Most people wouldn't look forward to boot camp. But an increasing
number of Marine recruits are spending six to nine months on a wait
list, anticipating the day they'll become 'something bigger than themselves.'
By Tony Perry
October 23, 2010
Reporting from San Diego 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.