Platoon 3111's head Drill Instructor sat on a throne of foot-lockers in the middle of the squad bay. It was early in boot camp, before the days counted as Training Days, or T-Days. Recruits knew a lot could happen between T-Day 0 and graduation, but we still imagined every scenario as either pass or fail, nothing more than a trivial pursuit. Few considered the possibility that they would break, not in the sense of breaking in a horse or boots, but instead shatter into pieces of their former selves.
Normally, washing out didn't matter. The government didn't keep track of it beyond enlistment records—it wasn't the same as an Other Than Honorable discharge (OTH), or a Dishonorable Discharge (Bad Conduct Discharge [Big Chicken Dinner] for the Army)—which wouldn't show up during a normal hiring process. Marines spent months, even years—there were platoons of Marines in legal limbo—waiting for trial. Recruiters told cautionary tales: a working-class kid with aspirations to join the Marine Corps boxing team dismissed for punching a Drill Instructor; another recruit kicked-out for sucking dick in the bathroom; and the sturdy standby about recruits who didn't change their socks discharged due to trench foot. If I were other than GP, my chances of being dropped decreased dramatically.
Relations between recruits in USMC boot camp weren't meant to be on equal footing. There was general population, the recruits who made up the rank and file, and leadership billets such as squad leader or platoon guide, and then special billets like scribes, armory recruits, and storage locker recruits. Recruits other than GP were above the unwashed masses who stood to their left and right in formation. The only issue with volunteering to fill a billet was, as the old Japanese maxim goes, it’s the nail that stands up which is hammered down.
“I need a scribe who is smart. Who knows what affirmative action is?”
I raised my hand. “Sir, affirmative action is when a minority population is given preference in order to balance out—”
“Holy fucking shit! A recruit who has a brain. You're promoted to head scribe.”
And like that, I was somebody.
Being head scribe made me responsible for a lot of red-tape. I was up long into the night cataloging recruits’ medical chits—pneumonia, pink eye, wisdom teeth—or processing out recruits who couldn’t hack it. Rewards were few, but one facet of the job bestowed great power: the fire watch roster. Recruits stood post throughout the night, and that meant I controlled sleep. I was heavy handed with watch assignments. If someone fucked up during the day, they stood post for hours at night, a severe cause-and-effect relationship I stuck to like tradition. Platoon 3111's problem recruits had time to reflect.
Schute was flamboyantly gay—the voice, mannerisms, everything. He could also hack it, and that was all that mattered. Once, our most junior DI tested us. After the scant time allotted to shit, shower, and shave, we were made to parade through the squad bay while Schute sprawled on his side, head propped up by an arm, repeating obscene tautology in caricaturization of his usual vocal flare. None of us took the bait.
During battalion physical training, suffering from pneumonia, I struggled through an obstacle course and subsequent run like so many sick water buffalo on the Discovery Channel. Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Stahl made it clear from Training Day Zero whoever fell out of a run, hike, or anything, would be dropped back two weeks in training to join the next wave of recruits. During what the DIs referred to as our “victory lap,” companies mixed. As I ran, I tried not to think about anything, but slogging through it while recruits surged forward around me was discouraging.
“Is the faggot in your platoon?” The voice came from a lanky Latino Marine jogging beside me.
Fever made it hard to think and easy to become confused. The words took time to register, and Schute didn't come to mind.
“I wouldn't shower with him,” the recruit continued. “He probably looks at you when he jerks off at night.”
Only then did I realize.
“Shut the fuck up,” I managed, wheezing.
“Son of a bitch,” he spat, looking up the path at his head DI.
The power dynamic wasn't lost on me. The same way it didn't escape me how I'd been chosen for Proselytisation, one of the more muscular and spartan. I figured Stahl wouldn't break my balls too badly if I won the fight, and the response from the recruit's DI tempered if I spoke up about prejudice.
“Dumb motherfucker!” I said. My ragged breath rattled.
I lunged at the taller recruit, pushing him, stumbled and caught my steps. I sucked air, but nothing happened. My vision stone-washed and I started to panic. The other recruit moved in with his chin tucked down, right arm cocked back.
“Get the fuck away from him!”
It was my platoon's guide, running up behind us.
“He came at me first!”
“Get out of here,” my guide shouted. “You aren't even part of our platoon!”
The other recruit slowed down and drifted off to the shoulder where he jogged in place, waiting for distance to grow between us.
“What are you doing?” asked the guide.
“He was talking shit,” I said, gasping.
“Fucking Christ, you sound bad,” he said. “Don't tell anyone about this.” We returned to the squad bay and turned to packing away our gear for the move to the second phase of boot camp and left. While DIs told the platoon tall tales of crows disappearing into the hills up north with recruits’ gear, the guide confronted me.
“What's up with fighting just because of what someone said?”
“He was trying to turn me against Schute,” I said. “Bringing up weird shit, like how we shower together. I'm not sure what he was trying to get me to do.”
“Telling you to do things?”
Our guide was an ROTC kid who’d dropped out of the program due to grades and gone enlisted. Despite this, he was a smart guy who already realized what was going on, but wanted confirmation.
“What did he say?
“What the fuck do you think?” I answered.
Maceda was crazier than a shit-house mouse. He loved board games with goblins, thought he was some kind of sorcerer, and although he thought it would be cool to be a Marine, it didn't seem like he'd understood what it would entail. Maceda had badly blemished oily skin, an upper lip still marked from surgery to repair his cleft lip, and he was what was then considered in polite conversation, a little person. His recruiter must have hoped the Corps would break a Dungeons and Dragons nerd and mold him into a killer, but I doubted Maceda's deck contained a warrior card, Marine type.
I ended up protecting Maceda out of principle. Despite having caught the self-proclaimed wizard going through my gear more than once, I felt for him. The USMC hadn't earned the moniker Uncle Sam's Misguided Children by attracting well-rounded individuals. I figured Maceda deserved the same chance as the rest of us, even if he was mad. During company physical training, when Maceda couldn't jump high enough to grab a low hanging rope and recruits laughed, I lost my temper and spoke without thinking.
“Anyone who laughs stands watch.”
We watched in silence as Maceda hopped along the length of the rope, again and again, bouncing to the next portion of the obstacle course. I cringed to see what we were doing reduced to tragic sideshow act, as much participant as voyeur. After that, no one fucked with him. Mistakenly, they obeyed my command indefinitely. I didn't correct them, reckoning it better people left Maceda to fate.
After graduation, when I returned from leave, I sat waiting for a month in Receiving Company before I processed into the School of Infantry training—boot camp Bravo, or so it was called. Despite austere living conditions and stringent standards, I had time to speak with my peers. Most of us hailed from the same training series, so I asked around about Maceda.
“Did you ever meet a crazy little fucker named Maceda?” I would slip the question into conversation. “He thought he was a warlock. Casting spells.”
“That guy was nuts. Got himself a section-eight by casting spells on Drill Instructors after he was dropped from my platoon. Had arms too short for magazine changes while shouldering the weapon.”
I'd been present when Maceda trundled back to the barracks from the range with his new-to-him company. My second in command DI loved to practice close order drill until recruits started dropping from exhaustion, so we all collided on the drill deck. As often happened in the Corps, failure became a group activity. Maceda, although on his way out, was still one of us.
“Stahl, look at this little fucker you sent me!”
It was their series Gunny. Stahl often told us how much respect he commanded.
“Maceda,” Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Stahl wrasped, voice like dry reeds.
This was the first time anyone had seen him since he’d been dropped because of pneumonia. None of us were happy to see him. We thought hop-along would never be seen or heard from again. It obviously wasn't the first time Maceda had been made to show and tell. Without further prodding, he dropped to one knee and attempted to insert an empty magazine while looking down the sites. The magazine's lips barely touched the very edge of the magazine-well, like a tongue probing a molar's dry-socket, never finding nerve.
The Corps put recruits through two weeks of training on the range. Grass week was spent lying in the grass, rifles aimed in on a barrel painted with targets; the week following was live fire on the rifle range. In a way, I still blame Bell for my failure. He was a non-hacker dropped to us from another platoon. A country boy from somewhere Deep South, Bell had trouble playing along. When he tried to quit boot camp the DIs laughed in his face. He was older than the rest of us, a black man who looked like everything he was, and didn't care about what he wasn’t. If he'd been white, I think our DIs would have kicked his ass. But being a minority meant he measured up to them, so his failure drew bitter ire. Krumpton especially thought it was the funniest thing in the whole goddamn universe when Bell would stand on-line and sound off for the first time in weeks about going back home to his wife and children. He didn't care about the diatribes and crescendos of calumny about his wife cheating, or his kid dying because of her negligence. Last I saw Bell, he was walking down the steps of our School of Infantry squad bay, waif thin. The Corps had botched a spinal tap, and he was in a graveyard spiral of ill health. As I left him, so I'd found him, but initially it wasn't to death.
Bell had been dropped to 3111 with a virulent strain of pinkeye. As soon as he stepped on deck, everybody passed it around. I got it in both eyes. At the five-hundred-yard line on the rifle range, the targets became mirages glowing dimly in the fogged fish-eye of my vision. I couldn't hack it. My second, unofficial re-shoot immediately following the first was even worse. That Friday, all the other UNQs—unqualified—were marshaled at the range.
“Listen, you fucking dumbass, big-headed baby,” my range coach said out at the 500-yard line. “If you fail and I have to come in to qualify you tomorrow by yourself, I won't get to see my wife or my kid. Up to now, you want to shoot like a hillbilly, that was your business. If I come in tomorrow, I'll haze the shit out of you.”
I qualified, and after the pep talk, he told me to put the top of the front sight post in the middle of the blob and slowly squeeze the trigger. It worked more often than not. There was much machismo for the sake of itself back then. We were told to fake it until we made it, but never who to be. People became their jobs, living and dying inside of military billets. I think maybe I forgot who I was.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, ESPN, the 2017 Best American Essays, and The New York Times, among other publications. His memoir about the war in Iraq, Musalaheen, stands in stark contrast to other narratives about Iraq in both content and quality. Jason lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with Lighthouse. Much of his work can be found at www.jasonarment.com