During Marine Corps boot camp the second month is spent at a separate location from the main depot where the first and third months are spent. During this phase all of the field training and rifle qualification is done, which includes plenty of hikes – or humps, as most Marines call them.
One day we were on a mid-range hump (ten miles or so) with full gear and weapons, probably close to 80lbs total – which wasn’t really that bad when compared to later distances and gear loads Marines hump at the School of Infantry or in the Fleet Marine Force. I had reached the point of being so tired that I didn’t even feel tired anymore; my body was flying in automatic. Sleep was a luxury we couldn’t buy even if we could afford it. My skin appeared to be made of dirt, despite every inch of my body being soaked with sweat. My feet were numb, otherwise I would have noticed the blisters forming on top of other blisters on the pads of my soles and around my toes. The skin on my shoulders had been rubbed off, so that if one were to look at my bare back they would see two red marks where my pack’s shoulder straps had been. The usual harassment from the drill instructors had reached an all-time high. It wasn’t enough to be beaten and tattered from rigorous training; we had to maintain the status of subhuman lowlifes.
Just an average day in the life of a recruit.
We came down out of the tree-crowded hills and into a breezy, open clearing, the Pacific Ocean roaring in front of us, ominous and beautiful. The air that hit our faces was saturated with a salty scent, and our eyes feasted on the magnificence of that view that was so comforting and invigorating all at once. Cumulonimbi sailed over the blue like a fleet of massive ships headed to war. Seagulls screeched overhead as they scanned the white-peaked waves for signs of lunch. The sound of the surf almost drowned out the pounding of our mud-laden boots on the dirt road and the grunting of each man as he tried to take in the scene while trudging along at the same speed as the man in front of him.
I almost didn’t hear the drill instructors as they shouted for the platoon to halt on that road. We made an unpronounced halt, some men running right into the backs of others, and our bodies weakly attempted to stand at attention. Then a left face. Finally, like a declaration of freedom, the order came to drop our gear where we stood, and more skin slid off of my shoulders along with my pack as I let it fall. Gear hit the ground all around me like two-ton sacks of cinder blocks, and the audible sighs of relief could be heard just under the sound of the ocean behind us.
When a drill instructor told us to go take a piss, I suddenly realized that my bladder was in more pain than my shoulders. A few of us looked at each other puzzlingly, wondering where he intended for us to relieve ourselves. Then he pointed past us toward the water and yelled for us to hurry up. A couple dozen of us took off without hesitation. We sprinted through the waist-high grass that grew unmolested in that section of the military base, and I could hear girlish giggles coming from some of the men near me as a sudden elation hit us like the wind in our faces. For some reason the aching bones and sore muscles and ragged feet didn’t bother us anymore, and we raced to the sea.
Once we came upon the edge of the field a sheer, rocky cliff dropped off in front of us, and the narrow beach fifty feet below did its best to hold off the waves. I undid my belt and unbuttoned my pants as fast as I could and began to piss off that cliff. To my left and my right were two dozen more men doing the same, and I stared out into that wide blue ocean with the satisfied smile of a man who just escaped a life sentence in prison. The sound of the surf marching onto the beach and the purr of the wind was all that could be heard. It was the most surreal moment of my time in boot camp; here we were, pissing off of a cliff with a breathtaking view, and all of the stress and strife and agony of the last two months was behind us, across that field that suddenly felt like it was a hundred miles long. I tried to soak in as much of that moment as I could, to take all of that peacefulness and carry it with me to my graduation from hell in a month. And right in that moment, with the serenity at its peak, the guy next to me broke the silence with as innocent, matter-of-fact a statement as I’ve ever heard.
“I’ve never seen the ocean before.”