Express-Times correspondent Bill Cahir wrote this front page account of his U.S. Marine boot camp experience that appeared in the newspaper July 4, 2004. Our valued co-worker, friend and journalist was killed in active duty in Afghanistan.
by Joseph P. Owens (for Bill Cahir)/The Express-Times Thursday August 13, 2009, 10:45 PM
Nasty recruit' survives boot camp at age 34
By BILL CAHIR The Express-Times
Stripped naked in the office shower room, I was appalled.
I had been jogging every other day for several months. Still, when I looked in the mirror, the man I saw was fat and soft, almost unbelievably so. I wondered:
Was there a United States Marine in there somewhere?
The recruiter was ignoring my calls.
Apparently the Marine Corps wasn't dying to sign up a 34-year-old reporter from Washington, D.C. Ordinarily, the Marines recruit young men and women 17 to 27, and college graduates as old as 29. I was far past the regular cutoffs.
Diligence produced a meeting with an officer in charge of recruiting in the Baltimore-Washington region. The major was intrigued. He had me take the Marine Corps physical fitness test.
I ran the three-mile track in 21:10, did six pull-ups and 84 crunches. A perfect score was 18 minutes, 20 pull-ups and 100 crunches. My run time was decent. The recruiters took up my cause.
I met with a sergeant and a captain at the 4th Civil Affairs Group, a Marine Corps reserve unit headquartered at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. Assured I would take orders from younger Marines, they signed their names to an age-waiver application.
The paperwork, sent up the chain of command, was approved with bracing speed. The offer:
* Go to Parris Island for 13 weeks and survive basic training;
* Enroll in Marine combat training at Camp Geiger, N.C., and complete the second stage of combat education; and
* Attend a school in Norfolk, Va., and learn to become a Marine Air-Ground Task Force planner.
If I signed, I would ship out in just 22 days.
Visiting Fort Meade, Md., I deliberated. I would enter as a private first class, not an officer. I would lose thousands of dollars in civilian salary. I probably would be activated and sent to the Middle East.
There it was: My last, best chance to serve.
I had one final opportunity to be a Marine, to learn martial arts, to shoot, to speak a new language, to make whatever contribution I could to the war on terrorism.
I had nearly enlisted after graduating from college, after working a few years and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Each time I hesitated.
In October 2003, the recruiter asked the decisive question: In the future, would I look back and regret my inaction if I didn't enlist?
I charged at the 8-foot wooden wall, leapt up and grabbed the flat plank on top.
To my surprise, I managed to hoist myself up and roll my body over.
I fell into the sawdust below, ready for the next challenge on the Parris Island obstacle course.
"Get back, Ca-heer!" my drill instructor bellowed, deliberately mispronouncing my name, which sounds like "care."
"Get back and do it again!"
Arms leaden, I wondered: Why was the DI forcing me to scale the wall a second time?
It didn't matter. I hollered, "Aye, sir!"
I took a second run at the wall, leapt up and stalled. I didn't have the arm strength.
"Yeah, yeah!" the DI, crouching atop the wall, shouted into my face. "Some things don't get easier with age, do they, Ca-heer?"
That did it. I wasn't going to be labeled the lazy old man in front of several platoons.
Again I pulled, this time shuffling over the top plank and plunging into the sawdust. I wasn't setting any speed records. But I hadn't quit.
"Nasty recruit!" another DI shouted as I trudged past.
I stood up from my meal and started the walk along the tables, hoping to make it to the milk dispenser.
One of the four DIs erupted: "No f---ing way! No f---ing way!"
A second DI joined the chorus: "In some countries, that's a crime against the dead!" He was pointing at my food. I had stuck a fork in my baked chicken and left the utensil sticking straight up in the air.
"Get back! Get back and sit down!" shouted the second DI.
"Aye sir!" I shouted.
But I forgot to give the greeting of the day. I had not shouted, "Good afternoon, gentlemen!" Immediately I was surrounded by three DIs from my platoon.
"You haven't learned a thing here, have you, Ca-heer?"
"You're too stupid to get it right, aren't you, college boy?"
"I guess we just walk away from DIs and don't give them the courtesy of a greeting! That's what you've been taught!"
My senior drill instructor, the fourth noncommissioned officer in my platoon and a staff sergeant by rank, interrupted the storm.
"All right," he said. "Get your milk."
The DI grabbed my M16A2 service rifle, pushed the plastic hand guard against my forehead and bent me backwards until I was pinned against my bunk, also known as a rack.
"Ca-heer, I've been waiting for you to show one ounce of intensity in your f---ing body, and you can't do it, can you, you motherf---ing communist p---y!" I made a mental note of the insult. The epithet was the most creative I'd heard to date.
I was a college-educated reservist. I was older than the DIs, and in my civilian job I earned more money than they did.
Later, the DIs made it clear they were worried about what I might write about them. "You don't know my specialty, do you?" one raged. "Counterintelligence! You'll never see me coming!"
But I admired their toughness. At three required points during training, I signed paperwork saying the DIs hadn't abused me verbally or physically. I didn't believe they had.
The drill instructors worked more than 100 hours each week. They performed the workouts required of the recruits, and more. They had mastered several military trades - marksmanship, first aid, land navigation - and practiced the best methods for teaching those skills.
It was a fighting man's world. The DIs thrived in it. They had earned their stripes, and they were preparing us for ours.
It was my third day on the rifle range.
I had nearly qualified twice, shooting a 186 and a 175. But the minimum score was 190.
If I failed again, I probably would be dropped to another platoon. That would mean falling back to an earlier phase of training, getting lumped in with another bunch of recruits, and getting hollered at by a new set of DIs.
It would mean writing home to tell relatives of a new graduation date. It would mean staying longer in the drill instructors' universe.
There I sat, hoping to qualify on my third try, carrying the wrong weapon. I didn't have my own rifle.
Earlier, my platoon was ordered to unlock all rifles from our racks. Several of us were absent, having been sent to medical, to dental or to pick up laundry.
I unlocked a weapon belonging to a neighboring recruit who was absent. That part I got right: I was supposed to take his rifle from his bunk.
But before being hustled to the range, I had passed off my own weapon to another recruit and held onto my neighbor's. What a mistake!
I kept mum. My neighbor had qualified as a rifle expert. Maybe I could do the same.
I shot, but the wind and elevation settings on this M16A2 were different than mine. I couldn't figure it out. I was spraying bullets far above the target.
"Let me see that rifle," the marksmanship instructor said. "Why, this isn't even your rifle! Why didn't you say anything?"
I didn't have an answer. I was supposed to be more mature than the other recruits. I was terrified of being dropped.
The instructor called over a DI from another platoon, and the two men pulled me from the rifle range. They escorted me to the warrant officer's tower and called one of the drill instructors with my platoon.
To my amazement, the DI from my platoon showed up in a van and disembarked with my rifle in his hands.
"I guess that's what you've been taught! Walk off with the wrong weapon!" he shouted.
"No, sir!" I replied.
"Hey, Ca-heer!" shouted the DI who had taken me to the tower. He was waving his hands over his head as if doing jumping jacks. "This is you tonight!"
I knew I'd do a furious bout of calisthenics as punishment for my error.
But the marksmanship instructor took it in stride. He had me try again with recruits taking part in the afternoon session. I shot a 199.
"You qualified, journal," the instructor said, using his nickname for journalist.
We survived physical fitness drills, obstacle and confidence courses, martial arts training, the rifle range, rappelling from a 50-foot tower, swim week, and the chamber in which we were exposed to tear gas.
Finally it was time for the Crucible, the 54-hour march and series of military challenges that marked the culmination of our training.
It was late January.
It was cold - above freezing, but not much.
We saw other recruits in 20-man teams who had completed the daytime infiltration course with bayonets fixed. They had crawled through puddles of water, slid under barbed wire and thrust their bayonets into tires mounted on wooden dummies.
We too completed the course and, panting and sore, found ourselves soaked from bellies to shins.
I had shed 18 pounds since arriving at Parris Island. I was 38 pounds lighter than when I had first started getting into shape. I knew I could take it.
We learned we would have to complete the same course again that night, in the dark.
As darkness fell, we were ordered to take off our sweatshirts and any other cold weather gear. We would wear only green cotton T-shirts and damp camouflage utility uniforms.
The DIs marched us to an abandoned airstrip. They ordered us to sit on the asphalt and wait for the opportunity to start.
Fogs of breath rose above our formations. The cold penetrated the swollen joints in our hands.
"We'll be watching," the DIs hollered. "Anyone who tries to go around the puddles will be sent back! You'll do it over!"
Ordered to advance, my team of 20 walked through the trees that constituted the first part of the course. Flares lingered overhead. Shadows made by the burning phosphorous danced through the forest. Simulated explosions and machine-gun fire blasted from our right and left.
We came to an open field and a series of sandy trails that led under barbed wire fences. We dropped to our chests and crawled into the puddles. Water soaked our shirts and trousers.
"Yeah, yeah!" shouted the DIs. "Hurry up, Ca-heer! Go through it!"
They followed us throughout the course, which was maybe 250 yards in length. I advanced through every puddle, including one at the end that might have been 12 feet long. I helped another recruit drag an ammunition can full of sand.
We finished. Another recruit looked at me and cursed. I was dirtier and wetter than anyone else. But I had stayed with my team, and we had finished together.
My entire family came to Parris Island for graduation.
All my relatives and my girlfriend had sent letters to keep up my spirits. Their best wishes had helped steel me against the insults and failures.
We walked to our cars after the ceremony. I was a Marine.
Free to take 10 days off before reporting to Camp Geiger, I heard a familiar voice.
"Good job, Ca-heer," shouted a DI.
I looked over. It wasn't one of the noncommissioned officers from my platoon. It was the one who had taunted me with the jumping-jacks motion on the rifle range. He and the marksmanship instructor had saved me when I took the wrong weapon out to shoot.
"Aye, sir," I shouted back.