My first day with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion had been adventurous to say the least. Shuffling through the evening chow line I could barely hold my tray and was so physically wrecked I was more nauseous than hungry. Completely dehydrated I set up an intravenous tube directly to the Gatorade dispenser and prayed I wouldn't pass out in the middle of the chow hall. This is the absolute truth, I was completely useless and had nothing left to give. If the Zombie Apocalypse were to have gone down that day I would have been eaten.
What could have caused a vigorous young Marine fully convinced of his immortality to be so utterly destroyed? What sick and depraved mind could so thoroughly blast my brain and body to bits?
Let me tell you of the days of high adventure… (insert Conan theme music)
I remember anticipating my attending the School of Infantry (SOI) with some excitement. After boot camp I had spent about a month in Marine Combat Training (MCT). We renamed the course Mass Consumption of Time, as compared to our boot camp experience, MCT seemed to be an exercise of standing around waiting for something to happen. We didn't PT much so we got out of shape and when we did train it was mostly familiarization with weapons systems most of us didn't get to fire anyway. It was a real let down for young Marines who were used to the fast pace of boot camp and those of us who were slated to continue on to SOI couldn't wait to start our "real" training as grunts.
Worse still were the two weeks we spent in the receiving barracks waiting for our SOI course to start. Those of us awaiting training were mixed in with all the legal/medical cases who were being discharged due to their fundamental character flaws or their fragile genetics which caused them to be so physically brittle they could not continue service in the Corps. In our lexicon these individuals are known as dirtbags or $#!%-birds. Even as a young Marine it amazed me the Corps would allow fresh young Marines to live with these malingerers on a daily basis and risk being infected with their poor attitudes. I remember this as a particularly low and unmotivated period of my career and could not wait for SOI to start.
Immediately upon dropping to SOI we were treated like garbage again: "What are you looking at idiot?" In our minds this was a good thing. We knew how to survive this environment and what was expected of us.
As soon as we staged out gear by our racks in the new squad bay our Platoon Sergeant made his grand entrance. On the white board just inside the front hatch was a caricature of him as half man and half machine saying something derogatory to us. He was known to young Marine infantry hopefuls as the Cyborg. You may recognize him from this famous picture:
At that point in his career no one had actually ever seen Sgt. Kasal perspire. In our eyes he was a rugged veteran of the first Gulf War capable of feats far exceeding average humans. On a hike no Marine could match his pace. I remember being directly opposite him on a hike and deliberately trying to match his stride. It was, of course, impossible and I ended up having to run to keep up with him.
It was related to me by another Marine that Sgt. Kasal had once been diagnosed with a bad case of the flu and was ordered to go home and rest. Cyborg told the platoon on a Friday he would defy medical science and be back on Monday to run their junk into the dirt. True to his word, a platoon of Marines were casually destroyed Monday morning as well as a number of immutable laws of medicine.
Sgt. Kasal never worked his jaws while talking. He spoke to us through perpetually clenched teeth punctuated by an impressive use of profanity. Imitating the sound and cadence of the Cyborg's speech was considered a high art.
In the squad bay he selected some sasquatch to be the platoon guide and said: "Whoever wants to be a squad leader go stand outside my office." Immediately 28 of use stood up and went out into the hall. I remember thinking my chances were slim to none I'd be selected: "They'll just pick another cro-magon and us midgets will be left on the side."
Although in boot camp I graduated as the platoon guide and honor man, in MCT leadership was based on your ability to intimidate everyone else. Usually the meat heads were selected and at 5'9 and 140lbs soaking wet America's PFC didn't quite fit the bill. I wasn't holding out much hope for myself this time.
Seeing us all in the hallway Sgt. Kasal barked: "Who runs under a 285 PFT? Get out!"
About half of the guys left the room including many of the gorillas who sadly dragged their knuckles back to the squad bay with them.
"Who runs under a 295?" At the time I ran a perfect score of 300 and was feeling pretty good about myself as wannabes fell out left and right leaving about a dozen of us in the office.
"Who has been a squad leader before? Guide before?" Score for me! Only eight of us were left standing in the office and I noted I was probably the smallest one there. One of the guys had been a kick boxer before joining and some others wrestlers and just plain studs. In my memory they seemed to be tough company.
Sgt. Kasal looked out his window and said: "See that hill? See those two bushes at the top? Run to those bushes and back. The first four in my office are squad leaders….you're still here?"
Eight Marines immediately tried to exit through a doorway designed for one. Untangling ourselves we mobbed down the stairs to the foot of Mount Olympus outside the back of the barracks in full view of Sgt. Kasal's office window.
Skeletons of Marines who had gone before littered the hillside. We were heedless and sprinted upwards trying to avoid tripping over any loose bones. Little did we know Mt Fuji there suddenly took an 85 degree angle up. On our hands and knees we continued the climb. I passed nearly everyone except for the two Marines in front.
I ran through two layers of clouds before I reached the top. If memory serves I may have even seen the hole in the ozone from that vantage but I had no time to linger and took off back down the hill.
My legs felt as big as tree trunks and my knees began to bend both ways. For a while I skidded down the slope on my behind in an effort to put out the flames that had spontaneously ignited there. One of my buddies tripped and tumbled head over heels past me. I decided that mode of travel wasn't physically sound and didn't try it.
I was the fourth Marine to charge in Sgt. Kasal's office but not before I pushed a washing machine down the stairs on the Marines behind me. There was no air to be had in the office as the other three had already sucked up any oxygen there was. I was completely wrecked and would remain so all night.
We were it. Sgt. Kasal explained he expected his squad leaders to be more physically fit than the rest because we would be pushing everyone on the humps. Every day we'd hump our guts out to and from classes and ranges. If you're ever near Camp Pendleton just look at the hills. It's enough to make the average person weep. The four of us pushed and pulled Marines to exhaustion. On top of that we had PT runs before and after the hikes as well as getting our butts thrashed by the Cyborg for whatever we did wrong.
The entire time I was at SOI I remember being totally whipped and in the rack by 1900 and waking up tired. It was tougher than boot camp by far. I have never before or since so thoroughly abused myself physically.
Whew! I'm just tired thinking about it.