Serving in the Marine Corps is a unique experience. I know you hear that sort of statement a lot from your crazy uncle that still demands everyone call him “gunny,” and from your high school friend’s nineteen-year-old kid that just hit the fleet and now only shares memes about being a “sheepdog” on Facebook, but the truth of the matter is, the Marine Corps is an environment unlike any other I’ve ever experienced – and I’ve had my fair share of experiences.
The thing is, signing your life away to Uncle Sam’s favorite gun club isn’t quite like deciding to serve in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. That isn’t to say there aren’t badass hard-chargers in each branch – you’ll find a fair cross-section of homecoming kings and awkward nerds in every corner of the U.S. military. It’s not emotional toughness, physical strength, or (perhaps obviously to some) intelligence that makes you a Marine – it’s a strange combination of masochism, an unwillingness to quit, and more often than you’d suspect, fear, that does it.
A close friend of mine is currently moving her way through what I call the Army’s “accession pipeline.” She has already completed basic training, and is now attending a specialized school for her occupational specialty. The letters she wrote to me from boot camp, combined with our conversations since she arrived at school, brought back a flood of memories about my own time in the Marine Corps’ pipeline. We often have pleasant conversations about all the experiences we now have in common – but what stands out to me far more, are the things we don’t. So, with that in mind, here are a few things people are often surprised to learn about Marine Corps training, even if you served in the military yourself.
1. You are forbidden from speaking in the first person at recruit training.
Some people have accused Marines like me of being arrogant. While I don’t see myself as that type of guy, I can appreciate the observation from a service standpoint. No, Alex the writer isn’t all that arrogant, right up until you cross the line into Sergeant Hollings territory – wherein I immediately become certain I can fight an entire bar or subdue an angry grizzly bear.
That arrogance has put me in swamps to wrestle alligators, seen me almost swept off a waterfall near the peak of Mount Washington, spin expensive race cars off of tracks, and in one instance, I managed to get myself bit by an off duty sheriff’s deputy in a bar fight. So if I’m willing to concede that Marines may indeed be arrogant at times – what’s to blame?
Well, to begin with, for three months of recruit training, you are only allowed to scream every bit of dialogue you say, and you are only permitted to refer to yourself in the third person.
By the time you leave Parris Island (or sunny San Diego where recruits complain about hills), you’ve mastered the art of talking about yourself in the third person. The habit eventually dies, but the mindset remains.
Sir, this Marine is still a bit arrogant, sir.
2. Drill instructors don’t have to hit you to hurt you.
We’ve all heard the horror stories about drill instructors beating on recruits. We see the stories about hazing as they break, and most Marines roll their eyes. The thing is, drill instructors do sometimes hit or otherwise harm recruits – but those instances are often born of a lack of creativity. Pain is a powerful motivator, but you don’t need to personally strike someone to cause it.
During my tenure on Parris Island, I was forced to scrub showers in a room full of naked adult men with the hot water turned all the way up; each of us dancing around one another and the jets of hot water while accomplishing our mission – it was admittedly a genius combination of embarrassment, shame, pain and frustration. As a squad leader and older guy, I was one of the recruits drill instructors sometimes used to punish slower, lazier guys. Can’t keep up? You’ll meet Hollings in the pugil stick ring – and we all know how much Hollings likes hitting guys with pugil sticks.
Pain and punishment often go hand in hand in training, but you don’t need to make a fist to accomplish it.
3. You don’t have to make a mistake to be punished.
The biggest difference I’ve been able to glean from comparing my experiences to those of my friend, is that Army drill sergeants seem interested in helping you to become a better soldier. They talk to you, sometimes they offer guidance when you make a mistake. Of course, they yell and shout, but then they’ll pose in a photograph with you and your family after you’ve graduated.
When my wife and mother approached me for the very first time after I’d been dismissed from training at Parris Island, one of my drill instructors crossed between their path and mine. For a split second, I considered attempting to introduce the man to my mother – the same man I’d fantasized about bludgeoning with the butt stock of my rifle a thousand times – but he made the decision for me. He looked at my wife, then at me, then straight ahead, said the word, “nope,” and continued walking.
As for whether or not Marine Corps drill instructors are interested in helping you… I’ll let this YouTube video do the talking… er… screaming.
That’s not a skit or a scene from some ridiculous movie – that’s legitimately how a fair portion of your interactions occur at Marine Corps recruit training. The drill instructors are generally less from the school of helping you become a Marine, and more interested in forcefully shaping you into something that will pass final drill and be prepared for further instruction at combat training, the School of Infantry, or your respective MOS school. At recruit training, you do not speak or interact with other recruits, and your only authorized form of communication comes in the form of screaming at the top of your lungs.
And that’s before you screw up.
4. Recruits and junior Marines live in a constant state of fear.
It might be hard to believe that the cocky kid with a high and tight and extra-smedium Tap Out tee-shirt is afraid right now, but I assure you, he is. Every Marine is born with the innate understanding that you are expected to carry yourself as a professional representation of the Corps at all times, in uniform and out – and because that’s just about physically impossible for most young people, they’re always afraid of getting caught.
Not wearing a belt on your jeans? You’re done for. Wearing a plain white tee-shirt? Stand the f*ck by for punishment. Wearing flip-flops at the fair three states away from your duty station? Your First Sergeant is going to hear about this.
Marines not only police their own, but like North Korean labor camps, you can be punished for simply knowing the guy that screwed up. If a Marine shows up on base with a jacked up haircut and you aren’t already tearing him apart by the time a staff sergeant notices it – you’re both in line for some pain. My wife was once asked to leave a gas station on base because she, a civilian dependent, was wearing sandals. At least they didn’t make her scrub any toilets over it.
5. We know you think we’re nuts.
I am not the toughest Marine on the block, nor am I tougher than lots of sailors, airmen, or soldiers – but I do have different priorities than many of them do. For instance, Marines pride themselves on their uniforms, but that pride isn’t based on how snazzy dress blues look in pictures. The pride we have in our appearance comes from spending hours, days even, preparing and maintaining our uniforms. Uniform inspections are a part of life, and to this day, if you put a couple of Marines together in any kind of formal setting, they’ll immediately set about grooming one another like monkeys at the zoo. We not only feel the need to ensure we look squared away, we won’t tolerate other Marines in our presence being jacked up either.
This is why so many of us are mortified when we see some soldier sodding through the airport in his cammies, talking on the phone and munching on a Cinnabun. Marines are not permitted to wear cammies anywhere other than a military installation or a combat zone without express written permission from a higher authority than you’d know how to get a hold of. You’ll never spot a Marine at the grocery store in his cammies – it simply isn’t done.
The same goes with haircuts. Marine Corps regulations state you need a fresh haircut at least every two weeks, which means every command in the world expects you to have a new one each and every Monday morning. Four years out, I still go every second week – and I feel guilty about it the whole time.
When I challenge my Army friends about their mismatched beanies and uniforms that seem to include everything from baseball caps and hoodies to repel ropes and Velcro, they always respond simply that Marines are crazy to the point of stupidity when it comes to our uniform regulations (which extend into civilian attire).
I know they’re right, and there was no need to iron each fold of my sleeves as I rolled them each morning – but then, I didn’t have to join the Marine Corps either. We could all just be hanging out in whatever uniform items we picked up off the floor like some other branches seem to, but the Marine Corps saw fit to forcefully implant different priorities into my brain housing group. If you’re wondering how, see the video above.
I can feel some of my brothers and sisters from other branches stretching their fingers, waiting for me to wrap this up so they can get to expressing their disgust about my characterization of their branch – so let me ease the burden of your anger. I love the Corps, and the man it forcefully shaped me into, but I have the utmost respect for every branch. I’ve met soldiers that put me to shame, and airmen that could fight like nobody’s business. We’ve each got our strengths, and our weaknesses. Again, Alex the writer recognizes the value every person in uniform provides to the greater good.
But this recruit? He’s pretty sure he can take you.
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps