Making A Marine
A report from San Diego
I thought getting up at 5:30 a.m. was hard. This morning my wake up call came at 2:45 a.m., enough time for a shower, a quick bite to eat and some coffee before I boarded a van for Camp Pendleton, the Marine base located in Oceanside, about 40 miles north of San Diego.
This morning I got the honor to observe the Eagle, Globe and Anchor (EGA) ceremony, the culmination of the Crucible and the past 12 weeks for the recruits. It is at this ceremony that they officially stop being recruits and become Marines. And boy, do they earn it.
The Crucible is a 54-hour marathon field exercise, which includes more than 45-miles of marching and culminates in the EGA ceremony. During this time the recruits are challenged, receiving just four hours of sleep a night and three Meals Ready to Eat (MREs, the combat rations used by all the U.S. Military). By the time they reach the top of the Reaper, a 700-feet peak they must climb a the end of a 9.7 mile hike, they are exhausted. But looking into the eyes of these newly christened Marines, it’s not exhaustion you see. It’s pride. Pride in themselves for what they’ve accomplished and pride that they are now members of one of the world’s most elite fighting forces, the Marines.
After the educators get a chance to feel the weight of a the M-16 A4 service rifle that all Marines qualify on.
Every Marine, regardless of their job or rank is an infantry man first. They all must be ready to fight when needed. To ensure this readiness, the Corps requires them to qualify annually on the M-16.
The Corps puts a huge emphasis on the marksmanship of their men. They are required to qualify on the weapon by shooting at targets up to 500 yards away, farther away then any other branch of the military.
We don’t get the chance to actually fire the weapons, but we are allowed to heft the rifles and check out the optical sights that have become the standard in the Corps.
Next we get a chance to sit down with the new Marines who earned the title that morning on the Reaper at the Warrior’s Breakfast.
For the past 12-weeks the Marines have been well fed, but without anything too fancy. Here they get steak and eggs, as well as birthday cake, symbolizing their birth as Marines.
After we head out to another element of The Crucible, the stalls.
Overlooking the scrub lands of Camp Pendleton, the stalls are 12 wooden stalls, each containing a theoretical situation the recruits must overcome.
At one, recruits must cross a mock bridge, made up of two parallel cables – one for their feet and one for their hands – rescue a simulated casualty by carrying them across the bridge, then return to figure out how to carry a 50-gallon drum back across the bridge.
The educators are given a chance to test their mettle and are successful at getting their wounded comrade across. The 50-gallon drum, however, hits the ground, which is a simulated minefield.
The day ends with a visit to the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion. A sign outside of the battalion’s headquarters informs us that we are entering ‘Gator Country.’
As a part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the 3rd man the massive 26-ton, tracked Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV), capable of deploying 18 fully loaded Marines on a beachhead. The AAV’s are armored and heavily armed with a .50 caliber machine gun and a 20 mm grenade launcher. We get a chance to climb around on the vehicles before getting a in the water demonstration of the AAV’s capabilities in the training lagoon.
After, it’s back to the hotel to prepare for our final day, graduation.
On the bus at 7:30 and off to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, about 15 miles north of San Diego.
Spent the morning getting a glimpse of the myriad of educational opportunities available to Marines wherever they are stationed and how the skills they learn while serving translate to civilian jobs.
Here at the air station that typically means support jobs keeping the Marines’ jets and helicopters flying.
Next we got a chance to see those jets and helicopters up close with a static display of the F/A-18 Hornet attack fighter and the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor vertical take off and landing aircraft.
Currently the Osprey, which has a plane fuselage, with wings that end in giant helicopter-like rotors that tilt to lift and land the machine like a helicopter, then move to a more traditional aircraft propeller orientation when it levels off, powering the Osprey at much higher speeds than those capable by a traditional helicopter. The Marine’s are currently phasing out their CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, replacing them with the Osprey.
Wrapping up at Miramar, the bus took us back to the MCRD where we sat in on a seminar with a Navy chaplain, who detailed how they take care of Marines’ religious needs.
A performance by members of the magnificent Marine Corps band followed lunch and after it was a tour of the MCRD museum before heading back to the hotel.
After our briefings with the brass (see I’m already starting to pick up a little lingo here) we head to the swim tank. Although it’s actually an Olympic sized pool, the main purpose of the tank is to teach recruits the Corps swimming requirements and test them.
Because a large portion of the Corps serve in the Marine Expeditionary Forces, where they typically deploy amphibiously from U.S. Naval vessels, swimming is vital.
The recruits test to ensure they can survive in the water by performing various tasks such as jumping in the tank with a full combat load of pack, helmet, flak vest, rifle and other gear, then shedding it and swimming for 25 yards.
After the swim tank we head off to depot’s museum where we are briefed on the educational opportunities available for Marines.
For the educators that accompany me, this is a vital part of the workshop. It soon becomes apparent that furthering education for the Marines serving are a primary goal. As many of the officers we’ve encountered are found of saying, the main weapon of the Corps is not the tanks, aircraft or even rifles that the men carry. It is the men themselves that are the best weapon. And an educated Marine is a valuable commodity. Plus, providing college courses for Marines also helps ensure that quality citizens are returned to communities nationwide after enlistment, Marines that will make a contribution to society.
Following our briefing we head to the chow hall where we get our first chance to actually talk to a recruit.
At each of the four-person metal tables in our section one recruit (not sure if I mentioned this, but recruits are not referred to as Marines until after they receive the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem in week 12) sits at attention, full plate of food in front of them, unable to eat until one of our group joins them.
I sit with a 27-year-old recruit from Puyallup named Anderson. I’m surprised at how ready he was physically for the rigors of training. Because most recruits enlist on a deferred basis, with nine-months between the time they sign up and actually report to the depot, they have plenty of time to get ready. The recruiters also run physical training sessions for enlistees to get them prepared. This has made the average fitness of most recruits at the highest level in years, according to some of the officers who spoke to us.
After lunch – typical cafeteria fare of salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad and dessert – we get a chance to see where the recruits live, in large 40-bed squad bays with bunk beds.
The squad bays also have communal bathrooms, with showers.
After viewing a guided discussion, where drill instructors have an informal conversation with their recruits about hazing and how it is unacceptable in the Corps, it’s off to the Combat Fitness Test course.
Here, recruits prove their physical readiness for the rigors of combat by running 880 yards in boots, lifting a 30-pound ammo can over their head as many times as they can for two minutes and running the maneuver under fire obstacle course.
The course requires all Marines (everyone in the Corps is required to pass the course annually, from the highest ranking general to the lowest private) run 10 yards, belly crawl 10 yards, high crawl 15 yards, drag a casualty 10 yards while zigzagging through cones, fireman’s carry the casualty at a run for 65 yards, carry two 30-pound ammo cans for 75 yards while zigzagging, toss a dummy grenade 25 yards, perform three pushups and then sprint with the ammo cans to the finish line. All this must be accomplished in less than 3 minutes, 30 seconds (for recruits aged 17-26).
The 880-yard run must be done in 3 minutes, 48 seconds and 45 ammo can lifts must be done in less than 2 minutes.
Next it’s a demonstration of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), the official hand-to-hand, close quarters combat system of the Corps.
Instituted in 2001, MCMAP combines elements of several traditional martial arts disciplines, including aikido, judo, ju-jitsu and karate.
Recruits earn tan belts in MCMAP before they graduate, and can continue to progress through the system’s belt structure throughout their career.
Our day wraps up at the Bayonet Assault Course where the educators get a chance to put on utility uniforms, flak jackets and helmets and run through an obstacle course with a dummy M-16 fitted with a bayonet. After crawling, climbing and running, they attack tires with either the butt of the rifle or the bayonet.
Then it’s onto the bus for the quick trip back to the hotel to get some rest for our next day at the workshop.
Five a.m. comes early.
After a quick cup of coffee and a bite to eat, I assemble along with 37 teachers, counselors, coaches and school administrators – all part of the Washington State contingent of the Marine Corps Educators Workshop – in a parking lot next to our hotel in San Diego to get our first glimpse at the life of a Marine Corps recruit as he begins the transformation from civilian to Marine.
It is here we meet our drill instructor for the next four days, Ssgt. Jackson.
Clad in camouflage and the traditional campaign hat that designates him a drill instructor, Jackson wastes no time in giving us the recruit treatment.
He shouts instructions and soon we are formed in a column of fours and marched around the parking lot in circles as Jackson teaches us the responses to basic drill instructions.
When he shouts “EARS” we respond “OPEN” our clue to listen up for further orders.
When he shouts “EYES” we respond “CLICK” and all eyes snap to focus on the drill instructor.
After several minutes of marching about in a ragged formation Jackson shouts “ATTACK THE BUS.”
We respond with “AYE AYE SIR” and board the drill instructor’s bus.
A 15-minute trip to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, a cluster of mustard-yellow buildings located on 388 acres adjacent to San Diego’s busy Lindbergh Field International Airport, where planes take off every couple minutes their promise of freedom a slap in the face for recruits who will experience no freedom for the next 13 weeks.
Once at the depot, we sit on the bus as a handful of intimidating looking drill instructors cluster outside, letting us cool our heels as we contemplate what’s coming next.
Outside the bus, yellow footprints are painted on the concrete outside of the doors of the Recruit Processing building.
Finally, a drill instructor boards the bus and yells for us to disembark and take our place on the yellow footprints, the beginning point for thousands of Marines since MCRD San Diego first begin training them in 1923.
We are taught how to properly stand at attention and briefed on the difference between the Uniform Code of Military Justice and civilian rights.
Soon we are ushered through the doors and into the contraband room, where recruits dives themselves of the material possessions of their civilian lives, including cell phones and any electronic devices, are turned over. They receive their basic clothing and are ushered into the next room where they call their parents and guardians to inform they have arrived at MCRD.
Keep in mind this isn’t your normal telephone conversation. It is scripted and the recruit cannot deviate from it, resigned to merely informed their loved ones that they have arrived safely.
Next it’s off to the barber, who shaves the recruit bald, shedding the last vestiges of his civilian appearance.
The beginning of the most important 13 weeks in a recruits life has begun.
For the educators and I, it’s off to a briefing room where the MCRD training commander clues us in to the goals of Marine Corps training.
A full-bird colonel tells us the Marine Corps has three goals:
1. To make Marines.
2. To win American’s battles.
3. To return quality men back to their communities after service.
And it all begins here with the raw recruits who the Corps will transform into Marines.
Much like the United States Marine Corps recruits I am going to report on, my journey begins at SeaTac Airport.
As I sit here waiting for a twice-delayed flight to San Diego – where I will spend the next four days at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot (MCRD) observing what it takes to change an ordinary citizen into a United States Marine – I am a little apprehensive about what lies ahead.
Although the obstacles that will confront me in the next few days – as I gather information on soon-to-be Marines from Renton, Kent, Auburn, Covington and hopefully Enumclaw – promise to be logistically significant as a scramble to arrange interview’s and photo shoots , they pale in comparison with the life change undertaken by these five young men from the Puget Sound. Still I can easily put myself in their shoes and imagine the excitement and nervous energy that must have enveloped them as they embarked on their journey.
A couple of months ago I was approached by the Marine Corps recruiter from Auburn and asked if I was interested in doing a story on the Corps. He explained that the U.S.M.C. hosts an event called an Educator’s Workshop, where they fly host teachers who are shown the process behind making a Marine. Obviously, the hope is the teachers will come back with a positive view of this branch of the military and recommend it for their students.
Occasionally the Marine Corps also hosts media at the workshop, giving them a peek under the hood at the inner workings of the training process.
That’s where I come in.
Starting tomorrow I will watch and report on the process of Making a Marine, detailing the past 12 weeks of training the recruits from Washington have experienced, from the first time they stood in formation at attention on the famous “Yellow Footsteps” to the final phase of training, “The Crucible”where they put together everything they’ve learned in Boot Camp during a 54-hour field exercise.
Finally I will watch as the recruits graduate and offically become Marines this Friday.
Most importantly, however, I’ll get a chance to talk to the recurits and find out first-hand about their transformation and why they chose to sign on to serve their country.
That’s it for now, boarding call is finally coming over the speakers.
I’ll be back tomorrow, hopefully with some video as I stand in the “Yellow Footsteps”and get my first taste of the legendary Marine Corps Drill Instructor.