Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tips, Tricks, and Tools of the Trade

Marine Corps Drill Instructors are unique creatures, out of sheer necessity. All Drill Instructors, or DI's, have to abide by a certain set of rules, which are contained within the Standard Operating Procedures, or SOP. Over the decades, the SOP has grown to a thickness that would shock most people. It hasn't grown with instructions regarding what TO do, but with stern warnings of what NOT to do. As the SOP grows, DI's must rely upon an ever increasing amount of creativity in order to forge the young recruits within the harsh, searing crucible known as Recruit Training. While methods may change, the goal remains the same: to turn out Warriors with the hardness necessary to wage battle against those that would destroy our way of life.

Upon graduating from Recruit Training, I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a Drill Intructor. I idolized my fanatical, omnipotent DI's. They were dieties capable of anything. Much like my decision to join the Corps in the first place, I doubted my own ability to achieve the goal of becoming a DI. In late 1997, I convinced myself that there was only one way to reach that goal, and that was to simply take the plunge. I reported to Drill Instructor School at Parris Island, South Carolina in early 1998. I was a solid, aggressive, motivated Marine, but I found myself among an entire class of stellar performers. This was going to be no cakewalk.

I quickly discovered that my uniforms were sadly lacking. I needed to either upgrade or replace many of my items of military clothing. This was a costly venture, and my wonderful parents came to my aid. The irony of that is that upon graduation, I would not even be using my own uniforms, as the Corps would issue me "Organizational Clothing," for use as a DI. The highly demanding school, on the other hand, was a different story. We had countless uniform inpsections, and they were incredibly detailed. Everything was scrutinized, often with no notice whatsoever. We had to be "inspection ready" at all times. My roommate and I would take turns at lunch time ironing our uniforms with one hand, while slurping down a bowl of chili with the other. We even tried our hand at ironing the creases in our trousers while still wearing them. I don't advise anyone to try that...burns don't heal quickly. I learned a tremendous amount while in DI school, but some lessons cannot be taught in a classroom.

During the last few weeks of the school, all of the students are sent over to the different training battalions to "observe" with an actual platoon of DI's and recruits. The idea behind that is to give the students a glimpse of what they would be doing after graduation. After thinking that DI School was hard, the week of observation was yet another wakeup call. The hours were unbelievable. We'd be there at about four a.m. every morning, and leave at about ten p.m. each night. If we were lucky, we got to eat a meal during some point, but that was rare. A snack on the go was much more the norm. I lost almost twelve pounds in one week. I found out what the actual DI's meant when they told me to enjoy the "laid back," "easy" schedule of DI School. One thing became glaringly apparent: I had much more to learn, and it was only going to be learned by doing it.

DI School taught me many rules, regulations, and how to conduct very exacting uniform inspections. I also received a ton of refresher training in areas that I hadn't paid attention to since I was a recruit myself. History, customs and courtesies, military law, and basic infantry skills were all covered in great detail. What was not taught was the actual mechanics of training recruits. There was no class available that could teach us how to meld a young man into a Marine. That would have to be learned on the fly; much like being pushed into the deep end of the pool and being expected to simply learn to swim.

One of my instructors in DI School, who was also my "Squad Adviser," was a very refined man by the name of Gunnery Sergeant Franklin (name changed to protect the "innocent"). He was the one to help me discover that my uniforms were in sad shape by gently asking me, "Have you lost your fu#%ing mind?! Did you think that you could just show up here looking like a turd with legs?! Square this trash away today, or I'm gonna put my boot so far up your a$$ that you'll be smelling shoe polish for a month!" He was such a caring and considerate mentor...ahhh the memories. Needless to say, I heeded his warning, with some very appreciated help from Mom and Dad. I hate the smell of shoe polish, and didn't want to test the Gunny.

Gunny Franklin taught me many things in his gentle, tactful way. He was fond of reminding me that "recruits are miserable pieces of $h*t. It's your job to make a pitiful attempt to turn them into something resembling a Marine. Don't fu%& it up numbnuts!" The amazing thing about Gunny Franklin is that he treated everyone the same way. He would admonish actual DI's in the same fashion that he would admonish his students. We often had working DI's come give us various classes and demonstrations, and I once saw the Gunny whisper into a DI's ear, followed by the DI blushing and running into the head (bathroom). One of my fellow students had the cojones to ask Gunny what he had said to the DI, and Gunny replied, "I told him that if he didn't go tuck his shoelaces in, I was going to use them to cut his balls off." I would bet a month's pay that Gunny Franklin never graduated a recruit that wasn't qualified to be a Marine.

In the mid spring of 1998, I walked across the stage in the theater aboard Parris Island, and was handed the coveted Campaign Cover, or "Smokey Bear" hat, that I had been working so hard for for three months. I was a bonafide Drill Instructor. I was elite. I was a cut above, and I had no clue what I was in for.

I had 30 days of leave, or vactation time, after graduation. My wife and kids packed up and got out of our housing in North Carolina, and then headed west to visit family. My parents bought me my NCO Sword as a graduation gift; it sits in its cover as I write this, eager for use. After an enjoyable visit, we headed back to the South. I dropped my wife and kids off at a friend's house in North Carolina, and then headed to Parris Island to begin my fun filled tour as a DI. It was going to be a month or so before we could get housing, so I roomed with my roommate from DI school in the meantime. I was told that I would be given time off to move my family once housing became available. As much as I hate moving, I was looking forward to it, as I would get a break from the murderous hours at work.

I became a walking zombie. I wasn't sleeping or eating right, and I quickly came down with whatever crud the recruits had brought with them. I was a wreck. I had about an hour of free time one day, and I went to see Gunny Franklin. I had doubts about myself. I wasn't sure that I would be able to keep up the demanding schedule and work ethic for three years. He put my fears to rest: "Don't be such a wuss. Suck it up and get hard now! Those young men don't need some whiney little bitch; they need a Marine Corps Drill Instructor!" After chewing my ass for whining, he actually gave me some sage advice. He told me that I was going to face some unique challenges as a DI, since, like him, I wasn't a large man. "Recruits come from all walks of life. You're going to get thugs straight from their gang infested street corners. They're not going to be physically intimidated by a man of your stature. You need to convice them that you're the meanest, toughest, nastiest psychotic bastard that ever walked the earth," he said.

Gunny Franklin gave me a few tips, and I heeded them all. They served me well, and would have served any DI well. Some of his tips were:

1. Don't ever let them see you eat. If you eat, you're human. You need to be a monster. Eat when you can, but do it out of sight; granola bars and Power Bars are great.
2. Don't ever let them see you sleep. When you have duty (stay all night), keep the lights on in the DI hut and just put a tee shirt over your face.
3. Never smile.
4. Never laugh.
5. As much as the sand fleas itch, never scratch at a bug.
6. Never play favorites. Treat 'em all the same. They're all worthless, and you need to treat them as such.
7. Hate recruits. If you hate recruits, you'll love the finished product. Take every transgression personally; it will foster that hatred.
8. Don't ever forget that it's your mission to make 'em as hard as you can. They'll thank you someday.

I took his words to heart. I never let a recruit see me eat, smile, laugh, scratch a bug, or sleep. I vividly remember the sand fleas eating me alive as I was yelling at a recruit. I actually had a droplet of blood appear on his face from a particularly efficient sand flea on my face. He looked at me like I was a complete monster; I was pleased. I did everything that I could to convince my recruits that I was mildly psychotic. As far as they knew, I never ate, slept, or had emotions. I was there before they woke up, and well after they went to sleep. I would leave the light on in the "duty hut" when I stayed the night, and set my alarm for various times throughout the night. I would get up throughout the night and run the vacuum cleaner, toss a laundry bag full of padlocks into the dryer in the laundry room (that makes a hell of a noise), and tortu...I mean remediate the "firewatch," or the recruits that were on watch at night. They hated me. I became a recruit's worst nightmare.

I only had to physically defend myself one time, and it lasted for a fraction of a second. My fellow DI's came out of the woodwork as I put the young lad on the ground. The rest of the recruits were terrified of me after that; as they should have been. A few stitches later, the recruit in question was more than willing to toe the line. I developed a love/hate feeling for recruits. I hated recruits-- they smelled horrible, infected me with every manner of sickness that was available, took me away from my family, failed to do anything right, and cursed my name. That hatred would transform into love and pride as they made the transition into Marines.

No reward in the world can compare to seeing a group of men make that transition, and know that I had some small part in it. The look in a father's eyes as he thanks me for his son losing 90 pounds is remarkable. The rewards were not tangible, but they were huge. I vividly remember assembling my final platoon of new Marines on the quarterdeck the morning of graduation. I told them that, "The rewards for this job are few and far between. All of you, standing before me are my reward. The transformation that you've made is what makes this job worthwhile. You did it; I just pointed you in the right direction."

I never put my stamp of approval on a recruit that I didn't think was worthy of being a Marine. I never lost sight of the fact that I was entrusted with preparing somebody's son, somebody's child, for the rigors of battle. On one hand, I know that no parent wants their child to suffer abuse. On the other hand, I know that no parent wants their child to join the military and die in battle. I was not going to let someone die in battle due to being ill prepared. I only had a short three months to prepare them, and I put my heart and soul into it. While I never actually "abused" any recruit, I did everything that I could to train 'em hard, make 'em hard, and turn them into hard men. I hope that I didn't fail.


Dirtee said...

OOHRAH!!! Semper Fi Sir!!!

Anonymous said...

Everyone always talks about how they hated their Drill Instructors. All the mind games, all the overly detailed inspections, spending the better part of the day trying to reach the top of that mountain doing mountain climbers; I am thankful there were Marines willing to put up with me for 3 months, whip me into shape, and make me into a Marine.