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  • I sat in the squad bay—during what they called “down time”—watching intently out of the barracks window across the field to the “parade deck”. I spent most of my free moments in Boot Camp looking out of that window when I had the chance, nervously biting at my lips and watching another platoon that started before me practicing their marching and rifle drill, getting ready to graduate and get off of this god-forsaken base at Parris Island, South Carolina.

    I suppose they put the barracks that close to the parade deck on purpose. The way the base was set up was such that every recruit barracks could see the parade deck from where they sat. I could only imagine it was some sick joke that Marine Corps Recruit Depot played on the incoming newbies to make them feel the despair that I’m sure every one of us recruits felt. It was that longing to be where the graduates were; to be at the other end of the struggles that only Boot Camp can offer, wrapped neatly in a box of fear that your hell has only just begun.

    Most of that first month the drill instructors spent “breaking us down”; there couldn’t have been a better term for it. The first forty-eight hours after you arrive on the base is spent in a barracks room, confined like a rat and waiting anxiously for that drill instructor to burst through the door and tear a hole through your chest. You weren’t allowed to sleep during that time either. And how could you? You finally find yourself alone, but instead of the independence and freedom you wanted to have, you’re a prisoner to a group of men who wore campaign covers and green digital camouflage robes. “You signed the dotted line, this is what you wanted”, was the second thing I heard while I stood on the yellow footprints after I arrived on base. The first thing I heard was, “get the hell off of my bus!”

    I watched around me in the squad bay, which was a concrete room with about fifty bunk-beds lined up perfectly with each other. There were twenty-five on the left and right side of the barracks, or port and starboard sides in Naval jargon. Being there in that room for so long made you concentrate on every little move you made. Hyper-vigilance is the term. You never know who’s watching, so it’s important to be careful about everything. If you find something out of place, you fix it. If you find that someone else has something out of place, you fix that too. In this place, one’s problem is everyone’s problem and drill instructors don’t like problems.

    I can remember a moment where I made the mistake of looking at my drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Benjamin, in the eyes. I was standing at attention on the thin, yellow painted line in the middle of the barracks and for some reason my brain told me to look at him. Our eyes met and I immediately regretted listening to my brain. My stomach winced in fear and pain. The fear came from what may happen to me, the pain came from his fist. I toppled over my foot locker that lay just behind me and crashed like a stack of dominos into the bunk bed, hitting everything else on my way down.

    “You idiot,” I thought to myself as I struggled to get back to my feet. “You just had to look, didn’t you?” Talking to myself and rationalizing things in my mind was the only way I knew how to keep my sanity. In this world of stringent laws and military conduct, it was hard to understand anything. The Marine Corps takes these volunteers straight out of civilian life and throws them naked into a pit of lions. It’s the only way to weed out those who can’t make the cut. Just imagine walking into a room and getting ambushed by a bunch of ninjas. You don’t get the chance to think and feel, you just react.

    I stood back up and straightened myself out. I hurried to put the stone-cold look of indifference back on my face. Staff Sergeant Benjamin waited for me to stand back up. He had his hands on his hips and he stood rigidly like a mountain in front of me. “We’re waiting on you Deulley, and we don’t have all day.” His raspy voice echoed around the room and bounced in my disoriented head. I made it back to my place on the yellow line and forced my body straight, trying to curb the tension and pain out of my stomach. Benjamin’s fists were unusually large. I could feel every knuckle nestle itself into my stomach and push my insides around. He was a tall and rugged black man. He stood about 6’3” and looked like he had been carved out of obsidian. He felt like he was too. The jack-hammer he called a fist left a pain that lingered for the rest of the afternoon.

    I’d like to be able to describe him more, but I think you can understand that that was the last time I considered looking directly at him. The rest of that day was a blur to me, like most days there. I can’t remember all of the intimate details, if there were any, but I can remember significant events: painful events. I remember an occasion I had with one of my other drill instructors, Staff Sergeant Lomax. His last name made him sound like a machine and that’s exactly what the man was. I had three instructors; my “senior” drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Loman, my “drill hat”, Staff Sergeant Benjamin and my “kill hat”, Staff Sergeant Lomax. Lomax was a “kill hat” through and through. He was the one I always had the most “fun” with. “Hat” was a synecdoche. It was the only thing you needed to see or hear and you immediately knew everything that term carried with it.

    During down time on a bright and sweltering September day, I was looking out of the window at the next group of recruits practicing for their graduation. There was a graduating class every week and I counted them down one after another. I tried to hold my anxiety back when I counted each group. The anticipation of approaching the end of the long and difficult road to leave this place was mind bending and the possibility of leaving here to later find myself on a desert road in Iraq or Afghanistan fostered looming uncertainty. In this profession—the profession of “protecting freedom”—the parasitic thought of coming home laid under the flag is always at your heels.

    I sighed away my anxiety and walked back to my foot locker. I took out one of my uniforms and started to inspect it for any discrepancies. You had to be sure that everything you owned was immaculate. If you missed something, you can be sure the drill instructors would find it. If there was one thing out of place, you would pay with pain. I sat down on my locker and looked over my uniform redundantly for any little flaws, blemishes or loose strings hanging from it. I was getting comfortable and a calming serenity filled me while I worked away. When you’re in hell, you find joy in the moments where you can just sit for a while and avoid unwanted confrontations. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. Maybe if I hadn’t, I would have noticed Lomax thundering toward me with an unbridled lust to make me suffer. Complacency kills, and Lomax wanted to make sure I knew that.

    As if I was a marionette, Lomax grabbed me by my shoulder and lifted me to my feet, springing me to life. I stood at attention and dropped everything I had in my hands to the floor. A wave of confusion and fear swept me like an undertow and blood rang through my ears and pumped violently through my heart. Lomax escorted me and two other recruits outside to the “pit”, a box of loam that was used exclusively to punish recruits at the drill instructors discretion. You didn’t have to do anything wrong to take a vacation to the pit. In fact, you could spend time in the pit just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The object of the pit is to make a recruit do a series of fast-paced cardio exercises. Once you have worked out in the sand long enough, your sweat picks sand up and coats you like a sugar cookie. Now imagine that you’re covered in sweat and sand and you’re still doing leg lifts, push-ups, jumping jacks, mountain climbers and every exercise in between. Ever rub sand paper across your skin? Now, to make things more interesting, all of your kicking and shuffling and rolling around in the sand has awoken an indigenous creature so sinister, you remember how painfully itchy its bites are years after your last encounter with one. You wake up a colony of hungry sand fleas and it just so happens that you have delivered breakfast in bed.

    At some point in all of the chaos of cardio workouts, Lomax told us to hold a push-up position in the sand. This was an ingenious way to make someone spread out the welcome mat to the buffet and give the little critters a chance to fill up on you. For an insect smaller than the size of a pin head, it packed a bite so powerful that your eyes watered and your skin shivered. God forbid you swat at them. You are forced to endure every painful bite and they don’t stick to the surface of you either. They bite inside of your nose, ears, on your lips, eyelids and even the places below the belt. If you have a body part, its fair game to the insatiable hunger of those damned things.

    “Everything’s got to eat. Isn’t that right Deulley?” Lomax shouted safely from outside of the sand box. “Yes sir!” Shouting as loud as I could almost helped with the pain, except now I had sand fleas in my mouth. I stared straight down into the pit. Sweat beaded at my nose and carried grains of sand with it, pooling up beneath me. I gnashed my teeth and the crunching of sand and fleas made me cringe. My body shook in agony as the sand lodged between the crevices scraped away at the layers of protective skin, making everything tender and sore.

    Staff Sergeant Lomax walked over and pressed his boot on the small of my back. “You’re too far away; the little ones can’t reach you.” I felt his weight on my back as he pushed me into the ground. I reluctantly fell into the pit under his weight and smashed my face into the pool of sweaty sand. “Great,” I thought. I could feel the sweat and sand push its way between my eyelids and sting through my eyes. I lifted my jaw and created a narrow pathway for air. I tried to breathe slowly and calmly so I didn’t bring attention to my open mouth. It didn’t seem to help much cause the painful itching and biting went from the corners of my lips and nose to inside my cheeks and nostrils.

    Lomax lifted his boot and I pushed myself back off of the ground. Snorting and spitting out sand, I strained my head back and looked forward toward the parade deck. The next graduating class was still marching and preparing to leave the Island. I tuned out the pain and imagined myself where they were. One more class was getting ready to leave. One more week was almost wrapped up. Remembering where I was, I looked back down into the sand. “Push,” Lomax belted out forcefully, hovering over my sand encrusted body. “Aye sir,” the two recruits and I screamed back in unison. “I guess I’ll get out of here one push-up at a time.” I forced myself to think. “I’ll get off of this island if it kills me.”
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