Most of our classmates that summer 30 years ago were enjoying their break from studies on the beach or at Daddy's house at the lake, blissfully oblivious to anything but the warm sun and cool drinks in iced glasses. For 250 of us who had just completed our junior year at university, the sun that summer was a lot hotter and the strongest drink in our hands was warm water from a plastic canteen. Thirty years ago this week, we who were striving for commissions as Marine officers, converged from across the nation on an isolated camp in Northern Virginia to undergo a rite of passage, completion of which, combined with graduation from college the next spring, would guarantee that our sweethearts and parents would pin gold bars on the epaulets of our dress whites.
In 1977 the Marine officers and NCOs tasked with training the new generation were all Vietnam combat veterans. Their outlook on life and the boundaries of acceptable human behavior were, to put it mildly, a few degrees removed from the civilized mainstream. All of our NCOs, in addition to being combat vets, were also former Drill Instructors at the enlisted boot camps at San Diego and Parris Island. They were, in a word, skilled at inflicting misery without leaving marks.
And, as strange as it may sound, to a man, all of us officer candidates revelled in the abuse they dished out. We had listened to the tales told by upperclassmen about their experiences at Quantico, and had steeled our bodies and minds for the test. We prepared ourselves physically, running hundreds of miles and spending countless hours in calisthenics, knowing that the worst shame was reserved for those who couldn't keep up with the pack. As we worked out physically, we worked ourselves up mentally for the pain of a summer on the banks of Chopawamsic Creek. We were not disappointed.
I weighed a whopping 135 pounds when I arrived at Quantico that summer. When I left less than two months later, I had shed nearly 15 pounds--and there had been precious little fat to shed in the original sum. But, I could run like the wind, hike for tens of miles with 50 pounds on my back, and stand motionless for hours on parade. Most importantly, I had an appreciation for the initial training of the young Marines who would be expected to follow my lead without question and for whom I would have the literal control over life and death were I ever to lead them in combat.
Ten years later, when I was a captain, I ran into one of the psychopaths who had tortured me that summer. He was now a sergeant major. My first instinct was to avoid talking to him, but I steeled and introduced myself as one of his charges in the summer of '77. He shook my hand and smiled (something I had not seen him do once that summer). "Skipper," he growled in the way that only professional soldiers can speak convincingly, "good to see you are succeeding. As I remember, you were so small and skinny, I was worried that you might dry up and blow away."
"And I'm surprised that you haven't been brought up on war crimes charges, Sergeant Major."
We both chuckled and locked eyes. I stuck out my hand again, and said as sincerely as I could muster, "Thanks, Sergeant Major."
He smiled, then stiffened and saluted, before about-facing and marching away.
Best salute I ever got.