A long wait for an intense experience
They arrived from places throughout the western United States, and now several hundred of them are waiting nervously in the USO lounge attached to the Lindbergh Field international airport.
Soon they will take a short bus ride to a place where ferociously fit men with bellowing voices will shadow their every step and yell orders at them.
Their heads will be shaved and they will be stripped of all privacy and individuality. For the next 12 weeks they will be deprived of the fun things of life: television, music, Internet, movies, iPods, cellphones, home cooking, romantic companionship.
It’s a moment of shared misery and challenge that the young men gathered this night have been waiting a long time to experience.
Amid shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a waiting list for Marine boot camp.
For most recruits, there is a six- to nine-month wait between signing up and arriving at boot camp in San Diego or Parris Island, S.C. Two years ago, the average wait was only three months.
Chris Hetherington, 18, of Fairbury, Ill., has been waiting at home for eight months. So has Benjamin Pierce, 19, of Minneapolis.
Eric Mayer, 19, of Elko, Nev., and Adam Jimenez, 19, of Coleman, Texas, have been waiting for nine months.
Curtis Beeching, 20, of Centralia, Wash., was scheduled to wait until January but a slot came open unexpectedly, after a wait of only six months. “I got lucky,” he said.
To be sure, a bad economy is good for military recruiting. At a Pentagon news conference recently, every branch reported meeting enlistment goals.
But the Marines are convinced that other factors are also influencing the uptick in their recruitment: factors such as tradition and esprit.
“I want to be part of the best,” Justin Zeek, 20, of Springfield, Ore., said when asked why he joined the Marines rather than another service. It’s a common answer.
Zeek waited eight months, attending monthly “pool functions” organized by Marine recruiters to make sure recruits stay in shape and are not overtaken by regrets or last-minute appeals from apprehensive parents.
At the sessions, recruits do sit-ups, pull-ups, and other exercises, learn about Marine heroes and review Marine terminology. Pity the recruit who later uses the term door (hatch), bathroom (head) or hat (cover) in the presence of a drill instructor.
With higher numbers of would-be recruits, the Marine Corps can be choosy.
“These are quality kids,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Milstead, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “We can be very selective these days.”
Where once it could be a struggle to find recruits, now it is not uncommon for a recruiter to reach his monthly quota within the first few days of the month, said Master Sgt. Alfonsa Hightower Jr., head of the basic recruiter’s course at the San Diego base.
There is now less need to request a “moral waiver” to allow a recruit to enlist despite a criminal record or other behavioral problem. In the 2007 fiscal year, 552 recruits were allowed to enlist after receiving waivers for felony arrests. With three months remaining in the 2010 fiscal year, just 46 recruits have received such waivers.
“We’re not just looking for anyone to fill up spaces,” Hightower said. “We are not entertaining a lot of things that we would have five or six years ago.”
Each year, about 20,000 young men graduate from San Diego boot camp; women are trained at Parris Island, separate from the men.
The minimum fitness standards to enlist remain the same as in recent years: 44 crunches, two pull-ups and 13 ½ minutes to run a mile and a half. But at pool sessions, enlistees are warned that unless they can do considerably better, they may not be able to keep up with other recruits.
Ronald Krebs, a political science professor and military expert at the University of Minnesota, said he believes that the economy and the winding down of the war in Iraq are the dominant factors in the recruitment uptick.
But he notes that the Marines “have done a great job of branding themselves as the most proud and distinguished service branch with the greatest esprit de corps.”
While the other military services have their share of bragging rights, no service emphasizes its history and heroes as much as the Marine Corps.
At the boot camp processing center, the recruits are greeted with hallway posters showing a veteran Marine and the caption, “You are part of a storied tradition. Be there for the next chapter.” The next chapter begins with a haircut.
Sean Young, 18, of Oro Valley, Ariz., arrived with a mop of thick black hair that, along with his owlish glasses, gave him a kind of Harry Potter look. It took the barber 25 seconds to finish his work. Young sat wordlessly, eyes straight ahead, awaiting the next order. A fellow recruit brushed off his collar as he rushed away.
After their haircuts, recruits are herded into a lecture-style hall to fill out paperwork.
The hall is dedicated to the memory of Gary Martini of Portland, Ore., who graduated from the San Diego boot camp in 1966 and a year later was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in Vietnam.
The recruits have long since learned what to expect when they arrive at boot camp. If nothing else, a popular video on YouTube, “Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click,” provides a preview.
But knowing what to expect and actually encountering it are two different things.
At the USO, Sgt. Brandon Small orders the recruits to line up and drop “all that trash” in their pockets on the ground, trash being defined as “tobacco products, prophylactics and hygiene items.”
Small’s orders are sharp and carry an unspoken hint of menace if disobeyed. His commands are answered immediately and vociferously with “aye-aye sir.”
Each category of trash is tossed to the sidewalk. Small inspects the contents of each recruit’s pockets, throwing out additional items.
“I’m getting them ready,” said Small, 24, who was a cook and did two tours in Iraq before becoming a drill instructor.
Do any of the recruits ever talk back or give him a hard time? “No,” Small said. “My voice takes care of that.”
Once on the bus, the recruits are ordered to remain silent and motionless for the 15-minute ride to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
At the depot, they are told to stand on the yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk in front of the processing center. The drill instructors who take over make Small seem laid-back.
“I like a certain level of intensity,” said senior drill instructor Staff Sgt. Brian Remington, 26, an amphibious assault vehicle operator and Iraq veteran.
One group of recruits is given over to Sgt. Juan Garcia, 25, an Iraq veteran and former motor transport operator.
By the end of the night, the back of Garcia’s uniform will be drenched in sweat and his voice will be hoarse. He speaks rapidly, loudly and insistently.
“I am in charge, you will do what I say when I say to do it,” he screams. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
To those who may be having second thoughts, Garcia has a rapid-fire, high-decibel warning: “If you leave my base without proper authorization, you will go to jail. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
The answer, instantaneous and unequivocal: “YES, SIR.”
So it goes all night as recruits dump their personal items in laundry-style bags, get haircuts, fill out paperwork and receive their uniforms. Recruits are ordered to “power walk” between stations.
The only contact with the outside world involves calls to family. During the recruiting, “we enlist the kid but we have to sell the mom,” Milstead said.
Each recruit is allowed a phone call home. A drill instructor stands just inches away as they quickly recite a script on the wall: “Hello. This is recruit (your name). I have arrived at MCRD San Diego. Next time I contact you will be by postal mail so expect a letter in two or three weeks. I LOVE YOU, GOODBYE!”
No variations, no questions, no dialogue. One recruit becomes so flustered that he does not notice the phone cord is no longer connected.
The process takes hours before recruits are marched to their barracks. The Marines bring in new batches of recruits at night — on the theory that night is more disorienting.
In coming weeks, recruits will spend hours at physical training and marching, classes on Marine history, water safety, firearms training — then a 54-hour gut-check at Camp Pendleton called the Crucible, in which they will be pushed to their physical and emotional limits, with occasional sit-downs to discuss Marine heroes. By the time they reach the Crucible, their goal is in sight: an eagle, globe and anchor emblem and the pride of being called a Marine for the first time.
“They want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Remington said.