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
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
Some won't make it to
graduation. Some are injured, others attempt or feign to attempt
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
Julio and Nate pray
they will, too.
In early June, Nate
reports to Platoon 2093, Golf Company, 2nd Recruit Training
Two weeks later, Julio
reports to Platoon 1006, Charlie Company, 1st Recruit Training
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
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
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.
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
On goes a typical day.
More classes, more marching and more running, while singing in
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
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
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
George is homesick,
too. But at least there's Nate. Sometimes before bed, they pray
together, whispering in Navajo.
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
At least three men
attempt suicide. One tries to slash his wrist with a ballpoint
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
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
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
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
"Damn, I never
knew how dumb these white people are. They don't listen.
fine," he also writes his family. "I'm having a lot of
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
Then Superman finds his
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
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
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
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.
"At all times, no
"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
"Do they think
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
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
"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
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'
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,"
"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
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
He doesn't argue. He
smiles, sure of a season well spent.
Marines was probably the smartest thing I've ever done," he
Julio returns to
Chinle, in the heart of the Navajo reservation, milking every
moment with his family and his longtime girlfriend, 19-year-old
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
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.
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 http://www.senaa.org/Veterans/honorbound.htm
Steve Schmidt: (619)
Union-Tribune Publishing Co.