On Enlisting in the Marines
I have had a few very pivotal moments in my life, as most of you have. I’ve been all over the world and have lead more lives than one man should be allowed and for that I owe someone, somewhere, something that’s for certain. One thing though that I feel compelled to talk about today however, is when and why I joined the United States Marine Corps. A friend asked me about it the other day. My wheels started turning and I decided to write about it.
I Enlisted in the United States Marines Corps on September 21st, 1998.
At that particular time it would be fair to say I was not doing too terribly much that would ever amount to jack shit on a day to day basis. I had Graduated High School (Read: barely passed due to incarceration) a year earlier and had enrolled at the community college near my parents home in Summerville, South Carolina. School was largely wasted on me. Little I heard there ever resonated with me. That isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just how it was.
I had a job, or rather a series of very dead end jobs as I had a tendency to not give a shit. Working three stories up on an old ladder, scraping paint off buildings in down town Charleston was not turning out to be the big money maker I had thought it might. Consistency in the workplace was not something I had become known for either. A lack of references was also, clearly, a problem.
In fact, the only thing I was doing consistently was copulating with my girlfriend at the time and stealing shit. This was something I can say, admittedly, that I was good at. It was not however what one might call a “marketable workplace skill”. I guess that depends on who you ask but it was clear I was going nowhere at a high rate of speed.
I can’t remember what it was or what catalyst brought this about but one day, I think it might have been a Tuesday but could have been a Sunday, I drove in my Dad’s old dilapidated Volvo station wagon, navy blue with a roof rack ( this was dilapidated due to me driving it, ditching cops in it, off roading in it and screwing in it) to North Charleston where across the street from the Northwoods mall, a shit hole if ever there was one, were the military recruitment offices for that region.
Now, my father is an Army man. West Point graduate and Special Forces Army Ranger. I grew up on Military bases all over America and Europe. All I knew was Army and we were all brought up to be really proud of it, which I was.
It is fair to say that growing up with my father was a little on the strict side. Saturday mornings “Prepare to Field day!” and before cartoons, before going out to play with friends it was room cleaning and inspection. Literally, those were his words “I will inspect your room (my brother Jonathan and I shared a room for several years) at 1100 hours. IF it is not squared away you will do it again.”
Nothing but love and free living with my old man. People these days need more of that, to be honest. Despite how much you might hate it, things can be learned from it. We didn’t discuss “bully-free” zones in my family. Nobody had taken any “sensitivity training”.
It was a strict upbringing, one I railed against until the very end, but it instilled something in me that perhaps I have yet to identify, yet I value none the less.
I bend deeply but thus far I have yet to break.
So this was naturally the first place I wandered into, the Army recruitment office.
Just try and imagine this: I was 19 and looked a lot like the “Swamp Thing”. I was tall but not athletically built at all; basically just a fat kid with ridiculously unkempt mid length hair, glasses and a serious lack of interest in anything vaguely associated with contemporary ideas concerning hygiene or anything that might be mistaken for fashion. I wandered into the brightly lit and busy Army recruiting office wearing old jeans with a hole in the knee, not to mention the crotch, black beat up Nike high tops, a t-shirt with Wolverine on it and a red flannel shirt, stained with soy sauce from the Chinese buffet at a sad local strip mall near our home.
I’m sure that the recruiters must have been abso-fucking-lutely thrilled to see me saunter in there with my bag that read “The Green Dragon” filled to the brim with Comic books and some lead miniatures I had shoplifted from the dork shop near the mall only 30 minutes before.
The guy I talked to, I can’t remember his name but he was pretty decent to me, all things considered. I was sitting there, the bag of “Uncanny X-men” and “Prophet” comics and War Craft miniatures and a gas station “big gulp” super cup of Coca-cola on his desk while I told him in all seriousness that my old man had been a Ranger, and guess what? I was gonna be one too.
That’s right, just sign me up and ship me off, in fact, why not skip all this basic training bullshit all together? I’d been living with one of the most unrelenting task masters on the planet for 19 years thus far, shit, I was half a Ranger already.
A fairly lengthy talk then took place while he explained that I would have to wait about 10 months for various waivers I needed (waiver for arrests, waivers for a Ritalin prescription I never once took but sold to “friends” who were hooked on smack, and a waiver for being over weight and incredibly unfit) before shipping out.
This wasn’t going to work for me. I was ready to get my jail break on right then and there. Not next week, not next month, and I was damn certain that 10 months later would not workout. A lot of this had to do with my parents likely finding out very soon that I had dropped all my courses at school and lost my job, at some shit-head super market, again.
Army was a no go.
I walked out and then turned left walking to the next door that read “UNITED STATES AIR FORCE.”
This went much faster with the recruiter telling me point blank “Since you were arrested well, yeah no way, man.”
No big deal the Air force is for fags anyway, so I hopped up and left (my uninformed opinion at the time. Sorry to Jonathan and the CCT guys I know ).
The next door said “NAVY”.
Yeah, no way. My old man went to West Point. Join the Navy? AT the time I knew NOTHING about the military or Navy Seals or Navy EOD or anything at all for that matter.
I had trouble remembering to order fries with my Bic Mac.
That is where I was mentally.
I was hardly the informed and responsible decision maker. But at that time it was: Join the Navy? I might as well sign up for the fucking Coast Guard and get a sex change. This was my rational at that point.
So, the last door in this strip mall dump where the the US Military was fishing from the bottom of the barrel that North Charleston had to offer read simply “USMC.”
That’s right. No pictures. No decals. Just these old looking white/grey letters….”USMC”.
At first glance, I thought they were closed. I didn’t see any lights on inside and I saw no bodies. I kind of leaned up to the tinted glass door, the only door in this row of offices that was tinted and I peered in. I saw someone, tall and squarely built in a sharp looking uniform, emerge from the back zipping up his fly. Right after zipping up the fly he grabbed a can of something, could have been a Shasta, could have been a Budweiser and took a long drawn out pull from it. That was my signal, I opened the door and stepped inside; the first step that changed the rest of my life.
Inside this office, well, it was different than the other places. There were no lights on, in fact there were only two guys inside, compared to the 10 soldiers in the Army office. There were no inter-active displays or impressive posters or videos about your “soon to be exciting and meaningful new life” playing on new TVs.
There were no hip, cool, dynamically styled t-shirts or magazines laying in neat and tidy stacks on shelves for you, to be given as gifts or enticements to enlist. There were absolutely no women looking hot in pristine uniforms like in the Air Farce office.
What there was however, was a big cast iron pullup/dip stand directly to the left of the front door. I swear to god it stood there ominous and powerful, like an old worn cannon or a rusty guillotine.
Something that had given pain.
Something that had battered men.
Something that had broken them and taught hard, painful lessons. Lessons they sometimes wanted and always needed.
It was old and well worn, almost earthy. Medical tape had been wrapped around the handles for pull ups and dips and that tape was yellowed and cracked from usage and age.
“Go for it, knock out some pull ups.” Were the first words out of the recruiters mouth.
Without hesitation or real thought at all, I actually put everything, my comics and soda down and pulled up my jeans.
“Is it cool? really?” I asked him.
“Yeah, hop up there. Lets see what you got.”
I took a deep breath and for some reason I didn’t know and still cant understand I was feeling adrenaline pumping through me. I took another deep breath and jumped up grabbing the pull up bar. I felt the tape under my hands like sand paper, like the handle of an old worn out hammer that has driven many spikes into heavy wood. Then I began to pull.
“Yeah, show me what you got.” He said again, his southern accent thick. Voice deep.
What I had was 2.2 pull ups. That was it.
I dropped down off the bar and didn’t make immediate eye contact with this guy who without speaking to me, lightly knocked me out of the way and mounted the bar. He then proceeded to knock out 17 or 18, I can’t remember, perfect wide grip, dead hang pull ups in his impeccably starched short sleeve uniform. He dropped off the bar and looked at me while he tucked in and adjusted his shirt. When he had fixed everything he said simply:
“So, what do you need today?”
I talked to the recruiter and told him flat out that I wanted in. I had gone to the Army and they had jerked me around and I wanted to go; go someplace, anyplace and I meant NOW. Time was of the essence. He asked me rather simply, matter of factly, “OK, when can you leave?” This took me a bit by surprise. I said “tomorrow”. He said “Great, I need to do some paperwork with you.”
That day…I signed a lot of damn forms. I signed a lot of documents I didn’t really read.
But it turned out that “tomorrow” wasn’t going to happen though, for a few reasons. First, I was over weight and had to drop some pounds in order to make the weight/height limit. Not a lot, only about 20. Secondly the recruiters informed me that I needed to be “coached” on how to answer certain questions once I arrived at the Military processing center (MEPS) before going to boot camp. Questions such as “Have you ever taken drugs?” should be answered simply with a “No”.
“Have you ever been arrested?” was another one in which I was to use the “No” option. I was told by the recruiters that irregardless of any assurances given to me by anyone at M.E.P.S. or the processing center, I should just stick to the story or I would be denied enlistment and sent back home. I remember thinking to my self “Lying? No fucking problem guys.” I was in fact, a professional at it by that time anyway. I had been lying to other people and basically to myself for so long, I was certain that would be the easy part.
By some additional twists and turns of fate…things became even more interesting. Or perhaps bizarre is a better word. My high school friend Braden, through his own maze of un-logic ended up going to the recruiter as well and, low and behold, he and I would be going to MEPS and subsequently Boot Camp together.
On another visit to the recruiter we both declined the offer to sign the two of us up on what they were calling the “buddy program”. This was a system by which two new recruits could be contractually connected so long as neither were injured or held back in training, the two would share a bunk together in boot camp then go on to advanced training together (later, during the heat of the moment in boot camp we would both LIE and claim that YES in fact we HAD signed up under the “Buddy Buddy program” or the “Girly Girly Program” as that particular DI liked to call it).
Braden and I both chose to enlist as infantry Marines. I think our logic here was very similar. If you want to learn to do welding or computers or fix trucks or re-fuel jets or flip burgers there are 3 other services that one can enlist in that offer a lot more in terms of compensation both directly and after service obligations are completed. Keep in mind in 98 we were not at war and our enlisting had a lot more to do with our own personal agendas rather than some higher purpose, and I think that the both of us were looking for something deeper and bigger than ourselves, maybe even a brotherhood is the word, but I’m still not sure.
Burger flipping and computer programming….I honestly feel that neither myself or Braden were interested in this at all. I was going in the Marines because I wanted to learn to be hard and I wanted to know hard men. That’s what I wanted and from where I was sitting, it was the only service that seemed ready to help me with that. I think Braden was coming from someplace not unlike mine in that respect. Although we never directly discussed it, even to this day, I think he and I arrived at the same place by routes not so unfamiliar.
We went to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) at Fort Jackson South Carolina on September 20th. I will make no bones about it: MEPS sucked.
It’s your first taste of just how humiliating Boot Camp is going to be but you don’t realize it. You think its just MEPS that is so absurd. Of course, you’re wrong.
Duck walk naked from this side of the room to that side with 40 other naked guys. Take down your pants, bend over and spread your cheeks “son”. It goes on and on. To top it all off your surrounded by desperate, sad, unprepared people and their desperation reflects your desperation and apprehension and its all synergistic and awful.
Things were also lots of fun for me, do to the fact that in order to ENSURE that I made my weight check, my lovely recruiter Staff Sergeant Bishop, a great fucking human, had me pound a full bottle of industrial strength laxative the night before I left for MEPS.
Saying it” worked” would be a drastic understatement. In fact it continued to “work” well into the first two weeks of Boot Camp.
After a full day of pride stripping fun and games at MEPS, Braden and I along with the other people who passed and were sworn into the Armed Forces were then taken to a hotel. The next morning we would all ship out to our respective boot camps. That night was not the greatest. I remember some people drank a lot. Others watched TV. I did both and I enjoyed the Hotels toilet…many times. I had made my weight at MEPS but was still enjoying a fantastic case of geyser ass thanks to Bishop and his bag of tricks.
The next day everyone divided up and were put into vehicles for trips to there respective Boot Camps. Army guys going one way, Air Force another, Navy up to Chicago and the Marines to Parris Island in South Carolina. For some reason that I can’t recall, the amount of Marines traveling with us was very small….only about 10 people so we were all crammed into what was essentially a fucking mini van and driven the 3 hours to a place none of us would ever forget. Ever.
Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island-The Happiest place on Earth.
I can remember still that it was September and September in South Carolina means hot. Hot and sweat.
The AC in the van was on full bore but it didn’t matter, it didn’t help. I could have had a bag full of ice in my pants and still would have been sweating.
We tried to laugh away our apprehension, read that as: FEAR. Fear of what was coming. We were cracking jokes and reciting lines from “Full Metal Jacket” at the top of our lungs to the annoyance of other passengers who had just reached that edge a bit earlier than us and simply had nothing left to say.
They were too busy taking in the Swamp and jungle surrounding the place that we would all call home for the next 3 months.
“What makes the grass grow!?!” Braden shouted.
“Blood Blood Blood!!” I wailed back. Real mature. Full “Moto.” That would change.
Ironically, after Boot Camp I would not be able to watch Full metal jacket again for 2 and half years due to the queasy feeling I would get in my Stomach. It was that realistic and correct.
Generally, when one thinks of arriving at Marine Boot Camp there is an image of it being about 0430 and dark out, 30 or 40 kids on a big tour bus and a drill instructor coming on and yelling like all hell for them to “GET THE FUCK OFF, GET FUCK OFF MY GODDAMN BUS!!” and they all pile off and find yellow foot prints to stand on them while absorbing what is for most of them the most intense verbal attack to date in their small, weak lives.
Although, I am sure many a recruit has experienced this, on September 21st in ’98 it wasn’t like that, not for us, but it was really no better either.
We were arriving at Parris Island at around 1500 if I remember correctly and it was a nice bright sunny afternoon. As the van idly pulled up to the curb I watched, all jokes and yelling and movie quoting GONE…nothing but silence…frigid and total , as the biggest black man I had ever seen walked/marched/stalked up to the van.
His uniform, green slacks with a crease so sharp it could cut fire wood and a short sleeve dress uniform shirt that looked as if it had been tailor made to get around his massive chest, shoulders and arms was impeccable. His dark green/brown smokey hat was on his head and tilted forward at a horribly menacing angle making his eyes barely visible.
He extended one massive arm and slowly slid the door open. Beads of sweat were on his arm and already on my face and streaming down my neck and his voice was a low rumble with an accent I couldn’t place. He didn’t yell, in fact he spoke in a level tone yet his words split open my chest and vice gripped my heart. His voice sound like something out of a very deep, dark forest.
“Get the fuck out here….now.”
I can tell you that the 10 of us exited that god forsaken mini van with a speed and fervor I had never seen before and have never seen since. Each and every one of us was on a pair of yellow foot prints in seconds. Nobody needed to be told twice. Nobody seemed confused. Everyone simply moved quickly to avoid this massive human potentially snapping our collective spines.
The rest of that day and the next few are a blur. It was all processing. It was buzz hair cuts that make your scalp bleed. It was mistakes and the wrath of ever present hard men in smoky covers. It was getting uniforms. It was injections and vaccines. It was very little sleep. It was bad food and worse humiliation.
When you first arrive at “PI” you are in a processing platoon. You learn some basics and you get your gear issued to you and you get embarrassed and shit on a lot. That’s about it.
One particular memory from those first few days was our very first breakfast in the Chow hall. We hadn’t slept much…that means we hadn’t slept at all the night before and we were marched over to the First Battalion Chow hall or Cafeteria for a breakfast which was, I was to find out, fucking gross.
We had about 3 minutes to eat and then chaos ensued while DI’s (Drill Instructors) did their best to make everyone shit themselves while evacuating the Chow hall. Outside in that sticky South Carolina early morning darkness it was absolute and total Bedlam: A Total loss of Rational thought. People were going everywhere. One kid bolted outside only to trip head first off the stairs and land on his face in the dirt. He was hoisted up by two DI’s and his blood and injuries were checked out in about 5 seconds and he was told to “Suck it the fuck up” and get in formation. Guess what? He did just that.
Another kid just sprinted head long, wild eyed, into the darkness and trees. He had totally lost it and was running literally for his life. A DI had to take off after him and tackle the poor, confused bastard. It was complete insanity.
Of course the other thing I remember very clearly during this first few days was shitting. I was on the toilet so often it was depressing. Depressing and painful. Painful and burning. I remember all of us dashing into the “Head” or toilets when ordered because at Parris Island you shit and piss when you are told to do so….in theory, anyway. In reality some people just shit themselves or piss down their leg. I never did it, but I saw 2 people suffer this particular brand of shame. It usually happened in conjunction with a DI, or two, screaming at a high decibel about 2 inches from their eye socket.
Anyway, I remember the toilets at this barracks had walls but no doors and one time I went dashing into the toilet, literally threw some guy out of my way, ripped a button off my camouflaged trousers tearing them down and I barely got my ass on the cold, hard seat just as an unbelievably explosive torrent of diarrhea blasted out of my ass with a volume that to this day I marvel at. The most spectacular stench quickly followed and to see that scene you would have thought a DI had popped open a canister or tear gas.
The poor guy I had thrown to the side literally gagged, nearly vomiting and bodily lurched away from the opening of the shitter with such force he hit his head on the opposing wall. It was really a special time for me.
Thanks recruiter Bishop.
I was getting so popular.
After a few days we had been put into our Squad bay and we all learned that we were the platoon 1104. 1st Training Battalion Recruit Depot Platoon 1104.
The day we met our Drill Instructors was memorable.
First…they were all big as shit and black as hell. And I mean big and I mean black and they all had eyes that reflected nothing but disgust, disdain and your own pathetic weakness. Their movements and posture reflected pain and violence. Violence and Pain…little else, other than maybe pride.
That first day with them was real tea party. After introducing himself, our Senior Drill Instructor who would turn out to be a masterful fucking absolute sadist, whose name I simply cannot remember (see the comments for clarification here) called the other two out and again…bedlam. Absolute and total. It ensued and consumed. Foot lockers literally FLEW across the Squad bay. Voices that sounded more like angry, hungry animals than men roared.
Fail to open your foot locker fast enough or hadn’t gotten that combination down right yet? Roars of hatred, pain and anguish followed by a string of insults that would put Bob Saget to shame. All the reasons why YOU are too sad and insufficient to complete this training were made perfectly clear to you.
YOU can’t open your combination lock fast enough so people are going to die in combat.
It was insanity and to be honest, it cracked me up. I was not the only one though. I spotted a few people suppress laughter more than once. It’s just hard not to find it funny when a DI is tearing someone apart, unless of course that someone is you.
Quickly, in the first week it became clear who the cry babies were and let me tell you, there were many. Then you had the motivators who took it all real serious and never dared to color outside the lines. Then you had us. Braden was in this group, so was Haden and his bunk mate Cross, one or two other guys down the squad bay, and myself.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were “jokers” but, we just did what we did and in the end the yelling and pushups and “Smoke checks”, physical exercise (read:hazing) all became not only expected but sort of sought after.
Who can get in the most trouble today?
It would eventually come to that. But that first day with our DI’s was intense and long. Other moments with them would follow that in some ways defy explanation but it is fair to say that those moments are dear precious memories now. Like the time the Senior Drill instructor pitched a padlock across the squad bay and hit a recruit in the mouth.
Good training, that. Or the time another DI told me personally to “tackle” him if he lost it and assaulted another recruit. Right, I’ll do that.
So much happened in boot camp that it would be difficult to honestly recount it all here. The point of this was just to address why I did it and what my initial impressions were. If I had to choose one thing I learned there and later in the Fleet Marine force and by that I mean an INFANTRY MARINE UNIT, it would be, well one positive thing, it would be that I can survive. That’s what Marines do.
I bend deeply but thus far I have yet to break.
Boot camp and particularly your time in the Corps changes you.
That’s not something you can debate. The change though is largely under your own control. Good or bad boot camp gives you a chance to channel energies and choose a path. It leaves seeds inside you, many of which do not mature until your time in the military is far and gone, but still they come, someday and somehow, despite your most desperate efforts to stop them.
It changed my life forever. It continues to change my life.