There are certain things that any junior enlisted Marine can expect to find on any Marine Corps base. Morning runs along the fence line, guarded by uniformed men with guns. Hundreds of people standing in lines, mindlessly marching towards the same, processed shelf-stable meat that has been rewarmed and served in precise measurements onto your mechanically-washed lunch tray, used continually since 1978. Daily wake-up times and roll calls. Accountability and uniformity of clothing, housing, grooming, and sanitation alongside weekly white-glove room inspections.
It sounds a lot like prison.
There is an escape, however, and that escape is provided by the United States Air Force. Marine bases are built for efficiency, not comfort, so it comes as a huge surprise for a young jarhead when he breaches the walls of an Air Force base to find all the luxuries of a more refined culture. Here’s what that budding Marine might find:
7. Dorms. They live in dorms.
When I first got to Fleet Marine Force, I was assigned to First Battalion First Marine Division on Camp Horno in a metal squad bay with Vietnam-era graffiti spray-painted on the wall just underneath the “Condemned due to Asbestos” signs.
Imagine a big tin can cut in half, laid cut side down and attached to a community hygiene area that’s void of individual shower stalls and doors for the toilets. Compare that to Air Force dorms: individual rooms with their own bathroom and dining area.
I’ve heard a rumor that they even have laundry services. As in, they have someone who will clean, fold, and return their clothing to them. I have literally had to put hot water and detergent into trash bags with my clothes, twist the end shut, and shake the bag furiously until my uniforms were clean enough for government work. #noexcuses.
6. The food scene is beyond reproach.
Steakhouses, burger joints, sushi restaurants, donut shops, ice cream parlors, and Chinese take-out are all within walking distance of any of the those magical “dorms” in which airmen reside. The real surprise is found in the Air Force “dining facility.” Marines are accustomed to chow halls, the simple, red-headed stepbrother of the proud and capable USAF dining facility. What chow halls lack in variety, they also lack in quality and general palatability.
I was definitely ingesting calories, just not tasty or healthy ones. But Air Force dining facilities provide multiple lines with an assortment of delicious cuisine. Sandwich stations, fresh pizza, and salad bars all complement the hot-line, which has multiple choices of its own. It all balances nicely with an ice cream bar — complete with myriad toppings from which to choose.
When done, you don’t even have to bus your own food tray; they clean up after you.
5. Largest exchanges and MWRs.
Imagine that gas station in the bad part of town where the guy behind the cash register would sell alcohol to the underage you while doing drug deals out the back. Now, picture that place selling PT uniforms and rank insignia. That is your basic Marine Corps Exchange.
The first time I made my way into an Air Force Base Exchange is reminiscent of when Harry Potter wandered through Diagon Alley, shopping for his wand. It was astonishing. It was a mall on steroids, complete with barbers, cars, motorcycles, and gun sales. I felt like I was a kid in a candy store.
Also, there was a candy store!
There are women on an Air Force Base. A solid ratio, too, considering most Marine bases are at around 50-to-1, men-to-women. These numbers are based on personal experience on an infantry base notorious for being in the middle of nowhere and in no way reflects a scientific method of any kind nor census numbers from any reliable source.
It was simply the feeling of a then-twenty-something junior enlisted Marine that the entire Marine base was a giant sausage party, ripe with testosterone. Kadena Air Base however, an Air Force base on Okinawa, was brimming with the fairer sex — a fact all of the Marines on the island are keen to and plan their weekends around.
3. The gym is legit.
Marine gyms are similar to prison weight yards: A bunch of high-protein-diet neanderthals angrily grunting at solid steel weights so old that the numbers have worn off. There is no air-conditioning and the staff is made up of short-term infantry Marines — every one of which know the best way to bulk up, just ask them… or accidentally make eye contact, whichever.
USMC gyms provide only free weights and pull-up bars, so if you want to do cardio, go outside and run. Conversely, Air Force gyms are masterfully designed temples of athletic excellence. All of which come complete with pools, yoga classes, Zumba courses, cardio centers, masseuses, basketball courts, racquetball courts, functional fitness areas, and juice bars!
2. They basically have water parks.
They have indoor pools, outdoor pools, water slides, and lifeguards. Just throw some overpriced hot dog vendors in a USAF water rec center and you’ve got yourself water park. They are open to all active duty service members and their families. Marine bases’ only use for pools is to drown-proof Marines annually… so all this Air Force water fun was crazy to witness.
1. Officers on gate guard duty.
Seeing shiny rank insignia in the Corps is rare at best, and non-existent at the gate. But in the Air Force, you’ll see these young officers leading the charge with regard to showing picture IDs when entering their hallowed ground.
It’s seen as a display of leadership for them to take to the gate on mornings, Fridays, and sometimes even holidays. I’ve never personally been relieved of duty by an officer, it didn’t seem like a thing to hope for, so seeing it from another service — especially the Air Force — brought a single tear to my eye.
Military members tend to make fun of the USAF for their high-maintenance personas, but if you examine the situation further, you may find they’ve earned it. The jokes will continue to fly and Marines will enjoy flaunting their comparative mistreatment, but the reality is that those same Marines know where they’re headed when liberty sounds.