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Watching War Made Us Immune

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“We don’t promise you a rose garden.”

No, in fact I wasn’t promised anything but honor.  No stipend.  No bonus.  Nothing but what I could earn.  And what was that coveted reward?  What did I go in expecting above all?  The worst conditions.  The worst treatment.  Downright neglect, belittling, abuse and humiliation.  It all came to a head.  A kick to the back of my legs that brought me to my knees.  A sharp barking elbow to my back tipping me over face first into the ground.  And finally, a heavy duty combat boot on my neck as I lay as low to the ground as I could get.  Stepping into my neck grinding my bloody nose and busted mouth into the hard yellow footprints like a spent cigarette.  PHYSICALLY AND METAPHORICALLY breaking me down.  Because

“We don’t reach the mountaintop from the mountaintop. We start at the bottom and climb up.  Blood is involved.”

I thought I had been swift enough running bases on loose red dirt warmed by the sun when I played softball until I didn’t move my “skinny ass” fast enough getting off a bus even when 40 other girls were in front of me blocking my exit.

I thought my footwork while juggling a soccer ball was pretty sick and kind of quick until I couldn’t even stand correctly with my feet on 2 bright yellow footprints painted on the concrete in front of a huge glass building in the middle of the night. When there are three screaming faces covering all angles of sight it is pretty hard to even SEE your feet.

I stood there in front of a phone with 4 other girls to my right and willed someone on the other line to answer. A familiar voice in the middle of this chaos like a symphony in the middle of a hot landing zone.  And when I heard it I had only a few seconds to tell my sister Perry that I had arrived safely and that I’d see her when it was all over.

The longer I got counted down from 10 seconds to 1 just to tie a knot in my boot string the worse I got at it. The DI wanted me to do it in under 10 seconds while she screamed directly into my ear but it had to be double knotted and it had to be a knot tied with the left side over the right.  She was speaking so quickly and yelling so loudly that it took me three times just to fully comprehend what she wanted me to do.

And then it was on to the next task.

We are isolated here.

We sat with our heads bowed all the way down between our legs as the bus drove us onto the base.  We don't know the geography of the base.  We don't know a way out....we don't know a way in.  

I haven’t even seen one living soul anywhere on this base that isn't in uniform. 

Somehow, that detail alone makes any recruit that steps foot on this training facility feel alienated and utterly alone. The feeling is gut deep.  Echoing off the walls in your body where your heart should be except it’s not there because the loneliness is hollowing. 

There is no TV. There is no music.  There is no news.  Time has stopped here and the short hour we have at the end of every training day to “square away” all of our personal matters gets shorter every night. 

Days pass it seems in the blink of an eye like a white hot tap of a lightening bolt touching the ground.  

I wait impatiently for word from home.  Word from anyone.  Any familiar face matching a name in the addressee section of an envelope.  A face that I can imagine in my mind as I read their words…nothing. 

After forming week (the first week of training) no one was receiving mail except for one recruit whose recruiter went above and beyond and got her family and friends the exact address in which she could be reached before she even shipped out.  She received small stacks of mail every night and as I watched her walk away quickly to her bunk with an excited smile on her face my spirits sunk even deeper than before.  Deeper still every night since.  As more and more recruits began receiving letters and not one was addressed to me, I decided to ask my bunk mate if she had received a letter.  She informed me that the letters would be delayed for everyone and not to worry.  She was nice enough not to go on and on about who wrote to her and how many letters she had received. 

I appreciated her for that. She was a tan skinned bespectacled girl with black curly hair and a soft nervous sounding voice.  Her last name is the only name I knew (Barahona) and I’m sure mine was the only one she knew as well.  I was thankful not only that she was kind and thoughtful but that she brought no added attention to our area of the squad bay by fucking up in any way.  Entering the 4th week when mail distribution time was over and I had still not received a letter from a soul in California or anywhere else for that matter, Barahona sounded concerned when asking, “Still nothing?”

My body language and facial expression I’m sure told the whole story a million times over. I shook my head in the negative and her look of pity nearly left me in tears.  Why was I so fucking starved for correspondence?

But now I know why.  I've NEVER been away from home.  Not for ANYTHING.  I never went away to camp for a summer.  I never went on an extended vacation with anyone other than my family members.  I've never been out of the state of California.  When I was 6 years old my mother left me at a daycare only ONCE while she worked and 8 hour shift and I was not only frozen by fear but outraged at my abandonment.  I sat under a table the entire time as other children ran and screamed in delight outside the confines of my little cave.

I was spoiled from the womb but not with material items....with love and attention.  Which is probably why it turned to shit when my mother found out I preferred the ladies over the pre pubescent male teen heart throb at school goosing random girls in the hall way and guffawing with his group of friends as if he had invented a more proficient way of shaking hands.  How could I back hand her after all that she had done for me??  I HAD NEVER BEEN COMPLETELY ISOLATED AND ALONE.  NEVER. 

Before I ramble off on a tangent I want to make sure I come back to the subject of my bunk mate Barahona.  Two days after her look of pity prickled the back of my throat with oncoming tears.....

I got a letter. 

I stood on line shoulder to shoulder with my platoon at parade rest and as my name was called my body's muscle memory was slow to react.  I had never had to run up to the middle of the quarter deck to receive mail before and my mind was scrambling to remember what the proper procedure was.  Yes, theres even a procedure to make sure you receive your mail in an orderly, proficient, military manner.  If there's a manual on how to wipe and scrub your ass proficiently, then of course the Marine Corps does mail time in four count facing movements and a pause for dismissal once you have your mail in hand.

When I returned to my rack and was allowed to look down at the name of the angel of mercy that had graced me with a ray of sunlight in this dingy barracks I was perplexed and nearly overwhelmed with emotion. 

Barahona had sent me a letter herself.

She had sat during her personal square away time after a long and stressful training day and when she was done writing letters home to her own family she sacrificed a few minutes for me.  Why?  We barely knew each other.  Barely had a chance so far to build the comraderie that we were told we would eventually find once we crossed the parade deck at graduation.  I had been around 70 other women for almost a month now and had never had a romantic feeling for a single one of them but I could've kissed Barahona in that moment as the tears filled my eyes.  She was more than kind, she was magnanimous and I loved her in that moment.  I paid no mind to the fact that she was a stranger to me.  I grabbed her hand as the tears rolled down my cheeks and thanked her profusely.  The smallest of gestures can make the grandest of impacts.

I know everyone back home said they would write and were so enthusiastic about it that it never seemed that I would ever have this problem once I began my training in this Carolinian hell hole.  The faces of my loved ones flashed through my brain and I had never felt so small, so alone and so lost in my life.  No comforting words.  No anecdotes of everyday life or jokes to help focus my mind on something else besides the grueling training schedule if only for a few minutes.  And even if the letter was short and to the point, it meant more to me than any 4 page letter that rambled on about really nothing just to create the illusion that what you are reading is actually as beefy as it appears.  Scrawled across rich college ruled paper as if a letter writing law stated that each letter to arrive at MCRD Parris Island was meant to have a word count minimum before it could be delivered.  Like a teenager bullshitting their way through a midterm paper to meet the word count requirement.  The few sentences from Barahona's black ball point pen spoke volumes and touched my heart.

I’ve always enjoyed quiet time alone. It gave me time in the past to organize my thoughts and ponder the great or mundane mysteries that my brain had not yet pieced together mostly about girls.  Almost always about girls.

Now not only is my mental state so fragile when lacking stimulating correspondence from another being outside the walls of this base, but now my thoughts are not even allowed a glimpse into the windows of my subconscious.  Now, there is only time to organize my thoughts as fast as it takes to be counted down from 10 to 1.

We are counted down in seconds to do everything. From dressing to bathing to eating and even for bathroom breaks.  And if bathroom time is a break then the Marine Corps deserves a world record for giving the shortest 10 second break in the world.  I threw all embarrassment to the wind the first day.  I had no choice.  I’ve had to accept that for the next 3 months I will be dropping trou, peeing and wiping all while a screaming DI hovers over me counting down from 10.  It all has to be under 10 seconds and seconds that are half shorter than a normal second because these women yelling in my face have never heard of putting the word “Mississippi” between anything even if it meant renaming the river between Mississippi and Louisiana.

And even if I was embarrassed the first time a strange yelling woman saw me with my pants down, it got even worse when I had to stand butt ass naked with about 70 other girls in an open room with showerheads lining the wall and wash each of my body parts as they were called out by another screaming DI as she ran through the showers fully dressed in a ridiculously flawless uniform without a single hair out of place.

Yes that first week of Marine Corps boot camp was difficult but when I watched 3 Drill instructors march out of a tiny room at the front of our squad bay (open barracks room) looking like 3 robotic bulldogs moving in sync so perfectly that it resembled a military line dance of precision, I knew that the most difficult times lie ahead.

Our Senior Instructor was the first drill instructor we met as a platoon. She stood almost 6 ft tall and was very thin and very soft spoken.  Her milky skin, freckled cheek bones, green eyes, dark hair and soft voice left me feeling calm.  I felt that if she was going to be like this for 3 months then the others had to be similar right?  As soon as I got lulled into a false sense of security, she quite literally unleashed her 3 bulldogs on us.

There is no better way to put it than BLUR. No time to think or decide or ponder or wonder or dream at night or during the day.  When I signed the contract for 4 years of military service, they meant every last second of those 4 years.  Every second, minute, hour and any tiny personal or impersonal moment in between.  I have never lived in a world where every action I took in a day from big to small could and would be timed expertly down into groups of minutes and seconds in order to manipulate the clock from the moment I open my eyes in the dark dawn hours of the morning to the second I close them laying on the top bunk of a set of bunk beds wearing sweats to keep warm through the night so I don’t have to waste extra time in the morning perfectly making my rack with 90 degree angles on each side of a 4 inch fold.  Four inch fold is to be eyeballed purposely.  Not only is it not practical or tactical to carry a ruler or measuring tape with you but you're meant to learn how to adapt and overcome.  You estimate the 4 inches and you fold you're sheets that way because 4 inches is the distance you will be holding your weapon safely as you march.  Every detail, every measurement and every last move we make is for a specific purpose.

“Hands and arms parallel to the deck when holding that fucking tray HEATH!”

“Parallel to the deck straight across your chest when saluting your pathetic excuse of a guidon flag! The same way you salute me when you’re holding your fucking M4 you pathetic maggot!” 

“You think we repeat this mundane fucking shit to you every fucking day for fun??”

It was a Mr. Miagi brainwash. Wax on wax off. Larning how to hold your weapon with military precision while marching derives from the proper placement of hands on your chow hall tray.

Wax on wax off. Left over right when you're lacing your boots or sitting on the ground for instruction is muscle memory for every military marching movement you will ever do.  Every single movement starts with the left foot.

Wax on wax off. Chest back, posture perfectly stoic, elbows tucked touching your sides as you walk, march, stand at attention is to

“Help keep you from getting that tanned California surfer ass from being shot off when you find a decent solitary object that will serve as your cover from your threat. Tuck your puny elbows in until they touch your puny body HEATH!  Are you deaf???  Your boyfriend will cry himself to sleep when he hears you lost an arm because you were too stupid to tuck your fucking elbows in!”

Wax on wax off. Hold your cup straight across your chest, back straight, bring the cup to your lips, only one hand above the table as you eat while the other stays resting on your knee. This will teach your arm muscles to memorize the feeling of

“The first count in a 7 count movement when you present an empty weapon to me. And it better be empty Heath.  If the chamber has a round…that round is going in your ass not mine!”

I have never had a chance to analyze how I feel about all of these brain washing techniques but as every day passes I see the muscle memory kicking in.

Two weeks have passed and as far as I can see the whole platoon is slowly falling into the very chaotic but very efficient routine. One of which is drinking an insane amount of water.  I’m an athlete and I know staying hydrated is extremely important but what one would think is normal is thrown out of the Marine Corps port hole and an extreme way of doing things steps right in to take the reins.

The first time we as a platoon, Platoon 4040, of Papa Company to be precise, were forced to drink a full canteen of water I was inches away from losing it. It is one thing to be mentally and physically tough.  When you combine elements like isolation, and high levels of constant stress and mind games that have you second guessing the simplest of actions it is downright terrifying if you get a chance to really think about how alone you truly are.  That the only people you can count on is yourself, your God and your platoon mates that are just as terrified and unsure as you are.  It doesn’t seem like it’s so bad when you aren’t in the middle of it but it’s like being in a prison of your own choosing and being too late to change it.  The only way to get out of the hell is to go through it and there is no easy short cut that exists except to avoid getting injured at all costs.  Injury only results in sick bay for a certain amount of weeks or even months and then you join another platoon to finish training.  Getting through it the first time is the fastest and most efficient way of doing it. 

So if you can imagine that hell, add the element of control in. Lack of control that is.  Lack of control of your own bodily functions….it begins to muddle the lines on the edges of your brain. 

Drinking an entire canteen of water is no sweat. There are certain things that a person hears about or witnesses another person doing and wonders if they could ever do that themselves and most of the time the answer is yes when your body and mind is pushed to the point of no return.  You will get through it.  Until that first night that I was told to drink a full canteen in under two minutes, I had come to believe that I was not only going to survive boot camp but I would come out of it feeling like I was the baddest motherfucker in the valley of death.  One canteen of water is all it took to make me begin to second guess just how bad of a motherfucker I really was.

Even the toughest mental motherfucker in the valley is meant to get broken down when training to become something that not just any “geek on the street” can claim.

A full canteen is only 32 ounces of water. For a normal person, that is 3 times as many ounces they should be drinking in 24 hours.  But as you probably already guessed, Marine Corps recruits are not normal.  Marine Corps recruits run all day, workout all day, exert ridiculous amounts of energy every single moment they are awake.  They are not bussed to their different training evolutions daily, they march there.  If plausible, depending on traffic on the base and time of day, they run there.  Then the training evolution unless it’s a class on Marine Corps history, will be an extreme form of PT, Marine Corps Martial arts (which includes pugil sticks by the way) a hike with a full pack, and getting smoked in between if you’re lucky only once.  If you’re even luckier, you avoid getting smoked.  So a canteen a day really only scratches the surface of how many canteens of water a recruit should be drinking per day. 

No problem though right? No problem since your body will undoubtedly be craving the water anyway.  And then comes the Marine Corps twist.  They don’t want you to learn it and remember it they want it to be something that is so engrained in your memory that something as simple as unscrewing the cap to your canteen will bring back a memory so vivid that you will not only drink as you have been told but your body will do it most times without your brain even having to make a conscious decision to TELL your fucking body to do it! 

And what does that understanding grant you?  Clarity.  Clarity through pain.  Because what you are preparing for is your eminent death.  What you are training for, especially after a vicious terror attack, is to destroy every last fucking enemy in sight until you are destroyed and if you survive then you do but surviving is NOT YOUR MISSION.  DESTROYING is your mission.  SPILLING BLOOD is your mission.  “Blood makes the grass grow.”  “Kill Kill Kill” and if you are not ready to kill at a moment’s notice then you won’t survive long enough to complete your mission.  It would have all been for nothing.  One of the most essential tools you need to stick around as long as you can in order to complete your mission is WATER.  Your body can not and will not function without WATER.  It’s simple.  Its truth.  Its life or death. 

This is how I came to learn my first lesson in the weakening of my ever expanding brain. If I can’t stand here and guzzle down 32 ounces of water in under two minutes after shoveling down an entire plate of food in under two minutes just 30 minutes ago…how will I ever survive one skirmish with the enemy?  Clarity.  Understanding and then CLARITY.

So I stood there convinced that I was going to explode one way or another. Through one end or the other.  I stood at attention with my canteen held out straight in front of me upside down to show that I had already finished it and I ground my teeth against the vomit that was ejaculating in its ridicule right at the back of my throat.  I dug the fingernails of my left hand at my side into the palm of my left hand.  I squeezed my ass cheeks and legs together as tight as I could without breaking my perfect attention stance and I took deep breaths.  I focused on that breathing.  I had to because around me was a valley of tears and grunts and across from me a girl had just dropped down into a squat, sobbing as urine darkened her digital woodland camouflage pants and began to pool around her on the floor.  Shit, that could’ve easily been me.

 I focused on my breathing as my bunk mate standing almost shoulder to shoulder with me projectile vomited what I assumed was a full days’ worth of food and water and was just glad that she didn’t get any on a passing DI for fear that they would smoke her until she passed out in the middle of the quarter deck after they made her clean and double clean and triple clean the mess she left on the deck.  Fuck that also could’ve been me although I’d take a piss or shit over puke any day.

I stood and did the only thing I could think of doing. I recited the preamble to the constitution in my head.  Something I had learned by putting it into a song in government class.  Then I began to switch to anything else I could think of.  The owl and the pussycat.  The poem I loved so much as a kid I would beg Perry to read it to me from a little golden book every night.  I’d recite those two the most.  I’ve recently began songs in my head and sometimes the pain is so great, the fear of failure so paralyzing that the sound of my own grunting pain drowns it out.  And then I get punished more for daring to make any noise at all.  One more pushup…..”The owl and the pussycat went to sea on a beautiful pea green boat”

One more 3 mile rotation to run….”They took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a 5 lb note.”

No opportunity to crowd the brain with the mundane.  Just the pain.  Just the pain.  The sacrifice.  The survival.  The understanding.  The clarity.  The focus.  If I make it to the next meal then I’m good.  If I can make it to another meal after that, then I’m solid.  Maybe one day…I’ll be golden.  But for now,

“We the people of the United States of America. In order to form a more perfect union.  Establish justice ensure domestic tranquility….”

Through another 6 mile hike with 50 pounds on my back at a grueling pace.

“You elegant fowl how charmingly sweet you sing. Oh, let us be married.  Too long we have tarried.  But what shall we do for a ring?”

Through a low crawl in the freezing mud when my fingers have gone so numb I can’t even feel the M4 on the backs of my hands that I’m so desperately trying to keep from getting muddy.

Another meal. Another canteen of water.  My stomach shrinking smaller.  Are you ready for the next evolution?


Recruit Tobin Heath

Training day 21

Before today I thought that I was imagining things. I thought my mind had grown weak and I was being made to feel victimized.  Humiliated at every turn.  Trapped under a magnifying lens for all to see my undeniable flaws.  I felt like I was failing to understand the purpose of my training.  We were all meant to be kept in check.  Our egos were nonexistent.  Our striving for perfection so far in the future that it was a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. 

So why have I felt so singled out?  And by my senior drill instructor with her soft and towering presence.  Yea the one that barely speaks above a whisper.  She oozes calm and asserts power effortlessly.  I’ve come to learn that the reason I am intimidated so deeply by her is that she DOESN’T yell at me.  She DOESN’T get directly in my face.  She is quick and silent and sneaks up to my left or right ear when I least expect it leaving me grappling with yet another flaw she has somehow found that I would’ve never even noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.  Some things so small that I question whether it’s there at all.  I’m convinced I’m hallucinating or she is because there is no way I even looked away from my instructor when another recruit got in trouble.  I know my eyes didn’t twitch.  My body didn’t react.  My mind was on my task and that alone.  Yet I hear my name called out and I know I am in trouble.  My name has become an alarm of dread for my ears.  The pre cursor to doom.  The fore warning for pain. 

“Recruit Heath!”

And then I hear nothing. I reply as I have been instructed and then my left ear is being filled with instruction from the most senior of my instructors.  From the instructor of the instructors.  I have leant my body and my heart and my mind and my soul and if there were more I could give I would but I have leant it all in the name of service to my country to train to become a skilled and hardened defender and killer and none of the humiliation or degradation or abuse has bothered me until now.

“How about you go and join recruit Pagan in her smoking exercises there Heath. I think you have learned all you need to learn from your instructor on facing movements for your first drill examination.”

Her voice was so calm yet filled to the brim with ridicule as if she wanted to burst out laughing right in my ear but she didn’t. The slightest bit of hesitation would be a mistake and even though my brain was a huge question mark I sprinted toward the instructor who was smoking Pagan and immediately fell in beside her doing pushups.


What am I ever doing wrong when she comes speaking low in my ear to swab the floor again or separate my platoons clothing better so that they dry faster or that I put too much cheese on my salad in the chow hall or that my body being covered in sand flea bites is something I’m just going to have to deal with because it’s not serious enough for sick bay.

And she keeps the veil of perfection high up just under her eyes even as she negates after taking a second look. Even after she calls me back into her office to hand me some calamine lotion for the bites the veil still does not budge.  And I was brave to go in there asking her for a sick bay call at all.  I was at my wits end.  I was so covered in bites I couldn’t sleep.  The sleep deprivation made me want to scream and the itching added to my lunacy.

And all this time I had the answer to preventing these bites tucked neatly away in my footlocker.  Why would a Drill Instructor let me in on that secret?  Because sand fleas build character.  Sand fleas build discipline.  I had to learn to stand at attention perfectly still as sand fleas emerged at dawn from their warm little slumbers and SWARMED over my entire body not caring if I blew at them in an attempt to scare them off.  I could almost hear them cawing laughter like a swarm of black crows in the fall lining the power lines of a bussling city.  Adding their bussling conversations to the mix.  Laughing at my attempts to scare them off.  Sand fleas respected nothing and no one except the blood they were siphoning.  The world’s smallest zombies driven only by their impulse to feed and feed they did.  In the conch of your ears and the lids of your eyes and tip of your nose and the sensitive soft skin of your scalp beneath your hair.  And they not only bit but they crawled in endless circles first and once getting a bit of blood from one bite they didn’t walk a mile to even it out they moved a centimeter to the left or right and BIT DOWN AGAIN!  At the edge of madness is the closest description for this morning routine.  And if you were summoned to do pushups in the white sands of the sand pit….pray to god you don’t land directly on top of a sand flea nest.  What’s worse than madness?

 (I found out later that skin so soft is the only thing that will not only stop them but kill them)

What had I done wrong to earn the attention of the most vexing human being in my small universe? What I have I done to her personally for her to single me out this way?  I’m pretty tough and if I knew I was fucking up then I wouldn’t find anything wrong with getting reamed daily but today takes the fucking cake.  Told to get smoked for no reason at all.  For existing.  Up until today, everything I did while here had been for a reason and now that I have been called on to be smoked for no reason at all I feel my resolve breaking down.  Something isn’t right here.  Everything I believe in can’t be a farce.  So why can’t I get anything right with her?  Why can’t I do anything to her liking?  I am willing to give all but I am not willing to kiss ass just to be a favorite even if it means that she will leave me alone.


Training Day 22

Just had time to write this real quick so maybe later tonight I’ll write more detail but I was wrong about my senior drill instructor. I’m just glad I wasn’t losing my mind.

Training Day 22 cont.

Yesterday after being told to join my platoon mate to be smoked for no reason, we ended that training session and marched over to the Obstacle Course.

We were given the commant to sit for instruction. Our instructors explained that at the end of the week we would all be running through this obstacle course and we would not be passing phase 1 if we couldn't get through it.  Today we were going to watch our senior drill instructors run through it slowly so we could see how it’s SUPPOSED to be done.  They ridiculed us for being weak and stated that they were sure we wouldn’t be able to get through the whole course today so they were going to split our platoon 4040 and our sister platoon 4041 into two half’s of the course.  Our platoon would take the first half of the course and 4041 would take the end of it. 

I watched my senior slowly but effortlessly fly through each obstacle showing us the proper placement of hands on bars and feet on wood. After every obstacle we were supposed to land and grab two hands full of wood chips that the O course ground was made of and drop them before tackling the next obstacle.  Watching my senior whip the shit out of the senior from 4041 gave me a sense of pride even though I know she hates me. 

Soon we were up tackling the first part of the O course ourselves. I have to admit that even though this course looked hard it was one of the training evolutions I was looking forward to the most. 

The first few obstacles weren’t that difficult so our line wasn’t getting too backed up but then we arrived at the high bar. The high bar that even the senior drill instructor from 4041 struggled a bit to get over.  The four recruits in line in front of me just could NOT get their bodies over it.  No matter how horrible the jarring from the instructors got, not one of the recruits could get over.  They each tried multiple times before giving up and having to do 20 pushups before they were made to start from the beginning again.  The next 4 were called up.

“Can any of you sorry sacks of shit get over this bar or is it push and get the fuck out of my face for you 4 as well??”

Our loudest and meanest Drill Instructor yelled. I didn’t say anything or even look at her.  She sprinted at my face and barked so loud she spit in my eye.

“What in the fuck are you waiting for twig? Get the fuck over my bar!  Get the fuck over my bar now!  Now Heath!  You sorry excuse for a recruit!  Move your ass!”

That was the motivation I needed. I rappelled my body at the bar as hard as I could and was surprised that my jump was sufficient enough to land the bar right under my boobs (thank god…that would’ve been painful) and this made it very easy to push my weight up and swing my leg over the bar.  As I landed on the other side of the bar and grabbed wood it was way too quiet.  I turned around to witness my platoon mates staring at me slack jawed and a drill instructor that was way too hard and on another level of bad assery for any of her body parts to slack in any way remained silent regaurding me with suspicious squinting blue eyes.  I counted 5 seconds before Drill Instructor SSgt Henning gained her footing…

“Well, what the fuck are you staring at us for…continue to the next obstacle you little nasty!”

I almost laughed at that. Little nasty, in my opinion, was by far one of the funniest things they used in their dictionary of insults.  Something about it just struck my funny bone but I wouldn’t dare laugh now.  I was exhilarated.  I was on fire.  I got over the fucking bar motherfuckers.  What’s next? 

I kept tackling obstacles and kept getting scolded and told to move forward until I found myself mixed with platoon 4041 in the second half of the O course. It didn’t take long for Drill Instructor SSgt Scifo from 4041 to ask me what the fuck I was doing mixing with her platoon and that she didn’t want nastiness infecting her recruits.  She promptly told me to get the fuck out of her face and away from her platoon.  I turned to go and ran right into our Series commander. 

“Woah woah where are you going? The rest of the course is that way!”


“I? Do we refer to ourselves as I here recruit….. (turns me around so she can see the name on the back of my green PT shirt)  Heath?  Are you a fucking individual now?”

I stood at attention and thought that at any moment now my life was going to become a living hell. I had referred to myself in the 1st person.  Something I had learned NOT to do since day one and the first time I am addressed by the upper echelon in the chain of command I lose my shit.

“No maam! This recruit was told to start again from the beginning.  This recruit was told she was poisoning platoon 4041 maam!”

“Is that right. Well, just wait right there.  I’m curious about something.”

I heard her call Scifo over and mumble a few things to her. All I could make out was, “Just let her pass.  I need to satisfy my curiosity.”

I paid this no mind. I couldn’t.  I was in the middle of shit and I somehow had to make it out on the other side clean.  Adapt and overcome.

She appeared again and told me to finish the course….if I could. I was concerned with only one obstacle on this course and it was the obstacle that ended it.  I was to climb a rope WITHOUT KNOTS all the way to a red line of tape at the top and climb all the way back down.  We had seen it done but hadn’t been able to practice the technique with set feet, stand and hold, start again.

I continued. When I reached the rope at the end of the course I was horrified to learn that not only was I the only one that made it there so far but MY senior drill instructor was standing next to the rope waiting and watching closely.  A barking Drill Instructor SSgt Desmaris stood at her side.  I began the preamble and started to scramble up the first part of the rope. 

My technique was sloppy and ugly and I almost fell as soon as I got on. As I went up slowly I noticed that my technique was improving and I began to speed up a little.  When I reached the top and touched the tape I completely blanked.  I knew I was supposed to do something before going down.


Before I could remember I was being yelled at of course. SSgt Desmaris was informing me that I could stay standing on the rope and blend my skinny little idiotic body right in with it until revelee or I could state my platoon number, senior drill instructor's name and OORAH and make my way down.

Of course I yelled those 3 things so loud my throat ached and I came down hand under hand as I was taught. When I landed I stood at attention and SSgt Desmaris told me to get out of her face and run it all over again.  I ran off.

I ran the O course again and when I got to the end I was told to run it again. There were variations of this. 

“Get out of my fucking face! Run it until you pass out for all I care!”

“If I see your skinny little face again Heath I’m gonna shove it in the sand pit until sundown!”


So I ran the O Course again….and again…and again. I ran it that day a total of 10 times.  On my tenth time my forearms were on fire and so numb it was probably not a good idea for me to be so far up on the rope.

Half way up Senior Drill Instructor SSgt Portelli was….laughing. Yes…laughing.  I was simultaneously filled with dread and joy all at the same time.  SSgt Desmaris was asking me how many times I had run the O Course and she stated sarcastically that she was sure she had seen me more than once.

I sounded off that “This is this recruit’s tenth time running the Obstacle course maam!" I was only about half way up the rope on that tenth time when I felt a hand grab my right boot. 

“Get down here Heath. Get down.  That’s enough.”  Senior Drill Instructor SSgt Portelli was laughing between her words the whole time she was addressing me.  This could be very bad.  I’d never heard her laugh before.  I had never seen any drill instructor do anything that would humanize her or him since I had been here.  Even when there was a chance no one was even looking at them.  Of course I was looking but anyone other than myself.

No laughing, sneezing, eating, using of heads (bathrooms), sleeping, yawning, chewing gum, burping….did I already mention LAUGHING?

Nothing. And now this.

As I landed, I picked up wood and let it drop and then I stood at attention. SSgt Desmaris said that it looked like I had too much excess energy and that maybe she needed to smoke me until lights out that night.  She told me to get on my face and push until SHE got tired.  I obeyed.

After five 4 count pushups I felt a boot lightly tap me on my side and then I heard SSgt Portelli from above me

“Ha Ha, get up Heath. Let’s go.”

Confusion and terror.

I stood and followed my senior drill instructor as she instructed me. She motioned for me to walk beside her and I did.  Before she spoke I caught the eyes of several of my platoon mates and as terrified as their expressions were as they watched me walk the length of the O course with our senior drill instructor, I knew I probably looked ten times worse.

Before she spoke she chuckled again and shook her head.

“You know Heath, I’ve been a DI for a long time and in that time I have NEVER witnessed a recruit run this course TEN times. TEN.  Jesus kid.  It’s like you just fell out of the sky this morning and decided that this was the day you were actually gonna show up.”

I was confused. I didn’t know what she meant and I didn’t know if I was even allowed to speak so I just continued walking in silence.

“Look you’ve ran it enough today. Just go to the obstacles your platoon mates are having trouble with and try to help them until we are done with this training evolution.”

It wasn’t praise and it wasn’t an ass chewing. I was good with that.

And just now, as I lay here on my bed writing this entry, I have been made the guide. Senior Drill Instructor SSgt Portelli called me into her hut as we entered the squad bay after dinner and as I stood stalk still at attention even after she told me to stand at ease and speak freely, she told me this would be her last night with our platoon.  She had been promoted and could no longer fill the billet of our senior DI if the rank she was being promoted to would be higher than the Marine above her in the chain of command.  She could no longer be associated with our platoon or series at all.

Then she shocked me.  She said, "I'm sure you've noticed that I've been unusually hard on you Heath.  Harder than I've been on anyone else in the platoon.  Actually, I think I've only singled you out and almost completely ignored the rest of your platoon.  Hm, now I feel a little guilty about that Heath.  And why did I even have to do it?  Because you just WOULD NOT realize your potential.  You were hesitant and scared.  not scared of getting yelled at.  Nope.  Not scared of your Drill Instructors although maybe keep that fact to yourself.  You were just afraid of EXISTING.  Do you understand what I'm telling you Heath?"

"I want you to speak freely."

I have to admit that I was confused but SO much more intrigued.  This is what I was looking for.  I knew before she opened her mouth again that she would be someone I would always remember.

"You are a natural leader.  Humble and quiet but so strong.  The leader in the room does not always have to be the loudest person in the room.  The leader is assertive enough to get the point across.  There is no need for excess.  I could see your potential so clearly and I knew that you were holding back.  You were afraid to lead.  Almost as if you were afraid to shine.  I had to be hard on you Heath.  That's the only way I knew you'd wake up and it turns out that you did right in the nick of time."

Then she told me that the last thing she would do before she left was make me the guide. The leader of the platoon.  I was in charge of them all.  If something went right it was on me.  If something went wrong it was on me.  I could delegate responsibilities to my 4 squad leaders that she would also appoint and if I was able to remain the guide until graduation then I would be the honor graduate.

I had no idea what the fuck the honor graduate was.

She must’ve seen the look of confusion on my face and then she smiled. If I wasn’t already bewildered by her laughing I was totally blown away by her smile.  She was pretty.  My favorite kind of pretty.  The natural kind.

She said, “Look I’ve been with you all for a month now and I’ve been doing this long enough to know in that short time that you deserve to be the honor graduate. I singled you out for a reason Heath.  I know you had an internal battle with it for some time now.  I know it bothered you because if it didn’t then you wouldn’t care.  And I know you do.  You are all heart Heath.  The most heart I’ve ever seen.  I wish I had 100 just like you.  The honor graduate is the best of the best.  She averages in the top 3 in every training evolution that is scored.  PFT, Rifle qualifications, knowledge test.  You have to be the top of the class but you also have to exemplify the best qualities of the Marine Corps.  Integrity, Honor, Courage and commitment to the corps.  To your country.  You have to be the example Heath.  You have to lead them not with power but by EXAMPLE.  Leading by example is the only way a Marine should ever lead.  Don’t ever forget that.  And Integrity….Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.  That goes for everything in this life.  If you lack integrity deep down, you can’t make up for it.  There are no gray areas.  It’s either right or wrong.  Its either life or death.  I’ll be watching all of you until graduation.  I expect to see you leading your platoon across that parade deck come December 21st Heath.  Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t maam….I mean…..this recruit….”

“Just shut up and get out of here Heath.” And she laughed again.  I walked out of there not only feeling numb but terrified. 

I don’t want to lead.  I don’t want that enormous responsibility.  I am flattered but now I have to lead a platoon of 70 scared and fairly weak minded girls.  How will I do that without letting her down?

There were 6 different guides that had been “hired” and “fired” since the beginning of boot camp for making the smallest of mistakes. How will I ever get through that without fucking it up and getting fired??

I can’t think of this now. I am so exhausted my eyes are closing already.  Until next time.