COUNTDOWN TO BOOT CAMP
In their final days as civilians, longtime friends enlisting in Marine Corps prepare for change of a lifetime
It's late evening at Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. A bus rumbles to the curb and the doors open with a loud "whoosh."
John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008
A man wearing a broad-brimmed Smokey Bear hat climbs on board and greets the 30 or 40 young men huddled inside, some of them trembling with excitement. And fear.
The man speaks in a harsh, almost guttural bark, and gets right to the point.
"From this moment on, the only words out of your mouth are 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' and 'Aye aye, sir,' do you understand that?" he growls.
"Yes, sir!" the men respond.
"I said, 'Do you understand that?' " he screams, louder.
"YES, SIR!" the men yell out, much louder and in unison.
Four rows back are two young men, Robert Perez and Richard Maxwell. Perez, from Pittsburg, is 18 and Maxwell, from Concord, 19. They have been best friends since forever. They call each other "brother." They are here to become U.S. Marines.
These two young men have volunteered to join the infantry. They want to become Recon Marines, the most elite unit in the corps. That would mean they probably will end up in a war zone, in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least once in their four-year tours.
"What you are going to do now is get off the bus and go stand on that set of yellow footprints," the drill instructor informs them, pointing out the window to a cluster of yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk. "Now, without hurting yourself or anyone around you, get off my bus!"
Those are the last kind words Perez and Maxwell will hear for a long, long time.
'Don't get upset'
Maxwell's mother remembers the conversation she never wanted to hear, the one that changed her life.
It was Christmas Day. He said he needed to talk to her about something. Something very important.
"Don't get upset," he began.
"I've decided to join the Marines," her son continued.
After that, Laura Maxwell doesn't remember much of the conversation. She was in shock.
"I thought he might change his mind," she said. "I've been in denial over this for a long time."
Laura Maxwell served 15 years on active and reserve duty in the Navy herself, so she knows about military life. But she was never in a war zone, or in harm's way.
"I don't know why the Marines," she said. "They're the front lines."
But that seems to be exactly what Perez and Maxwell want. They want to learn skills - possibly to become police officers one day - they want to prove themselves, they want lives of danger and excitement.
Perez was the instigator. He's a tough and wiry young man, a former state wrestling champion who won a scholarship to compete at UC Davis.
Last summer, he started thinking about his life, and those of his friends. People were going to school and partying and it all seemed so mundane and useless, he said.
He began looking for meaning in life, and praying.
Perez started considering life in the Marines. The more he looked, the better that option seemed.
Maxwell had chosen not to go to college. He bounced around to various jobs and eventually started work in a law office. The pay was good and so were the benefits.
But Maxwell had no use for a soft life behind a desk. He yearned for something more profound, something that would get him outdoors and active.
The two boys started talking about it. Just the two of them. They knew the firestorm that would erupt when they told their families and friends what they were thinking about.
They prayed for inspiration to make their decision.
"We kept saying, 'God, just give us a sign,' " Perez said the week before he left for boot camp. "We'd turn on the TV and there would be a commercial for the Marines. And it would be, like, 'OK, is that the sign?' "
After months of talk and prayer, the decision became obvious. One day in October, Perez stopped by the recruiting office in Pleasant Hill.
He told the man, "I want to enlist and I want to be in the infantry." He said his brother wanted to join with him.
"You don't get that every day," said Staff Sgt. Jose Lopez, the recruiter who signed up both men. "Both those guys were very motivated from the start. They knew what they wanted."
After the boys signed up, they hung out at the Marine recruiting office. The "poolees" practice marching and do physical fitness drills in the parking lot behind the office.
"Who's tired?" the recruiter asks as the men, and one woman, do leg-lifts on the wet pavement. No one responds.
"Pain is just fear leaving the body," the recruiter says, repeating a mantra that's printed on the wall of the office.
Maxwell and Perez met when they were about 8 years old, right after Maxwell moved to the Bay Area with his mother from Arizona. They played on the same Pop Warner football team. Maxwell's mom, Laura, met Perez's parents, Laura and Chris Calica, in the stands. The boys became friends and their parents did, too.
The two families are close, to the point that Chris Calica feels comfortable disciplining Maxwell and calls him "son."
Both families attended the ceremonies put on by the recruiters to welcome new recruits into the Marine family. Held at the recruits' homes, the ceremonies allow the recruiter to talk to the families and friends about the Marine Corps and to show motivational videos about Marine life. The slickly produced videos show Marines at work and at war. They do not show body bags or flag-draped coffins.
Family members and friends make speeches about the new recruit and tell stories of that person growing up or what the Marine Corps means to them. And then the new recruit recites the oath of enlistment.
"We've been through good times, bad times, can't-remember times," Perez said at Maxwell's ceremony. "You're my brother and I'd do anything for you, man. I'm glad we're doing this together. I think this is the right decision for us."
Maxwell, when it was his turn, got on his knees in front of his mother, who was sitting in a chair, and held her hands.
"It wasn't always easy growing up without a father," he told her. "But we made it, didn't we? I just want you to know I love you and I want to make you proud."
After the ceremony, there is lasagna and cake and sodas. Friends come to wish the boys well, and there are more than a few tears.
Perez's mother sits at the dining room table and holds her husband's hand.
"I think the worst part for me was when Robert kept talking about trying to get into Recon," she said. "That's when it hit me: He really wants to go over there."
Iraq weighs heavily on everyone's mind. Nearly 4,000 American troops have died in that conflict and tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them severely. Post-traumatic stress also takes a toll on people who have served in the war.
Chris Calica tries to take comfort in numbers. Well over 1 million men and women have come and gone from Iraq, making the likelihood of death or wounding to be relatively slight.
"You can get killed driving home," he said. "It's dangerous to be on the road with drunk drivers."
His wife seeks solace in her Christian faith.
"When it's your time, it's your time," she said. "It doesn't matter if it's here or in Iraq. God is with him, I know it."
Goodbye for now
On their last day of freedom, Sunday, the boys go to church at 10 a.m. The reverend brings them to the front of the church and offers a prayer. Afterward, they go to their respective homes to get ready for the long trip south.
Maxwell helps his mother with their taxes. Perez goes home to spend his last hours with friends and family. It is a low-key time, with kids lying on the sofas, Dad looking at video clips of Robert as a wrestler and the movie "The Waterboy" playing on the wide-screen TV in the corner.
At 1:30 p.m., everyone heads to the recruiting station. They are supposed to be there at 2. That time comes and goes, with no Maxwell. Seconds tick by. Did Richard change his mind at the last second?
Finally, at 2:25, the Maxwells come through the glass doors.
And then it is time for goodbyes. There are hugs and kisses, no tears. Not now. Then the families get into their cars and drive off.
The boys spend the night in a hotel and then go to the military entry station in Mountain View to wait for a flight to San Diego.
They reach San Diego at 9 p.m. A bus arrives. The recruits get on the bus and take the short drive around the block to boot camp, which borders the airport.
The first Marine to greet them is the man on the bus, Staff Sgt. Chad Murch.
Perez and Maxwell run off the bus with their new comrades and stand at attention on the famous yellow footprints. There are no smiles, no chit-chat, no joking around.
Murch and two other drill instructors proceed to greet the new recruits in traditional boot camp fashion.
"Eyes front!" they scream. "Pick up your gear and get inside!"
It is the beginning of 12 weeks of intense training. There will be no down time and no fun time. Every hour is scripted. The recruits have one hour a day of "free time," but that will be used for shining shoes, cleaning weapons and writing letters home.
They will learn how to march, how to shoot a rifle and how to kill with a bayonet. They will learn the customs, language and history of the Marine Corps. If they decide they do not want to be Marines, they're out of luck. They have signed contracts and, barring physical injury or significant psychological problems, they are in the Marines for four years.
"This is what separates the Marines from the other services," said Capt. John Boyer, commanding officer of the recruit company Perez and Maxwell are in. "This is where they bond as Marines."
Outside, on the yellow footprints, Perez and Maxwell stand front to back, inches apart.
The first recruit in line makes the mistake of looking directly at one of the drill instructors.
"Get your eyeballs off of me!" he yells.
And they march into the building, where new uniforms and fresh haircuts await.
E-mail John Koopman at firstname.lastname@example.org.