What 24 hours is really like for recruits at US Marine Corps boot camp
Marine Corps boot camp is legendary. But is it anything like the movies show?
The commercials make it look like constant action, with obstacle courses, gladiator style fighting, jumping off high dives, and crawling through the dirt commanding most of the airtime.
In reality, these things are sandwiched between hours and days of monotony and boredom.
I spent the summer of 2012 at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, and here is a sample day that a recruit might experience in the first phase of training.
0330: Officially, 0400, pronounced as “zero four,” or “oh four hundred,” is the time to wake up and get out of bed. Unofficially, you’re up 30 minutes before that.
A recruit writes in the log book as he stands watch at night.
(U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Caitlin Brink)
The drill instructor woke you up by barking commands at the firewatch. The firewatch, which you will also stand every few days, is the interior guard. They are members of the platoon who are awake for one or two hours at a time throughout the night. The first and last shift aren't so bad, but the 0000 to 0200 shift is brutal. The drill instructor is yelling at them, asking them why they messed up the log book, making them give the report until they get it right, or just making them run around the squad bay, looking for things that are amiss. You take this time to use the bathroom, as there won't be time later. There are around 50 recruits to six toilets, so it's best to go when you have time. Officially, you will have time to go after the lights come on, but it's best to go now. It's also best to brush your teeth before the lights come on.
0400: Lights, lights, lights! That's what firewatch yells as they throw the switches, turning on all the lights.
A drill instructor storms through the squad bay as recruits stand "on line."
(U.S. Sgt. Jennifer Schubert/US Marine Corps)
There's no time for stretches or yawns, you get up and stand on line and stick your hand out. You better be ready, because the count starts immediately. Every time your platoon goes anywhere, you are counted. They have to make sure nobody took off in the middle of the night, even if firewatch is there to make sure this doesn't happen. The recruits are standing "on line," meaning standing in front of their beds, called "racks," at attention, awaiting instruction. You will spend a lot of time here on line, so get used to it. The drill instructor runs down the line of recruits, around 25 on the left, and then back down the right, 25 there too. You have to yell your number and snap your arm back down at lightning speed. If somebody messes up, you start over. This counting process takes forever in the first few weeks, as recruits mess up by shouting the wrong number, pausing too long, or skipping over somebody. You do this counting process until you get it right.
0401: After 30 seconds to get 50 recruits in and out of the bathroom, now called the head, it's time to get dressed.
Recruits race to put on their uniforms.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dana Beesley)
However long it takes you to get dressed in the morning, it takes longer now. You are about to get dressed "by the numbers." This process was the single most frustrating part of boot camp for me, since it was so tedious and you would inevitably end up with a sock inside out all day. This process looks like this: the drill instructor names a piece of clothing, say trousers, and all the recruits get that item and bring it on line. The uniform items, or cammies, are hung on the back of the racks overnight, meaning you have to run to the back, get it, and make it back on line, arm outstretched, before the drill instructor gets to zero. If somebody doesn't make it, you put it back.
You finally get your trousers on, but somebody didn't get them buttoned by zero, so you take them off and put them back. Once you get your trousers on, it's time for the blouse. Then it's time for the boots. You can get to the last item of clothing, say your left boot, and have to start all over. This process takes as long as the drill instructor needs it to. If there is a gap in the schedule, it takes forever. The countdown goes as fast or as slow as they want. You can sometimes tell when the games have gone on too long, as they start counting down slightly slower. But in the beginning, you will finish with a few buttons undone, your boots untied, and you'll be rushed onto the next task. You are expected to fix it on the fly. Not surprisingly, tying your boots while trying to run down the stairs is not easy.
0415: Time to clean house.
Recruits "scuzz" the floor of their barracks.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink)
With around 50 recruits constantly running in and out of the squadbay, dirt is always present. You will spend many hours "scuzzing" the deck, meaning sweeping the floor with a little hand held "scuzz brush." This process works much like getting dressed, ("Scuzz brush on line, ready, move!") but you have to run to the wall, squat down, and push the dirt to the middle of the squadbay. You are in boot camp though, so you have to do so at "parade rest" with your non-scuzz brush hand behind your back. And don't even think about letting your knee hit the deck. You squat and duck walk your way to the middle. If you don't get there in time, you do it again. Either before or after this, you make your bed, aka "rack." In years past, recruits got wise and started sleeping on top of the sheets so as to leave the rack pristine. This was not allowed in the summer of 2012. You either slept under your sheets, or you would have to tear them up in the morning anyway. Making the bed can be as fast or as slow as getting dressed, depending on what's happening that day. They can let you get it done fast and move on, or they can have you rip all the sheets off and bring them on line. It's always a surprise.
0430: Somewhere during that time, you got your boots tied, and it's time to get outside and "form up."
Recruits at Parris Island march in formation.
(U.S. Marine photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink)
Forming up is the process of getting outside and standing in formation, ready to move to the next place. For right now, it's breakfast. All meals in boot camp are referred to as "chow." This is morning chow. You are formed up in the correct order, rifles in hand, and you are ready to march to the chow hall.
This isn't a leisurely walk though, this is a chance to practice drill. The drill instructors call the commands, and you execute. Depending on how early in the process of learning drill you are, you could be marching at a snail's pace, your foot hitting the ground only when the drill instructor allows it. You eventually get to the chow hall, you stack your rifles outside, since they don't go in, and get in line. You leave a couple of guards on the rifles, who will have a chance to eat when the first two in your platoon come out.
While waiting in line for the chow hall, you will study your knowledge. Knowledge is just the word that the Marines use to describe any of the things that will be on the tests. This can be history, land navigation, first aid, marksmanship, drill, uniforms, customs and courtesies, or rank structure. This is usually done at top volume, with the drill instructor shouting the question, and the recruits shouting the answer. For example, the answer to "Two Marines, two medals," is "Dan Daly, Smedley Butler Ma'am!" at top volume. The question is looking for the two Marines who have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. The answer will be shouted at top volume, or it will be shouted again.
Eventually you get inside, get your food, and sit down to eat. You eat as fast as possible without choking, since the drill instructor is yelling at you to get out. There is no time here for butter on toast. If you want butter on your toast, you stuff the toast in your mouth, then stuff a pat of butter in after it. You finish eating and go back outside to pick up your gear.
0500: Your platoon got into the chow hall first, and now you are done. Your next activity doesn't start until 0600, so it's time for drill.
Welcome to the sand pit.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Sarah Stegall)
Your platoon marches back and forth on a concrete square, called a parade deck, learning how to turn, start and stop, or reverse direction as a unit. If anybody messes up, you start over.
If you are struggling more than they would like, you might be sent to the pit. There is a sand pit conveniently located right next to the parade deck, and you are about to go do exercises in it. You do pushups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, side straddle hops, or hold a plank while screaming at the top of your lungs. Usually you are screaming the number of reps completed. If you aren't loud enough or you aren't performing up to their expectations, you just stay in there until you do.
If there is more than one of you in there, it's a group effort. This is one of the most effective ways to break a recruit down. Maybe I don't care about getting yelled at or being seen as weak, but there might be five of us in the pit, and nobody gets to leave until I hold that plank for 60 seconds. After 8 or 9 solid minutes of planks, 60 seconds gets a lot longer. They force you to care, because now you're letting the team down. ("Oh good, Ohlms wants to let her knees touch the deck. Start over.") The funny thing is, they will say you cheated a move just to piss off your fellow recruits, and you can't say anything about it. Eventually you get back to your unit, just in time to mess up the next drill move.
0600: Time for class.
Recruits attend classroom training.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jennifer Schubert)
This should be a relaxing time. You go into a classroom, sit in the air conditioning, and learn about topics that the Marine Corps will test you on later. You may be a huge history buff, and this may be a history class, but it will not be fun. You drill over to the classroom and get inside as fast as possible, lining up by a desk. You don't dare sit down, as you weren't told to yet. Your rifles get stacked in racks at the back of the room, and you take off your day pack, holding it out parallel to the deck, arms straight out, both thumbs hooked under the carrying handle. You stand there until the drill instructors deem you worthy of sitting.
If you don't get that day pack under the chair and your book on the desk fast enough, you pick them back up, arms parallel to the deck. All the while, a constant stream of yelling. You try again and maybe this time you make it. You sit when told to and you open your book. The teacher is another drill instructor, but the class isn't so bad. He isn't yelling at you, unless your eyes start to droop or your head starts to bob. Then you get put on a list. After about an hour, it's time for a break. Those who were pointed out in class are rushed outside to the pit, while the rest of you are given a chance to go to the head and refill your canteens with water. Everywhere you go, you are screamed at. You are screamed at to fill your canteen faster, pee faster, wash your hands faster, get back in the classroom faster. You get back to the classroom to pick up your pack and hold it out again. As soon as everybody is back, some covered head to toe in sand, the next class starts.
0900: Class is over and there is an hour until afternoon chow. Time for more drill.
A drill instructor inspects a recruit's weapon.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Anthony Leite)
This time, the sun is beating down on you, adding to the experience. The sweat makes the sand stick so much better.
1000: Afternoon chow. The bugs have come out now, making standing outside the chow hall unbearable. You dare not swat at a bug crawling on your face, as you know that earns you a trip to the pit later. You just stand there screaming knowledge as the sweat drips into your eyes and the bugs crawl on your neck and face. Eventually you get inside, stuff down as much food as you can in 60 seconds, and get back outside.
1100: Time for MCMAP, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
A recruit in the basic warrior stance during martial arts training.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brooke C Woods)
You move to this football field-size lot of chopped up rubber and slip a mouth guard in. You are about to do the Marine Corps version of karate. You partner up and practice punching, kicking, chokes, escaping from chokes, slamming your partner to the ground, and trying to enunciate with a mouth guard in. If the drill instructors feel like you aren't going hard enough, they will make you do it again and again until you do. Your partner will thank you to do it right the first time.
1300: Time to go back to the house, but you'll stop by the parade deck first to get in a little drill.
1500: You get back to the squad bay.
A drill instructor inspects recruits.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Anthony Leite)
With your first inspection coming up, the drill instructor shows you exactly how everything is going to look in the squad bay. Everything has to match. Every recruit has a foot locker, a sea bag, and a rack, and they all must be marked and arranged in exactly the same way. If one person marks their foot locker in the wrong spot, the tape is ripped off of all of them and it is done again.
1700: Evening chow.
Recruits line up for chow.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dana Beesley)
1800: Back to the squad bay. It's time for all 50 recruits to take a shower.
1805: Done with showers. Get out.
1806: Rifle cleaning time.
Recruits are responsible for cleaning their rifles.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Maximiliano Bavastro)
One piece at a time, and everybody cleans the same piece until they are all done. Also, somebody was slouching, so you are scrubbing with both arms fully extended up over your head.
1900: You get one hour of "free time" before bed.
A recruit reads letters from his family.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mackenzie Carter)
This is when they hand out letters, you have time to study for the upcoming history test, you can practice drill movements that you are having trouble with, or somebody might forget to announce a drill instructor as they enter the room and you spend most of your free time at attention waiting for forgiveness.
Even sleeping involves discipline.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Vaniah Temple)
You lay at the position of attention in your rack until you are given permission to adjust. You will get used to falling asleep in the position of attention. Another day down, only seventy-something left.
Sara Ohlms spent 13 weeks feeding the sand fleas of Parris Island in the summer of 2012. She then spent the next four years as a military working dog handler. She is now a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.
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