By Andrew McKenna, Transformations Client Services Representative
Veteran of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps
The flight down to Marine Corps training in Quantico was rocky. Everyone had these exceptionally foolish haircuts, except me. I was not gung-ho about this. Others were gung-ho, sitting up straight during the flight. I sipped a beer and later napped in the back row.
“You’re not supposed to drink on the flight to Officer Candidate School.” This was the high-and-tight-wearing moron sitting next to me.
“Mind your #$%&*@# business chief.”
Tori won this round. It was the summer before I was to start law school and the Marines had a program where law students could go to 10 weeks of Officer Candidate School, receive their commission as second lieutenants, and then go into inactive status while they attended school. The Marines are the only branch of the service that do not contribute to tuition, but they do pay you to work during semester breaks and during the summer, in uniform, in the south, as a Marine Student Lawyer. How did I get roped into this madness?
The first three days at Quantico were all about standing in huge lines in 100-degree humidity. Unlike the Air Force enlisted boot camp, where they yelled at you the minute you landed in San Antonio, the Marines tricked you by lulling you into a false sense of safety. There would be time for yelling later. Right now, I had to fill out forms and answer questions from an 18-year-old Private First Class Marines.
“If you die while here at Quantico, who do you want to get the Service Members Group Life Insurance policy insurance money?”
“If I die while in training?”
“Sure, every Company that comes through, seems like someone dies.”
“Really?” When does training begin?”
“I can’t answer that.”
“Because you don’t know?”
On day four, everything changed. People were not as polite. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Even my fellow candidates were acting edgy, and they couldn’t explain why either. Day four was also hotter than any of the other previous days. When we lined up to march to breakfast, the sun wasn’t up yet, but the damn heat was stifling. Guys were questioning how it could be so hot without the sun. By noon, after sitting in yet another class (or block of instruction as it’s called in the Corps), concerning rank structures of all branches of the service worldwide, we lined up to march to lunch (or noon chow). I couldn’t breathe it was so hot. A strange haze encircled our formation, as the sun beat us down. The admin guy who had been marching us to chow for the past several days seemed very angry at us. Something was afoot.
That afternoon, we did a field day. A field day is not a barbecue with tug-of-war and three-legged races like I thought when I first heard the term. It is a full dismantling and cleaning of every centimeter of U.S. Marine Corps property. Bunks are taken apart and cleaned, rocks are painted, the grass is clipped, literally with scissors. Floors are stripped and buffed sometimes two and three times. Walls are washed and rewashed and rewashed, light fixtures are removed and cleaned, coats of paint may be indicated, uniforms are cleaned and pressed, boots are shined, stripped of polish and re-shined. But the biggest part of a field day is cleaning the head. The head is the bathroom. When I first heard the term, I couldn’t stop laughing. The head. Drill instructors always were ranting about their heads being filthy.
“Why isn’t my head clean? I want my goddamn head to shine. Get in my head with your goddamn toothbrushes and scrub it. If I find even one pubic hair anywhere near my head, heads will roll!” The heads in the Marine Corps were generally spotless anywhere you went. It was a badge of honor for a Marine to keep his head clean, free of urine and excrement. The head had to shine and smell like pine sol. Many of these heads were old and constructed with the best materials, and by God, as a tribute to those who had gone before us, those who had fought to give us our freedom, we were honor-bound to keep our heads in the highest state of police.
“Okay, listen up candidates. Tonight, we’re marching over forthwith to Classroom 6.” They always added things like forthwith, and post-haste, without delay, etc., even when it didn’t make sense.
“From there we will march, without unnecessary delay, over to Classroom 10, and from there, post-haste, onto Classroom 12—right next door. There you will meet the Colonel, the Commanding Officer of U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.” They also had to include full mailing addresses with everything to make it sound impressive.
“Be advised, that the Colonel is a war hero. He did three tours in the Republic of Vietnam and killed hundreds of Viet Cong. If, and when he makes eye contact with you, and he most certainly will, I here forth command that you look away. Under no circumstances are you to look into the Colonel’s eyes. Thereupon, you’ve been henceforth warned.” I was totally confused at this point.
“Now pack up your trash (uniforms underwear, socks, hats a/k/a ‘covers’ boots, hygiene products, canteens, web belts, linens, poncho and poncho liners, rucksacks, weapon cleaning materials, etc.) and stand fast. Don’t forget your knowledge (written materials such as manuals, Marine Corps history and traditions books, anything that contained any type of knowledge). Pack your knowledge the same way you would your shit paper—use the waterproof bag. Keep your knowledge dry at all costs. You need your knowledge. If anything is left in my squad bay, I’ll find out who it belongs to and kill that person. That is all. Godspeed U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates.”
All my trash must have weighed a little over 120 pounds.
“McKenna, where are we going where we would need to pack our shit paper in a waterproof bag?” A fellow candidate asked nervously.
“I don’t know man these people are obviously insane.” The trash was now on my back and we were marching, well actually the guy marching us, said we were a huge gaggle-#$%* walking down the street, not candidates marching. Marching was out of the question—the staying in step, the cadence, the cover and alignment—none of these were possible with our trash on our backs.
When we arrived at Classroom 12, we were all sweaty and exhausted from hauling the trash. A strong looking sort instructed us, henceforth:
“You have 3 minutes to use my head! Leave piss in my head and you’ll spend the rest of the night cleaning my head! The use of my head is compulsory!” Try not to laugh at this. The class was about to begin, and 75 candidates had to use his head; it was compulsory. We lined up at the wall urinals and tried to go, even if we didn’t have to. The guy next to me looked terrified because he didn’t have to go. He was frantically flushing the toilet, hoping that the running water would make him have to go. He was causing quite a ruckus. Other candidates who were waiting to go, were getting antsy.
“Come on Jones, just #$%&*@# piss and get out of the way!”
“I’m trying!” Jones was pleading with them. FLUSH, FLUSH, FLUSH.
“Who is repeatedly flushing my #$%&*@# head!” The strong-looking sort demanded.
“Jones, just walk away from the urinal dude. Pretend you went. No one’s going to know,” I told him, as I shook and flushed. Jones was overwhelmed. He looked really stressed out.
“Is that #$%&*@# Jones flushing my head!” Someone gave Jones up.
“Yes, Sergeant Instructor! It is Jones who is incapable of urinating forthwith and it is Jones who continues to flush in the hopes—
“Shut your #$%&*@# mouth!” Jones yells, starting to unravel. The man was in tears. Oh my God, this is crazy.
“Exit my head Jones! Immediately!” The strong-looking sort commanded.
We were now in our seats. Sweating bullets from the stress and the heat. I look around the room. Total silence. Gradually filing into the outer isles were men in Smoky Bear hats, pulled down low so their eyes were shaded. The fluorescent lights were so bright, one had to squint to see across the room. Thirty of these guys turned into 40, and then into 50. All I could think about was the fire code requirements. A small, faded sign on the wall indicated a maximum capacity of 100. We had four times that many packed-in.
An older man with silver eagles on his collar bounded up the stairs of the stage. A deep voice roared, “Candidates, Atten hut!” We all snapped to our feet. For the next hour, the Colonel graveled on about the meaning of his Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico Virginia. I was within spitting distance to, the Colonel, and very aware that at any point he’d make eye contact with me. I was ready to avert my eyes pronto and forthwith.
“Candidates, the Marine Drill Instructors that are surrounding you now, are the finest. Handpicked by me, they represent what you must become. Watch them, follow them, for over the course of the next ten weeks, they will transform you from mere civilians into Marine Corps Officers. Many of you won’t make it because you don’t have what it takes. You’re weak physically, you’re weak mentally, you’re spiritually weak, morally weak, and you don’t belong here. These fine Marines are trained to find you and to weed you out because you don’t belong here.” Nothing like an ice-breaker Colonel.
Then his eyes rested on mine, and I forgot to avert my eyes posthaste. A chill ran up my spine and without unnecessary delay, it ran right back down. I shuddered. He stopped talking and just stared at me. I tried to look away, but I couldn’t. He had me locked in. I was hypnotized. This must be why the guy earlier said not to make eye contact with the Colonel. I tried to look away, I tried to close my eyes, but they wouldn’t shut. Finally, he looked away, and the spell was broken. His next words I will never forget.
“Drill Instructors, assume control of your Platoons!”
Chaos. Drill instructors by the dozens start running at us, they’re turning over chairs and tables screaming for us to get out of their seats, to get out of their classroom; these people were so proprietary. It was an absolute stampede. Guys were trying to put their trash on their backs. Some decided to forget the trash, and just try to run for it. They were turned back to get their trash. There were logjams and bottlenecks. We were tripping over each other running in different directions trying to find a door. People were screaming like women and children. The guy ahead of me tripped and smashed his head on the table. I’ve never seen anyone hit their head that hard. I’m sure the weighty trash on his back contributed to the force of the impact. He got up and somehow made it back into the flow of bodies shuffling towards the exit. He was totally disoriented from the blow. No time to think. The guy now directly in front of me pissed his pants. I looked as he turned his eyes to me, and I realized it was Jones. Jones finally had to go. This made me laugh for a split second. Suddenly a Drill Instructor pounced at me. I could feel the warmth of his breath as the wetness of his filthy spittle hit my ear.
“What are you laughing at, #$%&*@#!” This nearly made me shit my pants, but I was able to regain control over my bowel. He had come from nowhere, was screaming in my ear. Who is he calling #$%&*@#?
“Oh, pretty boy didn’t like that, did he? You #$%&*@# hippy! You #$%&*@# hippy” Come on man. #$%&*@# hippy? Pretty boy? Seriously? Why am I doing this?
I wanted to punch him in the throat. And then he was gone, seemingly into thin air. Did I just imagine that? Someone else called me a bitch.
They chased us out of the classroom, across the enormous parade deck and drill field, and into our new barracks. We had to haul our trash up three flights of stairs (called ladder wells in the Corps) with these maniacs yelling at us. Men collapsed with exhaustion and dehydration.
“From this point forward if you fall out from dehydration, you will be left for death!” Jesus. What happened to leaving no comrade behind?
“Dehydration is a character flaw! And a failure of self-leadership!”
Is he making this shit up as he goes?
“Now grab a damn canteen and get on line!” We had to stand next to our bunks on an imaginary line.
“Extend the damn canteen!” This meant to hold it out in front of us.
“Lockout your damn elbows!” We stayed in that position for 15 minutes while we were berated with insults. Once again, I was called a faggot and a hippy. Someone else called me a bitch, I just know it. Now a 20-ounce canteen filled doesn’t weigh that much right? Try taking, say a hairbrush, and hold it directly in front of you with your damn elbow extended and have a stranger yell at you and call you names for 15 minutes. Man, they had this abuse down to a science. Jones pissed himself again. One guy cried and was never seen again. Some douche named Postenskull, or some such nonsense may or may not have died that evening.
“Get on your Goddamn faces and push!”
What the hell is he talking about?
“Assume the front lean and rest position!” Some type of homosexual cult is what we have here.
Front lean and rest is in reality what the Corps calls the push-up position; it’s not sodomy.
We did push-ups for 30 minutes. Doesn’t sound that bad right? Try it.
“You shitdicks are going to learn what it means to listen.”
Shitdicks. Sweet Jesus.
“But more than that.”
More than what? That wasn’t a complete sentence. He apparently lost his train of thought when he cued in on Westerfelt or feld or something.
“Westerman, you annoy me! Did your nasty momma send you all the way—where you from Westerman?”
“Right, now did your nasty momma send you all the way from Texas to annoy me boy? And are you a steer or a queer?
“Um, a steer sir?”
“Then make a steer noise and prove you’re not a damn queer!” Westerfeld made steer noises.
“SHOWERS!” This can’t be good.
“I said on your feet!” We came out of the front lean and rest position. My arms and chest muscles were numb. Too much lactic acid in my muscles. Unsteady on my feet. The drill instructors corralled us by means of threats and intimidation and fear, into a line of bodies. Into the showers, we went. Nearly a hundred men deep: tired, terrified and naked. Welcome to the Marines, ladies, and gentlemen.
This is an edited excerpt taken from Andrew McKenna’s book, Sheer Madness: From Federal Prosecutor to Federal Prisoner.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please CONTACT US.