John Koopman / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-05-25 22:25:12
CAMP PENDELTON, San Diego County (May 25, 2008) — In a dusty field off a back road, a group of young Marine recruits gather around a sign to learn the story of Cpl. Jason Dunham.
Dunham was a Marine squad leader in Iraq. On April 14, 2004, an insurgent tossed a hand grenade, and Dunham jumped on it to save the lives of his buddies. The blast killed him, and Dunham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
“Cpl. Dunham probably went to basic training right here,” a Marine drill instructor tells the recruits, who stand at attention in honor of the fallen hero. “He probably stood right where you are not very long ago.”
The recruits respond with a single, high-volume shout:
The recruits are at Camp Pendleton for the final phase of Marine boot camp. Among them are two who grew up in the East Bay: Robert Perez of Pittsburg and Richard Maxwell of Concord, best friends who joined the Marines together a couple of months ago. The Chronicle wrote about the two when they first went into the Marines, and followed them to basic training in San Diego.
Now, the baby faces are gone, replaced with hard lines and sharp eyes. The teenagers have spent the last three months living like Spartans. They have learned to march and to obey orders. They have performed thousands of push-ups and pull-ups, been drilled in the history, lore and culture of the Marine Corps.
And they’ve learned to kill.
It’s a touchy subject. The Marines talk about accomplishing their mission, doing what’s right and what needs to be done. But the real job of a Marine is to fight.
Capt. John Boyer, a boot-camp company commander, said basic training is designed to bring out the recruits’ natural aggression. It’s not so much teaching young men to kill, he said, but conditioning them to survive on the battlefield.
“They are instructed in that killing mind-set,” Boyer said. “So when they get out on the battlefield, I would rather have them win than their enemies.”
Perez and Maxwell are both devout Christians. They said they sought inspiration from the Bible.
“The Bible says it’s OK to kill but not to murder,” Perez said. “If we’re doing our jobs and lives are being lost, it’s because we’re defending ourselves.”
With US troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s likely Perez and Maxwell will find themselves in a war zone. Nearly 5,000 American troops have died in those war zones, out of about 1.6 million who have been deployed there.
A Parent’s Fear
The danger is what worries their parents most. In interviews before the boys went off to boot camp, their mothers — Laura Maxwell and Laura Perez — worried about how military life would affect their sons, and whether they would have to go to Iraq. But both families are also Christian. They said they trusted their sons, and they put their faith in God.
Perez and Maxwell — who are so close they call each other “brother” — were in the same unit in basic training, Platoon 3262. Perez, a former state champion wrestler, proved to be a natural leader, and was promoted early on to squad leader. Maxwell turned out to be a crack rifle shot, and scored the highest of anyone in the platoon when they all qualified on the rifle range.
Recently, they completed the last training exercise on their way to earning the title of Marine. The recruits were bused north from San Diego to Camp Pendleton, where they endured a grueling 54-hour session known as “the Crucible.” There, they had to complete a series of tasks, such as transporting the wounded or climbing buildings. They got about four hours of sleep each night, and were given three MRE meals for the duration.
Between the training exercises, drill instructors brought the recruits to signs bearing citations for medals awarded for bravery to other Marines. Most of the citations were from the war in Iraq, and most of the men who earned them died in the process.
One of the ways the Corps instills the killing mind-set is to have the recruits fight each other. There is a hand-to-hand combat course that involves either boxing or hitting each other with big, padded weapons called “pugil sticks.”
When the drill instructors called for recruits to fight, Maxwell and Perez leaped to their feet and volunteered to fight each other. They donned groin and head protection and ran into the small 4-by-4 padded ring.
For several minutes, the men pummeled each other mercilessly, until the fight was stopped because Perez was bleeding from the nose and Maxwell from the lip.
While Maxwell and Perez fought, other recruits practiced fighting by hitting a punching bag, punctuating each strike with the shout, “Kill!”
The End Is only the Beginning
Surviving combat is just one part of the equation for people who live the military life. About 30 percent of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the suicide rate among veterans returning from those combat zones has soared.
The Marine recruits get an early lesson in stress. That’s the whole point of the Crucible.
After all the individual tests are done, the program is capped with a delightful little hike the Marines call “the Reaper.”
The recruits step off at 3:15 a.m. Carrying a 60-pound pack, rifle and helmet, they march about 7 miles over gentle hills, and then tackle a steep climb to a ridgeline that was once known as “Mount Mother-.”
In the predawn light, the recruits lean into the hillside, grunting and occasionally screaming in pain and frustration as they try to make it up the steep terrain.
From Recruit to Marine
After everyone makes it to the top, they start an easier march the final 3 miles back to the main post at Camp Pendleton. There, while still dirty and grimy and bleary-eyed, they form up on a parade ground where they are given their coveted eagle, globe and anchor insignias.
For the first time, they can stop calling themselves “recruit” and start using the title of “Marine.”
“It’s been a long three months,” Maxwell said. “But it was worth it. Most definitely.”
The new Marines cleaned up and put on fresh uniforms. To complete the ensemble, they tucked one of their two dog tags inside the laces of their left combat boot. It’s a harsh reminder of what can happen in war: Even if a Marine is blown up, his remains can be identified by that one boot with the metal identification.
The best thing about boot camp, Maxwell said, is the camaraderie.
“Having 59 kids come together from half of the United States with one common goal, we all bonded so fast,” he said. “That feeling that I can lean on you and you can lean on me, that’s the best part of boot camp.
“I’ve always had a hard time trusting people, and boot camp forces you to trust people.”
Marines at Last
Next for the recruits of Platoon 3262 is a short leave home.
“I’m kind of scared to go home, to be honest,” Perez said. “I’m afraid I’ll feel out of place.”
Perez and Maxwell had their formal graduation from basic training Friday. Flags flew and the band played, as family and friends watch teary-eyed from the bleachers. It’s a scene played out almost every week at Marine boot camp in San Diego.
After their leave, the recruits of Platoon 3262 will head to different schools for further training. They will learn how to fix diesel engines or jet planes, become military police officers or supply clerks.
And some, like Maxwell and Perez, are headed to the Marines’ School of Infantry, where they will perfect the art of war, and of killing.
“I’m ready,” Maxwell said. “I’ve dedicated myself to the Marine Corps.
“I want to see some action, too, to be honest.”
E-mail John Koopman at email@example.com.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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