You never forget your drill instructor’s voice. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Anything tied to fear or anxiety takes up some prime neurological real estate. This feature of the human brain might not be very helpful with modern-day problems like knowing what the deafening silence of a tough crowd sounds like. But a few thousand years ago, before we got so soft and comfortable, it let us know: “Hey, maybe stay away from that cave because that’s what painful death sounds like.”
While I like to think I was a solid Marine, I have no qualms admitting that I was a bad recruit in an even worse platoon at boot camp (seriously, we were bad). I was loud, I was great at PT, and I was a decent shot on the range, but I was also easily rattled, slow to process instructions, and for some reason… terrible at drill. I have a friend from boot camp who, to this day, still chuckles at the way I would be the last recruit on the line to move after the drill instructors had given their orders. I would just watch like a flustered ball of confusion for a few precious seconds until I figured out what everyone else was doing.
Suffice it to say fear and anxiety were definitely part of the Parris Island experience for me. Even if I couldn’t understand them half the time, my drill instructors’ voices are an indelible memory. Almost fifteen years later, they’re still up there in my brain. If there was any doubt that I was remembering them right, that was put to rest about two years after I graduated from boot camp…
But before I get to that, I have to paint you a picture of how I met my wife. It’s all part of the story, I promise. I was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma. I had just moved out of the barracks and didn’t have cable. The Red Sox had just beaten the Angels to advance to the American League Championship Series (ALCS). Buffalo Wild Wings was the most logical choice to go catch game one of the next series.
I wasn’t alone in that thinking; there was only one open seat at the bar. As luck would have it, it was next to a pretty girl wearing a Mike Lowell Red Sox jersey. We struck up a conversation and found out we had grown up only about an hour apart back in New England. We Boston sports fans are a superstitious bunch, so I understood when she said that she’d only give me her number if the Sox won. Thankfully, Daisuke Matsuzuka pitched a gem that night. The Sox got a 2-0 win. We decided it was our duty as Red Sox fans to watch game two together, and in the same place, or we’d obviously risk jinxing them and ushering in another 86 year curse.
It’s not important anymore why I was 45 minutes late to my first date with my wife, but I was. I rushed into the bar and was relieved to find her still there, but with a look in her eyes that has become very familiar and borderline frightening over the last twelve years. Apparently, she liked me, or I’m an incredibly smooth talker (Hah!), but I was able to salvage our date and get things back on the rails. We had moved on to the usual first date small talk, and my night was looking infinitely better.
And that’s when I heard it…
That voice… I’d know it anywhere. I looked over at the table of Marines to my left. Sure enough, there he was. My “kill hat” from boot camp was about ten feet from me, wearing a “Hook ‘em ‘Horns” t-shirt, yukking it up with some of his friends and watching college football. It seems ridiculous now, but my blood ran cold and my heart sped up for a second. It wasn’t logical, just an involuntary reaction. Something in the dark recesses of my brain was screaming to snap to attention and give the proper greeting of the day.
I had to stop my poor date, because I was laughing nervously and in a state of disbelief. Then I remembered I was a corporal with a deployment under my belt, and composed myself. There was little use in trying to explain the situation to my date, so I just waited until I saw him look in my direction. Then I asked the question I already knew the answer to:
“Hey man… what’s your name?”
Yep, definitely him. “Jason what?” I asked for some reason.
He was confused and definitely had a “what the hell do you want?” look on his face for about five seconds. Then he started putting the pieces together. I had added some hair and lost the “Birth Control Glasses” (BCGs), but apparently, I hadn’t changed that much in two years. His eyes lit up and Drill Instructor Sergeant Weir was back.
“RICH! You dumb m*therf*cker! I remember you!”
I don’t know how I had expected him to respond, but this was a less than favorable development with my future wife sitting across from me. This had to be one of the worst and most bizarre dates she had ever been on (update: I asked, and she confirmed). If nothing else, the expressions on my face must have been priceless for her.
I did my best to explain what was going on to her and made introductions. Then my former drill instructor told a few embarrassing stories about me like an older brother would tell a new girlfriend at Thanksgiving. He expressed disappointment with me at how long I’d left the lady waiting, and that he and his friends had invited her over to their table about ten minutes before I got there, so I was a lucky guy to have a girl wait for me like that.
We caught up a little bit and he genuinely seemed to care how I’d been doing since I hit the fleet. I mentioned my deployment with the 11th MEU and that I was a corporal now, while making it clear that I knew I was still a “boot.” Then before I returned my undivided attention to my bewildered companion, he told me something that stuck with me. Maybe he was just doing me a solid after he realized he had embarrassed me in front of my date, but he said that even though he did remember my platoon as being a terrible cycle at boot camp, I should be proud, because he did everything he could to make recruit training even harder for us than it was for him.
Frankly, I’m still a little bit proud of that to this day. I’m also proud that I somehow pulled a successful marriage out of the burning wreckage that was this date. The Red Sox even lost in eleven innings that night! Seriously, I must be one handsome dude…
So Jason Weir, if you’re out there, thank you. It turns out that girl and I watched the rest of the series together (the Sox lost in seven), and we got married a little over a year later. Who knows? Maybe without that bizarre and unexpected interaction, I’m not as interesting to her and the date doesn’t go as well (have you ever seen “The Butterfly Effect?”).
More importantly, I say thank you for being a part of making me a Marine and the man I am today. You drill instructors don’t get enough credit for completely transforming a human in less than three months. Stand tall. Be respectful. Stay composed. Slow, steady squeeze and every shot’s a surprise. Even though your voice still haunts my memories, it turns out a lot more than that stayed with me.
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- 4 Things You Learn After Living With A USMC Drill Instructor
- How to handle the mental aspect of basic training
- Prepare for boot camp: Workout with former Marine Corps drill instructor
This article was originally published 1/27/2021