Summer had arrived, but without the promise of beach vacations and lazy days at my parents’ neighborhood pool. In all my 21-year-old wisdom, I’d signed up for a different kind of summer camp. Uncle Sam’s camouflage gun club, as the recruiters liked to call it; the United States Marine Corps. September 11, 2001, and consequently, any immediate concern about having to go to war, was still more than a year in the future. Bad guys were an abstract concept — a memory held by thirty-somethings who had served during that brief, victorious flash called Operation Desert Storm. Sweating quietly on the concrete floor between two long rows of steel bunk beds, 79 camouflage-clad bodies with awkwardly shorn heads waited for fate to emerge from behind a closed, red-painted steel door at the front of the room. An anxiety more paramount than the distant possibility of combat existed in the heavy, humid air; namely, how mean were these guys really going to be?
Thirty-six sleepless hours earlier, we had all stumbled through the muggy darkness along a set of yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk, moving though a gauntlet of screaming drill instructors into the world of Marine Corps recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina. As we were to learn, those particular screamers were only there to supervise the shaving of heads and the distribution of various olive drab-colored personal items. Now, beneath the glare of fluorescent lights, we all stared at the door, waiting to meet the men who would control our lives over the next three months.
June, a month known for relentless heat and humidity in South Carolina’s coastal region, had only just begun. From somewhere in the ceiling, a tired air conditioner belched unevenly but did little to counteract the heat generated by the musty mass of recruits assembled beneath it. Our processing sergeants glowered past us, uninterested in the pathetic green lumps seated on the floor. Just then, with an abrupt metallic shudder, the battered metal door of the office flew open, and four men in crisp khaki shirts, creased green trousers, and the obligatory Smokey Bear hats – canted forward at a pugnacious angle – strode into the room in single file. Stopping in front of us, they turned sharply on their heels, facing us with expressionless eyes staring at some fixed point above our heads and far, far away. A disgusted-looking young officer walked over from the office, exchanged salutes with them, said something to the effect of, “They’re yours now,” and disappeared.
The processing sergeants filed out of the room with excruciating slowness, their heels tapping the floor in unison as they marched out of our lives. Nothing happened for a solid minute. Without moving my head, I scrutinized the stony faces of our new drill instructors, looking for some little sign of what to expect. For the most part, their features told very little about who they were or what they thought of us. But one of them, a stocky, brown-skinned man about 5’7” tall, seemed a little different. Almost imperceptibly, his eyes dropped a little, scanning the rows of freshly shaved heads. I couldn’t be sure, but his dark eyes looked as if they were smiling. The amused, ghoulish glimmer I thought I saw reminded me of fellow pranksters from my recently-departed college days.
There wasn’t much time to dwell on that, though. The small, pink-skinned man in the middle of the group – the only one wearing a shiny black belt – stepped forward, relaying his first order to us in a low voice. His blue eyes were scarcely visible from beneath the brim of his campaign hat. He spoke carefully, deliberately, weaving suspense into his words. We were to get up, walk over to the footlockers at the end of our bunks, and pull out a pair of black socks.
The previous silence erupted into a din of shouting as stiff kneed drill instructors stalked briskly about the room, haphazardly attacking recruits with pointed index fingers and screams of displeasure. Utter chaos was accompanied by faces contorted into various masks of fear and misery. Mentally, I detached from my own body, as if I were floating above the other recruits who were scurrying around their bunks, ripping gear from footlockers and bumping into M16 rifles dangling from their slings on the bedposts. Nobody seemed able to put anything in the right place. Suddenly, a brown index finger poked between my eyes, popping my daydream bubble. The finger’s owner snarled commands at me faster than I could comprehend them. Spit flew from his mouth, some of it landing on my cheek, but I didn’t dare wipe it away. He wore the stripes of a buck sergeant. “Haney,” read the nameplate above his left shirt pocket.
Over the next week or so, we, the ever sweaty (and, since we only had three sets of uniforms, increasingly smelly) recruits of Platoon 2070, Hotel Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, learned to figure out who was who in our quartet of martial trainers. Staff Sergeant Weeks, a tall, thin man with one eye always squinting was the sadist. There was nothing we could do to diminish his desire to make us feel pain. Sergeant Haney, the youngest of the four, and closest in age to us (the oldest guy in the platoon was 24), seemed to have the job of making people laugh so we could be hauled off to the sand pits for “developmental exercise” — getting smoked. A beefy blond staff sergeant named Tolley, who looked not unlike Biff from Back to the Future, occupied some sort of wild card role (no one ever really knew what he was up to, possibly not even him). Staff Sergeant Charles Grey — the one with the black patent leather belt — was the senior drill instructor. Grey, as we soon found out, was relatively lenient. But whenever he departed our presence, we found ourselves at Staff Sgt. Weeks’ mercy, face down on the concrete floor doing endless pushups, or holding our rifles out by the barrels until our arms shuddered with pain and weakness. Who knew 7.8-pounds of blued steel and plastic could be so heavy!
Of all of them, we spent the most time with Sgt. Haney. As the junior of the drill instructors, he usually herded us about to various mundane administrative appointments. One of his many jobs was to teach us about Marine Corps history, a responsibility in which he delighted.
“Any you mothafuckas know who Manuel Noriega was?” he asked as we stood in line for chow one afternoon. “He was a bad guy we got rid of with Operation Just Cause. Just ‘cause he’s an asshole – that’s how you remember it.”
For a few hours most mornings, we sat in a cavernous lecture hall called the Recruit Training Facility, trying to stay awake as some guy who looked like Beavis and Butthead’s gym teacher screamed at us about military history and traditions. Sgt Haney had little rhymes and acronyms for everything to help us remember facts and keep them straight. He quizzed us at every opportunity, encouraging us to shout answers louder and louder until our voices were hoarse. Kickin’ knowledge, he called it. Tun Tavern, 1776; Archibald Henderson, the grand old man of the Marine Corps; from the halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli; Okinawa; Hue City; Honor, Courage, Commitment, God, Country, Corps, Kill, Kill, Kill! All the things marines know.
“I’m like your big brother,” he told us one day during a history lesson. “I want you mothafuckas to learn this shit cold, else big brother’s gonna beat. Yo. Ass.”
Sgt. Haney was hilarious. It was difficult not to laugh at the things he did and said. His jokes were spontaneous; they were targets of opportunity. One day, as we stood in formation by the roadside, he stopped in his tracks. He’d just noticed that a member of our platoon bore an uncanny resemblance to Sylvester Stallone.
“This mothafucka looks like ROCKY.” His eyes narrowed and his lower lip protruded as his face lunged forward, scrutinizing the recruit’s features. “Lemme hear you say, ‘Adrian!’ mothafucka!”
It took a few tries, but on the third one, the poor bastard was wailing the woman’s name just as mournfully as Rocky Balboa himself. A handful of guys couldn’t help snickering and laughing out loud. They were promptly escorted to the sand box, the dreaded crotch of our H-shaped barracks where the disobedient and unlucky went to get smoked beneath relentless southern sunshine. Later, they returned covered head to toe with sand and dirt, sweating profusely, mouths agape on grotesque masks of agony, and walking with the drop-shouldered list of the utterly exhausted.
On another occasion, he asked a recruit – a really young guy – a question. The kid stuttered in reply.
“B-b-b-b-SHUT the fuck up!” he screamed. “If you was a machine gun, you’da wiped out the whole fuckin’ platoon by now!” More open laughter, albeit less this time.
The trick was learning to laugh without laughing – without even moving. Marines who lose their composure and laugh, sneeze, swat or scratch can get killed. Sgt. Haney kept cracking jokes, and we mastered our laughter. Eventually, mirth became hidden behind hard, impenetrable veneers.
Sometimes, without even realizing it, Sgt. Haney was simply good entertainment. There was a large window between the office and the squad bay (the large room in which all 79 of us resided) that the drill instructors used to observe us. Usually, the steel blinds were closed, and from time to time, when we least expected it, they would snap open with a loud ZZHHHTT! Staff Sgt. Weeks was especially fond of that maneuver, as he liked to catch people slacking off in the corners where they thought no one could see. But little did the drill instructors know that we watched them through that window, too. It happened to be right next to my bunk, so until the drill instructor on duty for the night finally turned out the lights and went to bed, I was bathed in a filtered fluorescent glow as I lay there beneath my scratchy green wool blanket trying to imagine I was someplace else.
One of the nights when it was Sgt. Haney’s turn to babysit, I noticed that he had closed the blinds’ louvers the wrong way, and not tightly enough. They were tilted up on my side of the window, sloping down toward where he sat at the desk. Looking into the brightly lit room from the darkened squad bay, I could watch his every move through the gaps unobserved, like someone checking out a police lineup. I called over a few of my buddies, and we huddled around the window, giggling quietly and congratulating one another on our good luck. For a while, we watched him play a computer game. The screen faced us, but I don’t recall which game it was — some spaceship shooting game. As was usually the case, his lower lip was clenched between his teeth, lower jaw distended. Occasionally, he’d make a kill and wince, releasing his lip long enough to hiss, “Yeah!” or “Git some!” under his breath.
After a while, Haney lost interest in the game, and stared at the empty desktop for a minute before pulling open one of the desk’s side drawers. Shuffling through a stack of papers inside, he found what he was looking for, and slid it out of the drawer, placing it before himself gingerly. Porn. Not Playboy, not even Hustler, but one of those really raunchy ones you get in packs of three for five bucks at an adult store. He leafed carefully through the magazine’s pages, occasionally pausing to nod his approval of one of the ladies inside. Eventually, he made it to the middle, and picked up the magazine so that he could spread out the centerfold and get a good look. He held the extended picture vertically, one hand grasping the picture’s top edge and one holding onto the bottom, arms extended. In went the lower lip, out went the jaw. After another admiring nod, he released his lip long enough to mouth the words, “Aw yeah.” silently, almost reverently.
By this time, at least eight or ten guys crowded around the window to see what all the fun was, and those of us in the front row clutched our bellies and bit our lips to avoid laughing out loud and betraying our position. Seeing that the group had grown too large for safety — I didn’t even want to think about what would happen to us if we were caught spying on a drill instructor — I began swatting people away, ordering them back to their bunks as if I were the drill instructor.
Whether he was being funny or serious, Sgt. Haney clearly cared about the job of turning us into marines. Our lives could depend upon it someday. Although his jaw almost always jutted out, effecting a menacing, bulldog-like grimace, we knew where his heart lay. Platoon 2070 began kickin’ knowledge louder and more confidently. Sgt. Haney’s face remained hard, but you could feel him beaming and see his chest puff up with pride. As a group, we missed getting the highest history test score in the company by a few points. As the results were read, the guys at the front of the platoon later reported that they’d seen tears in his eyes. He’d expected us to win the first place trophy.
What Sgt. Haney wanted from us could be boiled down to a simple phrase: Do what the fuck you’re told. As we stood in a column of twos in the restroom one morning, waiting for the command to fill our canteens, he paced back and forth in front of us. He made contact with every single pair of eyes and spoke just loud enough for us to hear him.
“Make sure you mothafuckas fill that canteen ALL the way up. I don’t wanna hear no bubbles in the top when I shake it. I’ma check every one, and if I hear any space in the top, I’ma PUNCH you in your chest.”
We filled our canteens. Sgt. Haney grabbed the first one, tuning his head to the side as he raised it to his ear. Biting his lip in anticipation, he gave it a vigorous shake. No bubbles. He handed the canteen back, nodding his head slightly with approval. A few more recruits passed the canteen test without incident. Inevitably, one guy hadn’t filled his all the way. The sloshing water was audible from the back of the line as he turned to face the unfortunate recruit. Still biting his lower lip, his eyes widened, as if to say, “Oh yeah, mothafucka?” A brief pause, and then, BAM! Haney thrust the canteen into the guy’s chest, nearly knocking him over. The offender stepped back into line with a fit of wheezing and coughing.
“I TOL’ you mothafuckas – FULL!”
Drill instructors are short on time and patience, and once, Sgt. Haney’s temper got the best of him. He was suspended from duty for a week after a recruit complained to the series commander (the disgusted-looking young officer) that Haney had slammed him into a wall locker or something. I didn’t see it happen. It was a plausible story, but I also had to wonder what the guy had done to deserve getting checked. Not getting on Haney’s bad side wasn’t rocket science, and most of us really didn’t want to disappoint him anyway.
I never got the chance to march across the parade deck with the rest of my platoon on graduation day. A weird nerve injury had incapacitated motor function on my right arm. The civilian doctors in Charleston said it was an obscure hereditary disease and the navy doctors on base said it wasn’t their problem. So, the military paperwork monster spit me out a month later. I was back at home, not quite sure what to do with myself. That didn’t stop me from driving the ten hours back to Parris Island to see my friends graduate a couple of weeks later, at the end of August.
Recruits marched stiffly across the parade deck in formation. The band played a march and the ceremony concluded. The column of khaki-shirted new marines dissolved into the open arms of mothers, fathers, siblings and girlfriends. Sgt. Haney stood off to one side, chatting with family members. I walked up to say hello, and his face cracked into a broad smile – the first time I’d ever seen him break character.
“Wassup dog?” he asked, pumping my hand like I was some long-lost buddy.
“I’m trying to come back, Drill Instructor Sgt. Haney.”
I’d kept my hair cut short, but the top had grown in. My fingernails were clean and I wore pressed khaki trousers and a starched polo shirt. The last time he’d seen me, my head had head was awkwardly fuzzy from one of those ten second recruit haircuts, and my sweaty body had been cloaked in a rumpled, stained camouflage uniform. Slowly, it dawned on him who I was, and the drill instructor facade returned. He squeezed my hand one last time before letting go.
“Alright.” His jaw thrust out as he nodded, and our eyes met one last time.
I never saw him again, and from what I heard from the one guy I maintained contact with, a lot of those guys ended up in Iraq little more than a year later. When we had signed on the dotted line, joining the military was just a job with few other implications. Even though we knew that joining the military meant that we could someday have to fight, it wasn’t immediate. War was something from history books; what fathers and grandfathers had done, but that probably wouldn’t happen to us. All that changed in a day. From that seemingly harmless summer, many young men and women unknowingly took the first step into one of the longest wars in American history.