HALFWAY THROUGH OCS, I was in the spotlight. I couldn’t march, failed to appreciate the importance of aligning the right edge of my belt buckle with the right edge of the top button of my trousers, and had a masochistic reaction to being screamed at: I stared into my assailant’s eyes, prompting a whole new round of abuse. Olds had singled me out so many times that he stopped using my name. He’d say, “Well, well, well, look who it is,” or “What a surprise.” I was in danger of dismissal for “failure to adapt.”
On a Friday afternoon, we lined up our folding campstools in the back of the squad bay and sat at attention, backs straight and hands on our knees, waiting for a speech by our platoon commander, Captain Fanning. I later learned that OCS platoon command is just a holding tank for young captains returning to Quantico for advanced training. It’s a cushy job to decompress after a Fleet tour — easy hours, little supervision, and no real responsibility. OCS is run by sergeants, staff sergeants, and gunnery sergeants — the notorious “gunnies.” But the truth was still hidden from me in the summer of 1998, and the captain was power personified. He walked down the aisle, and we jumped to our feet.
Captain Fanning was a soft-spoken helicopter pilot. I stared at the silver bars on his collar and the gold aviator wings pinned above his left breast. He held a single piece of paper and told us to sit down. Fanning looked at us with a mixture of empathy and disdain.
“Five weeks down. The mission of OCS is to train, evaluate, and screen. Mainly screen. We want to see who has Marine officer potential. It’s a game. You have to play by the rules. Our rules, the Marine Corps’s rules. Most of you are probably college athletes.” Candidates nodded, grateful for the human connection. Fanning went on, “This is no different from football: learn the rules and play the game. Trust me, this isn’t the real Corps. Just do what you have to do here, and then you can get on with your career and your life. Four more weeks till the Crucible starts.”
The Crucible was our final exercise. We’d all heard rumors about three or four days of running through the woods with no food and no sleep. I was distracted thinking about it when Fanning looked down at his paper and changed the subject. “I want to talk with you today about leadership — five of the Marine Corps’s leadership principles that helped me in the Fleet.”
I uncapped my pen, thinking it futile to reduce such complex ideas to a list. But Fanning didn’t only run through the five principles. He told us what they meant and how he, as an officer, had used them. “First,” he counseled, “you must be technically and tactically proficient.” There was no excuse for not knowing everything about the weapon, radio, aircraft, or whatever else it was you were trying to use. “Being a nice guy is great, but plenty of nice guys have gotten half their Marines killed because they didn’t know their jobs.
“Second, make sound and timely decisions.” According to Captain Fanning, one of the gravest errors was waiting to have all the information before making a decision. In the fog of combat, you’ll never have all the information. A good plan violently executed now, he urged, was better than a great plan later. Be decisive, act, and be ready to adapt.
Fanning’s third piece of advice was simple: “Set the example.” As officers, all eyes would be on us. We would set the tone, and the unit would take its cues from our attitudes — good and bad. “Why do we care here about how your uniform looks?” Fanning asked us. “Because your Marines will care.” Sloppiness begets sloppiness, and small inattentions would set us on the slippery slope to large ones. That, according to the Marine Corps, was the causal link between the alignment of my belt buckle and the survival of my future platoon.
“Fourth, know your men and look out for their welfare.” Fanning smiled as he remembered Marines he’d served with. They will, he said, follow you through the gates of hell if they trust you truly care about them. “This is not about you.” Fanning spoke the sentence slowly, emphasizing each word. He explained that the Corps existed for the enlisted infantryman. “Everyone else — you aspiring infantry officers included — is only support.
“Finally,” Fanning exhorted us, “train your men as a team.” A unit’s good morale and esprit de corps depend on each man’s feeling part of it. Marines need to know one another’s jobs. “That includes you and your platoon sergeant,” he added. A new lieutenant and his enlisted second-in-command had to share their responsibilities. Too often, Fanning said, platoon commanders focused on the mission while platoon sergeants focused on troop welfare. “Each of you has to do both.” Fanning drove the point home with a question: “What’s the difference between you and your platoon sergeant?” He paused and then answered it himself. “One bullet.”
Captain Fanning wasn’t General George S. Patton in front of an American flag. He didn’t rant and rave and wave a pistol in the air. Because of that, his words resonated with me. He gave us a glimpse beyond the fantasy world of OCS. We began to see the connection between practicing and playing, between fake pressure and real pressure. Captain Fanning had explained the purpose of the game.
From that afternoon on, I accepted the rules and lived by them. When getting dressed by the numbers, I tried to move faster and yell louder than anyone else. When Olds made me call cadence, I did it with heart and never backed down. He stopped caring that my calls confused the platoon. Marching didn’t matter. It was about cool under pressure. It was about detachment. We had to retain our ability to think when the world was crumbling around us. Not for ourselves, but for our Marines.
Starting the next afternoon, we got twenty-four hours off. My dad picked me up at Quantico’s gate and took me to Annapolis for the day. I tried to describe OCS, but the stress and the chaos were laughable, a million miles away. It embarrassed me to seem too affected by them. After all, this was training, really nothing more than a summer job. But it was more. The bullets were blanks, and the screaming was an act, but the test was real. By the Marine Corps’s own admission, I was being screened to see if I had what it takes to be a combat leader. It was a rite of passage, my generation’s chariot race or duel. I wanted to pass that test more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.
Growing up, I’d tested myself on the athletic field. A bad football play or a lost lacrosse game could be shaken off — commiserate with teammates and look forward to next week. In college, I was never truly challenged. I worked hard to do well but never doubted the outcome. I knew from the first day of freshman year that I would graduate. At OCS, my commission was mine to lose. And I could lose it at any moment.
The future disappeared, and my selfish motives went with it. I existed only in the present. The one thing keeping me going was being part of a group, knowing each mistake made my comrades a little weaker. Group punishment, shunned in most of American society, was a staple at OCS. Platoons fight as groups. They live or die as groups. So we were disciplined as a group. The epiphany struck one morning the next week as I locked my body in the leaning rest — the “up” pushup position. Sergeant Olds put the whole platoon in that posture while he berated a candidate at the far end of the squad bay for having scuffs on his boots. The message wasn’t in Olds’s words; it was in recognizing that this wasn’t about how much we could take, but about how much we could give.
As we moved into the last month of the summer, the days seemed to accelerate. Riding the bus through Quantico’s gates felt like a long time ago. I thought of my early mistakes and laughed. At least they’d kept me around long enough to learn from them. The Crucible was only a week away. We would put together all the classes and PT in one final test. There were rumors of a ceremony after the Crucible. We would receive an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the traditional symbol of the Marine Corps: a token of our survival.
During the final week, each day ended as it began, with our platoon toeing the line along the length of the squad bay. We stood at attention in brown T-shirts, green shorts, and shower shoes. The sergeant instructors strutted past, berating us mostly, but then including a few nuggets of praise.
“You candidates are the worst we’ve seen yet. The slowest. The dumbest. The most selfish.” Olds pointed at a different candidate with each pejorative tag. I exhaled when he moved on without pointing at me. “We may still send most of you back to college. Back to playing tennis and mixing martinis and thinking you’re better than the men who defend your freedom.” He wasn’t bluffing. We had lost another platoon-mate earlier that week — this time to a stress fracture. “But a few of you have heart. And we’ll make those candidates into Marines. They’ll go out and kill communists for Suzy Rottencrotch.” Suzy was a Marine Corps metaphor for every cheating wife and girlfriend we’d left behind. Nothing in our lives was sacred to Olds except our ability to lead Marines. He finished with one of his most often repeated pieces of advice: “A little heart will get you a long way in the Marine Corps.”
We took it as praise.
At the end of each night’s monologue, we hydrated. “Hydrate” is another entry in the Marine lexicon. Marines don’t drink; they hydrate. Many of our platoon’s casualties spent their last hour as Marine officer candidates sprawled in a tub of ice, getting jabbed with a rectal thermometer called “the silver bullet.” Heat stroke in July in Virginia does not discriminate between tall and short, black and white, or good candidate and bad candidate. It knows only hydrated and dehydrated. So there was no resistance to the nightly command to hydrate. We tilted our heads back and poured a whole canteen of water down our throats, holding the empty canteen upside down over our heads to prove it was empty. Some candidates had a hard time keeping so much liquid down, heaving streams of regurgitated water across the aisle to pool around the feet of the men on the other side, who kept their eyes stoically to the front to avoid the wrath of the stalking instructors.
Olds pointed to the puddles, deeply offended. “This is my house. That water better be cleaned up by reveille. And none of you maggots better get out of your racks tonight either. The Marine Corps Order says sleep, so sleep.”
At the command “mount the racks,” we clambered into our bunks. But even then the day wasn’t over. We lay at the position of attention, arms at our sides with fists clenched and thumbs on our imaginary trouser seams, heels together with feet at a forty-five-degree angle, eyes on the ceiling.
Olds stood in the center of the squad bay with his hands on his hips.
“Reeeaaaaddddy!” The word came not from his mouth, or even from his lungs, but from someplace deep inside known only to drill instructors and Italian tenors.
“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” Forty-five voices in the first week, then forty-one, then thirty-eight as the summer progressed, bellowed “The Marines’ Hymn.” Not “The Marine Corps Hymn” but “The Marines’ Hymn,” the song that belonged to the Marines.
“First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean.” All the pride, all the striving, all the heart was there in those lyrics being shouted at the ceiling.
“If the Army and the Navy ever look on Heaven’s scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.”
That moment at the end of the hymn, when silence roared in our ears and I could hear my fellow candidates catching their breath, was my favorite time of the whole day.
“The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war. Good night, candidates.” Sergeant Olds always said “we,” never “you.” He flipped out the lights, leaving us at attention in the darkness with the airfield’s rotating beacon flashing across the walls.
I woke up early on August 7. Normally, I was so exhausted I slept until the lights came on. But I was excited. The Crucible would start that night. Only one week left before graduation. We sweated through our morning workout and marched to chow. The platoon functioned as a single organism now, humming along under its own power. We strutted across the parade deck, calling our own cadence. As we crossed the bridge, I saw Staff Sergeant Carpenter watching us from the concrete pad outside the chow hall. He looked stern.
Holding up a hand to interrupt our march, he motioned us toward him.
“Candidates, bring it in and listen up.” I expected to be berated for some imaginary transgression, such as leaving dirt on the squad bay floor.
“Terrorists have attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Blew ’em up. Marines guard those embassies. Some of my brothers — your future brothers — are probably dead. Oughta get your blood up. Y’all are about to be in a growth industry. Go eat chow.”
We lived in an information vacuum — no weather forecasts, no baseball scores, certainly no analysis of the destruction of two American embassies.
Candidates whispered urgent conversations in the chow line.
“What does this mean?”
“Bullshit. It don’t mean anything. Not for us at least. The guys in the Fleet might get some play, but not us.”
“No way. This ain’t World War Three. Just a couple of bombings. We’ll lob some missiles at ’em, and that’ll be that. Damn. They burned the pancakes again.”
The Crucible started at ten o’clock. After a full day, Sergeant Olds had us sing the hymn as usual. But instead of turning out the lights afterward, we shouldered our packs and left the squad bay for a ten-mile hike through the dark woods. Olds didn’t scream much anymore. He just told us what to do, and we did it. We started off down a gravel road in two columns. I walked next to Dave. He smiled and whistled, relentlessly upbeat. I half expected him to start skipping. When we turned off the road, the platoon stretched out in single file along a narrow dirt path. We paralleled the swamp I’d seen from the bus and passed the airfield where the president’s helicopter, Marine One, was based. Quantico didn’t feel like a prison anymore.
In the dawn light, Sergeant Olds said it was time for the Quigley. I had heard about the Quigley. We had all heard about it. Most of OCS was successfully kept under wraps, so each day brought unwelcome surprises, but this muddy trench had become an icon of Quantico’s training, the sort of thing generals recalled in speeches.
We jogged down a trail through the woods. After a night of hiking without sleep, we stumbled along at half speed. The temperature was already ninety degrees, and sweat soaked my uniform. Canteens thudded against my hips with each step and the pack straps cut into my shoulders. Candidates strung out along the trail, urging one another on. I panted into a clearing and saw the trail disappear into a bog. A wooden pier extended across it, clearly not intended for me. My path lay in the mud beneath strands of barbed wire next to the pier.
I dove under the first strand into the stinking beige water, eager to impress the instructors with my gung ho. It was deeper than I expected, and I sank beneath the water. I recovered and began to crawl, scratching my way forward beneath the banks of mud.
Another candidate struggled along in front of me, and I made it my goal to close the gap between my hands and his boots. Suddenly, he stood straight up, shouting and waving. Something long and black hung from his upper arm: a snake.
Christ, I thought, there are snakes in here. I started to stand.
A boot heel between my shoulder blades drove me, face-first, back beneath the water.
“What do you think you’re doin’, boy? Crawl.”
“Aye-aye, Sergeant Instructor.” It came out garbled because mud stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. I continued pulling myself forward, past the candidate with the snake on his arm. The instructor who had kicked me was waiting as I climbed out of the Quigley.
“You can’t compromise a mission and get men killed for a harmless little snake. Not even for a poisonous big snake. Discipline always. Now get out of my sight.”
His message was clear: you need discipline most when it’s hardest to muster — when you’re tired, hungry, outside your comfort zone. I struggled for the next two days to stay alert, stay disciplined, and keep my focus on the candidates around me. We worked in squads of twelve, rotating as squad leader and attacking through acres of humid woods. Our tactics were unsophisticated: walk as quietly as possible to the objective and then charge it, wildly firing blanks from our M-16s. The mission of OCS was more to gauge spirit than to teach us skills.
It rained through both nights, and we slept in Korean War-era pup tents seemingly designed to collect water and channel it onto us. The rain and the gnawing hunger (we received only one meal per day) conspired to keep us awake. By the third afternoon, the dirt-encrusted faces of the candidates around me reflected the countless attacks and long runs with all our gear that we had endured. Just a few hours before the Crucible’s end, I was digging a hole to stay awake.
“What the hell are you doing, Candidate?” Olds’s voice suggested that whatever I was doing was not what I ought to be doing.
“Digging a foxhole, Sergeant Instructor Sergeant Olds.”
“Digging a what?”
“A foxhole.” I paused, trying to stand at parade rest while holding a shovel and pushing my helmet up so I could see him more clearly.
“Foxes dig holes to hide in. Marines dig fighting holes to kill the enemy from. Are you planning to hide in your hole or to use it as a weapon to kill the enemy?”
In the Marines, anything can be a weapon; it’s a whole new way of thinking. My plastic MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) spoon was a weapon if I used it as an insulator on a radio antenna so that I could talk to jets and call in air strikes.
“Weapon, Sergeant Instructor.”
“Right. Now who’s providing security for you while you dig this weapon?”
I looked into the brush, searching for the other three candidates in my fire team. They were snoring.
“Candidate, Marines do everything in pairs. We fight in pairs. We patrol in pairs. We dig in pairs. Go to Thailand on deployment, and you’ll see that we even fuck in pairs. A Marine alone is easy to kill. A Marine with a buddy is hard as hell to kill. Don’t let me catch you alone again.”
Train your men as a team. I cursed myself for letting fatigue get to me.
Later in the morning, we packed our gear and hiked down to the parade deck. Hulking gray CH-53 Super Stallions, bigger than school buses, waited to ferry us over to TBS. It was my first helicopter ride. We sat on nylon benches along the sides of the cargo bay, and I looked past the tail ramp as the parade deck and our barracks fell away beneath us. Crossing I-95, I looked down at the cars filled with commuters. Clean people, well-fed, rested, in control of their days. I realized I wouldn’t trade places with any of them.
Candidates were grouped in fours as we gathered at the edge of the TBS landing zone. A second lieutenant met each group. These men had been on the Crucible not long before and knew to take us straight to the chow hall. We filled our plates with macaroni and pizza and ate slowly. No sergeant instructors lined the paths to our seats. No one threatened us for looking around the room or failing to keep our boot heels together. It felt rebellious. We went back for seconds.
Outside the chow hall, the platoon assembled in a formation. We were filthy but stood straight. Our rows and columns were perfectly aligned. Sergeant Olds made his way down each row, stopping before every candidate to shake his right hand and press a cold piece of metal into his left. I hoped Olds would say something encouraging to me, maybe note my improvement or say he had enjoyed having me in the class. Instead, he locked me with unblinking eyes and said, “You ain’t done yet.”
But we were done. I held the coveted Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. I snuck a look when Olds moved on to the next candidate in the formation. One inch across and anodized in black, it was a pin, eventually for wearing on a dress uniform. It was the symbol of the Marine Corps, immortalized on bumper stickers and baseball caps across America. With it in hand, I could go back to college for my senior year. When I returned to Quantico, it would be as a second lieutenant.