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A long wait for an intense experience

Most people wouldn't look forward to boot camp. But an increasing number of Marine recruits are spending six to nine months on a wait list, anticipating the day they'll become 'something bigger than themselves.'

October 23, 2010|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego — They arrived from places throughout the western United States, and now several hundred of them are waiting nervously in the USO lounge attached to the Lindbergh Field international airport.

Soon they will take a short bus ride to a place where ferociously fit men with bellowing voices will shadow their every step and yell orders at them.

Their heads will be shaved and they will be stripped of all privacy and individuality. For the next 12 weeks they will be deprived of the fun things of life: television, music, Internet, movies, iPods, cellphones, home cooking, romantic companionship.

It's a moment of shared misery and challenge that the young men gathered this night have been waiting a long time to experience.

Amid shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a waiting list for Marine boot camp.

For most recruits, there is a six- to nine-month wait between signing up and arriving at boot camp in San Diego or Parris Island, S.C. Two years ago, the average wait was only three months.

Chris Hetherington, 18, of Fairbury, Ill., has been waiting at home for eight months. So has Benjamin Pierce, 19, of Minneapolis.

Eric Mayer, 19, of Elko, Nev., and Adam Jimenez, 19, of Coleman, Texas, have been waiting for nine months.

Curtis Beeching, 20, of Centralia, Wash., was scheduled to wait until January but a slot came open unexpectedly, after a wait of only six months. "I got lucky," he said.

To be sure, a bad economy is good for military recruiting. At a Pentagon news conference recently, every branch reported meeting enlistment goals.

But the Marines are convinced that other factors are also influencing the uptick in their recruitment: factors such as tradition and esprit.

"I want to be part of the best," Justin Zeek, 20, of Springfield, Ore., said when asked why he joined the Marines rather than another service. It's a common answer.

Zeek waited eight months, attending monthly "pool functions" organized by Marine recruiters to make sure recruits stay in shape and are not overtaken by regrets or last-minute appeals from apprehensive parents.

At the sessions, recruits do sit-ups, pull-ups, and other exercises, learn about Marine heroes and review Marine terminology. Pity the recruit who later uses the term door (hatch), bathroom (head) or hat (cover) in the presence of a drill instructor.

With higher numbers of would-be recruits, the Marine Corps can be choosy.

"These are quality kids," said Maj. Gen. Robert Milstead, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. "We can be very selective these days."

Where once it could be a struggle to find recruits, now it is not uncommon for a recruiter to reach his monthly quota within the first few days of the month, said Master Sgt. Alfonsa Hightower Jr., head of the basic recruiter's course at the San Diego base.

There is now less need to request a "moral waiver" to allow a recruit to enlist despite a criminal record or other behavioral problem. In the 2007 fiscal year, 552 recruits were allowed to enlist after receiving waivers for felony arrests. With three months remaining in the 2010 fiscal year, just 46 recruits have received such waivers.

"We're not just looking for anyone to fill up spaces," Hightower said. "We are not entertaining a lot of things that we would have five or six years ago."

Each year, about 20,000 young men graduate from San Diego boot camp; women are trained at Parris Island, separate from the men.

The minimum fitness standards to enlist remain the same as in recent years: 44 crunches, two pull-ups and 13 ½ minutes to run a mile and a half. But at pool sessions, enlistees are warned that unless they can do considerably better, they may not be able to keep up with other recruits.

Ronald Krebs, a political science professor and military expert at the University of Minnesota, said he believes that the economy and the winding down of the war in Iraq are the dominant factors in the recruitment uptick.

But he notes that the Marines "have done a great job of branding themselves as the most proud and distinguished service branch with the greatest esprit de corps."

While the other military services have their share of bragging rights, no service emphasizes its history and heroes as much as the Marine Corps.

At the boot camp processing center, the recruits are greeted with hallway posters showing a veteran Marine and the caption, "You are part of a storied tradition. Be there for the next chapter." The next chapter begins with a haircut.

Sean Young, 18, of Oro Valley, Ariz., arrived with a mop of thick black hair that, along with his owlish glasses, gave him a kind of Harry Potter look. It took the barber 25 seconds to finish his work. Young sat wordlessly, eyes straight ahead, awaiting the next order. A fellow recruit brushed off his collar as he rushed away.

After their haircuts, recruits are herded into a lecture-style hall to fill out paperwork.

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