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From recruit to drill instructor

From the moment they step onto the bus headed for boot camp, these recruits' lives are no longer their own. They now belong to drill instructors, there to break them down and build them back up as United States Marines.

Recruits Nick Velasco, 19, St. Paul, and Jay Nordstrom, 22, Fridley, are scheduled for graduation from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego May 5. A day they are both looking forward to.

When recruits step off the bus at night to step on the yellow footprints for the first time, they are also going to experience more demands than they ever thought they would. But that didn't stop either Velasco or Nordstrom from joining the Marines.

Nordstrom had already graduated from college and worked for a mortgage company. He said that job wasn't very exciting and he wanted to do something more productive. He attended his brother's graduation from the Marines and wanted the same experience.

He and his brother also worked in landscaping for an ex-Marine and heard the stories of Marine life.

"Deep down, we wanted to experience that for ourselves," he said.

Velasco said he "always wanted to make a difference," especially since 9/11.

"The Marine Corps is supposed to be the best of the best, and I wanted the challenge," he said.

That attitude and mindset hasn't changed much over the years.

In July, Staff Sgt. Robert Bell will hit his 10-year mark in the Marines. He said he joined for the challenge and education, "which I haven't done yet."

Bell has worked his way through the ranks to become a drill instructor, one shaping young Velasco and Nordstrom.

Once their toes hit the yellow footprints, recruits are under constant watch and instruction. They are stripped of individuality and taught only to survive as a team.

Velasco said he was more prepared than some recruits when he entered boot camp, although, like everyone, he said he feels he could have been better prepared.

At one point in the process, he said he wondered why he was there. "But it was a good path to choose."

Nordstrom agreed that he thought he was prepared for the task of boot camp, but "I think it's better not knowing" what lies ahead.

With someone yelling and timing every move a recruit makes, Velasco said he found "getting used to getting everything done so fast" has been one of his hardest adjustments.

Counting, he said, is in drill instructor time -- 60 seconds is more like 10 seconds.

"Rush, rush, rush -- always in a hurry," Nordstrom agreed.

Another challenge Nordstrom noted was working together as a team and "having everyone march together." If one person messes up, everyone is likely punished.

For the drill instructors, there's a difference in challenges during the military life. Bell said leaving his drill instructor persona at work and coming home to his wife and two daughters, ages 4 and 1, and not expecting perfection can be a challenge.

"My daughter has a temper and that's all my fault," he said.

But, consciously making the effort to leave work at work and a 20-minute drive out of the city gives Bell the time he needs to separate his two lives.

Bell has served as a drill instructor in San Diego for over two years, and is finished in August, when he will return to his MOS, infantry platoon sergeant, at Marine Corps Air Command Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

He counts his drill instructor graduation as his proudest moment in the Marines. He volunteered for drill instructor because of the leadership he could accomplish.

So what is going through a drill instructor's mind as they yell in the faces of new recruits?

"At first, it's hard. You don't know what to say," he said. Over time though, "it's just natural."

What comes natural may go a little overboard from time to time.

"They seem to make us play games too much," Velasco said.

Recruits are instructed to report any physical or verbal abuse by drill instructors during boot camp. Bell said there is a line between verbal abuse and just yelling at the recruits.

He said drill instructors shouldn't get into a bad habit of cussing at recruits.

"You need to control yourself," he said.

Also, no drill instructor is to demoralize a recruit. Yelling and calling names to the group is acceptable, but directing a slander "toward someone in particular in a sense of demeaning way" is not acceptable.

One of the things Velasco has found to be not as challenging as he anticipated is the amount of running in boot camp. He said he figured the recruits would be doing a lot more than they have, although hiking has made up for it.

Nordstrom said the swimming part of boot camp has been easier than he thought. Recruits are required to pass a swimming test fully dressed and loaded down with helmet, backpack, gun and vest.

After boot camp graduation, Marines head off to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, for combat training. From there, it's onto MOS (military occupational specialty) training. Velasco's MOS is infantry, which seems to be fitting.

He said he found the rifle range to be the most interesting aspect of boot camp so far. Out of 300 recruits, he was second and one point away from being the top shooter in the group. Before joining, he had only shot a gun twice in his life.

Velasco said if he hadn't joined the Marines, he would likely be attending technical college.

Nordstrom's MOS is helicopter mechanics, which entices Nordstrom a bit more than working for a mortgage company did.

While Bell's MOS may be infantry, his work is training recruits at the moment.

His workday begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends between 8 and 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sunday mornings, Bell attends church with his family and goes to work around noon.

While it seems as though the Marines come first in Bell's schedule, he said it's his family that comes first.

"Whatever the family needs" is what he does. He said he plans to finish his 20-year career in the Marines, but if for some reason he had to leave for family reasons, he would.

Finding that perfect balance can be a struggle for anyone -- whether it's a drill instructor balancing Marine and family life, or a recruit balancing stress.

"Perfection," Nordstrom describes is what drill instructors expect from their recruits. "Everything they do. They want us to be as perfect as they are."