He is a nice looking, polite, young man. He sits at attention as we speak and he listens attentively to every word I say. He always answers the questions, very honestly, and always with a "yes sir" or a "no sir."
"This is the proudest week of my life" he says and "Friday will be the proudest day of my life!" That is the day that this drug, alcohol and tobacco-free young man with the neat, short haircut, no earrings, no gold chain nor baggy clothes, graduates from the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, California.
We're eating while we talk and he stops eating and puts his fork down each time he speaks to me - either answering my questions or asking me a question. "Could I get you anything else - sir," he asks. "Did you get enough to eat sir?" "May I carry your tray sir?"
This young man who says that he's never been so afraid in his life as he was 13-weeks ago when a Marine Drill Instructor (D.I.) climbed aboard the bus in which he was riding and roared "Be quiet, come to attention and I don't want to hear one word from you unless it begins or ends with sir!" "When I give you the command I want you to leave everything you have on this bus and get out -- right away! Do you understand?" "And when you get out I want both of your feet lined up on the 'yellow footprints' outside this bus!" "Do you understand?" "Yes sir" - comes the response. "I don't hear you!" A much louder "YES SIR" again is the response. "Then get up - and get off of the bus right now" says the D.I. And all that is heard -- is the rumbling of feet.
The drill instructor teaches these young men how to come to attention - how to put their arms hands and fingers at their sides at attention, to put their heels together, their chest slightly out, their chin up and their eyes straight ahead without wandering to either side to see what's going on with anyone else..
Thus begins the life of a new recruit, who hopes to become a United States Marine after 13 weeks of training with "his" D.I. Thirteen weeks of "YES SIR!" "NO SIR!" and marching and standing and sitting at attention.
In 13 weeks this boy will become a man -- this civilian will become a Marine, but not before he goes through times of wishing he was home - wondering why he joined and wondering if he is going to be able to last through all of this.
After 13 weeks of marching, rifle drill, classes, exercise, climbing, jumping, swimming (with full pack and rifle) walking, running, snapping in on the range, qualifying with the M-16 rifle and then spending 54 hours on the "Crucible," a team building - physically challenging exercise, with little sleep and less food than they'd like, they receive their "Eagle, Globe and Anchor" Marine Corps emblems and the elite title - "United States Marine." They become a part of "the few," "the proud," the Marines..
Such is how the Marine Corps life of one William S. Ray of St. Francis (a Milwaukee suburb) began, a young man whom I feel fortunate to have shared an hour and a half of life with - at a table in the mess hall at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot - three days before "his proudest day."
On Friday, March 28, 1997 I was able to share in his proudest moment as he "marched in review" in front of the commander of MCRD, Brigadier General Garry L. Parks, and a number of educators and media people from the midwest who were the guests of the United States Marine Corps.
A proud time also came to me that day when they asked that all in attendance who had served on active duty in the United States Marine Corps -- please stand. As we stood and received an ovation from the crowd tears came to my eyes and cold chills went up my back and I remembered that proud moment in my history nearly 47 years before - as I, with my fellow boot camp graduates, marched in review before the Commanding General.
William Ray joined up 8-months ago but he elected to delay his actual entry into the Marine Corps for 5-months to allow him to train in the sunny climes of California during the winter months. Upon arrival at MCRD, Ray and the other recruits are told what will not be tolerated in the Marine Corps. Drugs are never tolerated and if a recruit tests positive for drugs, he will be sent home with a less-than honorable discharge. In boot camp -- tobacco, prophylactics, pornographic materials and electronics of any kind are not tolerated.
After Ray received the "yes-you-can" - "No-you-can't" indoctrination he gave up most of his hair and all of his civilian clothing. He then was issued Marine Corps clothing - right down to undershorts and long underwear. He gave up everything he brought with him with his valuables being returned to him upon completion of recruit training. After the clothing - Ray was issued "his bucket," a pail containing shaving products and personal hygiene and first aid items. He then was told to call or write home to let his folks know he arrived and that he was okay.
[If recruits do not contact home, the Red Cross becomes involved to make sure the recruit's parents are informed about their young man, or woman, in Marine training.]
I was introduced to Private Ray outside of the Mess Hall. In fact we were introduced to several young recruits from our area - several from Minnesota and Wisconsin. I asked Private Ray and he agreed to an interview..
I began the interview with a question about why he chose to join the Marine Corps. He answered "I wanted to have a great future for myself and the Marine Corps is a great way for a young person who has just graduated from high school to get a better education, to get a college education and to learn how to work with others."
In high school he loved history and he loved sports. Ray, who was put on diet restrictions when he entered the Corps at 209 pounds and finished recruit training weighing a svelte 179, was the starting defensive end on his high school football team.
He told me his father is a supervisor of his own construction company, in Milwaukee, that does underground rock crushing for large cities. His mother, who Ray admits worries about him, works at a bank back in Wisconsin. William admits he misses his family tremendously and he's really in his glory now that his parents have come to share "his proudest day," his graduation.
Eighteen year-old Private Ray who has two sisters and a brother, all in their twenties, joined the Marines shortly after he graduated from high school. He admits to still being a little fearful about his future in the Marines because he has an "open contract" which means the Marine Corps can assign him to an occupation after he completes boot camp. Ray selected that option because he would have to remain in his own choice 3-years before he could change to another occupation. He had no strong choice so he allowed the Marine Corps to make the selection for him which allows him to make a change after 18-months.
Of course when Ray really experienced fear is when he first entered Boot Camp. He, like many of us that went through this training, had no idea what boot camp was going to be like. When the DI's started yelling before the new recruits even got off the bus, he was scared to death. And it didn't get any better as the commands kept coming and he wondered if he would be told when he could breathe. Most recruits were scared and William Ray was no different.
When I asked him if he remembered his first meal in boot camp he said "yes sir. Nothing - I just couldn't eat! I was too scared. All I could think about is how much I wished I was sitting down with my family for a meal -- rather than being here."
When asked about his greatest challenge in recruit training he said "The Crucible." "You can't make it through the Crucible without real teamwork. It was a real challenge!" Ray also stated "You have to use your mind even more than your body and it's more strenuous because of the small amount of sleep you have during that phase of the training!" "It's a lot of walking - with your back pack." He said "they had challenges named after past Marine heroes and he especially remembered an obstacle named after Marine hero, Pfc Luis Fernando Garcia, who sacrificed his own life, during the Korean War, by throwing his body on a grenade to save his buddy. [Each "Warrior Station" is named after a Marine hero who posthumously won the Medal of Honor.]
Ray mentioned that: "Mess hall training today was like training for 'The Crucible' because they worked 18 hour straight days in the mess hall. "We were taught we can survive on little sleep and very tough duty."
When I asked Private Ray how long he'd like to stay in the Corps, he answered "I'd like to make a career out of it because I really like the Marine Corps. There's nothing bad in the Corps -- everything they do in training you is for your good, the good of the team, the good of the Corps and Country."
When asked if he'd ever like to be a D.I., he answered "I gave it some thought but "every time I see a new batch of recruits come in I think about how hard it would be to bring a group of guys to the point of being Marines and then having to think about starting all over again with a new batch." Because of that he thought he'd rather not be a D.I. Dealing with the same things over and over again is not something I would relish."
When asked how he felt about his Drill Instructors at first, he said he was shocked - in fact he even repeated the term -- shocked. "I thought -- why wasn't this on a recruiting poster? Why didn't they give us some idea of what we were getting into before we got here?" [Note: That's exactly the way I felt. I was in the reserves but no one ever told us what it was going to be like. I was scared to death because I just didn't know.]
"As time went on I realized they had a job to do and as we got to know them better we began to understand what their responsibility was." [Again: My personal feeling, at first, was how did they dare be so mean. What if they had to go into battle with us? One of us, including me, would just as soon have sent a "stray bullet" at them. Gradually we began to like them better and better but certainly not in the first few weeks.] Pvt. Ray said no matter how mad he ever got he doesn't think he'd ever think of killing one of ours. He said he was more confused than hateful of the D.I.s He just never understood, at first, why they were doing what they were doing.
Ray went on to say "the second phase of boot camp is the hardest and that's when the D.I.s were hardest on us but as we got into the third phase, the D.I.s began to ease up on us a bit, giving them more responsibilities. It was at that time that it got easier." Then we're three quarters of the way to becoming Marines." At that time he had a much different attitude about the Marine Corps than at first.
Ray said they have 4 hours to themselves on Sundays - to do whatever they want. To go to church - write letters home - to buy and read Sunday papers, to tidy up their gear. Ray, who is Lutheran, said "they strongly encourage us to go to church and they have ministers of all faiths, even Muslim and Buddhist.
When I asked him what training exercise he liked best - he said: "the confidence course because it's exactly what it says it is. When you do it - it helps you gain confidence. When you complete it -- it's a mind boggler and you're pleased with yourself."
I asked Private Ray, if he had the chance, what he'd say to a high school senior to try to convince him or her to join the Marine Corps. He answered: "It's a good start for a good future. It's a way of mentally challenging yourself and once you complete the training you'll be proud of yourself -- you'll feel good about yourself. And when you go back home you'll know that you have ac-complished something that will help you the rest of your life." He said: "it is especially good for people who don't know what they want to do with the rest of their lives." "Boot camp and the Marine Corps could give them a great start. It also is a place to prove yourself -- to prove that you're a step above the rest and that you can get through this training."
"Boot camp and the Marine Corps could give them a great start.
When I asked Ray what he'd like to say to Marine Veterans - especially W.W.II, Korea and Vietnam veterans, he said: "Thank you! It's because of you that we're where we're at today. And many times when Congress thought about shutting down the Marines they had to look at your record and because of that record there was no way they could shut down the Marines." He went on to say that "they proved the validity of the uniform. It's because of you that we can be proud to wear the uniform."
When asked if he thought there should be an amendment to protect our flag and also what it means to him. He answered: "our flag signifies our freedom and I would definitely stop someone trying to burn the red, white and blue. I just know I'd never want to disgrace that flag and I think there should be an amendment to protect it. I also feel sorry for that person who would destroy our flag -- I feel sorry for his ignorance. If he knew more about the flag - about what it really stands for - I don't think anyone would be so apt to want to destroy it. They're trying to show anger toward the government but the flag stands for so much more than just our government. It stands for the people, for national pride and for our country's history."
"If you don't approve of what our government is doing, you don't go out and burn the flag. You write to your congressman and find other steps to get yourself heard rather than destroying America's symbol."
When asked if he had that same feeling when in high school, prior to entering the Marine Corps, Ray answered: "I didn't understand so much what our national ensign stood for then like I do now. I wouldn't want to see our flag burned even back then but my feelings were not anywhere as strong as they are today!"
When I asked Ray what he'd never forget about recruit training, he said: "The ceremonies on the top of the 'Grim Reaper,' the hill they had to challenge and conquer during the Crucible."
Ray said he likes the weather in California compared to Milwaukee but he does miss the snow. But he does love warm weather. Ray said he does get cold out here - especially at night when the sun goes down. He said it got especially cold at Camp Pendleton in the evenings. When I asked him what he especially remembers from when he was younger, he remembered his first roller coaster ride and his family's move from Milwaukee proper to the suburb they now live in because he left some of his friends that he grew up with.
From high school he remembers the football letters he earned and said he could have done better in school because he got mostly C's. I asked if he ever was given the opportunity to re-do high school after his Marine Corps experience, would he work harder in school and he said "oh definitely!" He said "he wasn't trying to imply he's an older person now with immense experience but he's gained enough experience from Marine Corps training to understand how he can better his future for himself."
When I asked him what he'd do on his first liberty he said see his parents - he really misses his parents. I said what about liberty in San Diego. He said I can't even remember what a city is like. I've been away so long that I just can't imagine what a big city looks like.
I asked William if he had a girl friend and he said yes, a young lady who is a sophomore at Stout University in Eau Claire, WI whose name is Holly. It's not too serious but he has been going out with her although he hasn't seen her for some time now - but they do correspond and he plans to visit her when he goes on leave.
William S. Ray is a typical Marine and America can be happy and proud that young men and women like him choose to serve their country and themselves by choosing this as a career or as the beginning of a career.
[Writer's note: I learned something today - something I didn't understand when I was a very young man going through boot camp. I truly understand the benefits of discipline - both to the young man and the Marine Corps. I understand why they were constantly saying "yes sir, yes sir, yes sir!" And why they stand at attention and why they learn respect. It was a pleasure interviewing this polite young man who constantly called me sir. After the interview I thought about how different this was from interviewing a civilian young man, many of whom no longer respect their elders.]
By: Kale Danberg
8009 Noble Avenue North
Brooklyn Park, MN 55443
(763)560-7473 - FAX (763)560-7348
E-Mail - KaleWDanberg@aol.com
Kale Danberg is a free-lance writer from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He publishes and edits several newsletters and he is also a professional speaker.