Mettle of Honor
Boot camp tests recruits from the Navajo Nation
by Steve Schmidt Staff Writer
Photo by Earnie Grafton, Staff Photographer
November 24, 2003
Part 2 of 2

Julio Nez thought he had things figured out, but at this moment, with three beastly Marine Corps drill instructors going medieval on him, he's not sure of anything.

Training Day 45: Dabbing camouflage paint 
on each other, Nate Bitsui (left) and George
Skeet prepped for the climax of their 78-day
boot camp training – The Crucible. The grueling test is staged at Camp Pendleton.

One of the instructors – the one with the reddest face – keeps snarling and cussing.

"I can turn my pain meter up alllll daaaaay lonnnnnnnnngg!"

Julio has been at Marine Corps Recruit Depot near downtown San Diego a few days, and right now, crowded in the barracks with hundreds of recruits, the 18-year-old wonders if he made the right decision. He's left his family, friends and girlfriend in northeast Arizona for the longest and toughest boot camp training in the U.S. military, a 13-week test of body and spirit.

What's more, he's volunteered in wartime. Others his age are beginning college or hunting for jobs.

Julio is a Navajo, and to his tribe the Marines are a special calling. The warrior cultures bonded in World War II, when hundreds of Navajos, trained in San Diego, served as Marine code talkers in the bloody victory over Japan.

The same flame of patriotism burns in men such as Julio Nez and Nathaniel Bitsui. Both left the harsh and gorgeous Navajo Nation, America's largest reservation, in June to begin the crucible of Marine training.

Leaving home was tough – and not tough at all. Both men weathered the teary goodbyes, but also ached to move on and start their adult lives.

But will they survive boot camp? After four days in San Diego, the drill instructors are doing their bad-guy shuffle, yelling and screaming and reminding everyone who's in charge, and they better not freakin' forget it because they're nothing but a bunch of nasty recruits!

This is the Marine Corps, not the Peace Corps. Boot camp is supposed to transform the nation's youth – jocks, gangbangers, farm kids – into a brotherhood of Marines worthy of an elite fighting force.

Behind the gates of the recruit depot, a football toss from San Diego Bay, the newcomers will bunk together, shower together, shoot and clean rifles together. Over marathon days, they'll learn to march and endure the roars of their teachers.

"You will give 100 percent of yourselves at all times. You will obey all orders willingly, instantly and WITHOUT QUESTION!" yells Staff Sgt. David Baldock, Julio's senior drill instructor. "Above all else, you will never QUIT, and you will NEVER, EVER GIVE UP!"

Some won't make it to graduation. Some are injured, others attempt or feign to attempt suicide.

Julio and Nate, keepers of a Navajo legacy, begin boot camp with deep doubts. Their ancestors survived the same training and went on to do their people proud.

Julio and Nate pray they will, too.

In early June, Nate reports to Platoon 2093, Golf Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion.

Two weeks later, Julio reports to Platoon 1006, Charlie Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion.

With their freshly shaved heads and green camouflage uniforms, it's hard to tell some recruits apart. Others stick out:

  • Mambasse Patara, 28, of Los Angeles. Patara grew up in Togo, in western Africa, where his father is a tribal king with six wives and 33 children. Patara, whose face is covered with ritual scars, is to succeed his father as king.
  • Ricardo Gomez, 19, of suburban Dallas. The Texan is here to get back at his deadbeat dad. Gomez says his estranged father went AWOL from boot camp years ago. He also ditched Gomez's mother when she was pregnant with him. "I want to prove I can stand one of the toughest boot camps there is," Gomez says.
  • A recruit with a secret. The Marines rejected the man a few years ago after he admitted having childhood asthma. Now in his 20s and fit as an ox, he signed up again, but kept his mouth shut about any medical wrinkles. "I wanted so bad to be a Marine," he says.

The same hunger drove Nate. Back home in Cameron, Ariz., the 18-year-old dreamed of being a leatherneck.

Cameron is on the western edge of the Navajo reservation and near Grand Canyon National Park.

The kinship between the Marines and Navajo goes beyond their blood bond from World War II. Both stand apart from society. Both know the Spartan life.


Back home, Nate sometimes slept in the back of his white pickup, under the stars.

A few days into boot camp, Nate is homesick. He longs for friends, his truck and the red rock landscape of home.

It doesn't help that his drill instructors berate him for his slight slouch and for not speaking loudly enough. They say he lacks confidence, mistaking his Navajo reserve for weakness.

"Open your freakin' mouth!" they tell him.

"Aye, aye, sir."


"Aye, aye, SIR!"

The days grind – 5:30 a.m., recruits leap from their bunk beds in boxer shorts and get dressed as roll is called; 5:35 a.m., they march to chow hall for a quick breakfast; 7 a.m., they head to physical training, running laps or conducting combat drills; 9:30 a.m., they sit in a class – "Marine Corps History," "Heroes of the Corps," "The Sexual Responsibilities of a Male Marine."

On goes a typical day. More classes, more marching and more running, while singing in cadence.

"My Marine Corps colors are red
To show the world the blood we shed
My Marine Corps colors are gold
To show the world the traditions we hold."

Each platoon is housed in a long, narrow barrack lined with squeaky bunk beds. The windows often rattle from the noise of the nearby airport. There's no TV, no radio, no privacy.

Life is simple on the Navajo reservation, too, but at least there are wide open spaces rich in landscape and silence. The Navajo recruits miss the quiet.

At boot camp, the only free time comes before they are ordered to bed, which is around 9:30 p.m. They commiserate and write letters home. Some read the Bible.

Nate nurses the blisters on his feet and gets to know his new brother in arms, 18-year-old George Skeet. George is also in Platoon 2093 and Navajo. He has the same honey-brown skin as Nate.

Inspired by the World War II code talkers, George wants to specialize in Marine communications.

George is homesick, too. But at least there's Nate. Sometimes before bed, they pray together, whispering in Navajo.

Shízhé'é líníí, Táheliníí, Shíchí dí líníí, Tá tsísó tsodizin ...

For others, faith isn't enough. The mental and physical strain overwhelms. Within the first two weeks of boot camp, several Golf Company recruits are gone. Some are injured in training. A couple run away, but are caught.

At least three men attempt suicide. One tries to slash his wrist with a ballpoint pen.

Drill instructors act cavalier about many things. Suicide is not one of them. They're under orders to refer the most troubled recruits to depot psychiatrists.

Some 19,000 men begin boot camp at the recruit depot each year. About 10 percent don't finish. Navajo recruits and other American Indians have a slightly lower dropout rate.

The Marines say many American Indians – perhaps weaned on rugged living – adapt easily to the Corps. Marine watchwords like honor and commitment also speak to tradition-minded Indians.

For most recruits, the shock of training eases after a couple of weeks, even if the location of the male-only boot camp grates.

Much of the nation's only other Marine boot camp, Parris Island in South Carolina, is set in a bug-ridden bog. Unlike in San Diego, both women and men are trained on the island.

The San Diego boot camp, the 388-acre compound off Pacific Highway, is a tease. Recruits see the bright lights of downtown and the palm trees swaying near the waterfront. They suck in the ocean air and picture themselves on the sand, perhaps with a girlfriend. Until Nate arrived here in June, he had never seen the ocean.

In Platoon 1006, Julio gets over his shock and relishes boot camp. If anything, he says out of earshot of his drill instructors, it's too easy.

On the depot jogging track and obstacle course, while others gasp for air, Julio hardly sweats.

His senior drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Baldock, is impressed. Julio is promoted to squad leader. "You can tell he really wants to be here," Baldock says.

Julio writes his family back in tiny Chinle, Ariz., about his quick success. They're not surprised.

He's impatient, though, with some recruits in his platoon. Not all are gung-ho like him. Some are chronic screw-ups, he complains in his first letter home.

"Damn, I never knew how dumb these white people are. They don't listen.

"I'm doing fine," he also writes his family. "I'm having a lot of fun here."

Julio seems invincible. A month into training, he can knock out 12 pull-ups. He does 80 sit-ups in three minutes with no problem. He runs a 6-minute mile. The months he spent getting buff back on the reservation pay off.

Then Superman finds his kryptonite.

About 2 a.m. one day, Baldock spots Julio sticking his hands in his pockets while on guard duty, a sin in the military.

Baldock scrawls two words on a platoon message board: "KILL NEZ." It's a cue to other drill instructors to give the recruit a hard time.

That same morning, Julio takes his initial swim test, but discovers he can't tread water. He flails in the depot's indoor pool, slipping into a panic.

Someone tosses him a life preserver and Julio flops out of the water, his tongue sticking out. A Marine captain tries to pull him up, but he's dizzy and weak.

"I can't get up," Julio murmurs. "I can't do this."

A doctor checks his pulse while the drill instructors unload on him.

"Nez is a weak bitch!" roars one sergeant.

"You are a disgrace to your race!" yells another. "You are a disgrace to the code talkers!"

Baldock fires Julio as squad leader. The Navajo later heads back to the pool, passing the treading test on his second try.

But Julio is humbled. He expected more of himself.

He's not mad at the drill instructors for attacking him. He says they're just doing their jobs.

Hollywood likes to portray Marine drill instructors as human Rottweilers. At their most beastly, they're worse. In the eyes of recruits, they're the spawn of Satan – cackling, red-faced, lunatics.

The barking men in the green hats make life in boot camp hell because war is hell. It's not pretty or politically correct. They make things tough because they say it's better to test a man's mettle here, in the safety of San Diego, than in Baghdad. How a Marine handles extreme stress makes the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

That's why Baldock punishes his platoon every time even one recruit messes up while marching in formation.

"I damn told you you must give a 100 percent effort at all times," he tells them one morning.

"Yes, sir!"

"At all times, no matter WHAT!"

"Yes, sir!"

"I don't care if you just got out of class and you're tired. Do you think those Marines and soldiers over in Iraq, in fighting holes, getting two or three hours of sleep a night, waking up and getting into firefights, do you think they like that? Do you think they like that trash?"

"No, sir!"

"Do they think it's fun?"

"No, sir!"

Baldock orders his platoon into a dirt pit for a punishing round of push-ups and other exercises. Then he turns away, grinning.

He became a leatherneck in 1996 at the age of 24. He once owned a martial arts school in Indiana. He drives a red sports car, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and speaks with a raspy, Bill Clinton twang.

He says being a drill instructor is fun but draining. He strikes a tender tone he wouldn't dare show to recruits. "I love working with youth," he says.

Staff Sgt. Allen Mullis, 29, the senior drill instructor of Nate's platoon, ran with a street gang when he was young. His mother was a crack addict. He wears tattoos and drives a Suzuki motorcycle.

He tells recruits that if he can succeed, they can, too. "If it wasn't for the Marine Corps, I honestly don't know where I'd be in life."

Joining the Marines borders on entering a religious order. They have their own creed, hymn and prayer. They see themselves as special – outside the mainstream, yet great protectors of the mainstream.

Marines, after all, raised the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II. In a scene televised around the globe last spring, Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

The Marine Corps was born in a Philadelphia tavern 228 years ago. It remains America's rawest expression of military might.

Right now, however, many recruits just feel raw. It's mid-July and the platoons head to Camp Pendleton for a month of field training. Nate still aches for home, for Navajo fry bread, for the peace of his village. Julio failed his first trial in the pool.

Now comes the biggest test of all.

The Marines call it The Crucible, and it makes the first few weeks of boot camp look like a warm-up.

For 54 hours, with limited sleep and food, recruits weather a grueling series of physical tests at Camp Pendleton, capped by a 6-mile march up a mountain.

The first day, Julio's nerves are frayed. During a field exercise, he snaps at a recruit for moving slowly. The recruit slugs him in the nose.

The second day, everyone is dragging. Julio's anger flares again as his squad botches an obstacle course. "We have hit our explosion point," Baldock tells them.

Early the next morning, after four hours of sleep, the recruits rise at 3 a.m. to march up the mountain the Marines call the Grim Reaper. They haul heavy packs. The moon lights their way.

"Death is coming to them," roars one drill instructor.

But to Julio and Nate, the moment feels more like a rebirth. They no longer recognize their younger selves, the boys they were back home. After two months in boot camp, they've shed that skin. Now they march in the footsteps of the code talkers.

At 6:30 a.m., Julio's platoon begins the last, hard stretch to the top.

Julio sees the blue-orange sky, the cottonwood trees, the thick desert brush. The open land reminds him of the reservation, and he finds strength in that.

Each platoon marches shoulder-to-shoulder, up, up, up. A few recruits fall back. One defecates in his pants, but keeps marching. In less than an hour, Platoon 1006 makes it to the top, running the final yards, squeezing out the last drop of adrenaline.

On the mountaintop, an ocean breeze strokes their faces as a Marine commander congratulates them.


"Look around. This is your family now," he says. "This is the family that is going to protect the nation."

It's the end of August, just before graduation, and Nate wonders if his family will recognize him. "It's like I have a totally new identity," he says.

Staff Sgt. Mullis believes Nate still lacks confidence. "Bitsui is more like – I don't want to say he's a girl. He's an average recruit," Mullis says.

This angers Nate. He's perplexed why people keep mistaking his reserve for weakness. "I pretty much stand firm. I have a lot of confidence. I do good at everything I do," he says.

This image of being soft could dog him. Nate plans to join a Marine unit guarding the White House, and it's critical he show the right stuff.

Nate's family – his parents, two sisters, grandmother and others – caravan from Arizona to the recruit depot for his morning graduation. Poverty and other problems continue to fray Navajo culture, but the tribe's sense of clan remains strong.

Nate's mother, Esther Bitsui, spots him marching with his platoon and dabs her eyes. His hair is shorter than she's ever seen it, his shoulders broader. He stands flagpole straight.

"He looks so serious," she says. "He looks different."

Nate sees changes, too. He's more disciplined, outgoing. Surviving boot camp makes him believe anything is possible.

Julio feels different, too. His life has new meaning. He's on a warrior's path and when he thinks of some old friends back home, the ones who drink alcohol or ditch school, he has no patience for them.

The day before his September graduation, he receives a pin of the Marine Corps emblem – an eagle, globe and anchor. He's earned some of the highest test scores in his platoon.

Baldock hands his recruits the pin during a ceremony on the depot's parade grounds.

American flags stir in the breeze. Family and friends watch from a row of bleachers, including Julio's siblings, his girlfriend and parents, Peggy Sue and Harry Nez.

Julio spots his loved ones and begins to weep.

It't's Sept. 11, two years after the cataclysm at the World Trade Center. The Navajo answered the call of World War II. Now a new generation answers the call of a nation at war.

"I am he who kills the monsters. I shall act for the People once more," goes a traditional Navajo chant.

The next day, Julio graduates. Baldock marches Platoon 1006 onto the parade grounds one last time as a brass band strikes up "The Marines' Hymn."

Hundreds of family and friends watch from the bleachers, their camcorders whirring, dabbing their eyes.

Julio's family giggles at him, looking all stiff while in formation. He fights a smile.

Later, after Julio's family warms him with hugs, the Nez clan runs into Baldock. Easing up on his drill instructor act, he praises Julio.

"If every kid came to me like he came to me, my job wouldn't be hard at all," he says.

Julio beams.

"Go get 'em now," Baldock says. "Now you're on your own."

About 600 men graduated from boot camp that day, Sept. 12, a small slice of the 17,000 graduating this year. Once out, they get 10 days of liberty.

Nate heads to Cameron, but can't shake his boot camp habits. He calls his mother "Ma'am."

Folks around his village and at Grand Canyon National Park, where he went to high school, praise him for signing up. Others still don't understand his decision.

He doesn't argue. He smiles, sure of a season well spent.

"Joining the Marines was probably the smartest thing I've ever done," he says.

Julio returns to Chinle, in the heart of the Navajo reservation, milking every moment with his family and his longtime girlfriend, 19-year-old Ranae Bia.

The future nags. He's heading to a Marine base in Florida soon to study aviation electronics. Will he be happy so far from the reservation? What about Ranae? They're talking marriage.

For now, he tries to sleep in and catch up with people.

He stops by his old school, Chinle High, in his new uniform. He's a Marine now – Pvt. Julio J. Nez. Teachers shake his hand. Students stare in envy. Julio steps into a crowded cafeteria and applause breaks out.

Pvt. Julio Nez is in Pensacola, Fla., studying aviation electronics with the Marines. He hopes to make it home for the holidays.

Pvt. George Skeet is in communication electronics school at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

Pvt. Nathaniel Bitsui is in Chesapeake, Va., training to join the Marine unit protecting the White House. He calls home on weekends and still misses his pickup.

The first part of this story, "Honor Bound," can be found on SENAA International's Web site at 

Steve Schmidt: (619) 293-1380; 

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.