They’re Looking for a Few Good Men With the Sensitivity to Train Marines

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.


“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 has emerged, and with it requirements that drill instructors be faster, tougher and more fit than the recruits, who can be as much as 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.’ ”

Two incidents that occurred in 1976 acted as catalyst for the reform. In one, Pvt. 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.

Now, in addition to completing a 9 1/2-week course that parallels the physical rigors of boot camp, would-be drill instructors 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 frustration coping skills.

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. In addition to 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 likely 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 the San Diego recruit depot 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 (recruits). 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 between 21 and 35 years old and at 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. “It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to test your leadership without going into actual combat,” said Sgt. Greg Dilley, 30, of Red Cloud, Neb., a student in the recent class.

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.”

Just as drill instructors must be able to do everything they ask of the recruits, Johnson and 1st Sgt. Timothy Soboleski, 39, the second-in-command at Drill Instructor School, believe they must be able to lead the student drill instructors by example. During the last 9 1/2-week course both men hiked and marched and slept on the ground 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.

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. . . . “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.”

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.”