Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Letters from Bootcamp, Installment V (The Breakdown)

The following two letters represent my lowest point in bootcamp. You won’t actually read it in these letters home, but I mentally and emotionally “broke” during this torturous week of duty at the mess hall at the Edson Rifle Range on Camp Pendleton. …More on that difficult moment at the end of these letters.

Mess duty was sheer hell. I have never done anything tougher before or since. Day after day they kept us standing, no sitting, no squatting nor resting our feet and legs in any fashion whatsoever. My feet swelled up, cracked and bled. I think many of my current podiatric problems today stem from that single week of agony. Just the same, it was a valuable training experience. I became tougher from the physical hardship, knowing that I had bested the challenge of it, but the mental abuse was another matter all together.

I NEVER forgave the drill instructors for their cruel shenanigans; even to this day I hate them for it. I hope recruit training policy has changed over the last 31 years, because the behavior I saw from those jerks had nothing at all to do with turning young men into ready marines. They seemed to operate under some misguided notion that administering mental cruelty and humiliation was going to make us worthy of the “Eagle Globe & Anchor.” They never stopped trying to shock us, most of us more teenager then men, with outrageously immoral language including the foul descriptions of every sort of sexual deviancy you can imagine, or in my case, NEVER imagined. Every single DI and platoon commander I came in contact with would “lock me up” into the position of attention and proceed to tell me I was ugly, that my mother and sister’s were whores, etc.; and the primary reason they picked on the women in my family is because I had no girlfriend or wife for them to disparage. To this day I don’t understand their methodology. I trust it is no longer like that. By all means they should increase the physical training, make it tougher even, but get rid of the putrid gratuitous sex talk and coarse language. The constant immersion in depravity and unwarranted degradation had more to do with my emotional collapse than any physical hardship I experienced. I became so contemptuous of my DI’s that unlike many of my fellow platoon mates I did NOT go up to them to shake their hands after graduation. To this day I would go out of my way to avoid them.


July 28, 1975 – Dear family:

I learned today what it is like to be on your feet for 16 straight hours without sitting down or leaning against something, except for 15 minute meals. Not only that, in that old mess hall I’m constantly moving with dirty dishes, clean ones, silverware, plus sweeping and swabbing the deck, and changing table cloths, and to make it hell those big shot, belligerent DI’s telling you to get your ass over there, or if you get too close, to get your ass OUT of there OR you’ll be wearing the dirty plates. Those DI’s are really “cute.” To top off the big day, we come back to the barracks and do some real sweaty push-ups and pull-ups and mountain climbers and bends-and-thrusts.

Here at the new barracks Mark (from my hometown) is my rack partner. He has bottom. We’ve hardly spent any time here though. As soon as we get up we march over to the mess hall, when we’re done, we march back and after a shower, hit the rack. Right now it’s only a little past 2000 and I’m already too tired to think straight.

We’re having mail call right now. So far I haven’t heard my name called. If I get any I probably won’t have time to read it anyway.

Boy! This barracks sure isn’t as nice as the last one we were in. It’s got ugly concrete floors and the paint is a shabby green.

Well, how’s things there? I probably shouldn’t ask that question, but I’m always thinking it.

He didn’t call my name so I guess I’ll have to wait a few days for the next mail call. Mark says, “Hi!” and so do “I.”

Love, “Phil”

P.S. What did you think of the roster I sent you?


July 29, 1975

Boy do my feet hurt! We got up this morning at 2:30 a.m. for mess duty after hitting the rack at 9 p.m. last night. 5 ½ hours sleep followed by a 17 hour work period, not being allowed to sit down and all topped off by SI (a nickname for disciplinary exercise).

You know, before this mess duty I used to respect my superiors. Now, I have an absolute, no doubts about it, detestation and distrust for them all. I actually hate their twisted guts. You should see the crap they give me just to show off in front of each other; and the things they talk about are so gross and nasty it turns my stomach. Even though on the outside I’m keeping my cool and showing respect for them, inside I hate their guts and I’m telling them to go “someplace.”

I just received your letter and Terry’s too. It sure is good to get news of home. This coming Thursday it’ll be 5 weeks since I left home. My attitude sure has changed since then (finish later…)

July 30, 1975

I just got Gail’s and Mary Kay’s letters and even one from Jean Martin (a high school friend). That sure surprised me. As I was saying, my attitudes are a far cry from what they were back there. For one thing, once my 4 years are up, I’m coming home to stay. I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no place like home and your own family.

Paula Snyder’s boyfriend sure was a sucker. If he only knew (what) the hell he was going to go through he’d back out right now. He still can you know. You can back out right up till the time of the final swearing-in at Detroit. Once you’re past there they’ve got you where they want you and you stay in till you graduate or they kick you out. There’s no such thing as not making it. All they do is put you in a platoon a few weeks behind, such as if you don’t qualify on the rifle range, or you don’t pass the physical fitness test, or maybe your DIs’ just plain don’t like you. That happened to 3 guys in our platoon already. The platoon commander didn’t like them, so he kept looking for excuses to can them, and a few weeks back he did exactly that.

I’ve got another problem. It seems that the bottom of my feet are all tender and throb with pain when I stand on them. It’s from standing on them and walking super fast. (Finish later).

Aug 1, 1975

Well, here it is 2 days later. Am I ever bushed. Tomorrow is the last day of mess duty, thank God. Hopefully, when we start at the rifle range, or I should say at the “snapping in range,” as they call it, (it won’t be as tough as mess duty). Snapping-in is where the platoon gets in a big circle and learns all the different firing positions. We have 1 week of that, and that’s followed by 1 week of actual firing, the last 2 of which are qualifying days. If you don’t qualify, you don’t graduate until you do, which actually means you get set back for 2 weeks.

When we get through with rifle range, we go on a 17 mile march to ITS (Infantry Training School) with a pack over some pretty rugged looking hills. So far, the worst part of bootcamp has been mess duty. The days are long and wearisome and you’re always tired.

From our new barracks here at Pendleton you can see the Pacific Ocean. It’s only about ¾ of a mile away, if that far, across a highway that parallels the coastline. It’s the first time I’ve ever really seen it. I don’t remember seeing it when I was younger of course.

Tomorrow, after we’re relieved from mess duty by some new suckers a week behind us, we’ll go and check out our weapons (M-16s) at about 1 p.m. or 4 o’clock there.

I got a letter from you dated the 23rd and one from Grandma Haley dated the 28th. I’ll be writing again Sunday to answer all the letters I’ve received. We should have some pretty good free time then.

That’s all for now. Keep writing! Love, Phil

P.S. Glad to hear Dad is beginning to come around again. Can’t wait to play some golf. (Sorry it’s so messy, not much time).


Some time before the 1st of August I had an unexpected “moment of collapse;” I think folks used to call it a nervous breakdown. I had no idea that it was in the offing; truthfully, I was stunned. Here’s how it went.

As I said, mess duty was tougher than I ever could have imagined. We had gone through five or six days with little sleep and non-stop sessions of 16 to 18 hours on our feet with no sitting allowed or rest of any kind. At the beginning of that torturous spate I hadn’t been allowed to attend Mass, which was devastating for me; that alone gnawed at my guts and began my downward slide. The DI’s, ALL of them in my case, since I was usually assigned to wait on the DI tables, badgered me with humiliating commands and continuously directed nauseating comments at me. I was expected to maintain my decorum and keep my face and manner stoic even as they did not. These vile creatures, poor excuses for human beings, or so I thought, wore me down even more than the physical hardships.

I managed to do pretty well, even after those days of pain and mental strain, and then something happened that portended my eventual moment of disintegration. About six of us were using Brasso to shine up some burnished metal hand railings on one side of the mess hall. My feet and lower legs were painfully swollen; they throbbed and ached and I could hardly put my boots on over them. A moment came when I knew I had had enough. I did a forbidden thing, I rebelled and sat down. The other recruits with me were aghast at my defiance. They surrounded me and tried to convince me to get up, but my mind was made up and then it just turned off; I barely heard them and hardly noticed what they said. I kept my head straight ahead and just stared at the wall. They kept at me, pleading with me to stand up. I ignored them.

Then, one of the DI’s, Sergeant Threadgill, a black fellow, and the one man of them with even a modicum of humanity, noticed the fuss and came over. Even with his arrival I still did NOT care; I continued to stubbornly sit. He came over and stood directly in front of me across the table. He started to question me and then stopped abruptly. He told the other recruits to disperse, telling them to leave me be. “He’ll get up in ten minutes,” he announced. It was completely out of character for any DI, a seeming moment of kindness I never saw from any of them again, and I deeply appreciated it. It snapped me out of my “suicidal” funk and caused me too come to my senses, at least for the moment. I got up and went back to work as soon as he turned and walked off.

The next day was more of the same, only worse because 24 more hours of it had passed. It was late into the noon meal and I was waiting on the DI tables again. One of the undersized drill instructors from another platoon who loved to screw his face into a studied vision of meanness, called me over and once I was “locked up” across the table from him, he threw his soup spoon into my chest. With his face contorted with phony rage and contempt, he claimed I was a sorry excuse even for a piece-of-shit recruit, and went on to order me to get some clean f**king silverware.

“Aye Aye Sir!” I yelled, doing an about-face and bolting away in a sprint to get him new eating utensils. I ran back, reported to him in the required manner, and presented a new set of forks and spoons to him while relocked tightly into the position of attention. He dismissed me without a look, intent on finding new “prey;” so I went to ground to find and retrieve his “dirty” spoon. On my hands and knees on the floor I felt something “cave” inside my chest. I stifled a sob of rage and humiliation. My hands shook and two tears rolled down my cheeks. ‘What the hell?’ I thought. ‘What is going on?” I had no idea having been through much worse than this, so why the sudden reaction? I regained my composure and returned to work, but a tightness remained in my throat and an empty dullness had taken over my brain.

After the last of the recruits had “force-fed themselves” and marched off to their pursuits on the rifle range, I wandered over to the tiny deep sink room to find a broom. Upon entering I allowed the door to close behind me and noticed vaguely that it had a pushbutton lock on the knob. Not thinking, I locked it. I stood there for a moment and without warning feelings of worthlessness and despair washed over me. Deep racking sobs suddenly erupted from deep within my body feeling exactly like emotional retching; it was completely out of my control. I didn’t know it was coming and I couldn’t stop it once it had started. I knew though, that whatever was happening had to run its course. It went like that for at least two minutes, my body aching with the effort of it, and interestingly, I became outside myself. It didn’t feel like me anymore, this person racked with sobs, as if it was happening to someone else. I was an interested observer watching some guy cry like a baby. Then, it was over. I stopped and felt immediately better, both physically and emotionally. It was a completely cathartic and involuntary.

For a moment I had broken, but now I was rejuvenated, a phoenix rising anew from the ashes of myself. What an effort it must have been to hold onto all that grief and emotional overload. I didn’t even know it was in there until by accident my mind and body found a moment to release it. After that, I was good to go. Never again did I let them get to me. I went on to graduate in the top ten percent of my platoon earning the meritorious rank of private first class. I still don’t qunderstand what happened to me, but I’m glad it happened when no one could see it! You know what they say…Big boys DON’T cry!


Ed said...

Reading that was really hard for me. I can't imagine what 'damage' one does to their soul by treating another human being that way. I know that I could never be a DI and I doubt that I could have held up as well under all that pressure.

Having taken a psychology class, which doesn't make me a doctor, I would think men would be more likely to follow a leader into battle if that leader treated this with respect. It doesn't mean he has to be soft on you but at least respectful. I don't and never have bought into this first breaking you down and then building you up bit. As you said, you still hate for what they did to you during SI duty.

PhilippinesPhil said...

It didn't damage me at all, but it did demoralize me for a short while. My strong Catholic upbringing kept me strong against their immoral influences, despite my tender and untried age. You would have done just fine Ed, most of the Catholic kids got through it and excelled.

You're right though Ed, I learned from those idiots how NOT to lead. Bluster and threats don't inspire anyone, but quiet strength and confident example does every time. SSgt Threadgill showed a brief moment of true leadership, but I didn't see much of it back then. From what I've read, things are much different now; I sure hope so.

I wrote an earlier entry exactly on how basic military training SHOULD be conducted to end up with troops willing to fight, but still able to follow all rules of engagement, such as what we learn in our Law of Armed Conflict Classes.

PhilippinesPhil said...

oops, here's the site I meant to refer you to: Should We Humanize Basic Training?

Nick Ballesteros said...

When I hear about how they conduct such training - verbal abuse and physical torment - it always makes me wonder why they have to do what they do.

They say it's tradition. They experienced these things as neophytes from their seniors, and so if they want to "take revenge", they have to graduate so they can do the same to the new recruits. It's an endless cycle.

And then there's the "be a man!" attitude because you're in the military and you're expected to be tough through and through.

But how it's connected to the service of the country is beyond me.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I have no problem with physical "torment" as part of basic training, and mentally and emotionally challenging a recruit is also a very valid part of any training regimen for those who may encounter combat, and all marines assume they will. My only objection is to abusive and humilating treatment, ostensibly for the amusement of the instructor, and I saw a lot of that; also gratuitously coarse language has no place. Marines are supposed to be known for their self-discipline, so why not control their potty mouths while they are at it?

Wat, you make a good point concerning "tradition." A lot of instructors used inappropriate language because it was used on them when they went through the training, and the same can be said of the abusive treatment. For instance, it's against all directives to strike a recruit, but we would get sucker punched all the time by the DIs, many times in the stomach as they passed. To me, it seemed sadistic... But isn't it true that many people become sadistic because they were treated in the same fashion? In a twisted way, couldn't that be a form of "tradition?"

I have no problem with the adage, in fact a truism, "Be a Man!" If it means be strong in the face of a challenge, why not? Then again, my daughter went through a pretty rough bootcamp herself about 8 years ago when she joined the army. In her case it was, "Be a Woman!"