16. Down Range

Down Range

But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune.

‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭5:4‬ 

Though they were few and far between, some civilized discussions occurred as we encircled our drill instructors. During one such session they asked “Why did you join the Marine Corps?” This investigation came up many times in our formative and later years on active duty as senior Marines proposed the same question. Responses varied from Marine to Marine but most of their reasons were relatively noble: 

“I come from a heritage of Marines and want to continue their legacy,” 

“I want to defend my country,” 

“I want to serve overseas and fight the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and threaten our freedom.”

I didn’t come from a legacy of Marines, I didn’t join for the purpose of defending my country, and by no means did I want to deploy to a combat zone like many of them. I was unable to identify with any of the other Marines’ responses to the question because I was more certain of what my reasons for joining weren’t.

I enlisted to download as much life experience as possible in the shortest amount of time, I had difficulty articulating this to other Marines. Throughout each questioning process, I would scramble in my mind to figure out why I joined the Marine Corps. Though I knew my goal was to mature, my lack of certainty in everything prevented me from fully knowing this, as if I still couldn’t say with confidence what I already knew. When asked the question, something like this would come out: “I wanted to grow in experience and mature, and this was the fastest way I could go about doing it.”

To the majority of young men who enter the service, my answer did not instill confidence that I could be dependable. Not to say that they viewed my rationale for enlisting as dishonorable, but more accurately they had little evidence to believe I had the most basic qualities of a Marine: honor, courage and commitment. Where I lacked these attributes in their eyes, they observed an abundance of ignorance and naivety, two qualities I had become all too familiar with in my childhood.

They never commended my answer and always responded with a lukewarm reaction, and rightfully so. There seemed to be a notable pause, or silence after my response. No nod, low cheer, or even grunt of approval. Many Marines at the very least joined because it was their only chance to legally kill a man, but not I. Provided the opportunity and necessity, I thought that I could pull the trigger, but I definitely did not want to end someone’s life, especially if I didn’t have to. I never reflected in depth about the question of why I joined because it didn’t change the fact that five years of my life had been willingly given, and no amount of reasoning could alter that. A commitment was made, and the only task at hand was to fulfill it.

At the time I joined, Marine boot camp lasted twelve weeks split into three phases. Phase one was at MCRD in San Diego which involved the first shockwave of Marine culture, uniform regulations, group hygiene on command, physical training (PT), Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), marching, rifle maintenance and drill. The second phase took place in Camp Pendleton, a nearly two hour bus ride north. Camp Pendleton was where we qualified with our rifles, learned basic infantry tactics, spent nights in the field, endured long hikes with a rucksack, and the phase finished with the Crucible. During the third phase, we returned to MCRD and were given more freedoms, though not without strict oversight. High and tight haircuts were earned, dress uniform inspections occurred, the last physical fitness test was completed, and the final drill routine was performed, finishing with the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor ceremony and graduation.

With phase one complete, we headed up to Camp Pendleton for phase two. Once again our heads were down on a bus although this time we could sit two per seat. Our bus landed in a small desert town on the ninety-square-mile base. From the squad bay on the top floor of our new barracks, we could see the I-5 freeway only about a half-mile away.

It seems the Marine Corps found twisted pleasure in mocking recruits with the sadistic spaces selected to house them. MCRD is not more than a mile away from San Diego International Airport. Dozens of times per day we’d longingly gaze at planes arriving and departing, coveting the loungers aboard lazing in their recliners, blissfully unaware of the torment beneath them. They continued this psychological abuse in phase two. This time though, escape wasn’t impossible. 

The Marine Corps’ confidence shone as they knew there wasn’t a need for a fence to prevent spineless recruits from hitchhiking on the freeway. We heard that some would dip out in the night and attempt permanent escape by flagging down motorists on I-5. Due to the volume of Marines driving this close to Pendleton, a disheveled eighteen-year-old with buzzed hair, dirty cammies, and disgusting boots could be spotted more easily than a redhead in Zimbabwe. As the dimwitted buffoon accepts the offered ride, he is promptly returned to his owner at Recruit Training Battalion without the need to check the animal’s collar.

Now that we bunked at Pendleton, the second phase had begun. Ironically, I hated the latter half of the phase the most. This is the portion of boot camp that most closely represents the life of an infantryman. Having honed in on the cool-factor of potentially being stationed in the Whitehouse, I never fully considered that the foundation of this duty was infantry training. Obviously I knew infantrymen were the guys with the guns on the ground, but the actual process of becoming a grunt never crossed my mind. 

An infantryman’s real-life job consists of sleeping in the dirt, exposure to the elements, tactical training with heavy gear and back-breaking hikes. This unfortunate reality was undetectable on my radar. Though I tasted a sample of my future job in bootcamp, reality still didn’t sink in until later. This work would be the ultimate refinery for my soul. Looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess it was good I had no idea about the infantry. If I had known, I wouldn’t have done it.

The first few weeks of phase two were spent performing our rifle qualifications. “Every Marine is a rifleman,” the motto goes. As one can infer from this saying, the Marine Corps takes rifle proficiency very seriously. Whatever military occupational specialty (MOS, which basically means job) you have in this branch of service, you must learn how to shoot an M-16 up to 500 yards accurately with iron sights. Proficiency with this weapon is mandatory.

We quickly learned the thing we used to shoot bullets is not a gun. It is either a rifle or a weapon. The piece inserted into it that held the bullets is not a clip, but a magazine. Marines made sure we didn’t disrespect our beloved wives by calling them prostitutes and mislabeling their lady-parts.

While at the rifle range and in any other field training exercise, rifles must remain on your person at all times. They may be set down, but only in a respectful manner. Laying them flat in the dirt is desecration. It must always at least be propped up with the buttstock connecting with the ground and the muzzle elevated. Never should you be more than one arm’s length away from your weapon. To prevent a thief or an enemy from running away with your spouse at night, you must lay her comfortably inside your warm cocoon while sleeping. This deadly dame was the first woman I ever slept with. 

The rifle qualification portion of phase two was by far the best part of all boot camp. While at the range, our drill instructors were absent and the days predictable. The Marines in charge were range NCO’s who, though they cracked jokes and cursed at us when we were idiots, were solely focused on teaching us marksmanship. They casually taught us courses on the range, fed us MRE’s for lunch and we enjoyed the perfect weather during September in southern California. Best of all, we finally shot real bullets. 

Half of us shot the morning while the other half sat in the pits and we switched after lunch. Though the name sounds scary, in the pits we were what is considered by military terminology, OFP or, on our Own Fucking Program. We could sit down for hours on end, joke with each other and even take a dump whenever we wanted. 

The Marines in the pits were ten feet below ground level on a raised four-foot-wide boardwalk in a large trench, with a flattened base stretching some forty feet. The furthest portion of this dugout rose to ground level with a dirt slope elevated high above to catch the rounds from down range. 

Two recruits were stationed per target, roughly twenty targets per range. These large papers are mounted on frames similar to a painter’s canvas and are racked onto a rail system that the recruits can manually raise above ground and lower to their level. Once a puff of dirt is seen in the mound above on the other side of the trench, recruits pull down the cradle, identify a hole and place a pasty to mark the target before raising it up. This allowed the recruit who shot the bullet to receive quick feedback and see where or if his shot impacted the mark.

I enjoyed the shooting portion. Firing live bullets under low stress circumstances seemed like it could be a new hobby. My attentive absorption of techniques taught to us and decent application of them helped me perform relatively well. 

There are three levels of qualification and three different badges worn on your uniform depending on which level is achieved. Marksman is the lowest, which is an unattractive square target badge. It is pejoratively labeled the “pizza box.” The next up is sharpshooter, which looks like an iron cross with each extension dented in with sharp angles and an Eagle Globe and Anchor centered inside. Expert qualification, the only one that mattered in my eyes, displayed two crossed M1 Garand rifles crowned with a laurel. I was butthurt to learn that I missed expert by two points. 

Rifle qual didn’t last long enough. After this short vacation, phase two tumbled downhill faster than our bullets cracked down range.

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