Misnomer

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BY JASON ARMENT

Misnomer

I didn’t think much of Recruit Marshal. He arrived at boot camp 40 pounds overweight and lost his breath running up the three stories to our squad bay. His complexion of blotched puce — eczema-sunburn combination — and red-blonde stubbled head made him hard to miss. Not that a different color palette would have helped him; one of our Drill Instructors sensed his foibles on training day zero of Platoon 3111’s 120-some-day stay at United States Marine Corps Recruits Depot San Diego. And although I’ll never know how Staff Sergeant Stahl could tell, I’d like to think Recruit Marshal gave himself away by how he stood, or the way his voice quavered when he tried to sound off. But maybe Stahl perceived weakness the same way a musician can tell a chord is off.

I was terrified of Stahl. He broke men down in front of the platoon, saying that if they didn’t die on his quarterdeck they’d die in Iraq. The war had made him kindred of death; his crocodile smiles were veneer for a sadness I couldn’t comprehend. Stahl knew Recruits would become Marines and then die facedown in the dirt, some within six months of graduation — still more boys than men.

Instead of the Sisyphean undertaking of meeting Stahl’s expectations Recruit Marshal decided to coast through training to graduation, make it to his duty station, and then figure things out. It wasn’t uncommon for the hearts of Recruits to prove callow, although the majority grew harder and stronger from the experience, confidence fortified with the knowledge that they could overcome. The majority, but not all. Stahl talked about how Marines were built on the ruins of Recruits, and he was serious as a snake bite.

Boot camp plodded on, for a time, with Stahl riding us mercilessly. Recruit Marshal got “lost in the sauce” of other problem Recruits. I kept my head down.

Final Preparation Line

The warriors breakfast was right after the Crucible. The week of intense training climaxed in a series-wide forced march up a small mountain called The Reaper. Everyone who made it to the top of successfully completed second phase. The mountaintop view of the California coastline was more surreal than beautiful because of our exhaustion. The following morning we were allowed to sleep in an hour before the Warriors Breakfast.

The feast was more than bone-weary Recruits could have imagined, fit for heroes of some ancient clan. One of the LTs in our training series, a young Chinese man with a bearing in the strict military tradition, was there to urge us on. Recruits happily gorged themselves on all manner of breakfast food, from cereal to bagels to powdered eggs, never pausing to consider the possibility of ulterior motives.

It hit me on the way out the door, long after the LT had sauntered off, the disapproving looks of our Drill Instructors following in trace.

“You boys did a good job,” he’d said. “And it’s important you eat!”

Hesitation had clouded our smiles for the smallest moment.

“Dig in!” he’d continued, smiling wide.

With stomachs shriveled from food deprivation we ate until ill, like starved dogs.

Big Mac, Value Meal

Stahl had ranted during the hikes, lamenting how our safety was as absolute as our ignorance of its cost. There were no Rocket-Propelled Grenades to rush through the air like the wings of 1,000 geese, no mortars to ca-crump ca-crump the fear of God into us. In the base we’d never have to kill anyone or see anyone killed, or so Stahl assured us.

Maybe that’s where Stahl had been wrong. Maybe there was wisdom in our terror. I felt it jolt up through my spine like something primal when Stahl stormed into the squad bay shortly after a small troop of Recruits had been sent to the Navy hospital for sick call. Recruit Marshal had been one of them, and the only one confirmed as having eaten at McDonald’s. Before Recruit Marshal returned, the rest of the Recruits slowly trickled back. Stahl interrogated each man as they arrived, the quarterdeck filled with a frenzy of sweat droplets and screaming.

All of them denied knowing anything about McDonald’s. The second to last man cracked, though, when Stahl said the others had already fingered Marshal; he claimed to have seen Marshal throw away McDonald’s wrappers. Stahl laughed.

“I don’t know how a Recruit from Lead Series ended up getting Marshal’s name and description, but you’re lucky we can’t confirm you too. You little shit!”

Stahl was of the mind that it hadn’t been just Marshal, that there were Recruits who had joined Marshal in his blasphemous meal. But the details were set aside, or forgotten, when Marshal arrived. I’d never seen Stahl so delighted.

“What do you think, Marshal?” Stahl asked. “Do you think everyone got their stories straight on the way back?”

“Sir?” Recruit Marshal asked, inflecting his voice at the end to denote an interrogative.

“Is that how you talk to me, Marshal?” Stahl asked. “Are we old drinking buddies?”

If Recruits had a question they wanted to ask, military etiquette had to be followed, which didn’t allow for octave change as a means of communication.

“Sir,” Recruit Marshal said again; except this time, instead of inflecting, the word leaped from his mouth like a desperate suicide.

“Sir fucking what, Marshal?” Stahl said. “I dare you to lie to me. I fucking dare you.”

Recruit Marshal stood silent at attention. Stahl spoke again, slowly.

“Did you, or did you not,” Stahl said, “eat at McDonald’s?”

“Sir,” Recruit Marshal said, then paused, only to restart. “Sir, I ate McDonald’s, Sir!” Recruit Marshal said. He blustered for a moment, then dropped bearing altogether. “But I’ll never do it again. And I’ll start trying! So can we just forget about it?”

“Have you lost your fucking mind, Recruit Marshal?!” Stahl screamed, eyes bulging. “You had better lock it up right this instant or I’ll haze you until your heart stops!”

Marshal wept, chortling his sobs against snot bubbles and spit. Stahl turned and stormed into the Duty Office, and slammed the door. Recruit Marshal’s face was flushed hues that made me think of a slaughterhouse floor.

Flogging Round the Fleet

Stahl’s decision wasn’t what I’d expected. News of the debacle had reached every ear in the battalion, so Stahl devised a punishment just as sweeping. Stahl had a flare for the dramatic, something I’d been reminded of when he relieved both of the platoon’s clerical Recruits, elevating the McDonald’s mishap to full-on crisis. I now found myself ad hoc in a role I’d been stripped of during second phase’s tumult. Stahl delegated several tasks to me, then marched the rest of the platoon to chow.

I was alone. But it wasn’t long until a commotion from outside made its way up the flights of stairs, down the gangway, and into the squad bay. It was Recruit Marshal — I wasn’t surprised. He stood swaying on the quarterdeck for 15 minutes while Stahl and the Series Gunnery Sergeant went inside his office to laugh and joke. From what broken conversation I managed to piece together, the Gunny had hazed Recruit Marshal in front of the chow hall while everyone watched. At some point the Gunny had made Recruit Marshal try to do as many pull-ups as he could. When that number was zero, the Gunny had gone nuclear.

Now Stahl wanted a punishment in the vein of old naval traditions. The way he saw it, Marshal had disgraced not just the platoon, but the entire series, so each Drill Instructor in the series should take their turn hazing him. The Gunny wished him luck in convincing other Drill Instructors to participate, then departed.

“Recruit Marshal,” Stahl said. “I hope you liked breakfast, because you’re about to taste it a second time.”

At first, Recruit Marshal was hazed on the quarterdeck. But when a higher ranking Drill Instructor from Lead Series arrived, the hazing was taken outside to the sands, away from prying eyes. Recruit Marshal reappeared a few times, each time only to be trotted off by different Drill Instructors. Early in the marathon hazing session Recruit Marshal had puked, and Stahl laughed about getting back the lunch he was owed. After Recruit Marshal stopped retching Stahl had been quick to make him roll in it. The other Drill Instructors murmured among themselves in amazement as Stahl chewed Marshal’s ass when they got back to the quarterdeck.

“I couldn’t believe it,” one of them said. “This is some next level shit!”

Gluttony

Outside of the chow hall a dozen portable toilets ran parallel with the doors. Each one had a line of Recruits fresh out of the Warriors Breakfast. Men shifted their weight back and forth, boot to boot. My stomach ached, and I didn’t just feel like I might throw up, but as if my bowels had a mind of their own and wanted to let loose. An urgency in my abdomen alarmed me. I didn’t feel as acute an urge to vomit like others, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the squad bay without having some sort of accident.

Recruits in line pounded on the doors, threatening those inside in an effort to get them out faster. I was one of the Recruits who promised everyone around them that I’d take care of business straight away. But when my turn finally came, I took my time. A Recruit cried out at the injustice of over eight minutes on his stopwatch. There was no relief; I felt worse, and needed to sit tight. The men outside beat their fists against the door and cursed, calling me a liar.

I exited with my head held high. The other Recruits stood outside; all the tough guy bullshit in the world wouldn’t keep them from shitting themselves. As I walked away, I heard strange grunting and puking noises. The Marines who couldn’t wait any longer were throwing up and defecating behind the portable toilets. Whenever someone would wipe their mouth and right themselves, or pull up their pants and waddle away bowlegged, more men would leave the lines and join those relieving themselves. I was stunned, taking in the way Recruits shamelessly tore their pants down and squatted in the dust. Our indulgence had reduced us to animals, losing control of our facilities out in the open.

But there was more at work than just our gluttony. What none of us had the experience to know was how days of MREs — the processed food the Corps feeds Marines on operations — followed by too much real food would react in our stomachs. And although it certainly wouldn’t have been as bad if Recruits had eaten a normal amount, our excess had amplified the Corps’ lesson about discipline. To this day I’ve never heard anyone talk about soiling themselves after the Warriors Breakfast. It’s something Marines and washouts alike carry with them to their graves.

Escape and Evade

I had fire watch the night following Recruit Marshal’s hazing day. I always took watch seriously. Drill Instructors liked to burst into squad bays late at night and catch Recruits off task, especially after a fiasco. But the night was as quiet as it was still. The Recruits of 3111 rested soundlessly. About halfway through my midnight shift there was a stirring, and out of the dark Recruit Marshal emerged, eyes puffy from crying.

“I’m going to use the head,” Recruit Marshal said.

“I don’t give a fuck what you do,” I replied.

It wasn’t that I was just being cruel, I wanted Marshal to know I wasn’t going to impede him during off hours.

“All right,” Recruit Marshal said, looking me over, searching my eyes for sympathy, but found nothing. Marshal turned and ran back to his rack. When he returned he had a towel and hygiene bag with him.

“Goodbye,” he said.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Marshal’s behavior, but I gave no acknowledgment. He disappeared into the head for a few minutes, then returned to bed. An hour later I was in the rack, and Recruit Marshal tossed and turned in his until finally he got up to rush back to the head, pausing just long enough on the quarterdeck to throw up what looked like a puddle of pills. Marshal continued to the head, past the fire watch, who was looking at the puddle of half-digested medication like he knew his shift had just become complicated. The Recruit made his way after Marshal, and was soon banging on the duty hut door. It wasn’t Stahl, but our First Hat, who had spent the night, wanting to give Stahl a break from the day’s rigors. When the door swung open our Senior Drill Instructor lost his mind.

“WHAT?” his bellow like an eardrum rupturing. “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT? RECRUIT!”

“Sir!” The Recruit said. “Recruit Marshal took all of his medication and is throwing up in the head!” The duty hut door slammed, and when it opened again our Senior DI was wearing a USMC track suit. “What in the actual fuck?” our Senior swore before sprinting into the bathroom, the fire watch close behind.

I turned over in bed and squeezed my eyes shut as the sounds of Recruit Marshal heaving echoed through the squad bay.

Grace Denied

Recruit Marshal wasn’t expelled from the Corps for his suicide attempt, but instead was given the choice of continuing training or going home — Marshal chose training. Shortly after, I asked him why he stuck around, and he said he still wanted to be a Marine. The Corps took his attempted exit seriously, sort of. Because Marshal had tried to overdose on Motrin, which is impossible, he was treated differently than if he’d tried to hang himself or slit his wrists. It was also a good bet that the haze-a-thon had something to do with his lenient treatment — it wouldn’t do to have an investigation turn up misconduct connected to an attempted suicide.

By the time everything was sorted out and forgiven, a week had passed, and that left a grand total of three weeks until graduation. Marshal made it through the rest of training. He talked about conversations with our series Captain, who even dropped by on occasion to see how things were going, and although Marshal was able to coast through those last few weeks, I don’t think he counted it as a victory. He’d been broken by Stahl in a way most people never imagine possible.

But instead of ending his own life he’d been spared by the same thing that had catapulted him into the mess — his own ineptitude. Although I’m not sure if Marshal saw it that way. It’s hard to know what his thoughts were after his attempt to eliminate himself failed. He didn’t process through any kind of therapy. He did speak to the Chaplain though — Marshal never really talked about how that went. After the holy man, Marshal had been sent to speak with the Captain. It hadn’t sounded as if the Captain had taken the attempt seriously.

“Do you still want to be a Marine?” he’d asked Marshal.

Marshal had said yes. This infuriated Stahl. During the haze-a-thon Marshal had repeatedly said he no longer wanted to be a Marine. I never found out the particulars of everything Marshal had said, but from what little I understood, he had disavowed much — most of all, the rest of us. Stahl sent him to speak with the Captain again, and Recruit Marshal still told him he wanted to be a Marine; Stahl was incensed, and he didn’t calm down until the Captain made a trip to the squad bay to order him so.

Graduation came and I briefly saw Marshal’s proud parents. By the way they acted I could tell he hadn’t kept them abreast of the situation. But Recruit Marshal wasn’t my problem anymore, and I forgot about him as I processed through the School of Infantry. It wasn’t until the last day at San Clemente that I saw Marshal in the chow hall with his parents. This time they acted as if they’d been filled in — no more smiles, instead lips drawn tight below shifting eyes.

Marshal,” I said. “Do you know your duty station yet?”

Marshal shook his head, and his parents drifted away to give us some privacy.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why are you in deserts?”

The uniform of the day was woodland camouflage utilities. The only personnel who dressed in the opposite uniform were members of legal hold platoon, nonhackers awaiting separation from the Corps.

“I popped positive for weed on my urinary analysis,” Marshal said. “I’m going home.”

“What?” I said. “But you graduated! You’re a Marine!”

“I don’t want to be a Marine anymore,” he said.

And with that his parents drifted back over and turned to leave. Before they could I asked Marshal about one last thing.

“That day,” I said. “ Did anyone else eat McDonald’s with you?”

Marshal answered over his shoulder.

“They all did.”

Bloodletting

The Corps has a merciless tradition of weeding out any and all nonhackers. Marshal had been one, we’d all known since training day zero. But maybe it didn’t have to be that way. If Stahl had been a better leader, a more compassionate person, maybe Recruit Marshal wouldn’t have been a lost cause. It must have been hard to know how none of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. He’d try to tell us, again and again, and we imagined we understood — but he knew. Marshal’s meal at McDonald’s had been more than a bad dietary choice, but Marshal didn’t understand duty. To Marshal the food had just been food, nothing more. For Stahl it had been Marshal’s deliberate ignorance. Stahl hadn’t been able to wash Marshal out of boot camp, but, like venom, toxic leadership slowly withered Marshal’s heart.

At the time I was dismayed; Recruit Marshal had been a testament to what the human spirit can endure. But he was right to get out, even if he’d earned the title of Marine. Life in the Corps wasn’t going to get any easier — in fact, quite the opposite. Had Marshal stuck around he would have faced the horrors of war with the rest of us.

Maybe Marshal was a testament to self-actualization.


Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), Dirty Chai, Phoebe, Pithead Chapel, The Indianola Review, Brevity, The Florida Review, Atticus Review, Zone 3, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2, 4, & 5; and is forthcoming in Duende, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. Jason lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities and Lighthouse. He can be reached at jason.arment@gmail.com.

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