In Marine Corps boot camp I was a squad leader for about 8 days. It was, like many challenges, both a burden and an opportunity. It meant that I was responsible for about 15-20 other recruits, all of whom had exactly as much experience in boot camp as I had. The opportunity was great; if I could graduate boot camp with the position intact, it was likely I’d get an automatic promotion, and that meant more pay to support the wife and baby girl waiting at the end of my training. I got the position at the beginning of the third phase of boot camp, which meant that I only had to hold onto it for a month.
What kind of burden was that position? The easiest way to think of it is trickle-down theory (and this was the era of Reagan, so it’s appropriate): when they screwed up anything from cleaning the head to not remembering how to fit the charging handle into an M-16, I got a portion of the hell rained down by the Drill Instructor. Heaven help me if I didn’t have myself and my gear squared away; not only would the D.I. personally reprimand me, he was likely to publicly mock and possibly let my own punishment, whatever it was, be shared by my squad.
These duties came in addition to a position I held for all three months of boot camp: I was the “Prac Private”- which meant while we stood in formation waiting for things like our turn at the Mess Hall, I’d stand in front of them and read and quiz them out of the Marine Corps Manual of Practical Knowledge. There were a few written tests that Marines had to work through, and I was basically a tutor for those who didn’t handle that kind of book larnin’ too well. That was my reward for being silly enough to arrive at Boot Camp with a Ludlum novel in my bag.
“Oh, so you like reading, eh? Well, I have the best book in the universe for you, smartass…” I never did see that Ludlum again.
Heavy is the Head
As squad leader, I got to march at the head of formation, with three other squad leaders, all of whom had that same shiny stressed Oh-God-Don’t-Let-Me-Fuck-This-Up look on their faces. That was also a bit of a burden; kind of like being the quarterback. When we had dance practice – oh, I’m sorry, the official Marine Corps term is “close order drill”, but it’s all dance practice – all the members of my squad behind me would take their lead from my position, direction, and speed. When we did maneuvers that called for precision changes in direction, if you didn’t get it right at the front, the mistake would magnify and ripple down the line.
As you might imagine, if one of my squad made a mistake…it was my fault. That’s not a complaint, by the way, it’s a fact of life. When you take responsibility for something, you should take it – not spend your time trying to get out of it. So when Drill Instructor Sergeant Stinson yelled at me for the fact that Ramirez had stepped off on the wrong foot for the fourth time in a row, I simply said “Yes, sir, he will do better next time, sir!”
And later, Ramirez and I would have a talk…
As I said, I lasted eight days. I was demoted when the drill instructor caught me, alone in the head (that’s “bathroom” to you civilians), leaning against the mirror, head in my hands. I had been taking a brief respite from the stresses of boot camp plus leading my men and I had my hands pressed against the wall, forehead down, just breathing for moment.
He didn’t say anything but “Get back out there, Miller!” But I knew he’d seen me lose my bearing, and sure enough, during close order drill, when I stepped off into a 40-degree angle rather than the 35-degree that the formation required, it was over. “You’re fired, Miller! Huff, get up there and be a squad leader, dammit!“Â That was it. I was demoted – which meant I went from being at the very front of one of four columns of recruits all the way to the back.
It seemed crushing at the time. I’d failed. I’d been given a chance to be a leader, to actually shine, and I’d blown it. Worse, it was literally losing a chance to provide better for my family. I hung my head (Dammit, Miller, you’re still doing it! Where’s your bearing, recruit? screamed my inner voice) as I did the walk of shame to the back of the column.
Then, with a start, I realized where I was. To my left, to my right, and for a few ranks ahead of me, were all the recruits who’d been a squad leader before me. The ones who had shared the same burdens, some of whom had suffered when I was in their squad. Their expressions were more weathered than the other recruits, and the occasional twitch at the side of their mouth as they listened to the D.I.’s shout at the poor schmucks way at the top of the column revealed their amusement.
I realized that not only could I relax – the odds of me getting a chance to mess up at the back of the line and be noticed were astronomical – but I could enjoy this special camaraderie. We had all tried our best, and we had all failed. That gave us both a sense of shared experience as well as a toughness that would serve us well. When we were told to “drop and give me 20!“, half of us were trying not to laugh, because after the pressure of being on the top, being on the bottom was almost a lark.
I ended up graduating the School of Infantry tied for highest overall scores with another recruit, which meant I almost got a promotion. They gave it to him, because they only had one to give, and I got a Meritorious Mast for leadership.
My platoon was also the only one in the company that had a 100% pass rate on all written tests. This didn’t count much in the eyes of the Corps – the physical fitness and marksmanship and close-order drill competitions were far more important – but it remains one of the proudest teaching moments of my life. I was the best damn Prac Private in the whole company, and the 32 recruits who graduated with me all would not die for lack of knowing their order of battle.
I’m still not sure what lesson, if any, I learned from all this. I just know it helped me fear losing less. “Losing everything” is not what you think it is – at the end of the day, there’s always something there. You can just sit there and rest for a while, enjoying the change in perspective. It can be very refreshing when you get a chance to stop trying for a while.
Then you reach out, grab hold of whatever is left, and start climbing again.