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US Military Boot Camp Turns Youngsters Into Marines - 2003-02-15

Training in military "boot camp" has changed little over the years. Recruits receive instruction in marksmanship and survival skills, and undergo weeks of close order drills under the watchful eyes of drill sergeants. At the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot, instructors say they turn youngsters into Marines.

They are bussed in at midnight, arriving in a daze and told to place their feet on yellow foot marks on the concrete. No matter how hard they try, they cannot quite get it right and suffer the reproaches of scowling drill instructors.

Gunnery Sergeant Gary Moran, chief drill instructor at night, says "you're trying to instill discipline, so that they have a quick response to orders. So, say you had a recruit who wasn't standing at the proper position of attention, just lounging around talking. What you'll hear is something like this: 'Get your freaking feet together right now. Get at the position of attention. Get your heels together, thumb along your trouser seams.'"

The recruit responds "Aye, aye, sir," but his response is never loud enough for the sergeant.

Over the next 12 weeks, the recruits will do calisthenics, marching and close order drill.

They will also learn water survival, jumping into a swimming pool with their camouflage uniforms on. Later, they will try it dressed in battle gear, with helmets, boots, packs and rifles. The ubiquitous drill instructor is there to encourage them.

"Get out of the water now!"

Gunnery Sergeant Raphael Torres teaches basic water survival. "We teach them certain techniques, for example, the abandon ship technique in case the ship goes down," he says. "They know the proper procedure to jump off the ship, to basically cross their arms and cross their ankles and hit the water. If the ship's on fire and the ocean's covered with burning oil, we show them how to jump in the water with the burning oil, and then resurface without getting burned."

Eighteen year old recruit Jose Gonzales comes from San Francisco. The son of immigrants from El Salvador, he is the first in his family to finish high school. "What made me join the Marine Corps is personal pride and heart, to be somebody later on in life, not just [live] for the moment, and to pass something down to my children and hopefully my grandchildren," he says.

The recruit says, if war comes, he will accept it as part of his job. "War, for me, is just a debate between two countries. And personally, if it happens, it happens," he says. "I'm not scared of it and I don't want to go into it, but if I have to, I will."

The highlight of basic training is a 54 hour ordeal called The Crucible, when recruits overcome a series of obstacles on a 65 kilometer course.

Then comes graduation, when each successful candidate receives an emblem with an eagle, globe and anchor, the symbol of the Marine Corps. It is an emotional time for recruits and their families, especially now, with the looming threat of war.

William Sullivan of Chicago is here to see his grandson, Patrick, graduate from boot camp. "I feel proud, happy, a little worried, a little scared," he says.

For recruits, there is surprisingly little talk of war. With limited access to newspapers and television, they have focused on their training. Justin Gibson, 19, of Blanchard, Iowa, is just happy to get through it. "Yeah, it had its rough parts. Probably my roughest part was keeping motivated because it was hard for me at the beginning," he says. "I just wanted to quit, but I'm glad I stuck it through."

The newly minted Marines are not yet ready to join their units. They will undergo further training, both in combat and in specialized jobs, from communications or cooking to amphibious warfare.

And wherever they go, there will be marching and close-order drill, which instructors say builds a cohesive unit and instills discipline.