Training Begins

Once A Marine, Always A Marine, Part Two

This is the second in a series depicting one man’s experience in Marine Corps boot camp; the story continues just after the “recruits” have met their new training drill instructors (DI).

Once the drill instructors impressed upon us the importance of listening to every word they said and complying immediately with every order, the real training started.

We quickly learned that there is no “I” in team. Referring to oneself in the first person is a big-time no-no. Recruits must refer to themselves in the third person, i.e., “Sir, this recruit requests to go to the head [Marine and Navy term for bathroom], sir!”

Whenever addressing a drill instructor or any other person other than another recruit, the first or last word out of one’s mouth is “sir,” or “ma’am.”

There are dozens of similar rules to learn, and failure by one person in the platoon can often lead to appropriate punishment for the entire group.That punishment always includes some form of physical exertion, which may consist of push-ups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, or “bends and thrusts,” which is a perverted form of a push-up, and others.

The punishment actually serves two purposes. First, it pushes a person beyond normal limits, and ultimately makes him or her stronger. Pain, as Marines say, is weakness leaving the body.

Second, it emphasizes the meaning of team. The first reaction to this punishment by teammates is to be angry at whoever messed up. But at some point, it begins to dawn on them that they need to help team members improve in order to benefit the entire team.

Becoming A Team

I remember the first really grueling punishment session we had, on the second or third day of training. A few of my teammates hadn’t paid proper attention to detail in shining their brass belt buckles and black leather boots--two cardinal rules in the Marine Corps.

The drill instructor paced up and down the squad bay as platoon members sat on their foot lockers that evening, shining away. I can still remember the conversation that led to our group demise.

“I am seeing some mighty ugly brass,” the DI said in a loud voice to nobody in particular. “I am seeing boots that look like they have been shined with a Hershey bar!”

There was an unmistakable hint of threat in his voice. He was obviously unhappy. I doubled my rate of shine and kept my eyes glued to my work. Eye contact sometimes provoked these creatures called DI’s.

Then he stopped in front of a recruit a couple of foot lockers away, picked up one of the recruit’s boots and said, “Recruit, do you call this shined?”

My heart sank when I heard his response because I knew what was coming.

The recruit jumped to his feet and stammered, “Sssir, I did the best I could, sir!”

“’I’?” bellowed the DI. “Did you just use the word ‘I’? You must not be part of this team because there is no ‘I’ in team. Well, the rest of this team will pay for your mistake. Everybody assume the push-up position!”

Then, for what seemed an eternity, we did every form of push-up ever devised. But as we were doing them, the DI was explaining why we were doing them and how to avoid having to do them again.

“This team has failed to assist teammates who needed help,” he said slowly, as he made us hold the “up” position.

“Down and hold,” he said, prompting us to go to a holding position with chests 6 inches off the ground.

“You will learn that being on a team doesn’t mean you do your thing and not worry how your teammates are doing. You take care of your teammates because someday you may need help and you want to rely on your teammates to be there … up!”

This went on for what seemed like hours, but was probably only about 20 minutes. Then he said, “On your feet. I am going to my office for 30 minutes. When I come back, I expect to see every set of brass and boots shined to a high Marine Corps shine.”

As he walked out of the squad bay, he shouted “Carry on” over his shoulder.

Getting The Message

Some of us did get the message and began asking who needed help, then we rendered assistance to those who needed it. At the end of 30 minutes, the DI strolled back into the squad bay and began his inspection.

We all held our breath.

About halfway down the line he said, “I am becoming happier. I am seeing good things.”

We still held our breath.

At the end of the line, he turned on his heel and said, “It is still marginal, but it shows improvement. Be advised, further demonstrations of non-team attitudes will result in further, and more severe, punishment.”

He was true to his word. There were many times during that first phase of training when someone messed up and we all paid for it. But we soon learned to anticipate who needed help and gave help before it was too late.

Odd as it may seem, a training platoon in boot camp is similar to a sports team. In both cases, as long as players listen to the coach, keep their minds focused on the game, and work hard with each other, success is within their grasp. Teamwork is the common denominator.

In the Marine Corps, teammates must be prepared to support and rely on each other, literally for their lives.

And to take it a step further--boot camp can be compared to spring training. Everybody has made the initial cut to be there, and this is the final cut to see who will make the team.

In boot camp, the goal is to see if one can earn the title “Marine.”

Stress is part of the elimination criteria. If one can’t handle the stress of boot camp, the odds are one won’t be prepared for the rigors of combat.

A Life-Changing Injury

In my third week in boot camp, I suffered a hernia--popped it while we were doing side-benders with a telephone pole and made it worse when I pulled off my muddy boots.

That evening, at the daily “health and comfort check,” the DI marched in front of each of us, asking how we were. Unless something was wrong, we would normally answer, “Sir, the private has no physical or mental injuries or defects, sir.”

On this night, though, when asked, I responded, “Sir, the private doesn’t have any mental problems but believes he has a physical injury, sir.”

The DI stopped and grimaced at me, saying, “What is your problem, recruit?”

When I showed him the bulging area on my abdomen, his face lost all ferocity, and he said with concern, “Dang [not really the word he used], how long have you had that?”

“Sir, just today, sir,” I responded.

“You need to go to the hospital right now,” he said, grabbing my arm and propelling me toward his office. Within an hour, I was at the nearby Navy hospital, being checked in. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.

Early on the morning of the second day at the hospital, I received a personal visit from a Marine Corps major, who offered me two options that would change my life.

Next Month: Second Chances.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email