This is the fourth in a series depicting the author’s experience in Marine Corps boot camp; the story continues just after the “recruit” is injured and returns to training, but with a different platoon.
Upon returning to a boot camp training platoon following a hernia operation, I heeded the advice of a Marine gunnery sergeant I had met in the hospital--treat boot camp like Little League; learn the rules of the game, then have fun playing it.
I had learned the drill instructors (called DIs in Marine Corps lingo) were flesh-and-blood humans and the raging-bull attitude was an alter-ego for most of them. They used that attitude to get the attention of the mostly 18- and 19-year-old recruits.
Many DIs in 1976 were fresh from the war in Vietnam. Their goal was to give recruits the benefit of combat experience, to prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead. Many were married, had children, or at least had extended families.
I learned the trait they were looking for above all others was tenacity. They wanted to know that, when something impossible was presented, the first impulse was to overcome it. The word “can’t” was not allowed to be used.
In some measure, DIs are similar to teachers or youth-sports coaches; they want to know their students and players are attentive, listening, learning, and benefiting. When they see great effort from students, those teachers, coaches, and DIs will all work harder and enjoy the experience even more.
When I returned to a new platoon, I brought a totally different attitude with me. I began to decipher the rules of the game, which often had to be learned through trial and error. Once I had a grip on the rules, I began to have fun.
Understand that “fun” is a relative word in this case, and one that can only be used after the fact, having survived the experience. If I had been asked during one of our frequent trips to the sand/mud “pit,” where we did endless physical exercises to pay for someone’s mistakes, “fun” would not have been the first word out of my mouth.
If I was asked, “Hey, you having fun yet?” when I emerged from the gas chamber after being exposed to tear gas … well, I wouldn’t be able to answer at that moment, but one can guess my response.
No, “fun” is not the right word. More accurately, I began to learn the benefits of what was being taught there. I learned that, with the proper motivation, I could push myself mentally and physically well beyond where I thought I could.
I learned being a member of a team means I shed “me” and adopt “we.”
It became clear that when one member of the team failed, we all failed, and we all paid the price. So, it behooved all team members to help others to be successful.
Marching To The Beat Of F-Squad
About a week after joining my new platoon, I was put in charge of what I mentally called “F-Squad.”
The members of the fourth squad of this four-squad platoon, four weeks into 13 weeks of training, consisted of all the screw-ups. Some couldn’t march, some couldn’t shoot, some couldn’t get their racks (beds) fixed properly, and some had attitude issues. All had one problem or another that might have resulted in their being dropped.
At age 23, I was the second oldest man in my platoon; another recruit was 29. Maybe that’s why I was chosen for the job. Maybe I could be a big-brother figure.
My assignment, as designated by the senior DI, was to “get them squared away.” This was somewhat vague and seemed like one of those impossible missions, but I didn’t skip a beat. I went about getting to know each squad member, what their individual problems and strengths were.
Those with the least significant problems became my subordinate leaders. I gave them three to four men each, to “get them squared away.” I learned about leadership, about delegation, and about providing guidance, encouragement, and punishment.
This was (and still is) part of Marine Corps heritage, built on many generations of Marines who have kept this spirit alive since the founding of the Corps in 1775. It is part of the mystical bond that is known as “Esprit de Corps.”
One of the ways Marines passed on this spirit--and still do today--is by teaching Marine Corps history and traditions.
A Coordinated Effort
This column space is too limited to recount all of the experiences I had with F-Squad, but one stands out.
One recruit, whose real name is withheld to protect his privacy, I will call Hinee.
Hinee was challenged, and was a challenge. He couldn’t learn to march, he couldn’t learn to keep his rifle clean, he had issues getting his uniform squared away and with personal hygiene, and his voice was high and somewhat squeaky, like that of a cartoon character. He was hardly the type of person one would think could make it through Marine Corps boot camp.
But there he was, and he was my problem unless the DI fired me as squad leader. So I took Hinee under my direct supervision, spending endless hours with him, showing him how to shine his boots and brass, how to ensure his uniform looked sharp and ready for inspection, and how to lower his voice and speak from the depths of his gut rather than through his narrow nasal passages.
The platoon initially paid the price on more than one occasion for Hinee’s mistakes, and each time the DI would blame me as well. It didn’t take more than a couple of these incidents to realize I needed to “get him squared away.”
The most difficult assignment was teaching him how to march. Marching is nothing more than walking with a formal gait. But Hinee insisted on making it tough. He looked like a mechanical windup toy with a gear out of place. But I kept at him day after day.
As the platoon approached the last of the three phases of boot camp, we were getting our act together. When our DI marched us down the street, we held our heads high, reveling in the knowledge that, as a team, we were the best.
And even Hinee began to come around. He needed less and less aid from others. He started to anticipate, plan ahead, and get things right. He started marching in step. His voice finally stopped sounding like Marvin the Martian’s from “Bugs Bunny.” Hinee made it through boot camp and earned the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (Marine Corps emblem) and the right to be called “Marine.”
I guess I did OK in my job as the leader of F-Squad, because on graduation day I had earned my Marine Corps dress blues by being named Platoon Honorman, an achievement I still hold above most others in my life.
A year or so after graduation, I was stationed on the West Coast, and who was assigned to my unit? Yep, in walked Hinee. Once we caught up on where we had been and what we had done after boot camp, he said, “Hey, I never had the chance to thank you for everything you did for me in boot camp. I don’t think I would have made it through without your help.”
Right then, I realized what the DIs must feel when they bring a group of disoriented “maggots” through the very deliberate phases of boot camp and graduate a few good Marines. I was exhilarated. I had made a difference in this man’s life.
Roots And Wings
Nearly every Marine can remember the name of his or her DIs, even decades after boot camp. I’ve talked with Marines who served one tour during WWII and went on to have successful careers and credit their Marine Corps experience with their success.
One such WWII Marine I knew went on to be a successful lawyer in Atlanta. I had known him for several years before he informed me one day that he was dying from cancer, and asked me to help organize his funeral.
He wanted to be buried in his dress blues with PFC stripe and asked me to ensure that the uniform was perfect. “I don’t want to be buried out of uniform,” he told me.
So intense were his memories of the Corps that after more than 50 years, and above all his other impressive accomplishments, in the end he still identified himself as “a Marine.”
That is the ethos that you won’t find in many establishments today, but it’s still in the Marine Corps.
It is that type of impression I hope you leave on those who pass through your lives during your time in the parks and recreation field. If even one participant in a sport or program can credit you for the person he or she becomes, you will know the amount of pride I felt, and the impact you can have on someone’s life. It’s an incredible responsibility, and a tremendous honor to be a part of it.
Next month, the final episode: Epilogue: Old Corps Or New--The Heritage Continues
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.