MONDAY—HEARTS AND MINDS
At the Humphreys Half Moon Inn in San Diego, two events were in full swing: a Marine Corps workshop for high-school educators and a Ziggy Marley concert.
The workshop’s conference room overlooked the concert venue on one side and the harbor on the other. Bass rattled the windows. Several ships docked outside flew Rastafarian flags.
“This is the opening pipeline,” Colonel Terry Johnson told the group of about 80, as a grinning image of Ziggy flapped in the breeze behind him. The “pipeline” was the teachers, and it works like this: The teachers would take “the raw material sitting in your classrooms” and assist in “making them into Marines.”
America has waged war for the past two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and other far-flung nations. Now, Donald Trump and his generals want to send thousands more fighters to Afghanistan alone, a place where, so far, more than 2,000 American lives have been claimed and some 20,000 more have been wounded. To supply these wars, Uncle Sam needs a fresh supply of fighters.
And that’s where the Marine Corps Educators Workshop comes in. Every year, the Corps invites teachers, coaches, counselors and other employees from high schools within the 12th Marine Corps District, which spans the western United States and extends to Guam, to a weeklong seminar held on various Marine bases around San Diego County. By experiencing a version of boot camp themselves—log-climbing, body-carrying, tightrope-walking, history lessons, yelling, discipline, punishment and the like—the brass feels teachers will learn enough about Marine life to nudge their students to become leathernecks themselves.
They get free travel, meals and hotel rooms in Southern California, with complete liberty every evening to retire to the Humphreys’ well-tended pool, bar and Jacuzzis.
And it’s all worth it for the Marines. “We’re gonna continue to foster those relationships and ensure that they stay maintained, so that the relationship with the schools in turn helps with what’s going on between the recruiter and those schools,” says Sergeant Jessica Quezada, the marketing and public-affairs representative for Recruiting Station Orange, based in Santa Ana.
During this night’s welcome dinner, teachers bond over stories of budget cuts, bureaucracy and wayward students who’d be perfect for the Corps. “I’ve got kids who have been in the Marines and come back, and I’ve seen the difference in them,” says Jason Sorrell, a British expat who teaches English and coaches soccer for Capistrano Valley High School. “I love their patriotism—I think that’s fantastic—but I think it’s the discipline. Love the discipline.”
Quezada says she doesn’t like to preach to the converted. “Typically, we like to bring in those who are skeptical, who are not as knowledgeable about the organization,” she says.
Still, the Marines can’t help but attract the people who love the armed forces. While this summer’s teachers came to the workshop as patriots, the Corps made sure they left Marine patriots.
* * * * *
TUESDAY—RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
We rose for hotel breakfast at 6 a.m.—not nearly as early as recruits, who get up at around 4:30 every morning. Over bacon, Major Michael Taylor took complex questions from teachers about his tours of duty in Afghanistan and other theaters. Why did tribal sheiks turn down medical facilities, saying they would be seized by the Taliban anyway? Wouldn’t they do anything to help their families? Moral perplexities flitted at the edges of the conversations about the politics of military life.
As we waited for the bus, Staff Sergeant Joshua Glotzbecker told us the basic commands that make up the entirety of a recruit’s vocabulary for most of his or her day. “Aye, aye, sir!” is a recognition of a command. Upon hearing “eyeballs,” the proper response is “Click, sir” and to turn one’s head and eyes toward the commanding officer; the “click” represents an immediate mechanical response to the order and a “lock” on the target. Similarly, when the commanding officer says, “Ears,” the recruits are to respond, “Open, sir,” indicating they are listening.
With a wide-brimmed drill instructor’s hat and a sleeve of tattoos down his right arm, Glotzbecker seemed as if he had just kicked the ass of R. Lee Ermey on the set of Full Metal Jacket. “That’s what I’ve been living off of the past few years,” Glotzbecker says. “Red Bull and hate.”
There wasn’t any time to be confused, or back out, or cave in. The first half-hour of boot camp, as we experienced it, was designed to deny us the opportunity to stop to question what was happening and why.
Arriving at the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot (MCRD), San Diego, drill instructors provide “surround sound,” as Taylor calls it. “GET OFF MY BUS!” the drill instructors yell, as if we were trespassing. We are pointed—vigorously—to rows of yellow-painted footprints on the ground and told to stand on them and stand straight. And wait.
They split us into a mock pick-up—groups of pretend recruits who are meeting a resident instructor. On the way to the pick-up, we see someone "in the pit” for individual training (IT). This recruit had messed up really bad, Glotzbecker mutters. He struggled through standing bicycle crunches as a drill instructor circled him, but it was no good: The recruit succumbed to his exhaustion over and over, panting in the dust.
At the barracks, we are introduced to the people who would be in charge of us if we were actually a batch of fresh recruits. The instructor issues a volley of commands, and our subpar mastery of the eight-word recruit vocabulary (aye, click, open, yes, no, kill, sir and ma’am) falls apart almost instantly.
Drill Instructor: Sit down!
Us: Yes, sir!
That’s "Aye, aye, sir!”
Aye, aye, sir!
"Aye, aye” means you understand. "Yes” means you’re answering a question. Understand?
Aye, aye, sir!
No! That’s "Yes, sir!”
No! That’s "Aye, aye, sir!” Understand?
Aye, aye, Sir!
Throughout it all, the drill instructor never cracks a smile. We are too terrified to try.
We have lunch with actual recruits, nearly all of whom are on the edge of 20 and are secretly enjoying the opportunity for upgraded chow, provided because they are dining with us. They are half broken and half re-formed; they have a certain childishness at the depot. It’s not the mix of maturity and immaturity one goes through on the cusp of adulthood. It’s a receptivity and obedience mixed with a restrained eagerness to do right. Their clean faces and shaved heads only add to this infantile impression. Each of them has become, as the Marines tell me, a new person.
As we eat, I speak with two recruits who identify themselves only by their last names, Bird and Baker. "I wanted to join mainly because of my discipline,” Baker says. "I wasn’t appreciating things back home as much as I should have been.”
"I’ve always wanted to be a Marine,” adds Bird, whose father was a Marine. "I wanted to follow in his footsteps [and] hopefully achieve what he achieved and more. Hopefully, one day, I can look back on my past and be proud of what I was. And if I have children of my own, hopefully they’ll look up to me and walk in my footsteps.”
And there are a lot of footsteps involved in being a Marine. We end the day with a visit to the field where Marines take their semiannual Combat Fitness Test (CFT), which fully trained, active-duty Marines have to complete semiannually to prove they have what it takes to suffer the physical trials of battle. Among other tasks, Marines must frantically crawl past cones, throw a dummy grenade into a box of cones, zigzag around cones toting 30-pound ammo cans, and carry a living person past several hundred feet of plastic cones.
A course instructor tries to reassure us by saying it’s easier than it looks. One of the Marines behind us scoffs and mutters, “I still hate doing this.”
Crawling, I discover, can be exceptionally difficult, especially when you have to do it as fast as you can. Throwing a grenade is not nearly as easy as throwing a baseball when your arms are rubbery from carrying weighted ammo cans. Lifting a human body is not as easy as giving a piggyback ride, especially when you can barely pull your own body off the ground. And, in a cruel metaphor for my vocation, I have to drag the PR lady from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower across the field, then carry her in a lopsided sprint to the starting line. “That was an interpretation of a fireman’s carry,” Sorrell says afterward. Apparently, the Marines don’t grant points for creativity.
* * * * *
The next morning, Glotzbecker is drinking a Red Bull while eating his bacon and eggs. “It doesn’t really do much to me anymore,” he says about the energy beverage. “I just like the taste of it.”
A bus takes us to the Marine airbase at Miramar. We are not allowed to take pictures of any aircraft not explicitly cleared for approval in advance, nor can we take any photos of military aircraft taking off—which proves surprisingly difficult because when F-16s roar off the tarmac like vengeful furies, they are quite photogenic indeed. But we can snap away at a pre-approved F-16 and Osprey. Their mild-mannered pilots gamely allow the teachers to take pictures of their air squadron patches, black knights and red lions emblazoned on their flight suits.
After lunch at the MCRD (where the local Marine brass band performs a set, complete with a Beyoncé cover—hey, if the prospect of warfare won’t attract millennials, maybe a tuba-heavy “Crazy in Love” will), we visit the MCRD San Diego Command Museum. We hit the gift shop first, with teachers sweeping up frag grenade lighters; T-shirts that read, “Teufel Hunden” (“Devil Dog” in German, as well as a nickname for Marines); and bumper stickers with slogans such as “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” and “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Two veterans guide us and provide personal testimony to supplement much of the commentary on the Vietnam War exhibit. A cutaway display of jungle soil shows an array of formidable Viet Cong booby traps—sharpened bamboo rods smeared with human feces, a chicken trap-like array of giant metal hooks, and a howitzer shell hooked up to a pressure plate—all "buried” just 2 feet below the surface. In an adjoining subterranean display, a guerrilla is in the middle of crawling through the trapdoor of a tunnel network.
One of the vets, who served in Vietnam, speaks with remarkable vehemence about how fruitless and unjust the war was—not only was the U.S. premise for invasion unfounded, but also the communist regime that emerged after the war was hardly any different than how it would be in a capitalist system; most of Vietnamese society was centered on local villages and family elders, not urban infrastructure or political ideologies. Nonetheless, he says, even if you don’t support the war, we Americans should always support the Marines themselves, for they seldom have a choice in the matter beyond fighting with dignity and bravery. The teachers nod with solemn approval.
The tour is all glory, from Nassau to Iraq. But our guide does mention that although Japanese troops were told by their commanders that Americans would kill them anyway if they surrendered, the Marines "didn’t disappoint them” and didn’t take many prisoners after the Battle of Iwo Jima.
* * * * *
At the crack of dawn, we pile onto the bus to visit Camp Pendleton. The first major activity of the day is 12 Stall, described by Quezada as a "human puzzle.” Within the outdoor, wooden stalls are different obstacles and objects. Each team receives a laminated piece of paper with a scenario, its mission. Part of the squad solves the actual puzzle—my team has to repair a dilapidated bridge for a river crossing—while the rest of the group provides "security” by staying on lookout. If any member touches the ground, or a red-painted object, or looks inward towards the stall for too long when they’re supposed to be providing security, that person "dies” and has to sprint back and forth on a dirt road while carrying two 30-pound ammo cans.
As a puzzle fanatic, I’m excited for this challenge. But the teachers have already sealed social bonds during many rendezvous by the hotel Jacuzzis; as a 19-year-old college student, I didn’t have the social capital to assert my role as one of the chief puzzle-solvers. Fine, I’ll do security.
As I scan the horizon for terrorists, my security comrades succumb one by one to the intriguing world of problem solving behind us, neglecting their posts. The drill instructor prowling the catwalk above us picks them off: "You! Go die!” he screams time and time again. My comrades disappear, reappearing later, their clothes saturated with sweat and their lungs heaving.
But I have self-control. I had read the story of Perseus and Medusa; I don’t need to turn around and look. The desert horizon will suffice for me.
And then I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder. "You’re having too much fun,” Sergeant Victor Romualdo says. I’m dead.
I jog to the dusty trace where the ammo cans are stacked. "No one cares that you’re tired!” screams Glotzbecker as I run up and down the path while carrying the world’s heaviest lunch pails.
When I drop them at his feet, I yell, "Mission accomplished. Aye, aye, sir!” But he stops me before I can leave.
"Are they straight?” he asks, pointing to the cans. They sit askew next to the neat row of metal boxes. "ARE THEY STRAIGHT? DO IT AGAIN!”
By the end of the day, my finger muscles are so sore from carrying ammo cans I can barely wipe my ass.
But Antonio Melendrez, a 20-year-old who coaches volleyball at Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South Central Los Angeles, has it worse. As he tilts his body toward the bus’ AC unit, I ask him what had happened. He tells me he "died” eight or nine times. From the looks of him, he had nearly died for real.
Far easier was the firing range. The Marines give us a crash course on how to use an M16. After about 45 minutes of instruction, we civilians are able to hit stationary targets accurately from a distance of 100 yards. Though some shell casings slip down a few shirts, we avoid shooting ourselves. Firing a gun is not very fun in itself. Combat, I imagine, is what makes things interesting.
Next is the Confidence Course, the iconic array of logs, rope and dirt you see recruits tackle in movies. It’s called that because the gauntlet is supposed to increase recruits’ confidence by showing them they can achieve things they didn’t know they could. A prerequisite for that self-worth boost, however, is that a recruit can complete it. The teachers don’t feel particularly confident before—or after—attempting the course.
Donning Kevlar helmets and flak jackets, we approach our first obstacle: the Weaver. It resembles a giant ladder made from logs broken in half, then standing at a 30-degree angle in the shape of a roof. It’s designed for climbing, naturally, and a matrix of rope webbing hangs below it in case anyone falls.
The toughest challenge thus far had been the CFT. Most teachers failed—but one of the few who aced it was Raul Romo, a Mexican-born counselor at Narbonne High School in Harbor City who has run 11 marathons. Romo not only passed the drill instructors’ tests, but he also met their "challenges” (he did well more than 100 weight-lifts with the ammo cans). He is our rock, our hope. And he’s the first to attempt the Weaver.
That’s why we die a little when Romo slips from the last log of the structure. As he extracts himself from the safety net, I spot large, mottled bruises on his arms blooming where he had hugged the logs. Soon enough, I will have those same bruises.
Walking a steel tightrope, with a second steel rope above to keep you from falling, seemed exceedingly easy, but we learn that’s because we are doing the watered-down version of the real challenge. Recruits are supposed to walk across the rope while carrying a jerry can holding 5 gallons of water in one hand. Picking it up, I doubt I can even walk the distance carrying it.
As Team Orange County (Romo had dubbed us the "OC Wranglers”) makes its way back from the tightropes to the equipment shed, guttural yells cut through the wind. This is not a drill. We return to find Team San Diego fielding their most implausible opponent against the Weaver. A teacher nicknamed "Teddy” because of his physique clings to the bottom of a log like a koala. The drill instructor stands above him, just one log over. Teddy lets out another cry as he tries to swing a leg over the next log, but he doesn’t get it high enough and slips. The instructor encourages him onward, telling him to swing his leg a little higher and get it over the top. But Teddy’s reserves are empty.
"I’m sorry, sir, that’s all I got!” he says, then drops off the log.
Maybe the rope wasn’t strong enough, or maybe the wood or the carabiners weren’t strong enough. Something snaps, and the crowd gasps as the net dips lower than it should. Teddy is about 4 feet from the ground. He rolls into the dust sideways as the rope sags. The teachers sigh in relief.
"Now how’s that for a finale?” a captain shouts, his hands raised, showing a flair for showmanship. We snap out of our daze and move to the supply truck, where we’ll leave our helmets and flak jackets. Thankfully, the Corps will have two weeks to repair the Confidence Course for the real recruits.
* * * * *
We leave for the recruit graduation ceremony early in the morning. Well, some of us do. Several teachers had spent a little too much time by the pool shack the night before. I was told the evening was pretty intense. My roommate had returned to our room unusually damp; one of the penalties for their games, he had said, was a mandatory dip in the pool.
One of the Marines stays behind to drive the stragglers separately, but they all reach the ceremony on time. The parade deck is so large you can see the horizon bend. Something about that parade deck sucks the energy out of you, Glotzbecker tells us. No matter how hard you drill, no matter how many tours of duty you’ve done, that sun-baked slab is worse than any obstacle course.
Surviving that is the last test for the graduating Marines. The fresh boots march across the deck to the ecstatic cheers of friends and family in the bleachers. A voice recites the accomplishments of the former recruits, now members of India Company.
After completing an arcane matrix of footsteps and shouts, the drill instructors give their last orders. The new Marines finish with a shout of "OOHRAH,” then turn around as if to march away. But a second later, they leap for joy and break into clusters of group hugs as the bleachers roar with approval. A voice on the speaker kindly reminds friends and family to refrain from crossing the parade deck.
Volleys of "Good afternoon, staff sergeant” rain down on us as our drill instructors lead us past gaggles of Marines milling behind the bleachers. They look slightly disappointed when those staff sergeants don’t respond.
Back at the hotel, the teachers load their cars with Marine-logoed duffel bags and rubber-banded rolls of recruitment posters for their classrooms. Another batch of teachers is ready to take our spots in the hotel for the next workshop.
In five days, we had witnessed how young men and women become Marines. The teachers themselves hadn’t changed much, but they had seen other people change and were inspired by that.
And then there was Melendrez. He had tried to talk his sister out of joining after high school. "Just Marines, you know? You think about war, and she’s my sister, you know?” he says. "So it’s, like, crazy. It’s kind of hard to have a sister out there.”
But then he signed up for the teacher workshop.
"I didn’t know about it until I just kinda crashed a conversation between my co-worker and my boss,” Melendrez says, a grin spreading across his face. "I heard M16s, shooting, and I was like, ‘Sign me up!'”