Proving Grounds – Part 8

The suffering of Nathaniel Romero and the recruits of platoon 2094 was not a unique experience among Marines. The scene was, in fact, common to all entering the depot. There is an art to the making of warriors, the Marines believed, and the United States Marine Corps considered themselves the foremost masters of the arts warriorcraft. They believed their methods, extreme as they may have been, were necessary in the making of Marines, undiluted and unfettered by the passage of time. Every action recruits endured was, itself, one of countless time honored rites and rituals, performed in a timelessly identical progression for every Marine entering the Corps. The pain, stress, fear, fatigue, and even the humiliation all had their place in the time-tested series of conditioning and mental training exercises in the creation of warriors. They bound each Marine to a history and a culture of lethality. Regardless of the technological advancement changing the world, of even that fielded in the battlefields of that day, the warriors of tomorrow undertook the same training, as had all Marines before them for over sixty years. Those who fired rifles in Khe San, cleared rooms in Fallujah, or were the forward observers for unmanned air strikes in Odessa, these same rituals were a constant for all Marines during their inaugural days of their Marine Corps career. Romero would experience these rites, one-by-one, eventually becoming indoctrinated into the most potently efficient culture of violence yet created in the history of the United States and among the most lethal the world had ever known.

In his progression from a boy to a warfighter, he would discover very early on that every action had a purpose. In spite of their seemingly mundane nature, each order was performed with intricate precision thousands of times over the next three months. Every attempt was part of the endless endeavor to meet the wildly impossible expectations of crazed lunatics the Drill Instructors 2094. Countless actions echoed in their daily activities, from the way his Drill Instructor’s pointed at them with their whole arm, fingers together rigid and extended, which was identical to the knife hand recruits formed when they trained in hand-to-hand combat, which was also the same as the salute they rendered. From the way recruits stood, the way they walked, the way they ate, to how they folded their sheets; every movement had some hidden significance to it and a goal, which had to be repeated and perfected.

Their training never stopped. It never even let up. Romero would march countless miles on the parade deck, enduring the bellowing shouts of Drill Instructors. On rifle ranges named after historic warriors, he would fire for days on end to make him lethal. He was pushed into a pool with full gear, fully believing he was going to die. He nearly broke his ankle on one of the hikes. Lessons were learned as he and the rest of platoon 2094 endured countless hours of his Drill Instructors’ perfectly rehearsed torture sessions. This, as well as hours spent on the Quarterdeck, facing a calisthenic barrage that shed any caloric and disciplinary excess they may have brought with them. Via gallons of lost sweat in the ritualized self-torment that was Marine Corps physical training, the troops every failing was exercised as well as having instilled a newfound respect DIs. Though they would not realize it, there was just so much to learn, so much that three months of round the clock routine hardly seemed time enough to prepare them to, perhaps, one day survive the combat situation.

Combat. “Would he be ready?” he wondered in the few quiet moments. Would he survive if put in that position? Would he ever need any of this at all? The Marines had a way of invading all of his thoughts with few, but those centered on warfare. If they had, he would have asked himself, more often in those early days, had he really just subjugated himself to this idea of becoming a person who was dangerous and something to be feared, putting himself through all this insanity just because of a stupid a girl? Of course, these stirrings often drifted to those of his and future, what little of it he knew, and to those of softer things. Sleep was rarely difficult the rigor of training, but in those few nights where sleep came less easily, he would imagine those glorious love fests and fantastical fits of passion due him upon his return home as a full-fledged Marine.

He was lucky that he didn’t have the time to waste like this often, as much as one would want to. Most other things were far removed from his mind, itself usually too occupied with the rhythm and demands of boot camp. He had history to learn, first aid to practice, weapons to clean, and endless shirts to iron, fold, and iron again.

There were moments Nathaniel found himself lost in his thoughts, those long nights serving fire watch. Throughout their training, recruits would stand or patrol hour-long roving stints around the base, challenging any possible guests that might grace the premises. The fact that the entire base was probably the most secure location in San Diego meant nothing. Security, let alone fires, had little to do with fire watch. This too was training. Regardless, on certain nights in the summer, he would look forward to getting the first watch. If he was looking in the right direction and at the right time, he could see fireworks exploding above a theme park a few miles away. It happened all throughout the month of July. It wasn’t much of a show from his window in the squad bay so very far from such a place. He could barely even hear the bombs bursting if he tried, but for some reason, when he saw the lights burst in the distance, it reminded him that there was still a civilization out there beyond the walls, the parade deck, and the angry men. On those lonely nights, he enjoyed thinking about how there were still happy people out there taking advantage of everything that civilization had to give. Caught in moments of idealism, it made him proud in a way. For the first time, he felt responsible, as if he, a Marine Corps recruit, lowliest of God’s creatures, were somehow part of providing that happiness for all those peaceful people.

Eventually, he acclimatized to the pace of his training, as did the rest of his platoon, finally coming together to adjust to the rhythm of warrior training by embracing the simplicity of life at the depot. As demanding as it might have been, all any of them really had to do was what they were told. As time went by, Romero found he focused less and less on if it was worth it and on the world outside. He just focused on the day-to-day tasks of training. He tuned out the noise of Drill Instructor barking, and just began to absorb the life. He became leaner and sharper. He learned to channel aggression he wasn’t aware he had. He learned how to shoot and how to move in a manner that seemed to be how warriors moved. He learned the history of the Marines, and whether he realized it or not, how to become one.

It was only then he would start to feel peace in the everyday, such as when the platoon practiced drill by marching on the parade deck. They marched for long hours in the summer sun, but from time to time, cool Santa Ana breezes carried in the scent of salty sea air from San Diego Harbor. On days like that, sometimes the Drill Instructors broke with their regular marching cadence to what was known as singsong. It was such a break from their normal barking, frogish tone that it came off as almost calming and melodic, a sensation that would prove fleeting only moments later when the platoon would change direction or be forced back to repeat a movement. In those few dozen steps it lasted, though, the change of cadence was an escape from the frenzied, yet monotonous grind of boot camp life aboard the depot. In those seconds he lost himself, he was at calm. Though surrounded by other warriors in training, it was as he was finally alone. In his little universe, there was nothing but himself, the rhythmic pace of the Drill Instructor’s cadence, and the sound of eighty footsteps marching in unison.

The only other times Recruit Romero was free to his thoughts, were during the long hikes of his third and final phase of recruit training. For that, the recruits made their way to a base north of San Diego, in the wide openness of a former cattle ranch turned the most densely populated Marine Corps base on the planet, Camp Pendleton. The high rolling hills, deep valleys and open desert scrub of the base made it the perfect area to lay down hundreds of firing ranges and areas for recruits and Marines to practice the arts of war. There the recruits learned to fire, survive, and how to move and fight like Marines. This felt like the real warrior training he had wanted all along. There was little of the classrooms or the uniform and ceremony in Pendleton. There was less running scared of being fodder for some disgruntled DI who happened to look their way. This place was about transitioning from learning the culture of the Marines to being a true warrior. When he fired his rifle, stabbed some dummy with his bayonet or crested the precipice of some desert mountainscape, this was when he felt like a warrior, like a dangerous person. He was more than that though. He didn’t imagine himself as something to be feared. He was proud. He was proud of what he was becoming, what he had done and what he now represented. This place truly was about becoming a warrior.

His final moment of self-contemplation came during the Crucible, the fifty-four mile, three-day hike where all Marines endure the most intense physical tests imaginable. He would suffer through massive obstacle courses, pugil stick battles with the other recruits, night maneuvers, dehydration, the scorching sun. They would do all this carrying full gear and seventy pounds more in their packs and all on two stripped down meal packets and four hours of sleep. On the last day, they endured one final test, the Reaper. The Reaper was a ten-mile forced march up what amounted to a small mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range running through the base of Camp Pendleton. Setting out before dawn, they made their way to the precipice by ten in the morning. So long as he stayed at pace with the rest of the formation, he wasn’t bothered and his mind was free to wonder and just let his feet do the walking. It was at the peak of that mountain where he and all the others who had endured the rituals of violence and the rigor of recruit training would no longer be considered recruits. As they crossed the peak of the mountain with the rest of his platoon, he thought back to when he joined and the person he was three months ago. Yes, he felt dangerous now, but he felt like more than that. He felt like the Marine in the poster – someone with power and pride. Seeing the Pacific Ocean far off beyond the peak of the Reaper, this, he thought, was what it must have felt like to be a real Marine.

***Thanks for reading! Make sure to like and share! New chapters every week. Help make the project great by visiting my patreon campaign page to find out how you can help support the book’s creation, as well as get special bonus material exclusive to patrons and early releases: Jon Davis

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