14. Voices

Voices

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.

‭‭Exodus‬ ‭19:16‬ 

After Staff Sergeant Cruz took a sledgehammer to all my innocent assumptions of Marine conduct in one blow, all I could do was toss all my preconceived notions out the window and brace for Black Friday, the day when we were conglomerated into a platoon and met our drill instructors. On Friday morning we sat cross-legged in the open area in front of the new squad bay as an officer called them out of their office. One by one, these terrifying figures emerged, marching and pivoting pristinely to their post in front of us. They wore their dress Charlies uniform and the dreadful, iconic felt hat, the campaign cover, establishing their identity as agents of destruction. They tilted their heads down slightly, like wolves giving a threatening look before baring their teeth. Once the officer swore them in and left, chaos ensued. 

Our senior drill instructor was Staff Sergeant Esquivel. As his name suggests, his heritage was from South America. His tightly curled, half-pursed lips could swallow your head when fully opened. The mid level manager was Sergeant Colston, a man of African descent. His uniform sported two National Defense Service Medals.1 He left the Corps some time after the first Gulf War and rejoined after 9/11 to help the cause. He didn’t yell as much, perhaps because of his older age. With calm, authoritative words we scrambled to obey his every whim. The most junior drill instructor whose short, burly frame had Asian features was Sergeant Taylor, the pit bull of the crew. When unleashed he took special pleasure in barking in our faces and ripping the sheets off our racks. This conglomerate of unlikely peers was a combination almost exclusively found in the military. Minorities ruled our mostly white, middle-class platoon. They were hell bent on getting revenge.

The single word that best describes boot camp is uncomfortable. Long hours, especially in the early phases, were spent standing in line so close we could smell the next recruit’s sticky, weathered body. We stood touching or at most an inch away from the next. No more a condensed phrase could be used to describe this sweaty gaggle than the drill instructor’s charge to stand, “Nut to butt.” These lines were often formed in cramped spaces with serpentine formations. Not only did one recruit stand nut to butt, with the next, he also stood shoulder to shoulder when in-between segments. This combined with the humid stench of nervous sweat made tasks as simple as getting dental x-rays or pricked with vaccines a trial in and of itself.

The process of developing our dress blues picture was conducted similarly. Parents portray this image proudly in their home not knowing how it was created. Though it represents a true accomplishment and rightly should be cherished by family members of young Marines, the process of making it was a sham. One would think the photo was created towards the end of boot camp as we proudly march to the photographer after the dignified donning of the most coveted of military uniforms. In reality, this picture was taken during the early weeks of training. 

We were outside baking in the San Diego sun wearing our camouflage utilities while standing nut to butt yet again. A drill instructor guarded the door of the building, periodically ushering us in one at a time. I entered and was greeted by an embittered civilian and silent drill instructor. 

“Small or medium?” the man asked with a coarse tone.

“Uh, small,” I replied. 

“Take off your blouse.”

Hanging on the wall to my left were dress blue coats. The drill instructor snagged one as I removed my blouse. The back of the jacket was cut from top to bottom with small fasteners to connect the split. They both held one side of the jacket, prying it open from behind while I stood, arms outstretched like Frankenstein. After they slipped me into it the drill instructor aggressively tugged at each latch to secure it. The cameraman smashed a white cover on my head while the Marine gripped my arms and jostled me into position in front of the image of the American and Marine Corps flags. And thus the picture was taken: wearing cammies from the waist down, with a divided uniform, a prostituted cover and a sullen expression.

Another unexpected trial was illness. My immune system was impenetrable when it came to the viruses of Washington. Now that I shared a space with fifty recruits, each with different hometowns across the country, my ironclad Washington defense system stood no chance against the new infectious strains. 

Our concrete cell was a petri dish of incubating illness. These viruses, having traveled on the backs of men whose defenses were attuned to their strategies, quickly feasted on numerous unprepared hosts. I managed to dodge the infirmary for a few weeks, but one night the chinks in my armor were overrun.

The evening settled in as we prepared to get into our racks. Though the drill instructors could take away nearly everything, one of the few things that politicians prevented them from stealing was our sleep. Except on Marine bootcamp’s pinnacle trial, the Crucible, we were guaranteed eight hours of undisturbed rest. 

Every night though, a recruit would have firewatch. Someone must be awake at all times to alert the troops if something were to happen. This usually occurred once every few days, and only for one hour as the watch list systematically rotated through the platoon. 

My drill instructors promoted me to be one of the first four squad leaders. The only reason they elevated me to this position was because I could do twenty pull ups. After all, what better qualifying feature defines a stellar leader as the ability to grab bars and raise one’s body in space multiple times? Shortly thereafter I was fired because my insecurities and inability to lead a ragtag group of peers became readily apparent. 

As a squad leader, we were taught – and forced – to lead by example. Rather than having one hour of firewatch every few evenings, I had two hours of firewatch nightly. Thankfully as leader of first squad, I owned the beginning watch of the night. This however, started to weigh me down as the weeks progressed. Like the majority of people, I don’t have the anomalous gene that allows me to function on less than eight, or at least seven hours of sleep. My physical fatigue from the days exacerbated by mild but sustained sleep deprivation opened cracks in my immune system for an eager virus to invade.

As I came around my rack to begin my nightly duties, Staff Sergeant Esquivel exited his windowless hut at the front of the barracks. If a Marine enters the squad bay when no authorities are present, the first recruit who sees him is required to shout, “Attention on deck!” followed by introducing their name and rank. He strutted out menacingly, staring into my glassy eyes as he turned, never breaking eye contact. After a few seconds, he shouted, 

“Crank! The hell’s wrong with you?!” 

Frozen in fear, I didn’t know what to say. My sickly body must have bailed me out by hijacking the faculties of my stalled prefrontal cortex.

Without thinking I responded, “This recruit is dizzy, sir!”

Staff Sergeant Esquivel paused, still gazing intently into my eyes. 

“Get into your rack!”

“Aye aye sir!”

I skittered to my bunk, relieved I would get some much needed rest. The following morning I woke up in a daze, my rack soaked from head to toe in sweat with a putrid odor. The doctor diagnosed me with acute bronchitis and I enjoyed the perks of light duty. I was somewhat disappointed when I recovered in only three days and my privileges were revoked.

Yelling was a hallmark of bootcamp. Nearly every word that exited the recruits needed to be forcefully and succinctly shouted. If one would belt drawn out responses such as “Aaaye, Aaaye Siiiiiiiiir,” he would be harshly punished for singing. This forced us to learn how to project our voice with each breath by tightening the abdomen and diaphragm. It wasn’t long however, a week at most, that all of us lost an additional part of us we never anticipated: our voices. Not only did we look like soggy, prickly-headed prisoners, we sounded like weary cats feverishly crying out for food when all that could be heard was air sifting through tattered vocal cords.

The newer drill instructors were no different. Aside from the black belt and the higher rank that distinguished senior drill instructors from the rest, the young ones could easily be identified by their raspy screams. The seniors sounded like dragons. 

I was in the squad bay while Sergeant Taylor punished a recruit on the quarterdeck, the open area towards the entrance used as the primary location to haze us for several minutes – or hours – for any number of mishaps. One unfortunate teen sweated there suffering while we attended to our business, Sergeant Taylor vainly wheezing commands at him.

“Flutter kicks right now!” gasped the sergeant.

“Aye aye sir!”

“Oh good, you want to take your time? Front lean rest right now!” 

Suddenly cracks of thunder entered the room. The loudest, ear shriveling shrieks I’ve ever heard uttered by men echoed off the concrete walls. One after another, orders and insults exploded in rapid-fire succession at this poor soul. I thought a squad of drill instructors entered the bay but when I looked over my shoulder, not twelve but two staff sergeants were present. Wide eyed and shaken myself, the heat of their fiery fury could be felt as I stood thirty feet away.

The loudest of the two was a stout black Marine with arms half the girth of my waste. They leaned in close as the recruit was in the pushup position, assaulting his eardrums with the deafening force of their shouts. We were told that Mothers of America successfully lobbied to outlaw physical abuse in boot camp. These two circumvented this edict, managing to still cause bodily harm by transmuting the trauma of hooks and jabs into paralyzingly vicious voices.

  1. The National Defense Service Medal is awarded for joining a military branch during a time of war. Very rarely do you see someone awarded with two of these. This is because in order to rate two, you must join the military during one conflict, leave the service, then rejoin during a completely different declared war.

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