A few months after that first meeting with SSgt Nobles, Nathaniel Romero found himself sitting in the USO of the San Diego International Airport. He was one of perhaps another hundred other young men. Each one was around eighteen, and most fresh high school graduates. Each had flown in over the last day from across all the United States west of the Mississippi River.
They were nervous. Each looked around to one another, asking questions to pass the afternoon, “Where are you from?”, “What is your MOS going to be?”, “How long were you in the DEP pool?”, “Have you ever had an MRE?” It was all just meaningless small talk to ease the tension mounting as the afternoon gave way to evening.
Then the evening came and the sun began to set. As day faded to dark, a series of buses pulled around to the back door of the USO. Many didn’t notice at first, but a door opened to the outside and from it, a man slowly walked in. A hush passed throughout the crowd of young men as none missed his entrance. He was dressed in the khaki shirt and dark green pants of a Marine, with the rank insignia and campaign ribbons to show he was a seasoned warrior. What set him apart from the other Marines the boys had so far seen… was the headgear; a distinctive covering one would expect to see on park rangers. The “Smokey Bear” was the distinctive adornment of Drill Instructors, the troop leaders who would be overseeing all of their training over the next three months aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
The Drill Instructor marched to the center of the USO. When made his way in, for some reason, all the recruits knew that any time to turn back was over. Boot camp had just begun. There was utter silence as the hundred sets of eyes ceased whatever else they were doing and anxiously watched his every move. He stood near the desk of the USO and in a deep, raspy voice projected out to the entire USO,
“Everyone here to begin Marine Corps recruit training grab whatever gear you brought with you and get on my bus right now!”
The room was in an instant a flurry of action as every one of the recruits grabbed whatever they had brought with them and filed through the glass double doors as fast as possible in such confining spaces. Once outside, more Drill Instructors were barking instruction, herding the mob into single files onto the buses, where they were to place their heads between their knees and not to raise their heads until ordered to do so. From there, they sat in silence, waiting for whatever was supposed to come next.
The buses drove from the airport for what seemed a remarkable span of time and with a surprising number of turns, considering that the recruit depot literally shared a fence with the main landing strip of San Diego International. The boys cheered a few hours ago as they looked upon its grounds when the plane touched down. When they were on the bus, however, they just sat in silence, anxiously awaiting their arrival on the depot and a new life. Finally, the buses came to a stop. None of the young men moved. They simply did nothing. They only waited, sitting still and in complete silence, but listening to every sound beyond the steady engine hum.
Romero, then overflowing with anxiety over what he knew was about to happen, heard a set of footsteps moving back and forth. Minutes ago, he wanted something, anything to happen to break the tension. That something made itself known with the very deliberate sound of an assertive foot stomping on the first few steps of the bus. A man’s voice shattered the silence with another raspy roar like the Drill Instructor in the USO.
“All right, everyone put your eyeballs on me! Aye-Aye, Sir!” he roared.
The recruits synchronously looked up and repeated back, “Aye-Aye, Sir.”
He screamed out with a terrible, biting, bellowing shriek, “Open your freaking mouths! Aye-Aye, Sir!” The veins in his neck and temples pulsed as he reddened from intensity.
This time they all roared together and with fear-induced vigor, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”
Again, he repeated the command to speak louder, “No! Aye-Aye, Sir!”
Again, they repeated back, this time a little louder, a little crisper, and with more intensity of their own, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”
“Right now you are aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Receiving Company! From here on out, the only words out of your mouths will be ‘Yes’ or ‘No, Sir’ when asked a question or ‘Aye-Aye, Sir’ when given a command! Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
“When I tell you to, and only when I tell you to, you’re going to stand up, you’re going to grab all your belongings and you’re going to exit my bus! When exiting my bus you will power walk. Power walk is one step slower than a run, and one step faster than a walk. Do you understand?”
“Ok! Do you understand?”
Romero was surprised that, of all things, he was being taught how to walk as soon as he reached Marine Corps boot camp. He thought that the idea of rebuilding a recruit from the bottom up was really only a joke, but the Drill Instructor gave no time to contemplate the reality. His speech continued uninterrupted, and Romero was too terrified of missing an instruction to worry about his own unimportant queries on Marine Corps walking protocols.
“When you exit my bus you will file off onto my yellow footprints from front to back, then left to right! You will take all your belongings and put them on the ground in front of you! Nothing will come out of your pockets. I repeat. Nothing will come out of your pockets. Do you understand?”
“Ok! Do you understand?”
“Ok! Get louder! Do you understand?”
They didn’t understand. In truth, they understood so very little of what was happening up to that point. The vast majority of what was said on the bus would be lost to them, as would most the rest of the night. All that would remain for most of them would be the deep memory of being completely lost.
“All right, Get off my bus!”
What followed was absolute chaos. Little did Nathaniel Romero nor any of the other ninety young recruits that night know that it was actually a meticulously choreographed chaos, but for them it was pandemonium like nothing they had ever known before. From the moment Romero’s foot hit the pavement on MCRD San Diego, all he was cognizant of was the constant presence of men screaming as he ran as fast as he could to reach the yellow footprints. The painted stencil markings of more than a hundred golden foot soles were organized in formations, perfectly aligned rows and columns, each identically touching at the heels and flared, guiding the new recruit to his first position of attention.
Romero and the others were still lost, but screamed into their locations by a constant barrage of the instructors’ grotesquely willful directions. All ninety of the recruits that had just arrived were filed into formation on the yellow footprints, a feat which took all of fifteen seconds and which would have been impossible only two weeks ago when they were just high schoolers. Each of them stood silently gripping whatever belongings they had brought with them to their chest. Like statues, they all attempted to be the least noticeable human in the formation, hoping not to be like those others who had already attracted the terrifying attention of the bellowing, tyrannical instructors.
Another Drill Instructor purposefully marched to a small podium directly in front of the formation as it stood. From the podium, he addressed the formation. This Drill Instructor gave a speech where Nathaniel and the other recruits were told how to stand, how to walk, how to move, how to scream, and mostly… that everything done over these next three months would be done with speed and intensity. By the way this man spoke to him then, he saw such intensity demonstrated flawlessly. He cried out in a scream like nothing Romero had ever heard, as if someone had endured a lifetime of rage and bottled its potent essence into this one moment in time to be delivered by this one man. It was as if he speaking to each and every recruit individually in a roar that was crisp; not savage, but focused, shrill, and with lethal precision. Every word was perfectly enunciated, but by no means anything less than the cry of a terrible beast perhaps waiting to attack.
The whole time that the Drill Instructor on the podium gave this speech, there were more drill instructors pacing, like rabid and starving hyenas at the end of a chain, around the formation. They ensured that every recruit was focused intently on nothing else but the man in front and his every word. Whenever a single set of eyes strayed, they pounced on their prey with merciless disregard to personal space or individual human dignity. Regardless of whatever the Marine in front had to say, they were the focus, as every recruit did whatever they could to disappear altogether and avoid the very personal attention the men around were eagerly dishing out to their peers.
The Drill Instructor in front continued his speech without flinching and undaunted by the vicious cries of other instructions. At his command, the formation quickly shifted to another set of footprints, this time facing a large red sign with gold lettering. The boys were commanded to take a knee so that each and every one of them could clearly see the sign as the man on the podium began to read it aloud.
The Drill Instructor’s speech continued on to include a reading of what amounted to the recruits’ Miranda Rights as per the articles under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This, like so many other things, was lost to Romero. He understood very little of the instructions being given or of the commands he was told. He was still almost completely embraced in an artificially engineered state of shock. He was in a state of confusion and fear, just trying to keep from being noticed, as was every other recruit there. The message he took from this thirty seconds was that he had some rights to something, but more importantly, that there was a very clear list of all the offenses recruits commit that could get thrown in jail, should they failed to live up to expectations as a Marine Corps recruit aboard the depot.
Romero’s only survival tactic that first night was moving with as much of the speed and intensity demanded of him as he could, in hopes that he would never be singled out by the voracious circling wolves for any reason. He would remain in this state of mental alertness, at times bordering on panic, for the rest of the night and, in truth, much longer after he had stood on the yellow footprints.
Forever etched in his memory were those first five minutes in the Marine Corps, ending only after he and the other recruits were filed into a large building each passing underneath a sign which read;
“Through this portal walks the future of the United States Marine Corps.”
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