They’re Looking for a Few Good (Sensitive) Men

Times Staff Writer

Sweating like fat men in a steam bath, the aspiring drill instructors collapsed to the ground, puffing and groaning, unaccustomed to the rigors of a 4-mile trot in full gear through the hilly terrain at Camp Pendleton. A few yards away, some officers fussed over a young sergeant who had virtually swooned about a mile back and had to be carried to the finish in a truck.

In front of the group stood Gunnery Sgt. Jody Huston, superbly fit and maddeningly unaffected by the midday heat and the 60-pound backpack he bore as he set the pace for the run. Huston, 31, inspected the beleaguered men as they swilled water from canteens and peeled off their heavy boots, then he let them in on a secret.

He had run them half again as fast as he should, just to make a point. Like it or not, if the men really wanted to be Marine Corps drill instructors, they would have to learn compassion.

Some Common Sense


“All that was doing was just being malicious,” Huston shouted to the class of 40-odd men. “How many of you could have attacked an objective when you stopped? How many of you could have participated in a fire fight and accurately delivered rounds? How many of you could have hit the bull’s-eye?”

Silence. Then a tired voice called out, “Sir! When did common sense come into the training at boot camp? They didn’t have it when I was a recruit.”

Feared and loathed by generations of cowering recruits, Marine Corps drill instructors have entered a new era. Insults, humiliation and physical abuse are out as the Corps reacts to scandals of the past and attempts to attract and hold a better class of recruits in the all-volunteer service.

A new emphasis on positive leadership has emerged, and with it requirements that drill instructors be faster, tougher and more fit than the recruits, who can be 20 years younger or more. At the same time they must be guidance counselors, big brothers and amateur psychologists, always alert for problem recruits and potential suicides, 24 hours a day through 11 weeks of boot camp.

They must walk a fine line, nudging young privates through boot camp by

encouragement and example--instructors are not even allowed to smoke in front of recruits--while at the same time initiating them into the gung-ho cult that Marines like to think separates their branch of military service from the others.

“Historically, the abuse of recruits has lessened as the years go by, to the point where we’re at now,” said Maj. Robert G. Johnson, 35, director of the Drill Instructor School at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. “The rules have always been there, they just were never enforced. It’s only in the last 10 years, I would say, that they’ve said, ‘OK, we’re going to make some concrete changes.’ ”

The catalyst for the reform came from two incidents that occurred in 1976. In one, Private Lynn McClure was beaten to death with pugil sticks at the San Diego recruit depot during mock bayonet practice. Another private was shot in the hand that year by a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C.

The incidents evoked memories of a 1956 disaster in which six Marine Corps recruits drowned when their drill instructor marched them into a tidal creek at Parris Island. A public outcry and congressional hearings forced the military services, and in particular the Marine Corps, to reexamine recruit training as well as the qualifications of the instructors who preside over boot camp.

Must Pass Psychological Test

Now, besides completing a 9 1/2-week course that parallels the physical rigors of boot camp, would-be drill instructors also must pass psychological muster. Earlier this month, five sergeants were dismissed from the Drill Instructor School in San Diego--there is one other at Parris Island--after performing poorly on the Minnesota MultiPhasic Personality Indicator, a standard psychological test. The men lacked skills in coping with frustration.

In all, of the 64 Marines who were accepted for the drill instructor course that began in October, only 41 made it to graduation two weeks ago. Besides those with psychological problems, some did not have the physical stamina to complete the training.

And, if troublesome candidates slip through the screening and testing, they will probably be caught by a toughened disciplinary system, Marine officials say.

In the past, it practically took the death of a recruit to prompt disciplinary action against a drill instructor. But, in 1988 alone, 40 drill instructors at MCRD were fined, disciplined, demoted or court-martialed for abusing recruits. Their offenses ranged from merely swearing around recruits to biting them on the ear.

“They’re not supposed to, obviously, degrade them. They can’t call them names,” Johnson said. “There’s a whole laundry list of things they can’t do. But yelling at them and telling them to hurry up and get dressed, all that kind of stuff, sure, that’s gonna happen. And gosh, I hope we never take that kind of stuff away. They’re gonna yell at you. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Most drill instructor candidates apply for the position and view it as a path toward career advancement. They must be from 21 to 35 years old and have the rank of sergeant or higher. Anyone who has “an explosive personality” or is “known to fly off the handle at the smallest provocation” should be discouraged from applying, according to Marine Corps guidelines.

“You can spend 30 years in the Marine Corps, but unless you’ve earned and worn that Smokey Bear hat, you’re not a real Marine,” said Sgt. Greg Dilley, 30, of Red Cloud, Neb., a student in the recent class. “It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to test your leadership without going into actual combat.”

Sgt. Clint Crane, 23, of Mt. Shasta, Calif., also a recent student, said he applied for the school because he wanted to be “the ultimate Marine.” Drill instructors “lead from the front, and they can do everything they expect the recruits to do,” he said.

For many Marines, the drill instructor holds a position of particular awe, having powers and stamina that defy rational explanation. First Sgt. Timothy Soboleski, 39, the second-in-command at Drill Instructor School, recalls a drill instructor he had nearly 20 years ago who had served in Vietnam, where he was hit in the stomach and chest by 13 .50-caliber machine-gun rounds.

“His whole insides were blown to pieces,” Soboleski said. “He fell into a rice paddy that was wet and moist and kept his intestines moist and stopped the bleeding. The mud and the water packed in there and they got him out the next morning. He was down 12 hours.

“Every time he ran with us, saliva would come out of his mouth with blood in it and, when a guy like that inspires you, based on his performance, you can’t ask for a better leadership tool.”

Soboleski said he noted a difference in his self-esteem when he became a drill instructor. “I know now that I’ve gone through the hardest school the Marine Corps has,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world you can’t accomplish when you feel good about yourself.”

Lead by Example

Just as drill instructors must be able to do everything they ask of the recruits, Soboleski and Johnson believe they must be able to lead the student drill instructors by example. During the last 9 1/2-week course, which ended 2 weeks ago, both men hiked and marched and slept on the ground at Camp Pendleton along with the class. In superb physical condition, both ran a grueling obstacle course at the recruit depot one day and fared better than many of their younger students.

However, both decided to pass up an opportunity to enter a Quonset hut filled with tear gas during field exercises at Camp Pendleton, an option they did not afford to their students.

The course also includes instruction in what some consider the drill instructors’ most valuable tool--a loud, low, nerve-jangling voice that will catch the attention of the most distracted recruit.

Soboleski is possessed of such a tool and does not hesitate to demonstrate it, as he did one day in early December as the class stumbled around a parking lot in preparation for a march. As Soboleski growled and barked orders, Johnson stood back and grinned.

“His voice is great, distinctive,” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt when you hear him. These guys are spazzin’ out today. I think he got to ‘em.”

For Soboleski, the voice is “the No. 1 key for command and control. The voice makes the privates move.” His theory of voice training is simple: “The voice is developed by giving loud commands, hollering louder than any private can holler, singing while running, chanting while marching, screaming chants.

“When you do that, your throat’s gonna tear a little bit and it’s gonna heal itself. It’s gonna eventually get deeper.”

In the classroom, Soboleski’s voice projection is equally commanding.

“Values, gentlemen. Morality,” he boomed at the beginning of a seminar on problem recruits earlier this month. “You all remember the drill instructor who was an asshole just to be an asshole.” (Drill instructors are not barred from using foul language around each other.)

“You’re not supposed to be disrespectful to their religion or to their families. A lot of you are gonna come up to a recruit and say, ‘Who is your mother! Where are you from! Who hatched you!’

“That’s treading on thin ice. Who here wants me to attack their mother? You attack mine and you’re dead. . . . What gives you the right to steal the dignity of a young man?”

They can have some fun, however. “Nothing says you can’t wear them out when they’re surly and contemptful and disrespectful and lazy,” Soboleski added. “But you have to motivate them and inspire them to do what’s right.”

As an object lesson in what can go wrong, eight problem recruits were brought before the class to be grilled about their failures. All were about to be dropped from the Marine Corps, having failed boot camp for a number of reasons. Six of the eight had threatened to commit suicide if they were made to stay in the Corps.

Their voices thin and halting, they took the grilling stoically, staring off into space and gripping their chairs.

“What drove you to a suicidal act?” a Marine demanded.

“Sir, this private did not fully understand what he was getting into, sir,” said one.

“Sir, the stress, the yelling, nobody to talk to. Suicide just seemed like the only way out,” said another.

“Do you understand what patriotism is?” another Marine demanded. “What did you expect when you got to boot camp?”

“Sir, this private knew it would be hard, but he didn’t understand the true mental stress, the yelling, the kicking the footlockers, the noise.”

“Were you all spoiled by your parents?”

“Sir, no sir.”

“What was it that you couldn’t handle, No. 3?”

“Sir, this private’s parents didn’t yell at him very much or for very long. The extended yelling wore down on me after a while, sir.”

Under his breath, Johnson muttered, “The creme de la creme of American youth.”

Asked why the Marine Corps believed the recruits’ threats, Johnson said, “What else can you do?” Days earlier, a recruit had committed suicide during field training at Camp Pendleton, the second recruit suicide this year.

Some Complaints Valid

Johnson said there is sufficient reason to believe that some of the recruits’ complaints are true and points to the 40 courts-martial and disciplinary actions involving drill instructors in San Diego this year.

“These guys make stupid, stupid mistakes,” Johnson said. “I went to a commanding officers’ meeting recently, and I think there were 16 drill instructors pending court-martial.”

Records show that, in June, a drill instructor was court-martialed and found guilty of having illegal contact with seven recruits, pushing, grabbing and biting them on the ears. He was demoted and fined $220 pay each month for six months. Another drill instructor was fined $440 for pulling a recruit’s ear. An instructor who used obscene language around a recruit also was fined $440.

Still another instructor, who forced recruits to “duck-walk” around the squad bay, was fined $530 in pay per month for two months, according to the records. A slap with an open hand cost another a demotion and fine of $519 a month for two months. Grabbing a recruit by the collar brought an instructor a $250-a-month pay cut for two months.

Such fines are substantial to most drill instructors, who are sergeants or staff sergeants with monthly base pay of about $1,100 to $1,300, depending on their length of service. Most serve as drill instructors for two years, then move on. But, during that time, they receive bonus pay of $165 for the first six months and $200 thereafter.

The most serious case involving a drill instructor was that of a staff sergeant who was convicted of stealing money from recruits last January. He was reduced to a private, dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 30 months in prison.

A large part of the problem is impatience, Johnson said. To cut down on stress and frustration, drill instructors are required to take every third day off, he said. During their two working days, drill instructors stay with the recruits around the clock, waking before they do, going to bed after lights out and checking on the recruits in the middle of the night. They work the two-on, one-off schedule for the entire 11 weeks of basic training, including the training sessions and maneuvers in rather primitive camps at Camp Pendleton.

“You have to be smart enough to say, ‘I need a time out,’ ” Johnson said. He tells the instructors they must “realize what you’re dealing with,” and says, “Look, guys, 5, 10 days ago these guys were running the streets, doing whatever they were doing. Now we’re saying we want them to conform--my way or the highway. It’s too drastic.”

Yet for a service as steeped in tradition as the Marine Corps, the ways of the past die hard.

Even with all the talk of sensitivity and new awareness, half-a-dozen men from the class, running in a pack one December morning, began a sing-song chant that seemed to come from another era:

One, two, three, four.

Every night we pray for war.

Five, six, seven, eight.

Rape. Kill. Mutilate.

Asked about it later, Johnson sighed. “If I had heard them doing that,” he said, “I would have run them so fast they wouldn’t have been able to talk.”

But at Drill Instructor School they push on, ever looking for ways to drive the new ideas home. Surveying his thirsty troops after the hike at Camp Pendleton, Gunnery Sgt. Huston took the opportunity to offer some suggestions.

“When I went through boot camp, they made us drink a canteen of water before we hit the rack every night,” Huston said. “Now you can’t require them to drink water. You can’t demand it. But you must give them the opportunity, urge them to drink water.

“A good way to do that is to say, ‘Hey, men, we’ve got that big hump tomorrow, right? You know you’ve got to have lots of water for that hump, right?’

“You’re looking out for their welfare. That’s even showing compassion, isn’t it? Goddamn, look at that, we’re showing compassion and we didn’t even have to say, ‘Goldang, good job, son.’ We could still maintain that machoism, right?”