Taking on the life of a Marine

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- For 85 years young men have been coming here to see if they’re tough enough to be Marines.

For the last six years, the Marines have opened up their gates one Saturday morning a year to let the public get a tiny taste of the strenuous process of turning recruits into Marines.

Call it fantasy boot camp, a chance to tackle a miniature version of what recruits do every day for 13 grueling weeks at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.


And so it was on Saturday that 2,500 people showed up for the 6th annual Boot Camp Challenge, a finale to the city’s weeklong celebration of the local military.

Awaiting was a 3-mile obstacle run, complete with trenches, sand, tunnels, hay bales and push-up stations. Naturally, it would not be a true boot camp experience without drill instructors and their characteristic glass-shattering, spittle-spewing voices.

Indeed, the D.I.s have become one of the main attractions as weekend athletes venture into San Diego’s oldest and most elite gated community.

Gunnery Sgt. Michael Mullins didn’t disappoint as he provided pre-run instructions to the crowd.

“There will be no whining or crying on my course,” he bellowed. “The only thing I want to hear out of your mouths are ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ ‘aye-aye, sir.’ I am not your momma or your grandmomma. I will light you on fire.”

And soon the first pack of runners was on its way.

The mass was divided by gender and age groups and into teams or individuals. Many were fit and eager; some were less fit but no less eager. The D.I.s were stationed along the course to provide “motivation,” at high decibels and close range.

Col. Carl F. Huenefeld, chief of staff to the depot commander, said the event is meant to break down any misunderstanding between the public and the depot.

“It isn’t surprising to find people who live a half-mile away but yet don’t know what we do here,” he said. “This is our way of giving them a better understanding without injuring them or wearing them out too much.”

With recent news stories about D.I.s facing charges of abusing recruits, the run has taken on added significance, Huenefeld said. “We want the public to understand the whole picture,” he said.

Reasons for spending a sunny morning risking shin splints and sore muscles were varied.

Dennis Johnson, 58, a retired Navy officer, said he ran the course to honor the memory of Cpl. Anthony Bento, a San Diego soldier killed last month in Iraq. “I’m doing it for him. I’m doing it for all of them in Iraq,” he said.

Kathy Momaney, 40, an English teacher at Santiago High School in Corona, has several students who plan to join the Marines as soon as they graduate. She wanted to see what awaits them.

“Now I know,” she said after finishing the course. “I know they’ll be in good hands.”

Don Generoli, an electrical engineer, was running for his health.

“I’m 60, so I’ve got to run,” he said. “I want another 15 to 20 years. I have a 15-year-old son and I want to live to be with his children.”

Bob Todd, 53, a high school special education teacher, was just plain curious about what goes on beyond the gates.

“It’s always a curiosity what the Marines do. They have such a mystique,” he said. “I wanted to see how they do it, how they get so rugged.”

Allysa Sanchez, 15, from New Mexico, wore a T-shirt with a picture of her uncle, Marine Lance Cpl. Emilian Sanchez, who was killed in Iraq in January. “I know he’s watching me,” she said.

For some of the participants who had served in the Marines or other service, the experience was tinged with nostalgia.

Bob Dwyer, 68, of Newport Coast wanted to see if things had changed since he went through Marine boot camp 50 years ago at Parris Island, S.C. “The D.I.s still yell in your face,” he said. “It felt good. It gave me a little bit of a feeling of being young.”

Karissa Meyer, 20, of Mission Viejo, thought she learned the secret to pleasing the D.I.s.

“When they yell at you, if you give it more energy, they back off,” she said. “But if you slow down, they don’t like that and they yell more.”

Oh, and one more thing: “They don’t like it if you look at them and smile,” she said.