My Service Stories: Okinawa – Part 4

23 Sep
This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Service Stories

In these last few posts, I am talking about the training I was able to do while I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan! In the last post, I talked about training in the Philippines. This post will talk about training we did in South Korea.

We’ve Got Team Spirit!

Sometime around March of 1989, my unit participated in Team Spirit which was a joint/combined exercise designed to evaluate and improve the interoperability of the ROK (Republic of Korea) and U.S. forces (thanks Google). In-country forces were augmented for training purposes by U.S. Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units from outside the ROK. It was always something we looked forward to because it was one of the longest times we would be deployed to the field to train. We also looked forward to liberty in Korea. While this was a large training operation that took place all over Korea, the majority of our time was spent around Pohang, which is on the coast, southeast of Seoul.

While life in the field is pretty monotonous, there were a few memories that I have of my time there that I will share here.

Arrival

C-130

We flew from Okinawa to South Korea in a C-130 cargo plane. C-130’s were our usual mode of transportation from Okinawa to where-ever we were going to train. Most times, we rode in the regular C-130, but a few times, we rode in KC-130’s which were equipped with a removable 3600 gallon stainless steel fuel tank that would be used as extra fuel when required or also to refuel helicopters. It is a sight to be able to watch refueling operations out the back of an open aircraft.

I am not positive where we initially flew, but it had to be close to Pohang. We staged our gear for further transport to our main camp. I can’t remember what I did, but somehow, I got in trouble before we left and so I was the designated gear-guard, while everyone else got to explore the base. My platoon was selected to go to train with the Army at a base north of Seoul called Camp Stanley. We were supposed to have a helicopter take us up north to Camp Stanley (의정부시) but our transportation didn’t come, so we did what Marines always do. We adapted to our situation. We changed into civilian clothes and then carried our sea bags with the rest of our clothes to the civilian bus station and purchased tickets to Seoul. It was quite a ride. I’m sure the Korean citizens on that bus with us thought we were crazy.

Once we arrived in Seoul, we walked to a hotel and I believe we took every room they had available. I don’t remember much of that night. I remember that we arrived late and there wasn’t time to get food. I believe we each had an MRE to eat that night. I do remember we got a little time in Seoul to get food. We went to the Kentucky Fried Chicken place because that is all we knew.

The rooms were small and not very well lit, but it didn’t matter because as cold as it was outside, inside the rooms were toasty. They had heated floors and everyone walked around without shoes. I remember they had one small bathroom at the end of the hall that we all had to share. The next morning, the hotel gave us each a towel that had the name of the hotel embroidered on it. I still have the towel in the original paper bag they gave us.

Our platoon commander was the same Lieutenant that I had the previous run-in with. (Now that I think about it, that might be why I was put on guard duty) He was able to procure two civilian vans and we loaded ourselves and all of our gear into and on top of the vans and we drove up to Camp Stanley to do some AAAAArmy training! They had a Moving Target Simulator (MTS) there that we could use to practice aircraft tracking. It also enabled us to train with our Army counterparts. Since the base was close to the DMZ with North Korea, we studied the aircraft that North Korea flew. I believe we spent at least a week there. Every night, we got liberty so we were able to explore the local drinking establishments while we were there. It also enabled us to taste the local food. I had never had Korean food before so that was an experience!

When it was time to return to our main base, we had a CH-53 pick us up to takes us back. On the flight back, the crew of the CH-53 told us that they had to stop in Seoul to pick up some spare parts for another helo that had mechanical issues. As we were flying over Seoul, the pilot flew over some of the stadiums from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I took some pictures of the stadiums looking out the back of the helo to the stadiums but I can’t find those pictures. It was a site to see! Eventually, we made it back to our main camp near Pohang. There we were assigned hard-back tents with oil heaters because it was cold. We were still waiting for our large gear locker to be delivered so I had to stand guard duty in regular boots. It was cold and raining and my feet got mild frostbite. Standing in the cold rain without any winter clothes was tough. I never want to be that cold again!

120 foot rappel off a rope bridge

One of the coolest things I was able to do is go to the Mountain Warfare School. My unit (LAAD) could be attached to any other type of unit (infantry, heavy weapons, recon, artillery, etc) to provide air defense for that unit. Our main weapon is the Stinger Missile and we shoot that from the ground, so wherever we need to go to complete that mission, we must be able to get there. The two day school was challenging and fun. We spent the first day learning different rappelling techniques, then we actually perform them the afternoon of the first day and all day on the second. First on a 300 foot cliff and then Australian rappel (face first) off a 120 foot rope bridge. We ended the training with a 750-foot slide for life (twice!).

I don’t remember any more specifics about the training that we did, but I do have random memories of that Team Spirit:

  • The oil heaters in the tents would get real hot if you didn’t watch them closely. I’m surprised none of our tents burnt down. I remember waking up one night and the oil heater and exhaust pipe was glowing bright orange because it was so hot.
  • I developed some sort of boil or something on my back. I went to sickbay and they had to do surgery on it in a field hospital (tent) they set up. The resulting hole in my back was so deep that they couldn’t close it so twice a day, our corpsman had to change my dressings and pack the wound. It never healed right and even after 31 years, still have a large bump from that wound.
  • On liberty we usually just went to restaurants and bars. One thing I discovered was after dark, vendors would set up little huts on the side of the streets and would cover them with a tarp. You could go into the little hut and eat raw fish and drink saki pretty cheap. They had a portable kerosene heater in them so it was one place you could get warmed up, both inside and out!
  • The helo that picked us up at Camp Stanley to take us back to Pohang, crashed into the sea the very next day, killing a squad of Marines it was carrying. Training accidents happen and I feel fortunate that I wasn’t on that helo that day. My platoon got liberty about a week later and I remember calling my parents from a pay phone in Korea to tell them that I was OK and that I wasn’t involved in that crash.
  • Showers were few and far between. If we got liberty, the first place we went in town was to the bath houses. For a few won, you could go into these public showers (spas?) that had hot showers and hot and cold pools. You would first take a hot shower and then get into the cold pool for a while, then into the hot pool. It was an experience, but let me tell you – a hot shower felt great! If we were in the field for an extended amount of time, we would get to go to the shower tent. We usually had it scheduled by platoon. It was a tent with pallet floors and numerous shower heads running down the middle. It was divided in two. The first part had benches where you dressed and the other part was the showers. There was no heat! The way it worked is that you would go get undressed and then go into the shower area with your soap. Once everyone was in, they would start the water pump and cold water would start spraying out of the shower heads. You’d get wet, lather up and rinse all in about 2 minutes because that’s all the water you got. When the water was shut off, you went into the dry area to change. It was miserable but getting clean, even if it was freezing, felt great.
  • If you got in trouble in camp, you were usually assigned the burn barrel duty. Burn barrel latrines were wooden latrines with seats and holes over 55 gallon barrels cut in half. The barrels were primed with about 3 inches of diesel fuel. Once the barrels would get to 1/2 to 1/3 full, you would pull out the full barrel and replace it with a new one. Dragging out the full barrel was terrible. It sloshed all over you, no matter how careful you would be. You would then take the full barrel and add more diesel and gasoline unto it until the contents are covered and then you would light it on fire. You would then stir it until it burned to ashes. Once the contents of the barrels were burned, you would empty the contents out into a pit. It was a very messy duty and nobody wanted to be assigned that duty. When my platoon was assigned that duty, we took turns unless someone got into trouble, then they would automatically be assigned the duty. I only had to do this twice in the months we were in Korea, but that was enough. When you got done, you had fuel and crap all over you. If it wasn’t your day to get a shower, you had to live with the smell for days – as well as the other guys in the tent.
  • When we were in the base camp, there was a large chow tent. Those were the only hot meals we got outside of liberty in town. Otherwise, we existed on MRE’s while in the field.

Team Spirit was a pretty long training exercise. I think we were there for about 3 months. The longest deployment I had was in 1988. I deployed as part of MAGTF 3-88 to the Persian Gulf. That lasted about 9 months and will be the subject of the next few stories. Stay tuned!

My Service Stories: Okinawa – Part 3

2 Sep
This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Service Stories

I spent two years stationed in Okinawa. Of those two years, I also got to visit South Korea, mainland Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and the Persian Gulf. It was the adventure I signed up for! As I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t been out of the country and one of the reasons I wanted to be stationed overseas is to see the world, and I did! Each country has a story, so we’ll start with the Philippines.

The Philippines – The Time I Hit an F-111 and Watched an F-4 Crash

At least once per year (and more if we were lucky), we got to go to the Philippines and train with the Air Force at Clark Air Base. It usually coincided with a training exercise called Cope Thunder. Once we landed at Clark, we would drive our vehicles to Camp O’Donnell, which was closer to Crow Valley where we would be training. If we weren’t training, we usually got liberty in Angeles City.

The training was fun and about as real as we could hope for. We would set up our positions around Crow Valley, which was the gunnery range, and practice tracking aircraft as they would fly through the valley. As the jets flew through the valley, they would drop dummy bombs and/or strafe targets with their guns. One position I was in was at the beginning of range. The jets would fly over our position firing at target just in front of us. It was a very surreal feeling listening to live rounds flying over our heads and hitting targets a few hundred yards down range. We had our training missiles with live seeker-heads so we could track them, lock on and practice firing the missile (nothing would actually fire). Sometimes we would have these styrofoam missiles, called Smokey Sams, that we would launch at aircraft to provide the pilots with a visual of a surface-to-air missile.

One day, my partner and I were manning a site with Smokey Sams. While one of us tracked the aircraft with out Stinger missile, the other would shoot the Smokey Sam at the aircraft so they could practice their evasive maneuvers to get away from an anti-air missile. We saw an Australian F-111 bomber flying low through the valley and disappear behind our position, only to pop up and fly real close to our position. I fired the Smokey Sam and it flew up and hit the nose of the aircraft! That had never happened before and we weren’t supposed to be aiming right at the aircraft, but I guess I timed it just right and the aircraft was low enough. The next day, we were visited by the pilot. He wanted to see how we were able to actually hit him. We explained that actually hitting him was a mistake, but after about 5 minutes of instruction on the Stinger missile, he was able to see how easy it was to track and lock onto an aircraft, especially one as large and slow as an F-111.

Another day, my team was at another location further in the valley. We were watching aircraft drop their bombs and then they would fire flares as anti-air missile decoys. On this one particular day, an F-4 was coming through the valley and all of a sudden, we saw a bright flash out of the back-end and it started falling out of the sky. It was coming toward us and we had no idea what to do. My partner was on the radio and he was yelling, “An F-4 is crashing, an F-4 is crashing!”, all while running. We saw the pilot eject and then the jet went up and then crashed into the valley. It was an awesome site! While searching for a picture of Crow Valley, I found a link to a video of an F4 crashing in Crow Valley. The date on the video is around the time I was there so it could possibly be the one I saw. The funniest part of that day was that after the crash, an Air Force helicopter landed at our position and an Air Force officer got out and started running toward our position. He yelled, “Come on Marines! Follow me!” and proceeded to run toward the crash site. We just laughed as we followed him because it sounded so funny coming from an Air Force officer. He tasked us to guard the crash until other Air Force units could get there.

One interesting aspect of our training at Cope Thunder. The times that we were there, there were Communist Guerillas training in the area and they were known to kidnap Americans for ransom. They would also steal equipment and sell it back to the military. Every time we went out to train, we were issued our weapons and live ammo. Once we were back on base at Camp O’Donnell, we had to check our weapons into the base armory because the Air Force didn’t trust the crazy Marines to have live weapons in their barracks. The funny part is that we still had valuable equipment in our barracks, so our guards had to walk their post with an axe handle instead of a weapon!

Cope Thunder was a long training exercise and we would spend days in the field and then we would get a few days liberty in Angeles City, where Clark Air Base was. Most of my unit never made it on base. There were a lot of bars in Angeles City and one called the DMZ was owned by a Vietnam-era Marine. It was our home base. Most of us didn’t leave that bar except to sleep.

Next stop, Korea!

My Service Stories: Okinawa – Part 1

10 Jan
This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Service Stories

This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you want to start from the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.

Welcome To Okinawa, Japan

After I finished Stinger school, I received some well-deserved leave before I headed to Okinawa Japan. It was nice to get home, but honestly, I was really excited to go to Japan. Seeing the world was one of the main reasons I joined the Marine Corps and I was just about to get my first taste of life outside of the USA. Before I could go to Japan, I had to report to San Onofre, California which was on Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the US. It was a short stay before we were loaded on a big 747 for our flight to Okinawa. I don’t remember much of the trip to Japan. It was a chartered jet just for military so I believe we flew directly to Okinawa. Eventually we landed in Okinawa and we were processed to our units.

My First Unit

My unit was 1st Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion. Before I got there, it was just a Battery, but the Marine Corps decided that Low Altitude Air Defense was important enough to make it a full Battalion, which is one of the reasons I suspect that my contract was changed – they needed bodies to fill a quota. For us, that meant two full firing Batteries (Alpha and Bravo) and a Headquarters & Support Battery. For the Firing Battery, the most basic unit was the Team that consisted of a Team Leader and an Assistant Gunner. The A-Gunner would drive the vehicle and fire the missile. The Team Leader would evaluate targets and make engagement decisions and fire another missile if needed. There were 5 teams in a Section and at least 3 Sections in a Platoon commanded by a Lieutenant. Each Battery, usually commanded by a Captain had at least 2 platoons.

My first duty was that of an Team Leader, since I was older and graduated top in my class. As luck would have it, the Platoon I was assigned to was also assigned on-call duty. This meant that if something happened in our part of the world that required Air Defense, our unit would be the first to deploy. We would practice loading and unloading our vehicles over and over until we could get the call and be loaded and on the road within an hour. Nobody really liked being on-call because that meant your liberty (free-time) was limited and you couldn’t drink more than two beers per day. And…that phone call could come at any time.

MCAS Futenma

The Phone Call and the New Lieutenant

One night, the phone call came. We rushed out of our barracks with our prepacked battle load and headed for our trucks. Once we picked up our trucks, we had to head to the bunker to pick up the missiles, chow and other equipment for our trucks, and then head to the armory for our weapons. All this had to be done in an hour. My A-Gunner and I were the first to our vehicle and we headed to the bunker. When we got to the bunker, our new Platoon Leader, a fresh-out-of-school Second Lieutenant was at the bunker to oversee the truck loading. (Second Lieutenants were called Butter-Bars because the single bar indicating their rank was gold in color. Most butter-bars didn’t get respect from enlisted men until they picked up rank) This was his assigned spot during our practices so this is where I met him that night. We started grabbing our truck’s supply and other trucks were starting to line up. The Lieutenant was getting overwhelmed and and could not make a decision to save himself. I don’t naturally gravitate to a leadership position. I’m confident in my decisions, but I don’t like to lead people (they are too much trouble). The one thing I can’t stand is incompetent leaders. When I am faced with an incompetent leader, I step in an assume the leadership position. This is what happened here.

I saw that the butter-bar was in over his head and that the whole mission was being affected. I stepped up to the Lieutenant and told him (maybe a little too forcibly) that he needed to sit down over in a corner away from us and I would take care of the load-out. He turned and stood off to the side while we completed the load-out. I was a Lance Corporal (E-3) at the time and had no business talking to a Lieutenant like that, but to me, the mission came first and we were in trouble of missing our one-hour deadline. We got our vehicles loaded and headed to Kadina Air Force Base where we loaded our vehicles onto transport planes and took off. Once we were in the air, we were informed that it was just a test and we turned around and landed, unloaded and went back to our base to unload our trucks and go back to our barracks just in time for reveille.

Later that morning, I was called into the Lieutenant’s office. I had a feeling that I was going to get an ear-full. Once the door was closed, the Lieutenant told me that as an enlisted man, I was not supposed to talk to an officer in the manner I did. Not only had I disrespected his rank, I had done it in front of other troops. I apologized and told him that I was thinking of our hour limit and I knew how the trucks were supposed to be loaded. He told me that he appreciated it and also told me that without me taking charge like that, that we would have missed our deadline. As it turned out, he was praised by our Battalion Commander for successful rapid first deployment. So, the story ended better than I thought it would. Over the course of the two years I was in Okinawa, we came to respect each other. We were the same age and had a lot of common experiences. Over the course of those two years, he would recommended me for meritorious promotion and personal awards. I believe that I picked up Corporal (E4) because of his recommendation. When his platoon was selected to deploy to the Persian Gulf in 1988 to escort ships into and out of the Persian Gulf, he asked that I be assigned to his platoon. I’ll cover that deployment in a later post. I wish I had kept up with him. I’m sure we would be great friends now.

There are a lot more stories from Okinawa so stay tuned for the next part!

My Service Stories (Part 2) – Stinger School

12 Nov
This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Service Stories

This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you haven’t read the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.

Welcome to El Paso and Fort Bliss

After graduating from boot camp, my next stop was USMC Redeye/Stinger Air Defense School at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX. An Army base! Ft. Bliss was where Marines trained to identify, engage and destroy enemy aircraft with a Redeye/Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Since the missile systems were so expensive, the Marines didn’t have their own training facility. We had one barracks on an Army base and we utilized their training facilities. In addition to Marines, we also had Navy gunners and SEALs that trained in our school. This wasn’t my choice of school, but between boot camp and school, I dealt with the anger and the feelings of betrayal. I was now a Marine and I accepted that everything is done for the good of the Corps. So, I decided to make the best of the situation. I knew I was smart and I learned early on that the top graduate in each class got to shoot a live Stinger, select their preferred duty station and pick up a meritorious rank. I made that my personal mission.

School mostly consisted of memorizing and identifying silhouettes of any aircraft that could be flying in any battle, whether they were US, NATO or Soviet aircraft. We had to identify them from different angles. We would review and review and review aircraft silhouettes. We had huge decks of flash cards where we could drill each other. On our exams, we had 3 seconds to look at a silhouette before we had to identify the aircraft. We also practiced tracking aircraft in a large domed building that housed a large 3D video game called a Moving Target Simulator (MTS). Aircraft would be projected all around the dome and we would use simulator missiles to track and engage them. It was as real as one could get with late-80’s technology. We had to identify whether or not they were friend or foe, and then if foe, engage them before they had a chance to launch their own weapons.

All this was in preparation for our actual job which was to identify enemy aircraft that were closing in to attack whatever we were guarding. We were the last line of air defense. We were mobile and frequently attached to infantry or artillery companies. Our positions were frequently forward of the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) so we could engage the aircraft before they got close the other troops. On-board ships, we stood watch on the tops of the ships watching for aircraft that might target the ship. We deployed as a team of two; gunner and assistant-gunner. One person engaged the enemy aircraft and fired the weapon while the other identified the aircraft and communicated with higher command for engagement authority and instructions.

I excelled in that school. I was selected as the class leader and eventually graduated top in my class. We went out to White Sands Missile Range and I got to shoot a large BAT (ballistic aerial target) that was about 3-5 kilometers out traveling at about 550 miles an hour. Stingers are shoulder-launched-anti-aircraft missiles. They have a seeker-head that locks onto the heat and infra-red signature of an aircraft. They reach mach-2 in 3-5 seconds. It was one of the coolest experiences I had as a Marine.

Because I graduated top in the class, I was able to request a duty station transfer. I chose Okinawa, Japan. One of the reasons I wanted to join the Marines was to see the world. This was my first step. Additionally, I picked up Lance Corporal (E-3). In less than a year, I had been promoted twice!

Next stop – Okinawa, Japan.

My Service Stories (Part 1)

11 Nov
This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Service Stories

It’s Veterans Day today and while reading some posts on Facebook and Twitter, there were a few that suggested that in addition to thanking Veterans for their service, stop and listen to their stories, because, the more we know and appreciate the sacrifice that Veterans make, the more we will appreciate Veterans Day. That got me thinking about my stories and for the sake of my kids, I think I’ll write a few of them down here to preserve the memories.

While I was technically in combat during Desert Storm, I was somewhat removed from the violent fighting. I didn’t have to experience the hand-to-hand combat, heavy shelling and constant assaults that other Marines have faced in the past, or are currently facing. (If you want to read a book to get a feel for what a Marine Infantryman experienced in WWII, read With The Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okanawa by E. B. Sledge) But the stress, adrenaline and anxiousness we felt were real. It created an alertness and singular focus that I haven’t experienced since and that I still crave. For my kids, and whoever else reads this, this is the beginning of my Marine Corps story. I’ll start with joining and boot camp.

Joining the Marines (part 1)

I was never an athletic person growing up. I was a music and math nerd, who taught himself how to program a computer in 1979. I was also an Eagle Scout. Sports were for my buddies that were taller, faster and naturally more talented. I was the manager, and that’s about the closest I got to playing a sport. Even though I wasn’t the athletic type, the Marine Corps still interested me. I talked to a recruiter my senior year of high school and told him I wanted to be a Marine Corps officer. I had no idea what that meant, except we had a family friend who was a Captain in the Marines. I decided that I would join the Platoon Leaders Class, which is a program where college students can attend Officer Candidate School during two summers of college and once they graduate with a degree, they are commissioned Second Lieutenants. So off to school I went. My Officer Selection Officer (OSO) gave me a workout plan to do, but my school was so far away from any other Marine Corps units that it was left up to me to manage my own fitness. I had no idea how to work out or how to push through the pain so I didn’t work out regularly and when my OSO came to review my progress, I hadn’t made any progress and so I was dropped from the program. That bothered me because I don’t like to quit. I had never failed at anything before. Eventually, that failure would carry through to college. I started failing classes and then the fear of failure caused me to start withdrawing from classes so I wouldn’t fail. After 2 1/2 years of college, it became apparent that college was not the path for me. I left school and went to work.

Joining the Marines (part 2)

After working 3 or 4 years, I started to realize that I did not want to spend my life managing restaurants. Kids were graduating college and getting hired at a higher salary than I was, even though I had more experience. I decided that I needed to get a degree in something that would enable me to get a good job. I had accumulated some debt and I was still paying on student loans, so I also needed to find something that would help with school and still allow me to earn a living. Once again, I turned to the Marines. I suppose that my failure at college still bothered me and I wanted to prove that I had what it took to be a Marine. I went down to the recruiter and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. I was running restaurants for Taco Bell in Dallas at the time and they were very supportive of me going into the reserves. On the day I was set to go to Military Entrance Processing (MEPS) and ship out, my recruiter invited me to have another talk with him. He said my test scores were very high and I could pick whatever job I wanted in the Marine Corps, and if I enlisted in the regular Marines, I would get a signing bonus that would cover my debts. I only had to sign on for six years. This sounded great. No debt and I could be trained in something that I could use to get a great civilian job in six years. I signed on the dotted line and started processing. As it turned out, I should have read the fine print. I picked Air Traffic Control as my job because it was the 80’s and Reagan just fired a bunch of Air Traffic Controllers so it was in the news and it sounded very technical. The job designation for Air Traffic Controller was 7312. Since I was signing on for such a technical job, I was going to receive a $7,000 signing bonus, I would pick up rank upon graduation of boot camp and I could pick my first duty station. I called my manager and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back. I went through MEPS and found out that I was 7 lbs overweight to go to boot camp (a foretaste of things to come). With the help of some ex-lax, I made weight the next day and was set to be sworn-in as a 24 year-old Marine recruit. While I was waiting, my recruiter told me that he couldn’t get me guaranteed overseas so I needed to pick a new preference. I selected west coast and he gave me another contract to sign. I signed the contract and off to boot camp I went. I’ll share more about my boot camp experience later, but upon graduation from boot camp, I found out that the recruiter changed my job preference to 7212 Air Control, Anti-air Warfare. Instead of directing planes out of the sky, I was now shooting them out of the sky. Also, everyone else that got that MOS was being sent to Okinawa Japan, except me because I picked the west coast! On top of all this, I didn’t get a signing bonus and during boot camp, I had some intelligence officers ask me if I was interested in moving to intelligence. I liked that idea and I was just about to switch jobs until I told them that I was guaranteed Air Traffic Control and was supposed to get a signing bonus. If I knew then that I was already screwed, I would have been in intelligence. Needless to say, I learned my first lesson in the Marine Corps. Don’t believe recruiters and always double read the fine print.

Boot Camp

I mentioned that I was not athletic. That became apparent during our first Initial Strength Test (IST). This is where the Marine Corps would find out just what they had to deal with. It was a modified Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and we had to do as many pull-ups as we could, do as many sit-ups in 2 minutes as we could and run a mile and a half, preferably in less than 15 minutes. I jumped up on that pull-up bar and could barely hang on. I had no grip strength and did zero pull-ups. On the sit-ups, I managed 26 in two minutes. On the run, I walked most of the way with a Drill Instructor yelling in my ear the whole way. I did not finish in 15 minutes. They had their work cut out with me. I was automatically dropped to the Physical Conditioning Platoon (PCP), which we referred to as the Pork Chop Platoon. The goal of that platoon, is to work you out so that you could do the bare minimum PFT score. The PCP platoon consisted of overweight recruits, weak recruits, recruits recovering from injury etc. We worked out morning, afternoon and night until we could pass the PFT. I spent 5 weeks in PCP because I got bronchitis about 3 weeks in and the strength that I had started building went away. Finally, after 5 weeks in PCP, I passed my test and was assigned a new platoon.

My second platoon in boot camp was great. I was able to do all of the training that all the other recruits were doing but my physical fitness was always behind everyone else. Boot camp is divided into three phases and in this platoon, I had finally passed first phase. As we were sitting outside our barracks, cleaning our weapons and waiting for transportation to the rifle range, I was called into the Drill Instructors office. I was informed that I was not going to the rifle range and instead, I was being dropped back to the beginning of phase one. I knew that it was because I was at the lower end of the 3rd Class physical fitness score and he wanted all 1st Class scores. So, off I went to my third platoon!

My third platoon drill instructors did not want me at first. I understood that. This was my third platoon, not including the Pork Chop Platoon. On top of that, my previous drill instructor had put in my service record that I had a bad attitude. That surprised me because I was pretty pumped to be going into 2nd Phase and I could see progress in my physical fitness. I was instructed that I better have a great attitude and any sign of a bad attitude would get me dropped once again. Fortunately for me, we had a Junior Drill Instructor named Staff Sergeant Johnson. He was a very big, very dark-skinned Marine with a very deep voice and an almost zen-like persona (when he wasn’t yelling at you). While our Senior Drill Instructor (SDI) was a short, fire-cracker-tempered Staff Sergeant named Johnson, the other Staff Sergeant Johnson was as even-keel of a Marine that I had ever met. Since this was technically my fourth platoon, I knew all of the Marine Corps knowledge that all the other recruits needed to learn and since I was 24, none of the mental games affected me, so they put me in charge of teaching the other recruits what they needed to know, and I was always left at the barracks whenever the other recruits were outside doing “motivational physical fitness” in the sand pits. It was during this time that SSgt. Johnson started calling me into the DI’s office to talk to me. He would talk to me like an adult. After-all, I was older than most of the Drill Instructors. ( In fact, I had gained the nickname, “The Grand Old Man of Boot Camp”, because of my age and the length of time I was there. The nickname was a play on the nickname of the longest serving Marine, Archibald Henderson, who served in the Marine Corps for 53 years. Every recruit learns his name as the Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps.) He would ask me what I was struggling with and I would tell him. Most of my problems were physical. When we were on runs and I was falling behind everyone else, he would run alongside me, coaching me on how to increase my pace and run more efficiently. On one morning about 7 weeks into training, he told me that whenever we had any downtime, I should go out to the pull-up bar and do max sets of pull-ups and then report back to him how I did. My strength had been increasing but I was stuck at 12. The bar outside the barracks we were in was slick and I requested that I be allowed to re-tape the bar like the other bars we were using. He gave me permission and once taped, I was able to do 19 pull-ups. I ran into the barracks and reported at the top of my lungs that Private Petersen had just completed 19 Marine Corps pull-ups. He didn’t believe me so he followed me outside and ordered me to do another set. I jumped up on that bar and with his encouragement, I did 20 pull-ups. That was the max number that would help you qualify as a 1st Class PFT. That was the break-through for me. I had already maxed out on sit-ups, and my run was getting faster. It was just the pull-ups that was keeping me from a 1st Class PFT. From then on, whenever we had a PFT, he would send me out to the bars to put fresh tape on them. Eventually, through the course of my time in the Marines, 20 pull-ups got easier and I could do them anywhere, without tape, but that day that I did 20 pull-ups was a better feeling than graduating boot-camp.

I eventually graduated boot-camp with my platoon (MCRD SanDiego – Platoon 1012, April 1987). It was during our final inspection that I found out that I wasn’t going to Air Traffic Control School like I thought. I was headed to Red-eye Gunner School to become a Red-eye Gunner. That story is for another time.

Veterans Day 2009 (Here’s To Brothers)

11 Nov

Cpl. Paul Flewwellin and Sgt. David Petersen
Cpl. Paul Flewwellin and Sgt. David Petersen

Yesterday was the Marine Corps 234th Birthday. As our custom, I called my bro’ Paul and wished him a Happy Birthday. We hadn’t talked for about a year but it was as if we were still onboard the USS Raleigh in the middle of the Persian Gulf talking about our dreams, goals and our wives. We didn’t know each other very well before that deployment but by the end of the deployment, we became brothers. It’s been about 16 years since I’ve seen him. When we talk, we speak about how fun it would be to get back together. Another year passes and we do it all over again. Our kids grow older, our hair gets grayer (or in Paul’s case – becomes non-existent). But one day a year, we are back on that ship. Laying on the deck staring up into the vast theater of stars provided by God, talking about life and solidifying our bond as brothers.

It is with this fond memory that I wish all who served a Happy Veterans Day. The bond we share is deep and only fully understood by those who have served. God Bless those who are standing in harms way today – forming the bonds that will last them for the rest of their lives.

Semper Fi. I Love Ya ‘Bro.