EVERY MARINE THINKS he’s the toughest guy in the room. Most will agree, though, that the toughest unit in the Corps is recon. Of 175,000 active-duty Marines, fewer than 3,000 serve in reconnaissance units. Recon lacks the cachet of the Navy SEALs and the Army Special Forces because a bureaucratic decision in the late 1980s kept recon out of the U.S. Special Operations Command. The Corps’s leadership vowed that there would be no “special” Marines and chose autonomy over the command’s money and missions.
The result is a slight inferiority complex manifested in brutally hard training. Recon selection begins with candidates whose paper qualifications are sterling — expert shots, perfect physical fitness tests, glowing recommendations from previous commanders. These performers are put through the two-week Recon Indoctrination Program, a nonstop battery of swims and runs led by a cadre of current recon Marines. The aptly abbreviated RIP pares the field by half. Survivors continue to the ten-week Basic Reconnaissance Course in Coronado, California. BRC trains the reconnaissance fundamentals of patrolling, observation, and communications. Its rigor cuts the class in half again. I knew a captain who’d been dropped from BRC after breaking his back during the course.
RIP and BRC taught me almost nothing. I had learned most of the tactics and technical information during my earlier training and in Afghanistan. But they imparted something even more valuable: legitimacy. BRC, for enlisted Marines, is the gatekeeper to recon. Graduation changes their MOS to 0321, “Reconnaissance Man.” It’s a rite of passage. By suffering through the same three months they did, I’d be a known commodity to them. I had been there, too. Earning rank was easy compared to earning spurs.
In June 2002, my BRC class returned to First Recon Battalion on the Friday afternoon of our graduation. As new recon Marines, we would go on to advanced parachute and scuba training, survival school, and specialized courses in foreign weapons, demolition, mountaineering, and others. We had ranked our preferences a few weeks earlier. I put “practical” training at the top of my list: special operations mission planning and a certification course to rig helicopters for inserting and extracting recon teams with ropes and ladders. Running my finger down a scheduling board in the battalion’s admin office, I stopped at the school written next to my name: advanced water survival. It had been my last choice. My one irrational fear was being trapped, powerless, underwater. Drowning. Someone had noticed, and starting at 0400 on Monday morning, that weakness would be beaten out of me.
With the Marines fighting alongside the Army in most recent wars, people tend to forget that the Corps falls within the Department of the Navy. It is fundamentally an amphibious force. The Combat Water Safety Swimmer Course, our instructors told us during the predawn brief, was designed to nurture comfort in the water through exposure to extreme discomfort. “We’ll find your soft spot and make it hard.” They promised to push our limits so far that exceeding them would probably kill us. “You will be, for all intents and purposes, drown-proofed.” Listening to them, I felt sick. This was the course I had hoped to avoid, which was precisely why I was there.
“Hardness,” I was learning, was the supreme virtue among recon Marines. The greatest compliment one could pay to another was to say he was hard. Hardness wasn’t toughness, nor was it courage, although both were part of it. Hardness was the ability to face an overwhelming situation with aplomb, smile calmly at it, and then triumph through sheer professional pride.
A high white fence surrounds the pool at Pendleton’s Camp Las Pulgas, isolating it from the rest of the world. Recon unit insignia cover the boards — skulls, scuba divers, and parachute wings with slogans such as “Celer, Silens, Mortalis” — the Latin version of First Recon’s “Swift, Silent, Deadly.” A rickety wooden tower looms over the deep end of the pool. It narrows successively to three platforms — one at ten feet, one at twenty feet, and one at a dizzying thirty feet above the pool. Across the tower’s face in black block letters is the course’s motto: IF YOU ARE STILL CONSCIOUS, THEN YOU HAVE QUIT.
We began each morning by swimming a few thousand meters. This was normally a daily workout for me, but here it was only a warm-up. Retrievals came next — sinking into fifteen feet of water to drag rifles, rubber bricks, artillery shell casings, and weights from the poolside gym back to the surface. The stated purpose was to make us “see Elvis on the bottom of the pool.” As in every other part of the course, the real purpose was to create calm where once there had been terror.
One morning, I succeeded in getting my hands around a barbell holding two twenty-five-pound plates. I pushed off the bottom and slowly clawed my way toward the shimmering light above. Bubbles raced past as I kicked and grunted, each little exertion bleeding irreplaceable air through my nose and lips. My vision was gray when my head broke the surface. I opened my mouth to gulp and was knocked back under by a jet of water. The staff trained a fire hose on the heads of the surfacing Marines, pushing us back beneath the water. Drop your weight and you fail. I struggled to hold the barbell and kicked back to the surface. Vision shrinking to little gray spots at the end of black tunnels. Fear rising. Again the water knocked me under. No way to get back to the surface now. Sinking. Just as I went limp, a hand pulled me to the side of the pool. I still held the barbell in the crook of my elbows.
More laps followed, and then the legalized hazing called “water aerobics.” The class lined up along the pool’s edge while instructors commanded from the tower. On a whistle blast, we crossed the pool using whatever mutated stroke they ordered — underwater, no arms, wearing boots, carrying a barbell, wrists tied to ankles. When the last man clutched at the far wall, we recrossed the pool. Whistle. Swim. Whistle. Suffer. Whistle. Hyperventilate. Whistle. Black out. Water aerobics kept me awake at night. I didn’t want to fall asleep because I knew I’d wake up only a few hours from the next session.
Twenty Marines started the class; eleven graduated. In its own way, those two weeks were as transformational for me as OCS had been. I faced a fear and beat it. Grabbing my diploma, I was buoyant, ready to return to recon and meet my platoon. But the battalion had other plans. Despite Captain Whitmer’s assurance that First Recon wanted to avoid “high-speed, low-drag” training, I was handed an airline ticket and orders to Fort Benning, Georgia, where I would become a paratrooper.
Recon had done exactly three real-world parachute missions in its entire history, and none since Vietnam. My three weeks at the Army Airborne school was time I could have spent working with my new platoon. I was noticing a trend in my career: train to lead a rifle platoon, but get a weapons platoon; train to raid the coastline in rubber boats, but go to war in a landlocked country; train to jump into patrols via parachute, but use boots or Humvees in the real world. It could be maddening, but I chose to see it as a tribute to flexibility. “Improvise, adapt, and overcome” was a Marine Corps mantra for good reason.
Airborne reminded me of OCS. We left our rank at the door. Aspiring SEALs, Special Forces troopers, Army buck privates, ROTC cadets, and recon Marines stood in formation each morning, doing pushups and being berated by Army instructors in black hats. Their only name was “Sergeant Airborne.”
“Give me thirty pushups! Fifty from you jarheads!”
For two weeks, they drilled us in muscle memory. Jumping from wooden boxes into a sandpit. Jumping from something called the “swing landing trainer,” hanging five feet above the ground in a mock parachute harness before being dumped unceremoniously into a gravel pile. Jumping from a thirty-four-foot tower and sliding down a zip line to simulate the airplane’s slipstream. We were told that the height was carefully chosen for maximum psychological effect: any lower and the jumper thinks he can fall unhurt; any higher and the fall becomes abstract. My knees ached, and my hips were purple with bruises from all the practice landings. Evenings I spent making trips to the hotel ice machine and popping Motrin by the handful.
Skydiving was supposed to be fun. Another trend in my training had been taking a pleasant pastime and turning it into hardship. Hiking, swimming, boating, shooting — all were corruptible. The reason was that we had to perform these commonplace activities under uncommonplace conditions. Airborne’s hundreds of practice jumps prepared us to do just that — keep our heads, deploy the chute, and land safely at night, carrying a heavy load, from low altitude, at high speed. During the last week, we did it for real.
Beyond the tips of my boots, a neighborhood slid past twelve hundred feet below, complete with kids waving from backyard swimming pools. When the red light to my left turned green, I would step from the C- 130’s door and make my first jump. We were “slick” — no packs — and starting in daylight. Behind me, standing in a line with one hand over their reserve chute handles and the other grasping their static lines, was my thirty-man stick. “Mine” because, as a first lieutenant, I was the senior guy in the group. The first one out the door. We couldn’t speak above the roar of the four engines, so we smiled reassuringly at one another and pretended to know what we were doing.
Sergeant Airborne stood by the door, ready to kick me in the back. He grinned and shouted, “Don’t worry, jarhead. I’ll push you, and gravity’ll do the rest.”
When the light turned green, I jumped. No way would he get the satisfaction of pushing me. A proper exit puts a jumper’s feet together, his body bent at the waist, and his hands and elbows tight to the reserve parachute on his stomach. I hit the slipstream with my feet apart and my arms flapping. Head over heels. Sky. Dirt. Sky. Dirt. The shock of the chute deploying stabilized me.
“One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. Check canopy and gain canopy control.” It was a testament to our training that I remembered exactly what to do, counting aloud as I tumbled through the sky. I checked the risers to make sure they weren’t twisted and looked up to see that the chute was round, with no panels blown out. Around me, parachutes filled the sky. Some jumpers were in a hover, caught in thermal updrafts. Hundred-pound ROTC cadets drifted down like fall leaves. My route to the ground was more direct.
During every jump, there’s a definite transition point between flying and falling. I learned this as the pleasant floating sensation ebbed away and the ground rushed up. I checked the canopy again, expecting to see panels missing, but it looked unripped. Finally, I grabbed the risers and fixed my eyes on the horizon as I had been taught. Don’t anticipate the landing. Back straight. Knees slightly bent.
Impact knocked the air from my lungs. Instead of rolling gently to the side and dissipating the force along the long axis of my body, I went from my feet to the back of my head. There was a flash of blue and then blackness. My chute refused to collapse, and filled by a complicit wind, it dragged my stunned body across the rocky drop zone. I finally pulled the D rings to release it from my harness and lay on my back as the next wave of airplanes passed over, pouring jumpers into the sky. Sergeant Airborne stood above me.
“Four jumps to graduation, jarhead. Only three more landings. Chute don’t even have to open on that last one. We’ll send the wings to your mom.”
Four landings later, I stood at attention while Sergeant Airborne pounded silver jump wings above my left breast pocket, drawing blood. It was the only time I would wear them. Unlike the other services, which decorate their uniforms with badges and patches, Marines wear no special insignia. I flew back to California with a skill I wouldn’t use and wings I couldn’t wear. My only memento of Fort Benning was the pair of red dots on my chest where Sergeant Airborne had taken out his frustration on the United States Marine Corps.
A few weeks later, I froze in the darkness as a spotlight washed over me. My heartbeat sounded like a gong in my ears. Surely, it could be heard a hundred yards away. When the light moved on, I pressed my body deeper into the gravel of the dry riverbed, squirming to put another millimeter of earth between me and the light. With the light were dogs. With the dogs were armed men. Capture meant torture, maybe death. I had to escape from the light. Our C-17 crashed somewhere in the Balkans, dumping me and a dozen others into the cold woods. We had to travel by night and hide by day, trying to link up with underground collaborators who would spirit us to safety.
At least that was the story. In the riverbed that night, I almost believed it. The woods were actually near Warner Springs, California, in the high country east of San Diego. I was a student at the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school. SERE trains “high-risk personnel” — mainly pilots, SEALs, and recon Marines — to evade capture behind enemy lines and to resist torture if caught. The school’s motto is “Return with honor,” a summary of the lessons learned by American prisoners in North Vietnam, the Gulf War, and other conflicts.
SERE’s first week was a gentleman’s course, half days in a classroom at Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island. On the instructor staff were men who’d spent more time in foreign prisons than I had in the Marine Corps. The purpose of the course, they said, was “to learn to overcome the mind-fuck of captivity.” They taught us our rights under the Geneva Convention — food, shelter, medical attention, and mail — with wry smiles. “Don’t expect to get any of ’em.” They drilled us to memorize the six-article Code of Conduct. The code was written after the Korean War because so much information had been extracted from captured Americans through physical and psychological pressure.
The code begins, “I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.” It continues through pledges never to surrender, always to resist capture and try to escape, and to accept no special favors from the enemy. The code commits Americans to keep the faith with their fellow prisoners and to give up only name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. All other questions are to be evaded “to the utmost.” The code ends, “I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which make my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.” During SERE’s second week, we got the chance to live it.
We boarded a bus on the Saturday morning that marked the course’s midpoint. As an infantryman, I was accustomed to traveling light. I had survived in the field for weeks with only the contents of my rucksack. That morning, I carried in my left pocket all the gear allowed for SERE’s field week: a compass, a toothbrush, and ten feet of parachute cord.
The first few days in Warner Springs were dedicated to hands-on application of skills we had learned in the classroom — navigation, camouflage, signaling, and foraging. Nothing new for a Marine grunt. We slept in piles beneath tiny squares of parachute silk, struggling to keep warm. In six days, I ate one carrot, a few handfuls of wild barley, and a little bit of rabbit. Much of SERE’s fearsome reputation was based on this starvation, and it slowly degraded our decision making, putting us in a more vulnerable state of mind.
Toward the middle of the week, our final exam began: the simulated plane crash behind enemy lines, evading the packs of men and dogs pursuing us, and, when captured, resisting interrogation in an isolated prisoner of war camp. No one evades the whole time; everyone goes to the camp. But the one thing the staff can’t control is the clock — the course ends when it ends. The trick is to avoid capture for as long as possible, spending time on your own terms in the woods rather than at the mercy of your captors in the camp.
So I crouched in the riverbed until the shouting shadows with the spotlight moved on. Taking a deep breath, I began to crawl, thankful for the silence of the sand. Like any American forces operating within or above enemy territory, we had been briefed on a “designated area of recovery.” Mine was a hut where I would link up with collaborators who would help spirit me to safety. It was still several kilometers away. I moved quickly, knowing I had to reach it before dawn or find a place to hide until the following night. Moving in daylight almost guaranteed capture.
Night in the high country around Warner Springs is cold, even in summer. We wore only our summer-weight uniforms, and I disciplined myself to slow down, resisting the urge to run for warmth. I liked being on my own. It was a test of wits, with the gratification of an instant reward. Each second of freedom meant I was winning. Part of SERE’s training is to develop a coping strategy. Mine was to turn the exercise into a game, and it kept me going. I reached the hut before dawn and joined five classmates inside. We had been scattered after the crash and had moved independently to the hut. Its owner, a burly Bosnian who was probably a Navy chief in real life, assured us that we were safe and suggested that we sleep for the day, since we would have a long movement that night. I drifted off on the dirt floor.
Barking dogs woke me. There was shouting in a foreign language, and a rifle bolt slammed home. We had been betrayed. The sun was high in the sky, and I knew we were captured. I felt crushed. SERE’s realism, and a thought-scattering week without food, made it easy to forget that this was only training. In my mind, on that morning, I was somewhere in the Balkans and had just been condemned to a prison camp.
Rough hands pushed me to the ground from behind. I saw a boot and nothing else. A burlap sack was dropped over my head, and I was half-led, half-dragged down a dirt road and into a clearing. I kept my bearings by looking downward through the sack’s opening. My mind raced, trying to remember what I had been taught the week before. This was initial capture, the most dangerous time of all. I could expect a field interrogation, and I had to give up enough information to be kept as a prisoner instead of being killed outright. Know-nothings and hard-heads usually ended up with a bullet in the base of the skull.
I felt almost elated being slammed against a metal wall. Field interrogation; I had been right. A swarthy guy with a mustache had me by the collar, bouncing me back and forth against the wall. After two or three bounces, he would ask my name. I said, “American.” He slapped me across the face, and the bouncing continued. We went back and forth like this a couple of times before he pulled out a gun. I recognized the danger sign and told him my name. The rule of captivity is to bend, not break. Be the willow, not the oak. Getting killed means you failed the test. We went back and forth on a few more questions, and then I was hurled into the bed of a truck.
The next day and night passed in a blur of beatings and interrogations. I was stripped to my underwear and shoved alone into a cinderblock cell, shorter than I was tall and narrower than I was wide. My legs cramped, and I shifted onto my feet. Then my back cramped, and I repeated the cycle for hours on end. Isolation is brutal, even for a short time. There was nothing to look at, no one to talk to, no way to keep track of time. We were made to feel completely powerless so that we would understand that our fates were in the hands of our captors.
After dark, a scratchy recording echoed through the camp. I recognized it as Rudyard Kipling’s “Boots,” in a droning British monotone. Over and over, it played a continuous loop: “There’s no discharge in the war!”
When dealing with stress, we crave human contact, a connection with others who can empathize with our pain and provide the simple hope of shared hardship. I was cautiously excited when, hours after sunset, the guards dragged me from my cell and led me at gunpoint down a long underground corridor. Even hearing them talk and seeing them move took my focus off myself.
I entered a carpeted room, warm and bright. A man behind a desk greeted me with a gracious smile and, in accented English, asked me to sit. He pushed a candy bar and a steaming mug of coffee across his desk, inviting me to enjoy them. Mind-fucking me. I refused, but not without a long glance at the rising steam. He introduced himself as a representative of the Jamaican embassy. I nodded. He asked about my treatment. I replied that Article 25 of the Geneva Convention required that I be housed in decent accommodations, while Article 26 guaranteed me basic daily food rations. I had received neither. He smiled and said he would see what he could do to help. He put on a concerned look and asked about my physical condition. At his prompting, I moved my head up and down, and back and forth. I bent my arms and legs.
Going through the charade, I knew this was a “soft sell” interrogation. Torture is generally a weapon of the weak. Americans are social creatures and especially susceptible to those who will eviscerate us with a gentle smile and a kind word. By obeying politely but accepting no favors, I had defeated the conniving Jamaican. I was returned to my cell.
After shivering for a few hours, I was again led out, this time blindfolded and bound at the wrists. Inside another room, I was forced into a wooden box. It measured perhaps five feet by two feet and was no more than two feet deep. A lid slammed over me, and I heard a latch slide into place. It was like being buried alive. I struggled to stay calm, to breathe easily, and not to thrash around and let them know they’d gotten to me.
When I was finally let out, the guards pushed me up a flight of stairs and made me kneel on a wooden floor. They tightened the blindfold so I could see nothing. My hands remained tied behind my back. A voice began to fire questions at me — name, rank, service, reason for being in the country, number of Americans on my plane. The floorboards creaked as he walked around me. I didn’t know where the blows would come from.
I struggled to use the resistance techniques I had been taught, crafting a story that was believable, logical, flexible, and consistent. Alternately, I slipped into vagueness and ran down irrelevant tangents. I filled my speech with military acronyms and claimed a faulty memory. Whenever I sensed a fist winding up in the dark, I gave him a piece of information. I verbally bobbed and weaved until my knees were sore. Finally, a rifle barrel prodded me to my feet and planted itself in my rib cage as I limped back to my cell.
Coping strategies. I stared at the cell wall, shivering. I had no idea how many hours remained before sunrise or how many days I’d be in the camp. Then I remembered the tap code. One of the classes in Coronado had been in a Morse code-like tapping of letters to spell words through cell walls. I tapped “hi” on the wall in front of me. H-I H-I H-I.
It surprised me when someone tapped back. I missed his first few taps and scratched at the wall, the signal to start over.
S-F S-F S-F.
Semper fi. Always faithful. I smiled in the tight confines of the cell and sat back to wait for my next mind-fuck.
When SERE ended, the staff carefully debriefed each student on his performance. A Navy petty officer sat with me in an empty Coronado classroom.
“So, sir,” he said with a smile, “how long do you think you were locked in the box?”
“An hour, maybe two,” I replied.
The two times I was led from my cell had, as I guessed, been my soft and hard interrogations. The hard sell had been a total success — I had given up almost no information and had used the resistance techniques so effectively that the interrogator had never resorted to torture. The soft sell had been a different matter. As I sat in silence the petty officer played a videotape. There I sat in the warm room, looking pale and thin. Apparently, there had been a hidden camera I never saw. A voice-over asked questions that were never actually posed to me, and my reactions had been spliced in.
“Do you care that you bomb and kill the little children of our country?”
I shook my head no.
“Do you think America is evil for the war crimes it commits here against our peace-loving people?”
I nodded an emphatic yes.
My neck stretches in response to the Jamaican’s health questions had been used against me. Despite the best intentions, I had fallen victim to the soft sell. The petty officer was sympathetic. “Don’t worry, sir. Getting mind-fucked once is the best way to make sure it won’t happen again.”