Will they earn the right to call themselves Marines?
By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
While America was at war this spring, a new generation of warriors was being created at boot camp in San Diego. Reporter David Tarrant and photographer Huy Nguyen have monitored three Dallas-area recruits as they attempted to make the transformation from civilians to Marines.
Black camouflage paint covers his weary face. He shifts to adjust the weight of the 60-pound rucksack, the straps biting into his shoulders. It is 5 a.m., and Aaron Brumley stands quietly, his rifle slung over his back. Squinting into the darkness, he waits on the unknown.
With him are 252 other Marine recruits from six platoons. Wearing their desert cammies and helmets, they stand in formation along a rocky, sloping path. Their bloodshot eyes show the strain of long days and nights in the field. Exhausted, dirty, hungry and nursing aching muscles, sprained ankles, blistered feet and a wide assortment of cuts, scrapes and bruises, they await their marching orders.
In the formation are Victor Rios and Michael Spencer. Along with Recruit Brumley, they arrived from Dallas at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, on a cold night in February, under a brilliant full moon, with talk of war reaching a crescendo.
They did not rush into recruiting offices in a burst of patriotic zeal. All three wanted to measure themselves against the benchmark of the longest and toughest boot camp in the military.
They wanted to know if they could live up to the traditional ideals of a 200-year-old institution, with its old-world pledge of "semper fidelis" � always faithful � to God, country and Corps. They wanted to know if boot camp could do what it promised: transform tentative, immature individuals into Marines, with confidence, self-reliance and commitment.
In essence, each wanted to know: Do I belong here?
The next few hours will give them their answer.
"Let's step!" snaps Capt. Max Hopkins, the commander of 3rd Battalion, Kilo Company.
With those two words, the recruits start the final, most memorable and grueling part of their journey to becoming Marines.
With two weeks of basic training to go, they are nearing the end of a 54-hour marathon called the "Crucible." The training exercise gives the recruits a taste of the chaos of combat. The Crucible's 32 stations include combat assault courses, problem-solving areas, a pugil-stick ring and team-building "warrior stations" that tell stories of Marine heroes.
The course is spread over a 4,500-acre portion of Camp Pendleton, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Crisscrossed by footpaths and scarred with deep ruts, its hills and meadows are tricky enough to hike in daylight. But at night, the furrowed paths can prove treacherous, and more than a few recruits have painfully rolled ankles on them. Rattlesnakes lurk in the tall grass and occasionally slither quickly past.
In 2 � days, recruits march 40 miles over these grounds � the last segment being this final nine-mile hike known as the "Grim Reaper."
Hounded by drill instructors when they falter, the recruits must fight off the creeping doubts and continue putting one foot in front of the other, one hill after another.
But the worst is saved for the end: a hill that angles up steeply for its final 20 yards.
They have to run up that part.
An uphill fight
That's nothing new to Recruit Brumley. He has spent the better part of his life running uphill.
Wild as a boy, he became involved in the juvenile justice system at 12. He was steered into a private, residential school for "at risk" boys, at a ranch in Amarillo. There he found plenty of structure and discipline, and he adapted well enough to go into a delayed-entry program for the Marines his senior year of high school.
The Recruit's Road
3/30: The journey begins | Photos
4/27: Training builds fighting spirit | Photos
6/08: Who earns the right to be called Marine? | Photos
One day, he bumped into a woman he hadn't seen since they were both kids growing up near Amarillo. They used to walk home from school holding hands. Then it was puppy love; now it was real. He dropped out of school and moved to Dallas with her. They married a year later in 1999. He started working, became a father and the dream of becoming a Marine faded.
Then he lost his job with a cable company. He waited six months, and when the job market didn't improve, he revived his old dream. On Feb. 18, his 24th birthday, he arrived in San Diego � and quickly regretted it.
Homesickness tormented him. Halfway through boot camp his older brother's death from liver disease brought further anguish.
Pain, the drill instructors tell recruits, is "weakness leaving the body." But the pain of separation from his loved ones never seemed to go.
So he learned to pull through it, sustained by a lifeline of letters, a sense of humor that rarely buckled and a growing sense of belonging. With rifle practice and training in combat skills, he was beginning to feel more like a Marine.
On the Grim Reaper march, his every step aches from a pain in his heel that he first noticed a few days earlier. But he pushes it out of his mind as he marches, under a brightening sky, his eyes on the next hill.
About 100 yards back in the formation, Recruit Spencer maintains his pace. He likes to march. It gives him a chance to think. The drill instructors who are always on his case about something mostly leave him alone during hikes. He can keep up.
He started the Crucible flat on his back. The drill instructor announced a casualty drill and pointed at him. Two other recruits dragged him by the arms across 50 yards of dusty, rocky ground.
It was the kind of role � passively helped along by others � that Recruit Spencer wanted to change about himself. His high-achieving father survived the Holocaust, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and worked first as an engineer and later as a physician.
In contrast, Recruit Spencer was having a hard time finishing college.
Thoughtful, articulate and unfailingly polite, he was slow to adjust to the "gung-ho" atmosphere of the Marines. He didn't sound off full tilt or throw himself into every task as if his life depended on it. It was enough for him to keep up but not to reach higher.
"From the very first day, I thought he was only doing the minimum," says Recruit Rios, a member of the same platoon.
Frustrated drill instructors viewed his lackluster manner with alarm. To them, it was a clear sign of indifference, deficiency of discipline and weak commitment. When he failed to climb ropes or cross the monkey bars on the obstacle course, they blamed his self-doubts. It wasn't a matter of physical strength � he lacked confidence, the drill instructors repeatedly told him.
"That was one of my lowest mental points," Recruit Spencer says.
At other times, he stood apart by choice. At evening prayer, the Catholics got together in one corner of the barracks, the Protestants in another corner, and he would pray by himself, the sole Jewish recruit in his platoon.
He nevertheless outshined many other recruits in areas requiring thinking and study, such as marksmanship, where he earned the highest of three rankings. He scored a perfect mark on his practical exam, which tested knowledge of Marine Corps history and customs. He also scored perfectly on the Marine Corps Martial Arts Training exam.
But where the Marines put a premium on teamwork, he thought it was more important to learn to do things for himself.
"I came to boot camp too reliant on other people. What I was wanting to do was become more self-reliant."
How could he be a member of the team if he couldn't do his part? He had no choice but to break the habit of letting others help him, he says. No one could do his physical fitness test for him. If he couldn't do the minimum required four pull-ups, he would fail � and drop back a couple of weeks or possibly wash out. So he started lifting weights on his own and passed the test.
Recruit Rios, for one, noticed a difference. "He started working at raising the maximum level of what he could do."
By strengthening himself, "I can keep up," he says.
"And when there's something that I can't do by myself, I can get that help, but I'm also putting in my 100 percent. It's not like, 'Help me, I'll do 10 percent and you do the rest.' "
Marching with a noticeable limp, Recruit Rios stares blankly ahead, moving almost by force of habit.
His left ankle throbs. He had rolled it a dozen times during the Crucible, and now there is an ugly, large lump there. He tries not to cry.
He has come far since that gray morning when he was just another recruit on the bus leaving downtown Dallas. Then, too, he had fought back his tears. But when he caught sight of his mother standing at a corner waiting for the light to turn, his heart broke. She was crying.
Jumping up, he pounded his fists on the window, yelling, "Mommy, Mommy!" It took several recruits to calm him down.
Since then, he has written more than a dozen letters to his mother, Lizet Lopez, who lives in Balch Springs. In one, he thanked her for everything she had done for him over the years, for putting him first, even after his father had left when he was a baby.
"I always put everything else ahead of you, and now I realize I should have put you first," he wrote.
He missed her and his home, but he wasn't a kid anymore, he wrote in another letter. "I have worked too hard, and nothing is going to hold me back."
And nothing has.
He was appointed a squad leader, supervising up to 10 recruits, getting them to do tasks, such as cleaning the barracks, as ordered by the drill instructors.
Squad leaders are held accountable for their recruits' mistakes, meaning they would be punished as well.
During one exercise in the Crucible, he and three other recruits had to carry a casualty on a wooden board a half-mile. The board was hard to grasp, and the recruit playing the casualty weighed about 200 pounds. They staggered under the load and dropped it several times. Each time, Recruit Rios would urge the group on. "Pick it up," he shouted. "Let's go! ... Don't drop him ...Come on, let's go!"
Learning the skills to oversee, motivate and take care of his squad was a big change for someone who grew up preferring to do things by himself.
"I used to be like a little kid. I used to play Nintendo all the time."
His soft voice reflected his shyness.
"When I came in, people used to say I had a girly voice because I was so quiet. And now I feel like it's changed. I hear it myself. Now I actually feel like a man. I actually feel like I'm maturing."
They plod along the path, some shuffling, others sagging under the their packs.
"I see the thousand-mile stare � and a little bit of fear," says Capt. J.T. Doan, a series commander.
Drill instructors yell sharply up and down the line. "Keep it tight ... Keep your head up ..."
"What happens if you fall out in combat?" screeches a sergeant to a recruit staggering to keep up. "You get killed, right?"
Recruit Spencer lumbers along. As he does, he wonders whether boot camp is the transforming experience that the Marines say it is.
"If you're just looking for the typical success story of Marine Corps boot camp, that's it right there," he says, referring to Recruit Rios. "He goes in very shy ... and now he's a new man, very aggressive, doesn't mind giving orders; he's not shy at all anymore."
In contrast, Recruit Spencer doesn't feel he has changed much. "I'm still the same person."
He ponders which boot-camp habits will stick with him. His girlfriend probably hopes that cleanliness is one of them, he says, "keeping your room clean, and all that."
In fact, he has noticed another change. On another hike before the Crucible, he came to this realization:
"It dawned on me that this was the first time I had done something on my own" � without help from family, friends or others, he said. "It was a good feeling of accomplishment."
About 8 a.m., the recruits pause at the base of the last hill, staring up at the steep crest.
There is a spectacular view all around them. But nobody notices. They rest, drink water and mutter about aches and pains. They are waiting for several stragglers to catch up, some of whom are being "towed" with a rope attached to a drill instructor walking in front of them.
Each recruit has found some way to keep going on through pain and fatigue. For Recruit Brumley, it is the knowledge that each step brings him closer to seeing his wife, Nikki, and his daughter, Hanna.
Recruit Spencer finds strength in a prayer, that he has repeated throughout the hike. "Lord, thank you for getting me through the past two days, now please help me up the Grim Reaper."
Recruit Rios thinks of his mother.
"I kept saying to myself if this is what it's going to take to see my mom, this is what I'm going to do. I would look at every hill and think, 'I'm going to see my mom.' That's what got me over every hill."
Standing in the front row, Recruit Brumley carries the Kilo Company flag. With the roar of 40 voices screaming "Ah-tack!" he and his peers run, stagger and lurch up the hill. The other platoons follow.
Recruits show none of the exhilaration of, say, a football player who just scored a winning touchdown. It is more like a dazed awareness of having survived a nightmare.
At first, Recruit Brumley feels enormous relief that he hadn't fallen while carrying the company flag. Then it occurs to him that he had made it through the toughest part of training � and "No blisters!"
But it turned out he did have a hairline fracture in his heel � the cause of the pain that dogged him throughout the Crucible, he would be told later at the infirmary.
For Recruit Spencer, the fact that the hardest part of boot camp is behind him, and that soon he will be officially a Marine, doesn't hit him right away. "We did the Reaper, and we're up there, and I thought, 'Well ... ?' "
After a few minutes' rest to put down their packs and drink water, the recruits gather around one last signpost to talk about one more moment of glory, a World War II battle during which Marines engaged in hand-to-hand combat to repulse a much larger enemy force.
"That's why the Marine Corps is still here," Staff Sgt. Efrain Montejano tells them. A Marine never gives up.
"It's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. It's here and here," he says, pointing to his head and heart.
Standing there, Recruit Rios' stoicism finally cracks, and he cries for the first time since he left Dallas.
"I was up on the hill, and we were reading the Medal of Honor citation and I started crying," he says.
"I was a step closer to my goal."
What has changed?
Two weeks after the Crucible, it is Family Day at the Recruit Depot. It is the first time that family and friends are invited to see the recruits, who left home three months earlier.
On a bright, windy and cool morning, the recruits are doing a 4-mile run, passing by the crowd gathered on the parade deck.
"They're coming this way now!" shouts a Marine sergeant over a loudspeaker. "Show them that you're here!"
The crowd erupts with shouts and waves.
Chanting in unison and running in formation, the recruits trot past in their green running shorts and T-shirts. The exhaustion that showed on their faces at the end of the Grim Reaper has been transformed. They look proud, serious and confident, with bone-deep tans and strong voices.
"There's Daddy!" shouts Nikki Brumley, holding her 18-month-old daughter. Mrs. Brumley is wearing a loose-fitting, gray sweatshirt with MARINES in big, block letters.
"He's definitely changed. He looks good," says Pvt. Brumley's uncle, Bennie Brumley.
Maria Spencer, Pfc. Spencer's mother, is crying. Next to her, a teary-eyed Regina Barnett, Michael Spencer's girlfriend, tries to take pictures.
Nearby, Lizet Lopez and Monica Martinez, Pfc. Rios' mother and girlfriend, are dabbing at their eyes with tissue.
"He's gotten a little bit bigger," Ms. Lopez says.
By midmorning the recruits have returned to the parade deck, standing bayonet-straight in their service uniforms. The drill instructors quietly pass out the eagle, globe and anchor emblems and address each recruit for the first time as "Marine."
Minutes later, the men are dismissed to their families. Pvt. Brumley wraps his long arms around his wife and daughter, father and uncle in one large, tight embrace. Everyone is crying.
The next day's graduation ceremony is quick and anticli mactic, with the Marines champing at the bit to start their 10-day liberty. Each recruit will return to Camp Pendleton for two weeks of additional combat training before heading off for schooling in their specialties.
Though they are now called Marines, what is different? Have the 12 weeks between the yellow footsteps and graduation transformed each from civilian to warrior?
Pvt. Brumley, who early on wanted to quit because of homesickness, has learned to push through emotional and physical pain. Pfc. Rios, who arrived shy and self-conscious, found his voice. He learned to lead recruits who could be stubborn, mulish at times.
To Pfc. Spencer, the answer doesn't come as quickly.
Back home in the "real world," he felt weird at first. He bought some DVDs but didn't watch them, because he didn't want to waste a day. He visited his recruiting officer, who expressed pride in him, reassured him that what he did was tough and added that there was always room for improvement. But still he did not know what to say one night over dinner with old friends when asked if he felt that he'd changed.
He lost 15 pounds, and the jeans he wore to boot camp are too big now. But he knows that's not what people were asking.
"They're expecting to hear something, and I don't know what to tell them. I'm starting to feel like I should make up something," he says.
He did achieve his goal of completing something on his own; his late father would have been proud of him. But the young man who entered boot camp with questions about himself has not resolved those self-doubts.
Uncertainty, however, is one of the first challenges Marine recruits face in boot camp. Perhaps this is Pfc. Spencer's lesson: That one can live with a certain amount of stress and doubt � and not just live, but accomplish the mission.
In that way, boot camp doesn't end the journey of self-discovery. It has just brought him a little farther down the road.
His drill instructors always said that the lessons of boot camp remain with a person for a lifetime. So he knows the answers will come in time.
"One of the things I've said is, 'I think it remains to be seen.' "
Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/texasliving/stories/060803dnlivrecruit3.2472.html
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