20. Combat Patrol

Combat Patrol

Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.

Nehemiah 7:3

Ten days of leave sped by in an unmemorable blur. My next duty would be to revisit Camp Pendleton and check in to Infantry Training Battalion in a small section of the large base called 52 Area. One of the northwestern-most entrances, the San Onofre Gate, is the most direct route to 52 Area, despite relative nothingness from entrance to arrival roughly five miles deep. This road is named after none other than the Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient, John Basilone. Its full winding length stretches nearly twenty miles and cuts from this entrance into the heart of Pendleton, nearly reaching its primary establishment dubbed Mainside. Since my parents picked me up in boot camp, they decided to stay in Washington and have aunt Peggy drive me in, as she lived about an hour and a half northwest in Woodland Hills. 

As the 52 area emerged from the landscape, Marines became visible. They jogged alongside the road in their olive green skivvy shirts and short shorts while some were stationed underneath pull up bars near a small building to my right. As we drove a quarter mile further, I noticed a platoon marching around in their camouflage utilities with a single Marine in the front corner holding a large, wooden oar diagonally across his body. I later learned that the paddle-bearing Marines were those seeking to join Reconnaissance platoon, which was the most hardcore infantry unit one could attend besides MARSOC1

Now in the heart of the 52 Area, we slowed to a crawl due to the 10 mile per hour speed limit and the many pedestrians frequently jaunting through several crosswalks from one side of Basilone to the other. While slowing to a stop, I viewed a pair of young Marines walking with bright orange reflective vests cross the street in front of us. They looked odd, each one roaming dutifully while carrying radios in their hands.

As they crossed the pavement I tried to soak in the rest of this tiny blip surrounded by dry hills and mountains. To my left, the northern side of Basilone Road, I noticed Marines lining up at the chow hall with men doing pull ups to the left of the doorway. Pull up bars are placed everywhere on Marine bases, especially in front of eating facility entrances. Marines take pride in the fact that we are on average the fittest military branch with the toughest physical fitness test weighing heavily on our promotions. Since they can’t stick a rack of rusty weights exposed to the elements every thirty feet, they scatter pull up bars like Starbucks Coffee shops in Washington state. Men seemed to jump on and off these posts nearly twenty-four hours per day in 52 Area. Recon platoons rotated their applicants up and down them continually as they awaited their turn to stuff their faces.

Immediately after passing the chow hall, we noticed a white box truck with young Marines unloading its cargo to our left, so we turned toward what appeared to be my destination. My suspicion was confirmed as many young marines stood dutifully near their gear on the pavement in front of the building.

This H-shaped barracks opened one of its rectangular spaces facing us. Marines grappled with sea bags and rucksacks, piling them up on the pavement up the stairs where the others stood with their gear in a casual formation.  “I guess this is it, Peggy,” I told her, feeling relatively neutral about jumping back into Marine life. Austin and my cousin Jonathan helped me unload my belongings before I thanked all three of them with goodbye hugs.

Wandering up to the grinder seeking guidance, I noticed a sergeant with something in his mouth creating a bulge on his lower lip. He held an empty soda bottle with a small amount of brown fluid at the base. Bringing the container up to his chin, he pressed his lips to the edge and spat more coffee-colored gunk into it. I soon realized the world of the Marine Corps and the military at large is one buried in tobacco. Some men smoked it, others chewed it while many did both. I’d never seen a man dipping until now. He would be the first of many.

When he lifted his lips speckled with tiny tobacco shreds off his spittoon he noticed me with wide eyes and a fresh high and tight. “Hey you,” he boomed, “Get over here.”

I ran up to him, dropped my gear and stood at parade rest. “Yes… sergeant!” It took me a second to resist calling him “Sir.” Now that I’m a Marine, I address NCOs by their rank. Only officers are called “Sir” now.

“Get your cammies on. You’ve got five minutes.”

“Aye aye sergeant,” I responded as the flood of military norms swept in, overtaking my mind and body.

I picked up my gear, plopped it in the loose formation and fished out my woodland cammies and boots. In the Marine Corps, during the fall and winter months the green uniform is worn with our sleeves down. Some time around March or April, depending on the climate, we switch to desert cammies and roll our sleeves up. Though Marines sometimes complain about the time consuming task of sleeve-rolling, deep down we like it, because if done rightly, it makes us stand out from all other branches. The spectacularly folded sleeves are a perfect highlight for chiseled arms. They are purposefully bound as tight as possible to not only appear as flattened bands that are assumed to be sewn this way to the unknowing onlooker, but the mild obstruction of venous return is the perfect way for meatheads to show off every thick and stringy vein coursing down their bulging biceps and striated forearms.

I followed other young’uns in jeans and T-shirts to the stairway switchback ascending the opening connecting each end of the H. We were directed to a barracks on the second floor with a Marine in his gear standing beside the entrance holding a rifle behind a waist-high sand-bag bunker. Upon entering, the opening guided us to the end of a hallway with an office immediately to our front and the only open direction to our right. 

We found the head halfway down the hall to our right past a small weightlifting room. There we turned from Clark Kent into Superman, as we shed our civvies and assumed our Marine Corps uniform. I swooped back to the formation, stuffing my unsynchronized outfit in the duffel bag. After a short while, we were told to pick up our belongings and return to the squad bay I’d recently changed in. 

From that same entryway past the Marine guard, rather than turning right to the head we took a left to enter the main bunked area. The first noticeable oddity caught my eye to my left. Several Marines lounging on an old leather couch laughed as the Predator dismembered a man on screen. Through unwitting mimicry, they proved to be laser focused predators in their own right, treating their slices of pizza with a similar wanton disregard. Others consumed their own store bought commodities while occupying chairs behind the couch dwellers.

A couch, TV and Domino’s Pizza wasn’t what I expected. Everything seemed much more laid back than I anticipated. I noticed their gear lazed in not-so-neat arrangements, dangling from scattered seven-foot lockers and strewn round their loosely garbed, personalized racks. The deck hadn’t been swept or swabbed, allowing dust bunnies to roam the floor and congregate along the feet of the racks in patches of thin dirt. 

While scanning the unseemly scene I spotted a rack not far from the entrance. As I approached my target, some Marines began their exit shouldering fully packed bags. One passerby donated me a sloppy, two fingered salute while carrying his gear with nonchalant swagger. “Sianarah, I’m outta here. Enjoy,” his exiting remarks and gesture slathered in sarcasm. Something still didn’t seem right. Though I had no clue what School of Infantry (SOI) would consist of, the relaxed demeanor of this disorganized bunch couldn’t be missed.

I dropped my gear on the barren mattress to claim my bottom bunk. I then joined my fellow newcomers gathered in a line on the eastern wall past the moviegoers that traced behind the television, curved around the cinder block divider, stretched down the hall and ended in the office. I found my place next to a Marine about my age. His wide, grinning mouth beneath brown eyes and black hair, gave way to many loud and obnoxious sentences. 

“Dude, I’m so stoked for SOI, are you? I’m ready to freakin’ get some.” His unkempt motivation tilted my neutrality slightly in a positive direction.

“I don’t know, kinda,” I said.

“You like to hunt?”

“I’ve never gone hunting.”

“I fuckin’ love it. I’d go out in the Ozarks with my grandpa and hunt all summer.” 

“Ozarks? What’s that?” I asked.

“Dude you never heard of the Ozarks? It’s the best place to go in the summer. The fishing there is awesome. The lake is gigantic.” As he blared his favorite hobbies in my ear, the Marine on the other side of me sent an irritated look in his direction then his distasteful eyes met mine.

“I hate that guy, he’s annoying as hell. Already talked my ear off before you got here. I think he’s full of shit.” 

“You think so?” I questioned. I typically reserving hasty judgment until learning more about a person. Maybe this habit is wisdom, a cover up for gullibility, or a bit of both. Part of my assumptions in humanity’s general benevolence springs forth from a genuine trust that people always mean what they say. Limited in my understanding of social cues, I hadn’t developed any instincts for an accurate assessment of first impressions or underlying motives.

My inexperience in this area allowed me to be fooled by nearly any unverifiable or false claim. An un-crafty deceiver could still make a fool out of me many times over, even after spending many hours with him. Inheriting some of Darleen’s2 cluelessness when it came to humor, sarcasm dampened by obvious giveaways, rather than responding with a chuckle, almost always tricked me into genuinely responding with, “Really?” Though his beaming excitement encouraged me slightly, I did find him somewhat annoying as well.

At this point though I was unwilling to come to a firm conclusion about this character, especially considering we may rarely if ever interact again. Smalltalk continued as the line steadily moved toward the front office where we would be introduced to the sergeant in charge.

Sergeant Cruz3 greeted me as I stood at parade rest. “Afternoon Marine,” he spoke as his eyes drifted from mine to my nametape. “Decoupcrank? That’s your last name?” 

“Yes, sergeant. It is hyphenated but my nametape is all one word,” I replied, unsuccessfully attempting to de-emphasize its clunkiness. 

“You think I give a shit?” 

“Uh, no sergeant.” 

Sigh, We’ve got some pretty fuckin’ weird names in this group,” he complained, scanning a paper census of the Marines now under his charge. I noticed a red band wrapped around his right arm identifying him as SOG, or Sergeant of the Guard. Sergeant Cruz checked off my name.

“Alright Decoupcrank, you’re good to go. Welcome to Guard Platoon. You will be notified of your first post from the platoon guide4 shortly.”

“What’s Guard Platoon, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Guard Platoon is a temporary security duty. We are unable to accommodate the flow of Marines needing to be picked up in SOI so we hold the overflow here until a new cycle can pick up.” Still uncertain of what this entailed, I thanked him, turned and exited before he ushered in the loud-mouthed-motivator behind me. 

A few hours later, I met the guide, a bald black Marine about my height who’s features also hinted of a Pacific Islander. I’d imagine his large biceps and thick quads rippled beneath his tight skin if I were to see his football-receiver-built body in exposing PT attire. He brandished a tightly bound band similar to Sergeant Cruz’s on his right arm identifying him as the guide. Appearing to be in his early twenties, this PFC’s5 demeanor and confidence warranted his position as a leader among peers. Relief swept over me as I glanced at his name tape that read Swabyclacken. I finally met someone with a last name weirder than mine.6

“Hey Decoupcrank,” he said with cool poise and an erect posture, his bulging shoulders and chest a brawny foundation for his happy bust. “You’ve got post at 1600. The list is right here if you ever need to check.” He pointed behind and to his right to the frontmost support beam lining the middle of the squad bay. 

“Okay, thanks Swabyclacken,” I replied as I walked toward the list. 

”Just call me Swaby, it’s easier.” 

“Roger that, you can call me Decoup.”

“Sounds good Decoup,” he confirmed with a smile before turning to exit the squad bay.

I looked over the list quickly finding my long, smashed up name. There were several posts, each with distinct titles. Rover 1, Rover 2, Armory 1 and 2, Tower, Barracks and Papa 3-14. Each Marine performed two four-hour sessions per day in pairs. Barracks was the only solo duty. I figured this must be where the dreary lone ranger was posted in his worthless sandbag hut outside our door. To keep things simple the buddies assigned to each shift were paired from an alphabetical list. My name therefore appeared under Rover 1 at 1600 with a Marine whose last name was Dust.

Standing near the list as 1600 approached, my stomach tied itself in nervous knots, not knowing what to expect. 

“Hey man, you Decoupcrank?” A familiar voice asked. Once I turned to face the man behind me, I immediately recognized him as the Ozark toutin’, Missouri lovin’, gung-ho wannabe warfighter I’d met earlier. This time though, I noticed his nametape: Dust. 

“Yeah dude, you can call me Decoup. I guess we’ll be post buddies for a while.” Though I wasn’t sure what to make of him before, from the look of the schedule, I’d find out soon. 

“Right on bro,” he said as he a nodded, “ I’m Dust” 

Shortly thereafter, two Marines then entered the bay wearing bright orange reflective vests holding walkie talkies, the two doofuses I saw earlier wandering 52 Area wearing dorky neon liners. “You guys next?” One questioned as he approached Dust and me. 

“Yep,” we both answered in quick succession.

“Okay, come with us.” We followed as they turned around, exited the squad bay, turned right then led us into the gym. In the corner stood a metal locker storing radio batteries stationed on chargers and on the adjacent wall dangled many orange vests. Stuck next to the mounted hangers, a map outlined the routes for each team of rovers. 

Rover 1 covered the northern side of Basilone circling around the bulk of 52 Area, while Rover 2 skimmed the south side of the main road and turned down further southward to a large dirt loop that connected east to west ends of the small town. Each route spanned no more than two miles. Once we knew our route, equipped our radios, paper thin reflective flak jackets and invisible rifles, we were ready for our first combat patrol.

  1. MARSOC, or Marine Special Operations Command was established in February of 2006. This unit is the Marine Corps’ equivalent of Navy SEALs or Green Berets.
  2. My maternal grandmother. Her story can be found here if you haven’t read it yet.
  3. Not to be confused with Staff Sergeant Cruz from receiving platoon. The story about Staff Sergeant Cruz can be found here if you missed it.
  4. The guide is the peer platoon leader. This title is typically only reserved for boot camp or schools that follow.
  5. PFC stands for private first class, the second enlisted rank (E-2) in the Marine Corps.
  6. If you missed the post about the origin of my strange name and would like to learn more, click here.

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