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Boot camp advice: Keep a song in your heart

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Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Pfc. Vanessa Austin
Editor’s note: This story, slightly abridged to fit for print, appeared in our weekly newsletter sent out to recruits that we call “The Dispatch.” You can learn more about the content we send to keep them informed and entertained here. If you know you’d like to order the newsletter for someone you know at boot camp, then click here! It was originally published in June 2022.

Go ahead and laugh if you want. But yes, I mean to keep a song in your heart. It might not be the advice you usually hear regarding the rigors of boot camp, but it comes from the voice of experience.

Falling into a routine is a very important part of becoming a servicemember. For some recruits, that “falling” into the routine is more like a Jason Statham dropkick to the chest — and that’s okay. Boot camp is supposed to be a shock to your system. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. It’s supposed to change you.

Your drill instructors’ introduction may vary…

When I went through Marine Corps recruit training in 2006, it was the single greatest transformation I’d made in my life, and I’m obviously not alone in saying that. In the beginning, I was definitely one of those recruits taking a dropkick to the chest, though. I think one of the biggest obstacles for me was the monotony. I had wrestled for a pretty competitive program in high school, so it wasn’t the yelling, the heat, or even the physical exertion. No, for me, it was monotony.

That might sound counterintuitive. Monotony just comes with the territory when establishing a routine, right? To a certain degree, yes, some of it is unavoidable and even necessary. However, I’m a big believer in breaking up that monotony whenever possible; I think that in order to keep the mind sharp and engaged, you pretty much have to. Since you are in the midst of training, and learning a whole new way of life, what could be more important than staying mentally sharp?

Perhaps nothing became more monotonous and mind-numbing than my drill instructors’ cadence in my head. If you’re a Marine recruit reading this right now, you know “Marines march everywhere they go.” And go we do — all day, every day. So within a few weeks of being somewhat isolated from the outside world and separated from the things you didn’t realize you appreciated so much, your brain gravitates to anything resembling a song. The rhythmic “left-right-lo-right” is all you hear between your ears when you get those few moments of sweet silence. 

Related: That time I ran into my drill instructor — on my first date with my wife

boot camp advice
Oh, look, a duet… ((U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dwight A. Henderson/Released)

It can become maddening. “Musical torture” is a real technique employed by the military. The U.S. Army most famously used a hard rock mix including Guns n’ Roses, The Clash, and The Doors, at a presumably ear-splitting decibel level, to get dictator Manuel Noriega to surrender himself when he was holed up in the Vatican Embassy during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. It broke him after three days.

So when I got sent to battalion medical for a rope burn on my hands several weeks into boot camp (an embarrassing story for another day), the corpsmen had the radio playing, and the phrase “music to my ears” was never more meaningful and literal. I immediately recognized the song as the one playing at the beginning of a favorite movie of mine, Happy Gilmore. It was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s Gone.

Related: 10 great cover songs that you should listen to today

The soundtrack to my boot camp experience might be just one song, but at least it’s a long one…

If you know the song, you might think something with a quicker tempo or some hard rock/metal to pump me up might have served me better. Maybe. Who’s really to know? Tuesday’s Gone is a pretty slow and sad song about having to leave your woman behind, but it was fitting at the time (yet another story for another day), and it meant something to me. To this day, I’ll still tell anyone that humming or singing that in my head was one of the things that got me through.

I don’t feel sorry for you while you go through boot camp, but I do empathize with you. It’s part of why I enjoy putting this newsletter together for all of you. I am proud to be a small part of your boot camp experience, break up some of that monotony that I remember so well, and offer what advice I can.

This is advice that I think will apply long after boot camp and into your military career, as well. I can remember humming a tune to myself while we went on our ruck marches at combat training, or singing Tenacious D songs with my buddies on the flight line to drown out the relentless ambient noise of generators and turning jets while in Afghanistan (you can’t just wear your Powerbeats anywhere you go, after all). Again, it gets you through.

Believe it or not, even the sweet “sound of freedom” can begin to grate on you after a while. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Israel Chincio)

It doesn’t need to be a song. It can be a quote, a saying, or a mantra — whatever means something to you. Whatever reminds you of home or something you love, something that keeps you sharp and reminds you why you’re there.

But for the sake of simplicity, there it is, gang: Keep a song in your heart.

Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Pfc. Vanessa Austin

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Tory Rich

Tory Rich is a Marine veteran, and now coaches football and wrestling, so he spends most of his time lecturing younger people about “back in the old days.” Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of kids to tell to get off his lawn deep in the woods of Vermont. Since he got out of the Marines in 2011, Tory got a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from UNLV. While he lived in Las Vegas he dabbled in powerlifting and learned just enough about mixed martial arts to get his butt kicked.

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