.î Although our introduction to digging took place in the sand pit, we soon discovered that recruits could be dug anywhereóthe most common site being on the quarterdeck of the squad bay. Digging was a brief and embarrassing ordeal at best, but long and a excruciatingly painful one at worst. Our first time being dug in the pit happened fall in the latter.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talleyís voice faded in and out of my consciousness.
ìGo ahead and slow down, you lazy maggots! The slower you go, the longer youíll stay! We quit when I get tired, and youíre not making me tired, ladies!î
When he grew bored with the insults, he switched exercises.
As we threw ourselves facedown, the heel of a boot caught me in the nose. I screamed out in pain, only to have my mouth filled with spraying sand. I could feel the warm blood mixing with the abrasive crystals covering my lips and chin. It didnít matter.
What mattered was getting the job done and meeting the drill instructorís expectations of performance. Faster. Harder. Higher. More. Sand had entered every orifice of my body. I felt it scratch under the lids of my eyes, cake inside my ear canals, and clog my nose, robbing me of the air I needed to continue. Scoops of it entered my trousers from behind, each time we transitioned from our backs to our bellies or our backs to our feet. It was grinding away under my arms and at the tender flesh between my legs. It was like being in a carwash where sand was being blasted into my body instead of water. Side-straddle hops, push-ups, sit-ups, bends-and-thrusts, mountain climbers, knee bends, and leg raises. The transitions continued.
ìOn your belly!î
ìOn your back!î
Belly . . . back . . . belly . . . back.
After calling out a series of seat and feet commands, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley gave up using words and just moved his index finger up . . . then down. It amazed me that that one man could hold such amazing power. Simply flexing one joint of his finger resulted in sixty grown men flopping, flipping, sweating, and bleeding, all with the common goal of making the torture end.
As an education major I had studied instructional methods, but nothing I had been taught resembled the methods of Marine drill instructors. In this school, teachers didnít muddle through lessons with ìdisruptive behaviorsî and ìnoncompliant attitudes.î There was no ìdevelopmental appropriatenessî to lesson planning and no endless search for ìmotivational activities and strategies.î Drill instructors relied exclusively on traditional direct instruction. They focused on one objective at a time, gave instructions, and provided practice until everyone demonstrated mastery. The reward for learning was an absence of punishment. The consequence for failure was pain and suffering.
As I continued whaling away in the sandpit, I tried desperately to figure out a good answer in case I was asked why I had joined. A plethora of inane reasons flashed through my mind like a slide show in slow motion. I remembered specific posters and pamphlets, advertisements on the television and radio, and the recruiter who had visited my high school. I didnít have a good answer. My thoughts began to take a cynical turn.
It wouldnít be long before we would trade the numbness of the culture shock of joining the Marines for rage and resentment. We had been fooled by the military marketing masterminds. Honor. Courage. Commitment. The uniform. These clichÈs have stood the test of time and have led even the brightest of scholars to stand on the yellow footprints. I had already learned that the truth of Parris Island was not as glamorous as my fast-talking recruiter had portrayed. Nor was it the adventure that the posters claimed. If the truth were printed, and naive young men were not blinded by promised pageantry, I thought few would volunteer. The truth hurt.
The next command, ìLeg raises!î offered a glimmer of hope. ìKeep those legs off the deck for one minute and we go homeóbut if one of you nasties drops his boots, the clock restarts.î
At that moment home seemed a million miles away. By the end of this day it would be a challenge to remember it at all. Then Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner started humming the tune of the Olympic games. I think this was supposed to piss us off, but it actually took my mind off of life in the pit. I was only beginning to learn how to use my mind to get through the misery and pain. It would become a necessary skill for survival in the days, weeks, and months to come.
ìOn your feet!î directed Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
He walked around the platoon to assess the damage, silhouetted against the orange glow of the setting sun. We were weary and emotionally spent. Most of us were in pain, and all were now saturated with the legendary Parris Island sand. We crudely turned and walked out of the pit, characteristic of raw recruits who have not yet mastered the precision of marching drill movements. The privilege of drilling was reserved for recruits farther along in their training, and even then they marched only when the drill instructor was pleased with their performance. Since neither case applied with us, we moved out with the finesse of a herd of cattle. We stopped when each recruit stood over his respective canteen. It seemed like such a long time since we had put them down.
ìPrepare to drink!î was the next order.
Our bodies tingled as synapses fired in our brains, alerting even the most dense recruit to anticipate the coming command.
Sixty recruits simultaneously bent over, unscrewed their canteen caps, and began to guzzle. We remembered the punishment of a past lesson. No one removed the canteen from his lips until the next command was given, even if the canteen was empty.
Sixty hands dropped as we screwed the caps on and returned the canteens to their resting positions atop our left forearms.
This time the fight to reach the top was complicated by the fatigue from our battle with the pit. Endurance was the criterion for success and a totally different group of recruits lay bewildered at the foot of the stairs, brandishing tattoolike bruises from the soles of their comradesí boots.
The safety of being back on-line was reassuring, because it signaled a transition of some sort. Hopefully the games would cease, and we would discover the answer the drill instructors harbored. Even though the drill instructors arrived thirty seconds behind the last recruit, we didnít dare speak to each other. Noise discipline was a must for recruits, and only the bravest, or most stupid, ever dared to squeeze in a spoken word without permission. Instead we used gestures to communicate, but even those were limited to the recruit directly across the squad bay. Recruit Bell made eye contact with me and nodded his head toward the rear hatch to signal the entrance of the drill instructors. Our eyes snapped to the front. Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner repeated the sequence of commands that led us into the head to fill our canteens. Once back on-line we received our next lesson in gamesmanship.
The silence ended far too soon.
ìYouíve got one minute to sound off the correct reason for enlisting in my beloved Corps, recruits!î
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley stalked us with his hands on his hips, just below the ebony glow of his black patent leather belt. His elbows antagonistically brushed the chests of the recruits as he moved, and he drove his heels deliberately into the tile floor. It was like a violent game of roulette and none of us knew who would be the next recipient of the tyrantís wrath.
ìTen . . . nine . . . seven . . . three . . . one,î he counted. This was the typical counting sequence of an impatient drill instructor, overanxious to move on to the consequence for failing the clock.
Then Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner joined in the fun and games. He often took a more sarcastic approach than did Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley.
ìOh, Iím sorry, ladies, but it appears our time is up,î he said. Using his most exaggerated television-game-show-announcer voice, he followed with ìDrill Instructor, tell them what theyíve won!î
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley interrupted the satire.
ìPrepare to drink. . . . Drink!î
Up went the elbows and down went the water. Throats contorted and abdomens bloated as unnatural volumes of water were forced down against gravityís best wishes. We had consumed two quarts of water in less than five minutes, and the smaller recruits were struggling to keep it down. We were now ordered to file into the head a third time to fill our canteens with the bitter lukewarm water.
Once back on-line he continued with his rhetorical questioning. ìWere you all on drugs? Is anyoneís brain working here? I canít believe it! Not one of you numbskulls can tell me the reason . . . the purpose . . . the function . . . of Marine Basic Training!î
Our minds scanned. We weighed the pros and cons of answering. Would it be an act of courage, or stupidity? Should we risk it?
My knees weakened. I felt a shiver in my spine that sent a wave of muscle spasms through my limbs. It is the kind of sensation that occurs when the inevitable is about to happen and nothing you can do will stop it. I closed my eyes when his voice boomed again.
ìPrepare to drink. . . . Drink!î
Reluctant arms twisted caps and elevated canteens. The first to go was Carr, a short and skinny recruit, who was no more than 120 pounds. I risked looking to the side to see his diaphragm heaving. His lips could not contain the bile that was pumping from his guts. The dam burst with a pressure that sent vomit spewing across the squad bay onto the recruits on the starboard side. No one laughed. It was pitiful. Worse yet, it was contagious. The stench began to waft and permeate the air surrounding the rest of us. A second recruit let loose, and the remnants of dinner made their way across the once shiny floor. The odor, combined with the grotesque kaleidoscope of regurgitated food chunks, acted as the catalyst for a massive chain reaction of projectile vomiting. Somehow I managed to keep my water down, although most around me did not.
Where were the drill instructors during all of this sickness? I imagined them high-fiving each other on the quarterdeck, laughing and trying to keep their perfect uniforms from getting splashed. After about two minutes of vomiting the recruits returned to their vertical positions on-line. Surprisingly, the drill instructors walked right down the center of the floor, their boots sloshing through the mess as they would through puddles on a rainy day. It was a rainy day for us. Certainly it was the most difficult day of my life up to then. And it was about to get worse before it got better. We filed into the head to fill our canteens for a fourth time.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley lowered his voice. ìNow, recruits, the senior is coming in to tuck you babies in tonight, and the squad bay will be spotless.î
I could barely stand still and avoid throwing up. There was no way I could clean this floor, I thought. I rationalized I would not be involved, since the mess wasnít mine. That was the faulty thinking of an egocentric civilian.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley faced Recruit Carr and challenged, ìWell, what are you going to do about this frigginí mess you made, boy?î
Recruit Carr stood stiff and scared. ìSir, clean it up, sir?î
ìAre you asking me or telling me?î
ìSir, the recruit will clean up his mess, sir!î
ìOh, you bet your sweet ass youíre gonna clean. But itís not your mess. Itís our mess.î
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley had introduced another tenet of recruit training: There are no individuals in the Marine Corps, only the platoon as a wholeóthe team.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner approached Recruit Carr and leaned into his face, apparently disgusted with the situation. ìWell, any frigginí day!î
Dazed, Carr blurted, ìSir, the recruit needs a mop, sir.î
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley guided Carr by his shoulders to the center of the squad bay. ìRecruit Carr has disrespected our house. He has embarrassed himself, and the platoon.î
Carrís eyes closed slowly, as he steeled himself for whatever was coming. Our trainingís unpredictability was devastating for me, and I assumed it was the same for my fellow recruits. We functioned more like animals than people, reacting without logic or rationale. The higher levels of thinking and feeling had already atrophied, leaving only our brain stems to govern primal instincts and survival reflexes.
Surely the drill instructors couldnít have expected such a small recruit to absorb that much water. Were they crazy? It seemed like abuse! My curiosity turned to anger, and adrenaline fueled the rage developing within us all.
But now there was only silence.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley walked to the quarterdeck and executed an about-face maneuver. ìYou donít rate a mop,î he commanded. ìUse your blouse!î
Carr slowly started unbuttoning his camouflage jacket, only to be jolted from his stupor. ìGoddammit! Did I say take your blouse off? Now, drop and start pushing!î
Carr must have turned something off inside. He flopped from his belly to his back in the pungent puddles. Although it was still wet and sandy from the pit, the material in his cammies still managed to absorb most of the moisture on the deck. Pleased with his creative solution to cleaning the deck, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley ordered the remaining fifty-nine of us to join Carr in the housekeeping efforts. Within seconds the floor was covered with camouflage-covered bodies writhing on the floor.
We then were ordered to do calisthenics for a few minutes, and then low-crawl under the eighteen-inch space between the racks and the floor. It wasnít so easy for me to turn the switch that Carr had found. I gagged repeatedly, and struggled to choke back vomit. Worse, I could no longer hold back the water in my bladder. I briefly considered requesting a head call, but quickly dismissed the thought. After surveying the mayhem I chose the less confrontational alternative. As my bladder drained, a warm sensation spread down my legs, further saturating my trousers and socks. I wasnít as embarrassed as you might expect. The standards of conduct were different on the Island. It didnít seem wrong to me, and not a single recruit in the platoon would have acted differently.
Once we were on our feet I glanced briefly to see the faces of those across the squad bay. Bell, with his swollen lip, was angrier than ever. To his left Brady was grinding his teeth and flexing his jaw muscles to ebb his frustration. On the other side of Bell, Anderson stared with an absence of emotion, restraining his anger with clenched fists hidden tightly by his side.
My observations were cut short by Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagnerís voice.
We collectively pivoted toward the quarterdeck and filed off into the showers, wearing our uniforms. I shared the shower stream with two other recruits I didnít know. We didnít make eye contact to avoid the perception that we were talking. The water was liberating and refreshing as it washed away the slime and sand.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagnerís voice sounded sharply over the hiss of falling water. ìStrip your filthy little uniforms off and start scrubbing your bodies. Youíve got five minutes.î We worked feverishly and silently. Not stripping would have assured that I made it back on-line in time, but the others were risking it, and the thought of keeping that putrid sand- encrusted uniform on made me gag again. With my uniform in hand I rinsed my body for thirty seconds and then sprinted to the clean cammies in my footlocker.
We could hear the threatening countdown from the quarterdeck as Drill Instructor Sgt. Wagner called out. ìFour minutes left!î
The nearest recruits to him then called out the same, ìFour minutes!î Then every recruit repeated the call, ìFour minutes!î until we were certain that the drill instructors had heard our affirmation. When the one-minute warning sounded I was nearly dressed, determined not to be late. Being dressed on time would keep the drill instructors and Recruit Morrison, my squad leader, off my ass.
As squad leader, Morrison was responsible for the performance of fourteen of us in first squad. Whenever any of us was dug, in groups or as individuals, the drill instructor would dig him too. That was how the drill instructors motivated the squad leaders to keep the recruits under their charge ìsquared away.î Morrison hated to be dug. But instead of teaching us, or leading us, he preferred to threaten us.
Acting more like a junior drill instructor than a recruit, he screamed his mantra, ìI better not have to pay for you, First Squad! If I pay, youíll pay!î
Morrison wasnít half the leader that Guide Carey was.
As guide, the drill-instructor-appointed recruit platoon leader, Carey was responsible for all sixty of us. Because he was usually punished whenever any recruit in the platoon was punished, he endured more digging than any of us. Yet, he never seemed to take it personally. Even with only half of the recruits dressed, and punishment looming, he calmly walked from one end of the squad bay to the other, showing the faster recruits how to help the slower ones get dressed.
It was an amazing sight, really. Following Careyís directions Recruit Myers was fastening Brockís belt, while two other recruits were tying his boots, and a fourth was buttoning his blouse. It was a lesson in sacrifice and teamwork, with the ultimate goal of accomplishing the mission together and avoiding punishment.
By the time the countdown from ten seconds had commenced, all sixty recruits were standing tall on-line in clean cammies.
ìOutstanding!î beamed Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley. ìThere may be hope after all here, recruits.î
He continued to pace while the stagnant odor of lingering vomit filled the air. I hoped he would be bored with the questioning, and allow us to clean up the barracks and hit the rack. But he seemed more deliberate than ever.
ìRecruits, think long and hard before you answer. Get it right, and weíll clean the barracks and hit the rack. Get it wrong, and weíll play.î
In the movie Full Metal Jacket Recruit Joker impresses the drill instructor with his psychological insight when answering a similar question. The answer he gave was a possible answer, but wasnít worth the punishment if I was wrong. While I debated, the boots stopped and left-faced in front of me. My heart sank and suddenly I knew the fear that Bell, Hart, Simons, and Carr must have felt.
All that existed was the drill instructor and me.
ìWhy did you join my Corps, recruit?î
This was it. The fate of the platoon rested in my hands. My answer would either bring relief or misery, and there was no turning back. Silence would bring punishment. I had to say something, so I thought hard and fast. I could sense his impatience as I searched for my response. It was about to be too late. Then a burst of awareness passed through my mind and my voice started without getting permission from my brain.
ìSir, the recruit believes that any answer he gives will be wrong, sir!î
I was sorry immediately after I said it. Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley sighed a deep breath and rubbed his chin.
ìYou think this is some kind of mind game, recruit?î
I was sure he saw me swallow hard before attempting a reply.
ìYou a college boy, recruit?î he asked with contempt in his voice.
Knowing it was not the favored answer, I struggled just to tell the truth. ìSir, yes, sir.î His words now came faster and louder. ìNo shit. So this is a goddamned psychological experiment, huh?î Silence. ìSo the United States Government is paying thousands of dollars per recruit to allow drill instructors to shrink their heads?î
I didnít know what to say. I stood there lifeless, blankly staring at the drill instructorís chevrons. The least any recruit could do in this situation was keep his military bearing. It was all I had and I clung to it.
ìEver take a psychology class, college boy?î he snorted.
ìSir, yes, sir.î
He was reeling me in. Only, I couldnít stop it and had no idea where he was going with his line of questioning. I felt like a witness on the stand being badgered by an expert prosecutor. Ignorance was my crime.
ìWell, hereís a little brain teaser for you.î
He paused a moment to let reality set in. Nothing good could come of being singled out and addressed by the drill instructor.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley reached out with his fist and gently tapped me in the chest. Then he whispered in my ear, ìHit me back, or the platoon will pay.î
While I was thinking, he called out the command, ìEyes!î
All of the recruits replied, ìSnap, sir!î while turning their heads and eyes toward us. This command usually preceded a period of instruction that required recruitsí eyes and full attention. It was the only time a recruit was permitted to look at a drill instructor directly. Now I was the object of the platoonís attention and the next period of instruction.
I could either punch the drill instructor or let the platoon down. The former was risky, with fifty-nine recruits and a fellow drill instructor witnessing my assault. It was brilliantly applied psychology, forcing me into a no-win situation. Feeling like it would be better to save the platoon some grief, I took the high road. With all eyes upon me, I extended my fist and tapped his chest.
He turned to the platoon with animated disbelief. ìI think I was just hit by a belligerent recruit.î
ìEyes front!î returned the recruitsí eyes to their front and away from me.
ìNow, we canít tolerate insubordination. It would lead to a breakdown in order and discipline in the platooooon!î With the last word he reared back and thumped my chest with his fist, making me take a step back to regain my balance. It was a hard punch, but nothing that I hadnít endured in the back alleys of West Inverness.
The second whisper came, ìHit me again.î
I mustered up enough courage to punch him again, this time more assertively.
All of the recruits snapped their heads and eyes forward, so they couldnít bear witness to what was about to happen. Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley approached me like a shot-putter shuffling forward to generate power from his legs. After rearing back with his right arm he launched his open palm into my sternum, driving me up off of my feet and in between the racks. I crashed down on my coccyx bone and arched my back to keep from splatting on the deck. My momentum carried me over into a back roll and into the base of my wall locker, which came crashing down on top of me. Gasping for the air that had been sucked from my chest, I lay still and silent, angry enough to kill him.
The next sound was the platoon forwarding a call, ìAttention on deck!î as Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Parsons entered the squad bay. Several recruits righted my wall locker and helped me to my feet.
The senior was a short, stocky Marine with a round face. His hair was beginning to turn gray above his ears, which contrasted with his black skin, making him look old and wise. Once back on-line I could see that our senior was pacing and observing. How would he react to the acidic stench in the air, the disarray of gear, and the hardened looks on our faces? By the look on his face he was pleased: Blood. Sweat. Tears. Urine. Bile. Adrenaline. Testosterone. These were the ingredients he had requested of Drill Instructor Sgt. Talleyóthe master warlock simmering the cauldron of hatred.
Bell, Hart, Simons, Carr, and I had experienced the first of many hard lessons. We were the examplesóthe demonstrators for the lab. It was basic psychology. In one afternoon Parris Island had eradicated the civility, socialization, and self-respect of sixty grown men. It is a phenomenon commonly referred to in psychology as ìstripping.î The rules of life changed in one day. We were forced to forget all we had learned about personal conduct, social interaction, limits of morality, and logical consequences. We were no longer thinking individuals. We were reacting animals. We stood on-line, silently staring and getting in touch with the primary emotions that drove usóanger, frustration, and hatred.
After walking around the barracks several times, the senior addressed us.
ìApparently you have been training very hard with my drill instructors. They tell me there is some confusion about why you enlisted in the Marine Corps.î
I tried to think of what would happen next. Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley had told us the senior would be ashamed to find out his recruits were so misguided. I imagined the worst of course. This was only our first official training day and it had been pure hell. The senior, however, had a different role than the other drill instructors. He was tough, but he seldom punished us, leaving that task to his drill instructors. He demanded as much or more than the others, but his relationship was that of strict father to his sons. His tactics were more clever than bullying, and his influence more powerful.
ìSo we are all wondering why men join the Corps?î
Sixty voices boomed, ìSir, yes, sir!î
ìWell, this will be the fifth platoon that I trained, and none has ever figured it out on their own.î
The senior always put things in perspective. Though the universality of our ignorance was a relief, I was anxious for this sixteen-hour lesson to end. The senior explained the importance of training with a purpose, and validated our quest for the answer.
ìIf you pass your inspection I will teach the class my way. But if you fail the inspection, Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley will continue teaching you his way.î As he pivoted and turned away he bellowed, ìIs that understood?î
Our ìSir, yes, sirî reply reverberated in the barracks as the senior disappeared through the quarterdeck hatch.
We spent the next ninety minutes scrubbing the floor, the head, our uniforms, and our bodies. Every recruit had a job, and every recruit worked with life-and-death urgency. First squad worked especially hard under Morrisonís badgering:
ìThatís not how to make a rack, stupidóî
ìAre you blind? That mirrorís still smudgedóî
ìWeíll be up all night if thatís the best you can doóî
Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley got off on Morrisonís antagonism and enjoyed fueling his fire. ìIf we donít pass the seniorís inspection, Morrison, itíll be your squadís fault!î
It is this passion that visitors to Parris Island observe in awe. They see recruits busting their asses because of supposed pride and commitment, but few know the real reasons for our motivationósurvival. Our drill instructors watched as we worked like dogs to make our deadline. By 2000 hours the squad bay smelled as sterile as a hospital. We were proud to earn the privilege of sleep. We remained still, lying in our racks at the position of attention, waiting for the senior to pass judgment.
The lights clicked off, leaving the barracks dark, with only a glimmer of light from the head reflecting on the polished tile floor. The concentrated smell of Aqua Velva saturated the air, as it was both every recruitís mandatory splash-on, as well as the secret ingredient to the mop water. A hard summer rain pounded the cinder-block walls, the asphalt streets, and the metal awning covering the stairwell just outside the rear hatch. Around the squad bayís perimeter the sound of boot heels striking the deck continued in a monotonous hypnotic way for several minutes before we heard his voice. Recognizably the senior, but mysteriously sinister.
ìTonightís the night . . . dark and rainy . . . the perfect night for killing. They wonít expect us tonight. Theyíll just hear the rain. But we are ready. Swift. Silent. Deadly. Your rifle is loaded and locked. Your bayonet is fixed. Your eyes study the shadows. Tread lightly. Watch the Marine in front. Repeat the signal. We will make the first move. Itís a rush just before it happens. Muzzle flashes and the crack, crack, crack, of rounds. Itís a beautiful thingóa fire-team rush. Face-to-face with the enemy. Get up close if you can. Thrust the bayonet in. Donít forget to twist on the way out. Once you grate ribs youíll know heíll drop. The rainwater mixes with the blood. Dark red at first . . . then diluted to runny lines of cloudy pink. The smell of wet gunpowder . . . Ahhh, you gotta love that. Savor it. Youíve done your job. It was him or you. That is what we do. Listen to the rain. Stare into the night. Move on. There are others waiting to die tonight.î
He spoke with calm conviction. Our fatigue made his message seem cultlike.
As the senior walked to the quarterdeck and clicked on the squad-bay lights, we snapped out of the trance.
ìSome of you may have heard that the Marine Corps builds men,î he began. ìThatís a line of bull that some recruiter made up to tell your mommies and sweethearts. The reality is that we build warriors. Make no mistake here, recruits. You are here to learn to kill. Embrace the way you feel right now. Savor the taste of hatred you have for Drill Instructor Sgt. Talley. Remember it. Anger and hatred are necessary tools of the trade. And our trade is killing.
ìSo from now on when anyone asks you why you joined the Corps, you sound off loud and proud, ëSir, to kill, sir!í And when anyone asks, ëWhat makes the grass grow?í you sound off, ëBlood! Blood! Blood!í î
Then he ordered us out of our racks to the position of attention. He told us he was proud of our effort. As a reward he taught us a good-night ditty he had made up just for us. Each recruit waited for the command.
Sixty bodies robotically pivoted and stepped adjacent to each rack. Each pair of recruits faced off with arms outstretched and palms down on the taut green blankets. It was as if we were learning a new religion, with a new god, and new prayers.
On the seniorís cueóìWho are we?îówe began the ritual.
We slammed our arms down on the rack three timesóboom, boom, boom, echoed throughout the empty corridor and down the stairwells. Then we professed our faith:
We romp and stomp, bringing death and destruction!
Weíre ass-kickiní, Woman-lickiní, tough as nails and hard as steel!
And the best senior drill instructor on the Island isóour senior drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Parsons.
Following out chant the senior called, ìPrepare to mount. . . . Mount!î We clambered to our backs into the position of attention. Under the cover of darkness we lay still and licked our emotional wounds.
As the sound of the seniorís boots disappeared into the distance, I could hear the muffled sounds of young men attempting to silence their tears as they, too, cried themselves to sleep.