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.
“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. 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.