Reporter joins Marines (for a week)
Last week, I was yelled at, shot an M-16 (and hit the bulls-eye, by the way), marched for the first time since high school band, and got up way too early on a regular basis.
That's right, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps for a week. And I graduated as an honorary recruit.
During the week I spent in San Diego visiting the three Marine bases -- Recruit Depot, Miramar and Pendleton -- I learned two things, one, I'm much too defiant at this age to join the Marines, and two, I have more respect for those that can join and pass the rigorous training.
Roughly 40 educators from the Minnesota and North Dakota schools and I arrived in sunny California Monday afternoon. A group of about 40 educators from Kansas City were also flown in for the week. All expenses were paid by the U.S. military.
Tuesday was when the fun started -- nice and early. That day we spent a lot of time at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. There is another recruit depot located at Parris Island, S.C. The men west of the Mississippi River attend boot camp in San Diego, the men on the east side -- and all women -- attend the Parris Island camp.
Stepping off the bus at MCRD, we got the full Marine recruit experience. It started with standing on painted yellow footprints, the first thing recruits do, and included the experience of drill instructors. Personally, I was yelled at for not doing the right thing at the right time.
In my defense, I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be doing. Call it old age, but I couldn't understand a word they were yelling.
The worst part was, it was all I could do to stop smiling at the man screaming in my face. I'm sure in the real Marines Corps, I would have been doing push-ups by then. Push-ups and I don't mix real well.
When Brig. Gen. John Paxton, commanding general at MCRD, spoke, he said if you can't handle someone screaming in your face, you can't handle someone trying to kill you. I see his point. I guess I'm not cut out for going to war.
"It's a tried and true way," Col. Mark Callihan, chief of staff at the MCRD, said of the drill instructors' yelling. "We are an in-your-face organization."
At the Depot, Marines are treated to a haircut that takes 20 to 30 seconds.
While the Marine Corps is the smallest military branch, Paxton said it's needed to be that fourth leg of a chair. There are 175,000 Marines, and 67 percent are serving their first hitch. Their average age is 20, protecting our nation. Scary, if you ask me. 95 percent are 18-year-olds straight out of high school, and 2 percent are homeschooled or received a diploma from an alternative learning center.
"Since 1969," Callihan said, "everyone knows that everyone who steps on the yellow footprints will be in harm's way. All are volunteers and all know they're going to go (to war)."
Knowing they will be in harm's way hasn't decreased recruiting numbers, he said.
Of those serving in the Marines, 6.3 to 6.7 percent are women. Gender-segregated training has proven statistically to be more productive. Women receive the same training as men, just in a different location.
Of those men and women signing up for boot camp, roughly 10 percent will drop out before training is over.
After a day at the MCRD, we headed to Camp Pendleton the next day.
Here, troops come after boot camp graduation for combat training. They spend 50 hours learning about the rifle. In less than half an hour, I learned I should've been a marksman.
I've never touched a gun in my life, but I shot an M-16, the standard gun in the military, and hit the bulls-eye. No, I didn't have a spray of gunfire that happened to hit one. I laid on my stomach, took aim and squeezed the trigger.
"There's no room for even a heartbeat to mess up hitting the target," said Col. Ronny Yowell, weapons field training battalion commander, Edson Range, Camp Pendleton.
While at Pendleton, new Marines endure the Crucible. The Crucible is a 54-hour test where the men encounter 32 obstacles and at least 40 miles of hiking on limited sleep.
While at the MCRD and Pendleton, 10-15 recruits from the Minnesota and North Dakota area were able to eat lunch with us and tell about their experiences thus far. The ones I talked to seemed to be most excited about finally having more than 10 minutes to eat, and to eat whatever they wished.
I asked one Marine at MCRD what he missed most about being away from home. His reply -- it's a toss up between peanut M&Ms and his girlfriend. My advice -- don't tell your girlfriend that.
At Pendleton, new Marines will hike about 115 miles in four weeks.
"It's toughening physically, but they have to toughen mentally as well," Yowell said. That's the reason instructors are "mean" he added with a laugh.
We also visited the Marine Corps Assault Amphibian School Battalion. It was interesting watching $1.7 million land vehicles plunge into the water and become amphibious vehicles.
Thursday we spent time at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. If anyone has seen the movie "Top Gun," they'll know where I'm talking about. Then, the Navy operated the base. It closed for a period of time, and the Marines now operate the base.
Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland -- who spoke fondly of growing up in Thief River Falls, where he still visits -- said the best and the brightest means every part of the person, not just some test scores. That's what the Marines breed.
We toured a helicopter and fighter jet while at Miramar.
Thursday afternoon was likely my most notable time in the Marines. During the eagle, globe and anchor emblem presentation, each recruit is finally addressed as a Marine for the first time. They also get to see their families for the first time in 13 weeks.
We got to sit and watch the ceremony involving 340 graduates from Company D and their reunited families. Now, I didn't know a soul there, but I had a lump in my throat for these guys. I felt overwhelming pride for these kids, basically, I had never met before, just from knowing what they had just endured.
Friday was the Colors Ceremony with the flags and band, followed by graduation. Of course the one day a year it rains in San Diego was Friday at the end of graduation. I don't think the rain dampened anyone's pride that day, though.
After watching Marines being trained, I can only say props to the men and women who tough it out and join the Marine Corps (or any service branch for that matter) every week.
I'm fairly certain I couldn't.