My Weapon

For some it’s a lover, others a protector, still for others it’s a killer, a slayer of men, a taker of souls and waster of lives. What is it to me? I don’t know.

Recruit Clapsaddle, my rackmate, and one of my only good friends here, sleeps in the bunk above mine, and my other friends Recruits Clouser, Cooper and Shin are passed out to my right and left.

Creeping out of my bunk I slink towards the rifle rack as the firewatch roves past. He doesn’t care that I’m up and skulking about. We know no fear amongst one another, for good or ill, because we have become a platoon - brothers. We dislike one another, distrust each others natures even more, but at the same time we trust one another with our lives.

I let my fingers curl around my weapon’s pistol grip as I reach the rifle rack and Drill Instructor Sgt. Vega’s words come back to me.

“For some of you, this will be your best friend, for others…” he paused and looked at each of us in turn. “Others of you.” He stopped and my eyes locked with his as he continued “Others will hate it, but you will not fear this.” His strong hardened palm slammed into the hand guard as his beady orbs bored into mine. “You don’t have to like it, you can despise what it does, but never fear it. Control it. Master it.”

Stalking away from us and back into the Drill Instructor duty hut, he looked back at us. Back at me.

I nodded slightly, a dangerous move, presumptuous and unacceptable, but it went ignored, but not unnoticed. Nothing ever is, not by them.

Now, weeks since that day and nearly two months since I failed to secure my rifle, I have begun to harness this tool. Master it? No. But, do I fear it? Not anymore. However there is still fear, but not of the weapon.

Running my hand along the rifle, I look at my reflection in the flawlessly cleaned window. Hours are spent each day shining every pane of glass, every sliver of steel in the squadbay, dusting, wiping and cleaning every inch of our home.

My eyes lock with my doppelganger, my face scowling at the figure in the window – the unfamiliar face. The straight jaw line, emaciated features, hallow eyes.

Hallow, but alive. They are angry, calculating eyes.

The mirror-me and I look down at the thing of steel, plastic and moving parts in our hands.

The front sight post, the compensator, the barrel, and hand guards down to the magazine well and pistol grip. I know it all. The selector switch, the iron sights and the butt-stock.

And the trigger.

I don’t touch it, I caress it.

I pull down on it and meet resistance, the trigger is stopped by the safety; the final obstacle you have to cross before you place a round in your enemy.

Enemy. What does that mean, who is he? Will I ever see his face and if I do will I still fire? I should, that's what the past several months of pain, sweat and self doubt have taught me, but who is he? A young man gripping his AK 47 out of desperation and fear, or is he really going to be the crazed zealot we talk about at length; the terrorist, the jihadist, the Haji – which ironically, is a term of respect given to one who has made the journey to Mecca.

I shake my head and banish the thought, that much I've learned. If you don't have the answer and it can't be found in your chain of command ignore it and move on.

I switch it on fire and slowly steadily squeeze.

Click.

Pulling the charging handle back and setting my M16 A2 Service Rifle on safe, I place my rifle back in its rightful place and move to my rack.

It will be returned tomorrow and I will graduate a week later, leaving the parade deck as a Marine.

Lying down, I think back on that sound, on the feeling creeping through me as I pulled the trigger and heard the click.

The fear isn’t from the weapon.

Lover, life saver, protector, killer.

To me it is a tool. But, with it what am I? What do I become?

When we turn in weapons the next day, others bid goodbye to girls, to friends, to companions. I return a tool to its shed, and walk away empty handed, but not unburdened.

Re-education

USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Francisco Abundes.

USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Francisco Abundes.

In the back of the dimly lit squadbay, the afternoon sun glimmers off the dustless shimmering deck – the Drill Instructor's Highway, where cold eyes and hard faces travel.

Forty United States Marine Corps footlockers are arranged as if in an amphitheater where the audience sits with baited breath awaiting the show. The footlockers that are being used as benches are the only spaces that Recruits can actually consider their own, until a Drill Instructor decides to empty them out in the center of the squadbay, eviscerating any illusions of privacy.

The eighty-five United States Marine Corps Recruits are in class; sitting two or three to a footlocker with their feet locked together with right hands on right knees.

At the front, like a conductor before an orchestra stands Drill Instructor Sgt. Grimmer. He’s a man with bulging eyes, sunken cheeks and pursed lips whose jaw, nose, and mouth are perpetually pale while his bald, shiny head and neck are forever scorched red from long sunny days out on the PT field. 

I have a memory of him that will never leave me. We were exiting the chowhall and forming up, as we did each day with the precision of an OCD lunatic on a cocaine binge. Standing still in the hot sun we were waiting for one of the drill instructors to address the platoon. Five minutes, and then ten. Still no sign. As our heads began to swivel furtively, I heard an odd sound. Cling. Clang. Thump. Then again, but faster, and louder. Cling-clang-thump! CLING-CLANG-THUMP!

And there he was, about fifteen yards away, standing in front of a light post, his back to us. Punching it. Bare-knuckled. Cling-clang-thump, CLING-CLANG-THUMP! Again, and again and again. Until finally he stopped, and turned to face us, breathing heavy with bloody knuckles, with a pale face and a smile that would rattle Death himself – Sgt. Grimmer. Or, as we called him – the Grimm Reaper.

He is our teacher today and he is lean, hard and perpetually tensed. He is giving a lesson on the rules of land warfare.

“Appropriate targeting ya’ understand?”

“Yes sir!” is our coordinated and sharp response.

“So, back in WWII, there was an Army General fighting in Italy, ya’ hear?”

“Yes sir!”

“So this Army General is fighting and the enemy is using the Leaning Tower as an observation post. Now we know that makes it a target, right?”

“Yes sir” in unison.

Bad guys are inside, so that means we can blow it up, simple enough reasoning I think to myself. As much as I don’t like the reasoning, part of me – another part that I never wanted to listen to until now. That part tells me it makes sense.

This is has become our rational. They shoot at you and hide, you destroy whatever stands between you and your target and move on. In doing so, you have the benefit of an impressive light show as several bombs transport the surrounding area to the Stone Age.

National treasures, innocent civilians, cute kittens and lost puppies will all be buried under the limitless supply of our coordinated artillery barrages, air strikes, small arms fire, missiles, and the spit and curses we throw at any perceived threat.

“Well that pussy Army General wanted to preserve it or some shit, so they maneuvered around it, but if it was me, I would'a blown that shit the fuck up, ya’ hear?”

“YES SIR!”

“Hell, if the Sears Tower, or Space Needle was being used as an enemy position I’d drop that shit, ya’ hear?”

“YES SIR!”

We agree and we mean it. I mean it. I yell as loud and hard as the rest. If someone tried to kill me. Tried to kill my friends and he did it from within the White House or from behind the Vietnam Memorial my first instinct would be to switch from semi to burst and slowly, steadily squeeze.

Individuality Kills

Perched above sun-washed San Diego is the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The base lies just close enough to the ocean to receive the rare caress of a cool breeze.

There is an arid brown plateau far removed from the laughter and comfort of the city and past the quiet suburbanite military base, with its picket fences separating families from firing ranges.

Recruits stand at rigid attention, but the Drill Instructors only see solid green columns comprised of pond scum, bitches, punks and the occasional maggot.

Green uniforms hide us in the forest of fellow Recruits, but offer little concealment on the sparse, dusty hillside.

We are here for field week. Seven days in the hot and arid hills of southern California, alone and removed from the world. Our only comforts are MRE’s, Meals Ready to Eat, slick M16’s and sinister versions of Smokey the Bear – our Drill Instructors.

In an attempt to further reduce visibility we lather our faces with brown cammie paint. Perhaps the enemy will see only a well-tended grove with M16 A2 Service Rifles slung at shoulder arms, all thanks to the wonders of earth-tone makeup.

However, one Recruit seems especially intent on convincing the enemy that he belongs to the plant kingdom. Unfortunately predators with wide brims and scrutinizing eyes stalk the dead prairie.

Green cover, brown face, green body.

Green cover, brown face, green body.

Their eyes rove over ranks of the ‘crazy brave and phony tough’ searching furiously for inconsistencies. Smokey is ever watchful.

Green cover, brown face, green body.

Green cover, green face…

The eyes stop moving. He found his mark.

“Well, what have we here?” is the raspy half drawl half growl. There’s no response. The Recruit is a stout and sturdy 19 year old man-child with a hard-work ethic, good heart and high morals, but it doesn’t matter.

His name is Shinn. His full name is Recruit Shinn. He is here to become a Marine like the rest of us, but there’s more to it – just like the rest of us. He keeps a picture of his pregnant girlfriend in his footlocker and when it seems safe, he carries it with him. He’s the type of man to do whatever needs to be done for those he loves. I know he's that kind of man. I know, because he's doing it.

However, for all of his good qualities and admirable traits; he still has a green face.

“Hey you!”

“This Recruit sir?” Shinn barks back

“Yes you! Who the hell else would I be talking to? Let me ask you? What about you is different from everyone else? Here, let me give you a hint. Ribbit.”

The staccato of words fast and abrupt and Shinn is left stunned.

“Well, that requires a response RECRUIT!” The Drill Instructor yells louder, faster, harder.

“This Recruit does not understand the last command sir.” Cool, steady and calm, but it’s no good, one Recruit is not like the others.

“What don’t you understand, Kermit? Look around, do you see any green out here?”
“No sir!” Another sharp response.

“Well you must have because you look like a damn toad. You know what, hop over here and show me the green around here.”

“Aye aye, sir!” The Recruit moves with lightning speed out of formation, but breaks to a complete stop when he hears “ZERO.” He barks to the Drill Instructor “FREEZE!”

“I said hop.”

There’s a pause before the Recruit realizes where he is. I don’t have to see his face to know that his eyes have widened and his tan skin has grown one shade closer to mine – pale and pasty. Abruptly Drill Instructors fall on him from all directions and amidst the cacophony of growls and shouts “Hop, ribbit and Kermit” can be made out.

“Aye aye sir!”

Bending at the knees and leaping forward the Recruit begins to hop along the side of the formation.

A hoarse “ribbit” follows each leap.

“Louder Kermit!”

“Aye aye sir!”
With a clever smile that bodes poorly for the would be Marine, the Drill Instructor shouts “Stop!”

“Aye aye sir!

“Bud”

“Bud” repeats the Recruit.

“Weis”

“Weis” is the unsure echo.

“Err!”

Understanding, the Recruit sounds off “ERR!”

“Now say it all!”

“Bud-weiss-err!”

The frog man hops and croaks before the grove of tree-men who stand with impassive brown faces. No matter how good of a man he is, he made a mistake. He has become my friend. I trust him, I admire him, but I stand just like the others. Impassive and unmoving and when it’s me in his shoes, he will do the same, because mistakes kill. They murder your friends.

Deadly Mistakes

USMC photo by Sgt. Reece Lodder

USMC photo by Sgt. Reece Lodder

“Caaaahhhhhhrrrrlllllaaarrrrrk!!!”

There’s the eerie singsong-like roar of a Drill Instructor.

“Cahlark!!!”

There it is again. Shorter though. He’s getting impatient. Wait…whose name is he calling?

“RECRUIT CLARK!” He shouts again, finally breaking me out of my reverie and shoving me forward into the harsh reality of the situation. Drill Instructor Sgt. Vega is screaming. He’s shouting a name and it’s mine. Shit.

“Recruit Clark reporting as ordered, sir!”

The moment my feet snap to attention at a perfect 45 degree angle and my spine goes ramrod straight he turns to face me, and he smiles. A wicked, cruel smile curved and sharp like a Cheshire cat’s. This is bad. Drill Instructors don’t smile.

“What’s this Cahhhhllllarrrrk?” He asks, raspy yet soft and perversely intimate.

My M16 A-2 Service Rifle is clutched tightly in his right hand. It shouldn’t be. It should be locked. It wasn’t. Shit. Thoughts race through my mind like sprinters during the Running of the Bull, but each idea, excuse, and answer is punctuated by fuck, shit, damn or holy crap.

“Come here, boy.”

“Aye aye sir” I shout, trying to mask my fear with what I think is a booming bellow, but in reality is likely a quivering yelp.

“Look into my eyes, right into my fucking eyes, son.”

“Aye aye sir!” I look. They’re small, black and unwavering.

“I’m going to fucking break you. You understand me? You will never be a fucking Marine…Aye aye sir.” He says, and I repeat “Aye aye sir.”

As I’m ordered back to my rack he comes over and begins to sing, pointing his right index finger at my chest.

“Hey hey hey…finish it!”

“Gooohh-ooohhh-oood, byeeeeeee.”

Only we can

Sun-drenched San Diego is a tantalizing sight to behold, with beaches where beautiful blonde and brunette goddesses prance and home to nightclubs that make seedy desires and wet dreams come true.

However, we are blissfully unaware of what lies beyond the gates and barbed wire fences of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego: our new home. Amongst the stout scab-red buildings with their plaque-colored walls, laxity is eviscerated, comfort is a myth and masochistic tendencies thrive.

We bury our heads in the dirt out on the P.T. field. It is our first week in Recruit Training. The sand covers what were once heads, but are now ‘grapes.’

The dust stings our eyes. It gets in our mouth and ears. We hate it, but it’s our war paint. We just haven’t learned to wear it yet, but we will. In time, we will lather our skin with it, rub it in our eyes with pleasure and grind our faces in it with a ravenous carnal intensity.

“Ready! EXERCISE!!!”

“KILO COMPANY!” We roar, trying to expel some of the frustration and anger that we bottle up throughout the day.

The vicious eyes of our Chief Drill Instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Lee, pass over us dismissively.

His hard features are made more apparent by a massive torso and monstrous arms. All of which are enhanced by the fact that Gunnery Sgt. Lee, at 6ft 3in with biceps that could be a foot wide, has tiny legs with the feet of an Oompa Loompa.

We finish writhing about and move on to the USMC’s signature workout, the almighty Marine Corp push up – which, in reality is just a push-up, except the Corps, in its infinite wisdom decided that wasn't good enough. We do three reps for each count, just do prove the point that we're in the Marines, and not the goddamn Army.

Rolling onto my stomach and lowering my eyes to the ground, which is now the ‘deck,’ I see dots. Red dots that crawl. Red dots that bite.

As my arms begin to shake I entertain a peculiar thought. The ants represent the unity and cohesion that we strive for. One scout senses a disturbance and he alerts the hive. Others rally and form up, salute their queen and march out.

We aren’t at their level yet, but we strive to be like them.

The fire ants swarm up my arms and legs. They’re on my chest, behind my ears, in my shorts, on my crotch. They bite. It hurts.

“REAAADDDYYYYY! PUUUUUSSSSHHHHH UP!” Gunnery Sgt. Lee roars.

We respond instantly and without hesitation, we’ve learned that much in these past several days. “MARINE CORPS!”

“One. Two. Three!”

“ONE!”

“One. Two. Three!”

“TWO!!!” is our strained chorus.

As I rise and fall my eyes shift left and right. It becomes apparent that our platoon has been expertly maneuvered on top of several anthills. After witnessing the insidiousness of the Drill Instructors, it seems possible that this may have been planned. That’s how frightening they are. I see shadows at every turn.

The ants bite, burrowing mandibles in sunburned Recruit-flesh, trying to drive us away from their domain, but we won’t move. We can’t. Without ever having it explained, we know why – each and every one of us. To give in to temptation for the sake of comfort is to die for the sake of comfort. We are being molded and shaped to think in such terms. When our sweat boils on our skin and sand stings our eyes, we will hold still. We will not give ourselves away.

The Drill Instructors never told us this was why. They didn’t have to. That’s what makes us Recruits, and it’s what will make us Marines. It is what will keep us alive, as Marines. We don’t move without permission and we can’t die without it either.

As the numbers rise and we come closer to finishing the exercise, the world falls apart. The Recruit to my left gives in and moves to brush one of the red bastards off.

Where the Drill Instructors come from I never know. They emerge from clouds of sand and pounce on the would-be Marine with Herculean ferocity. They scream and rage, forcing him to jump to his feet and then drop back down. Up and down. Again and again and again – seemingly without end.

No one said he could touch his face.

The sweat pours down my neck and takes an ant or two with it as it slides down the front of my face, cheeks and finally slips off my chin.

My body hardens each day that I am here, soft flesh slips away as I run, lift weights, do pull ups, crunches and push ups.

Each day my face is harder to recognize in the mirror. My cheeks sink more, my features harden and my eyes become cold greenish brown orbs. Green and brown, my heart has begun to mimic this. A green man in brown cammies. We are green. The Hollywood cliché echoes in my mind.

I look at my reflection in what was once the bathroom, but is now ‘the head,’ or in this case ‘the mirror room.’ The day’s labor is long behind me and I take a moment to take stock of my progress. My ribs are clearly visible, my legs and arms are lanky but taut. I could be mistaken for a concentration camp survivor.

No, not likely. My eyes, they’re different.

Each of us has the same eyes. Our bodies may seem mangled and weak from losing so much weight so quickly. Some become fit, others emaciated, but our eyes go through the greatest change.

They are hard, calculating and at times they are brutal. We think in terms of gain and loss. Yet, we never give in to despair.

As I stare myself down, I wink at the mirror-me.

I am not a victim.

I put myself here for a reason. I will get through and I will make it in this new world.

This world is ours. It is mine. And we are learning how to love it because no one else can.