A Marine recruit says goodby, leaving civilian life behind . . . : 'Yes Sir!' : 'I Can't HEAR You!' : 'YES SIR!'

He considers himself just a "a normal kid trying to get ahead in the world." He's a 1984 graduate of Woodbridge High School in Irvine, a former member of the high school wrestling and football teams, an average student who earned "Cs and a few Bs." His favorite pastimes are riding his Honda XL-185 motorcycle and lifting weights at a gym.

And on a recent Monday, 19-year-old Sean Sieler of El Toro was inducted into the United States Marine Corps.

He was one of 11 Marine Corps applicants from Orange County who went down for processing at the Military Entrance Processing Station in San Diego that day.

Sieler, according to Marine recruiters in El Toro, is typical of the young men--and women--who enlist in the Marines, 443 from Orange County in fiscal 1984 and 49,338 nationwide.

If there's any sense of flag-waving patriotism motivating these young people to step through the doors of a Marine Corps recruiting office, says Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Matteoni, it's generally not something that comes up while they are talking to a recruiter.

The reality, said the El Toro recruiter, is that the young people who enlist are primarily interested in job training and educational opportunities. (While they are on active duty, they can attend college in their spare time and the government will pay 75% to 90% of their tuition.)

Young people, Matteoni maintains, are realizing that joining the military is a viable alternative to college or getting a job immediately after graduating from high school.

"What they tend to be looking for," he said, "is a way to bide their time."

Sieler was working part time in an El Toro pizza parlor last August when he signed up for the Marines' delayed-entry program, which ensures that an applicant's guaranteed job training slot will be available when he goes in.

"I was getting bored," Sieler said, "and I didn't think I was right for college right off the bat."

He laughs when recalling the reaction of his high school buddies when he told them he was joining the Marines: "They said I was crazy."

His friends are now in college and working part time, but Sieler feels he made the right choice.

That includes joining the one-in-four Marine Corps applicants who sign up for training in combat arms. In Sieler's case that means the infantry, a field of training he thinks will help him land a job as a police officer when he gets out in four years.

"I wanted to get the tactical training," he explained. "When I become a police officer, I'd like to try to get on a SWAT team or tactical unit."

Besides, he said, "in two years I have the option of lateral movement into another field, and I'd like to apply for embassy duty or military police."

But why the Marines and not some other branch of the military?

Part of the appeal, he said, is "being the best. They always say the Marines are the first to go, and the only reason they're the first to go is because they are the best."

But doesn't the possibility of having to go into combat some day scare him?

"I guess it scares everybody a little bit. . . . But your country is something you believe in. And if it's something you believe in, it's worth fighting for. I would consider myself a patriot, yes: Stand up for your country, be willing to fight for it and, if necessary, die."

At 19, Sieler said he doesn't really remember the Vietnam War. He was, after all, only 9 years old when it ended a decade ago. He believes, however, that he has a realistic view of war.

"I think I do--at least I hope I do," he said. "My stepdad was a medic in Korea, and he's told me some of his old war stories, and he says it's no picnic, and I can believe it. I know in the movies they glorify all the battle scenes. It's not like that."

In late November Sieler quit his part-time job and broke up with his steady girlfriend.

"Because I'm going away for a while, we decided to become what you call just really good friends," he explained. "And she's still in high school, so it gives her a chance to meet other people. We fought a lot about it, but we finally decided it was the best thing."

He spent his last weeks of civilian life relaxing, visiting his father in Arizona--"I kind of lost contact with him; my parents have been divorced about five years"--and trying to get in better shape for boot camp.

"I like to be very competitive; it keeps life from being dull," said the muscular, 5-foot-6 teen-ager. "I'm always setting goals for myself, like in boot camp I'm going to shoot for my blues. That means being the best in your platoon: You graduate with honors and are allowed to wear dress blues at the graduation ceremony."

One week before reporting to the Military Entrance Processing Station in San Diego, however, Sieler acknowledged that he had mixed emotions about his decision to join the Marines.

"I'm kind of getting excited, kind of getting nervous," he said. "I think, 'Is this really for me?' But then I say, 'Yes, this is what I'm doing. I'm not turning back now.' "

3:10 a.m. Monday

A light drizzle was falling outside the darkened town house on Gemini Street in El Toro when the light went on in Sean Sieler's upstairs bedroom.

"Sean, it's past 3 o'clock," said his mother, Jo Ann Beck.

"Huh? . . . yeah, yeah," he muttered, bleary-eyed after less than four hours of sleep. He had been out until 11 the night before saying goodby to his friends and girlfriend.

"Not seeing a girl for three months, of all the things, that's what hurts the most," said Sieler, having showered and put on a T-shirt, blue jeans and jogging shoes.

He was sipping a mug of coffee at the dining room table while waiting for one of the Marine recruiters to pick him up and drive him to the El Toro recruiting substation, where a government van would drive him and the 10 other applicants from Orange County to San Diego.

From the Military Entrance Processing Station, Sieler would go to the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where he would undergo four days of processing and then 11 weeks of basic training. After six weeks of advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton, he could be stationed anywhere in the world.

As Sieler talked, Mrs. Beck came downstairs in her robe. She sat down in the living room and lit a cigarette.

"How are you, honey?" she said.

Sieler smiled sheepishly and gestured that he felt so-so.

"Sean was a little nervous last night," his mother explained as his stepfather, Bill Beck, joined her in the living room.

"I had a couple of second thoughts," Sieler admitted, "but it's too late now to do anything about it. I figured I better go down there with a positive attitude. The more positive, the better off I'll be."

Mrs. Beck laughed when asked how she felt when her son came home last August and announced that he had joined the Marines. Her initial reaction, she said, was "unprintable."

"There were a few tears," she recalled, "and then Mama said, 'OK, if that's what he wants . . . .' It seemed after he got out of high school he didn't know what he wanted to do. Being typical parents, we wanted him in college, but this was Sean's decision. Sean is very 'gung-ho Marine Corps.' "

She laughed. "I don't know how I raised a son like that. Sean has been raised in a houseful of women (he has three sisters), and he turned out to be this Marine-ego macho kid. It's something I don't understand. Now he's going to be a Marine."

She looked over to her son and laughed again: "You're nuts, Sean."

"All I keep saying," she added, "is if everything stays peacetime, Mom will be OK. The way I look at it is he's going to San Diego, then he'll go to Pendleton. It's like he's going away to school."

The living room clock chimed four times.

"I just think you're going to get chilly, honey," Mrs. Beck was saying as they came downstairs after retrieving some relatives' addresses for Sean. "You ought to wear a jacket."

"I'll be warm enough," Sieler said.

More small talk. Then at 4:15, the doorbell rang.

"That's it," announced Bill Beck.

Mrs. Beck opened the door and greeted a Marine wearing a red Marine sweat shirt and a red Marine baseball cap.

"We're here for your boy," said Sgt. Ken Machande.

Sieler embraced his mother.

"Bye, Mom," he said. "Don't worry about it."

Mrs. Beck cried quietly into her son's shoulder. "I knew it," Sieler said.

"Good luck, Sean," said Bill Beck as Machande and Sieler stepped into the night.

Mrs. Beck dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

"I said I wasn't going to cry."

5:45 a.m.

The van pulls into the ground-level parking area beneath the Military Entrance Processing Station, a nondescript four-story building in downtown San Diego.

The driver and his passengers troop up four flights of stairs to a lounge next to the Marine service counselors' office. A sign inside the small office proclaims, "We are the Marines. The few. The proud."

Their first step, a Marine sergeant informs them, will be a spot physical to see if they are still medically qualified to join the Marine Corps.

But for now, they will sit.

At this early hour, talk among the enlistees is minimal. Several thumb through magazines. Most, however, focus their attention on the color TV in front of the room. A show called "Morning Stretch" is on and a shapely blonde wearing a leotard and leg warmers is talking about nutrition.

"That's the last thing we need to see before three months of boot camp," comments the young man sitting next to Sieler.

Sieler grins in agreement.

6:15 a.m.

A sergeant steps out of the office and calls out four names, including Sieler's. The work day has begun.

"OK, guys," the sergeant says, "the first thing we're going to do this morning is spot-check you. We're going to be doing a lot of paper work today . . . . Lunch will be about 12 . . . . We'll be leaving for boot camp about 4:30. Don't be asking me all day when you're going to be leaving."

8:55 a.m.

Sieler has completed his physical and is eating a candy bar in the lounge when a sergeant emerges from the Marine counselors' office and says, "Everyone for the Marine Corps in here, please."

The enlistees go in, and the door to the office is closed. Inside, they are told what kinds of fines or discharge they would receive for a fraudulent enlistment: concealing such things as a police record, drug involvement and previously undisclosed medical problems.

Taking their seats again in the lounge, the enlistees are called in one by one for individual interrogations. It is called "The Moment of Truth."

4 p.m.

After hours of killing time --mostly shooting pool--Sieler finally signs his enlistment contract, a four-year agreement between him and the U.S. government. Then he is ushered into a small room where enlistees for all branches of the military are sworn in. It is empty except for a podium flanked by a battery of flags.

The other enlistees in Sieler's group had been sworn in earlier and, because of a delay in his paper work, he will be sworn in by himself.

"Assume the position of attention," says Navy Ensign Antonio Tervel, instructing Sieler to put his hands at his side. "Raise your right hand and repeat after me . . . ."

Sieler speaks softly and clearly.

"I, Sean B. Sieler, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . . ."

It takes only a matter of seconds.

"OK, that's it, Sean," says the ensign. "Congratulations. Welcome to the Marine Corps."

Sieler looks relieved.

"It's been a long day," he says.

4:40 p.m.

Sieler and his fellow recruits have arrived at the Recruit Depot's receiving barracks, a two-story mission-style building. Once here, there's no doubt they're in the Marine Corps.

Clutching copies of their orders, they sit cross-legged on the red-tiled main hallway in front of the operations office. As they have been ordered to do, they neither move nor speak.

Suddenly, a no-nonsense drill instructor, wearing the stereotypical Smokey Bear hat, steps out of the office.

"ON YOUR FEET! FOLLOW ME!"

The recruits jump up and, in single file, follow the DI down the hall to the Issue Point, a large room where they will later receive their initial issue of Marine clothing.

"SIT DOWN!" barks the DI.

The recruits sit down on a yellow, wooden bench.

"Now," says the DI, "if you're wearing any jewelry, watches, rings--except for wedding bands and religious medals--take them off and put them in your pockets . . . . DO IT!"

The recruits do it.

"Now," says the DI before leaving, "Just sit here. Don't talk. And just look straight ahead."

5:20 p.m.

Chow time.

Taps has been played over the outdoor P.A. system, and it is dark and drizzling as Staff Sgt. Jim Marchese marches the new recruits across the parade field to a basic training mess hall, a cavernous building filled with a sea of green camouflage utility uniforms and shaven heads.

The new recruits, walking heel to toe through the chow line, will be given 20 minutes to eat, which Marchese deems "more than enough time."

"A lot of times," he says, "you call it Russian Duck: You rush in and duck out."

6 p.m.

Sieler and company are back at the receiving barracks, once again sitting on the yellow bench.

Down the hall in the drill instructors' lounge, Marchese explains that a total of 159 recruits will be coming in for processing tonight. Many of them will have flown in to Lindbergh Field from different parts of the country and will be bused to the Recruit Depot.

The first group of recruits, Marchese says, will not go to bed until about 12:30; the third--and last --group by about 2. Reveille for everyone will be at 4:30 a.m.

It is mentioned that Sieler and his group seem to have adapted well to following orders.

"All these kids are volunteers, so they know what's going down the pike," says Marchese. "It's expected, what they get here."

(Not every new recruit finds that the Marine Corps is what he had expected, however. Later in the night, a recruit who had been at the receiving barracks several days slashed his wrist. The cuts, a Marine spokesman later said, were superficial; the recruit was given an entry-level discharge, which is described as "voiding" his enlistment contract. Such an incident, the spokesman said, is rare.)

Marchese says there wasn't much for Sieler and his group to do until the first bus arrives from the airport. By about 8:30, the DI says, "when I get a full platoon--50 or 60--off the bus, that's when it all starts."

Until then, he says, "they'll sit there and just meditate--and figure out, 'What in God did I get into?' "

8:30 p.m.

Sieler and his group are already standing at attention on the yellow footprints painted on the blacktop staging area outside the receiving barracks when the first busload of recruits from the airport arrives.

The bus door opens and the DIs spring into action.

"HURRY UP!"

"GET OFF THAT BUS!"

Before joining the others on the yellow footprints, the new arrivals are herded into a supply room where they grab green canvas sea bags and begin scooping up linen, field jackets, long johns, canteens and other military items.

"HURRY UP! HURRY UP! QUICKLY!" barks a DI standing at the door.

"Any day, any day," the DI shouts at a recruit coming out of the door. "You move too slowly private, YOU'RE ALREADY DEAD."

Because it is raining, the recruits are taken upstairs to an empty recruit sleeping area for roll call and gear inventory. They also are taught how to stand at attention--"the basic position from which all other military movements are executed from"--and given a few words to the wise:

DI: "You don't do nothing until you're told. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

Recruits: "YES, SIR!"

9:15 p.m.

"NEXT PRIVATE!" yells the recruit posted at the door to the barber shop.

Sieler enters and takes his position on a pair of yellow footprints facing the barber chair. Two recruits are standing at attention on the yellow footprints in front of him, and a third recruit is in the barber chair.

The only sound in the room is the hum of Joe Busalacchi's electric hair clippers. Occasionally the hum is punctuated by an ominous BUZZ when the clippers hit a knot of hair or some dirt.

Joe is the 17-year-old son of the man who manages four base barber shops. He has been cutting recruits' hair for a year. When asked if there is any special technique to giving a Marine his first haircut, Joe stops chewing his gum and grins: "Just cut it off."

Sieler climbs into the chair, and Joe whips a red cloth around his neck. It's over in less than 25 seconds.

"NEXT PRIVATE!"

It is hard to read Sieler's face as he takes his place in the line forming in the Issue Point room next to the barber shop. A passing DI, however, has no trouble reading the face of a skin-headed recruit standing in front of Sieler.

"What's the matter with you?" the DI growls. "You look like you're going to start crying or something."

10:05 p.m.

Now wearing camouflage utility caps, gray sweat shirts and camouflage pants, the recruits are led to the Contraband/PX Issue Point, where they are issued toilet articles, complete their paper work and listen to the DI's lecture on contraband: those items that recruits are not allowed to possess while at the Recruit Depot--everything from firearms, knives and gambling devices to lewd and indecent pictures, food, candy and gum.

Outside, the sound of "YES, SIR!" reverberates off the barracks walls. It is nearly midnight.

Except for making up their racks (beds) and showering, the first day in the United States Marine Corps had come to an end for the 55 members of Platoon 3001, Lima Co., Third Recruit Training Regiment.

As his fellow recruits file out of the room, Sieler is allowed to drop out and answer a few questions. He looks tired and drained. His answers are short; he does not smile.

Yes, he acknowledges, he is tired. No, he says, getting his hair cut didn't bother him. "I've had my hair shaved before."

Has his first day in the Marines been as he expected?

"We're new, so we will be yelled at . . . . It's a learning process," he says.

Does he still plan to be the best in his platoon--to "shoot for his blues"?

"I'm going to try," he says.

With that, Marine Corps Pvt. Sean B. Sieler turns and hurries out of the room to catch up with his platoon.

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