June 13, 2009

Parris Island: Part 2

Boot camp doesn’t really start until you meet your Drill Instructors. The sleep deprivation, the shaved head, the new uniforms, the unfamiliarity are just warm ups for the main event. The meeting is a life-changing event where you realize that there is no backing out. This is real. These guys mean business.

The Drill Instructors are the gatekeepers and to pass through you will have to do it their way, the Corps’ way. Only those who meet the standard may pass. Without such strict guardians, such high standards the Marine Corps might as well be the Army. It is these high standards, strict discipline and unwavering obedience that sets the Marine Corps apart and it all starts with the Drill Instructors. The journey is fraught with danger but the reward is membership in the Corps, one of the few, the proud. There is no way to prepare yourself for the onslaught.

The initial introduction to your four Drill Instructors (never, never, ever Drill Sergeant) is when they begin to set out the rules, the behavior they will henceforth expect from you. There will be no leniency. You will be living under a microscope and even the smallest mistakes will matter. Attention to detail is paramount.

The four menacing men in immaculate uniforms and wearing razor sharp campaign hats introduced themselves. The three Drill Instructors wear green web belts but the Senior Drill Instructor wears a black leather belt. It is a small but very important difference. Titles are very important as each thing has a proper name and every Marine has a proper title. To call the Senior Drill Instructor a Drill Instructor is to take from him something he has worked very hard to achieve.  Proper titles and rank promote order and discipline as every Marine knows his place in the chain of command.

Following the introductions the you-know-what hit the proverbial fan. When they say they will be your mother and your father they mean it. They will be the source of almost unbearable physical and psychological pain but on rare (but very important) moments they will be a source of encouragement. It is the start of a complex love/hate relationship. Initially you hate them for being so mean, so insensitive, so exacting. Why are they mad all the time? Who peed in their cornflakes? You try very hard to please them, to prove that you deserve to be part of their Marine Corps. Hate slowly changes to admiration as you see that they can easily do everything they ask you to do. Through their efforts lowly recruits become thoroughly indoctrinated into the way.

The thirteen weeks aboard Parris Island are a deliberate and total break from the life you led before. The DIs begin teaching recruits a new vocabulary, a new way to speak, a new way to dress and to get dressed, a new way to do practically everything. The first and last word out of your mouth has to be “Sir” and you have to refer to yourself in the third person. “Sir Recruit Terrell requests to make a head call Sir.” And woe to the lowly recruit who ever refers to himself as “I.” A hat is now a cover, walls are now bulkheads, the floor is now the deck, left is now port and right is now starboard. The bathroom is now the head.

These traditions and vocabulary are part of the Marine Corps’ naval heritage. In the British Navy the Marine’s served as the ship Captain’s personal force on board ship to prevent mutiny. The Marines would also go up into the yardarms during a conflict and serve as sharpshooters as well as serving as landing parties. This tradition of having Marines aboard Navy vessels continues to this day. In general Marines hate being a Department of the Navy. Right or wrong they are unofficially taught to have a healthy lack of respect/use for any of the other Armed Forces, especially the Navy. We just need them to get us where we were going. But Navy Corpsmen are different. The corpsmen assigned to Marine units are given the same respect given to other Marines because they have earned it in combat time and again.

At 5:00 a.m. sharp one of the DIs threw one of the heavy metal trash cans down the middle of the squad bay and all four came yelling and screaming loud enough to wake the dead. I unwisely decided I would stay in bed, that I needed a few more winks. I quickly realized that what I wanted mattered not at all. The DI pushed me mattress and all off the top bunk onto the hard concrete deck. I never made that mistake again. We stood on line in the position of attention wearing nothing but our new boxers and t-shirts. Day one would not be fun.


Anonymous said...

Waiting for part three.

Fr. James Early said...

Wonderful, gripping account of a life-chaning experience. I laughed when I read about you being pushed (mattress and all) off your bunk onto the floor. I'm sure you weren't laughing then!

Looking forward to the next.

By the way, do DI's really use all the foul language that you see in movies like Full Metal Jacket?

elizabeth said...

Wow. What a different world. I can tell you are crafting the reality of this story with deliberation and careful word choice; I am impressed with how the words mirror the sense you are conveying.

Thank you for Part 2.

Ian said...

Thank you for sharing. And, again, you write wonderfully: such vivid descriptions and an engaging style that leaves me wanting more.

November In My Soul said...

Yes Father James foul language was part of the experience when I went through and I suspect it is much the same. Thank you all for your wonderful comments.

Michael from Texas said...

Semper Fi, Marine...I just stumbled on your blog linked from Fr. James Early's site...I myself served in the Corps, 1998-2002, although I was what you would call a "Hollywood" Marine. Good stuff.

Michael from Texas said...

"Sir Sandwiches (Sir yes sir, sir no sir)" don't fly at MCRD San Diego...It's always "Recruit____ requests permission to make a head call, SIR!"

Just another of the minor differences...Parris Island has sand fleas, San Diego/Camp Pendleton has hill that turn your thighs to jelly while humping up and down them.

Fr. James Early said...

November, do you have any idea what ever happened to the four DI's in the picture? I'm sure you still think about them often. I'm guessing they're all retired from the Corps, but I can't help wondering where they are and what they are doing now.