The Cast: Platoon 2023 and Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore.
Bodies were everywhere. In every direction. I’ve never seen a more perfect example of organized chaos before, or since.
Hotel Company. Platoon 2023. Fourth Squad. I was there.
It has been my personal experience that most military organizations operate with three squads in each platoon. However—again, my personal experience—in boot camp, there were four squads. I would assume that it was done to help move bodies through the program.
This is only important because I was in the fourth squad, near the back of the formation when it all happened. This gave me an almost perfect view of the whole incident.
Drill Instructors drive—or steer—the platoon from off to one side. Still, it can be done from other points. Other standing positions. If the D.I. (Drill Instructor) is barking the orders of march, you follow the commands. Period. Learning to do this is part of learning to follow orders in combat. It seems like a bit of a stretch, but, I promise that if I wanted to explain it more thoroughly I could. However, that is not what this post is about.
When I was in MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot), the training was thirteen weeks. During that time, recruits within a platoon would come and go, due to injuries or pick-ups from other units. Also, Drill Instructors might come and go due to ends of tours of duty or reassignments. My platoon had one leave about halfway through. One day, he marched us to the shooting range, and in the afternoon, a new D.I. marched us back: Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore.
Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore was a good D.I. He was competent. Yelled the right amount. Good volume. Competent instruction. None of us died under his leadership. Still, his marching instruction was… Well, it wasn’t great. This lack of perfection in marching our platoon resulted in a few minor steering mishaps. If Platoon 2023 were a car, there would be a few scratches. Nothing serious that would dramatically hurt the resale value, mind you. Still, we had some scratches. What I’m about to endeavor to describe to you—in keeping with the automotive analogy—was nothing short of a complete obliteration, an total annihilation, a disintegration of the vehicle from a head-on collision. In slow motion.
After weeks of already being at MCRD, most of the recruits knew what was going on. Things like class time, chow, physical training, etcetera. We also could recognize landmarks as we moved about the base. This was done peripherally, as we were to strictly keep our eyes front. Look forward. Do not, I repeat, do NOT move your head about, or get caught looking around. If you do, you die. Maybe not literally, but you wish you would by the time the D.I.’s were done thrashing you.
Thrashing: Doing whatever physical fitness routines you were told to do (instruction provided at high-intensity max volume within close proximity) until the D.I. was tired. Pushups until you pass out. Flutter kicks ‘till your gut cramps and you can’t stand up—but you have to or else you’ll get thrashed again. Jumping jacks until your arms fall off. Things of this nature. I once saw this last one happen. The recruit was to my left and then ‘thump’ ‘thump’, his arms hit the deck. He almost cried (he may have cried but the tears would’ve mixed with his already existing profuse sweating). The Corps issued him new arms and he was able to test them out with three hours of continual pushups. They worked just fine.
Yeah, so back to traveling about the base… One evening, after another beautiful day of learning how to be a Marine, Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore was marching us back to our barracks. This must’ve meant that it was the end of our day. We only headed back to the barracks to trade our gear, books, or supplies for another training. Given the hour of the day (only known by the setting sun, there were no clocks that we ever saw. ever…), heading back to barracks was the only thing that made sense. Still, we might do something else. We never knew what we were going to do unless we had to prepare gear well in advance—or what was more often the case—right before we were ordered to do it.
I know, this seems all over the place. Bear with me, it will all come together.
What day was it? I don’t recall. When I was in boot camp, my daily goal: Survive. I only knew when Sunday came around because I was able to go to a church meeting. This day was not Sunday. But, as I was saying, we were headed back to our barracks. This was good. That day—like all the other days—had been long and exhausting. Much had been accomplished. Like all the other days.
All of us from Platoon 2023, Hotel Company, were looking forward to wrapping up our day in our second-floor barracks. Then, Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore gave a command. The command to end all commands.
“Platoon… Ryh-Ut, FACE.”
It was simple while remaining slightly advanced for us. We had done formation moves like this one before, however, it was not the common command typically given when we neared our barracks. Traditionally, we would be commanded to make a left or right turn so as to maneuver us off the road and onto the large sidewalk-like area in front of the building where we slept (that’s pretty much the only thing we had time to do there). On this occasion—based upon the direction we were coming from—we should have turned left. This would have started with the front of the formation turning towards the building while the rest of the body followed its path. Kinda like a snake.
This right face command should have caused every body within the entire platoon (at the exact same time) to turn to their right. Thus, the entire formation would move, as one, to the right and continue marching. One large problem with this is that we would be walking onto the grass. For those not familiar with the taboo-ness nature of walking on the grass on a military base, you don’t walk on the grass on a military base. That’s what sidewalks are for. Still, that was the order. Additionally, the Parade Deck was to our right and Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore might have been taking us there for some marching practice. It would have been a little odd, but not out of the question.
The command of “Right face” was given. It was the wrong command. We all knew it. However, because we all knew it—yet it was still an order—chaos ensued. A chaos that only someone watching from behind, or overhead, could genuinely enjoy. I was one of the former.
Some recruits followed the order, faced right, and continued to march. Some recruits followed the assumed order, faced left, then continued marching. Some recruits assumed the intended order, made a left turn to produce the aforementioned snake-like move, and continued to march. Other recruits, confused by the wrong order (and seeing others moving in all sorts of directions) just kept marching forward. A few recruits, not knowing what to do, stopped marching and stood at attention. Recruits that would run into those stationary recruits either marched around them or just kept marching into them—like a cartoon character running into a wall and not moving anywhere. Recruits were marching left faced, right faced, left turned, forward, not at all, into each other, around each other… Everywhere but backward. We were like a braided rope of confused camouflage trying to come undone at the end and not knowing why or what to do about it.
Seeing the insanity, those of us in the rear tried to slow down our pace so that we might not become part of the giant cluster of madness that was filtering left, right, and center. Meanwhile, no corrective command had been forthcoming. You could almost hear Drill Instructor Sgt. Moore’s brain snap in view of the mess he had accidentally made. You could feel that D.I. stair boring through each and every single one of us. We were gonna die… All of us. And we all knew it.
“Platoon! FREEZE!” While I could not see him, I could almost feel his freakout. It was terrifying. I think we all felt it. Still, a command was a command. And, we knew the appropriate response. At this point in training, it was reflex: Repeat the command, then execute said command. “Freeze, recruit! Freeze!” Then, do not move. For anything.
From what seemed like all over the base (due to us being spread out because of the inappropriately executed wrong command), “Freeze, recruit! Freeze!” was added to the almost quiet of the regular evening sounds. It replaced and overpowered what was formerly our heavy marching footfalls. We all froze. We were now spread out over an area that seemed like half a football field. It was probably more like just a third of one. We all waited. Stationary. Statuary. When commanded to freeze. You froze. Like the Red Light, Green Light game you played as a child—only with dire consequences of horrific thrashings instead of just being ‘It’. There were recruits in all sorts of positions. Most of us had at least one leg poised off the ground in an attempt to complete a marching maneuver. Incomplete arms swings. Knees about to do something awful to one another. Bodily collisions awaiting to topple, yet defying gravity’s law. Madness.
Now what? Were we to be punished? Was it us who screwed up? Should we have followed the order? Should we have all executed the probable left turn? What was the order? Did we even hear it correctly? The collective panic welling up inside us all could be felt by one and all. The terror. The terror…
“Aye-aye, sir!” Was our unified (and relieved) response. As we all bolted for the second story—and the relative safety of the end of the day, we left our fear of reprisal behind (just that one time). There was something in Sgt. Moore’s last order that told us that the error was on him. That it was his mistake. We would not be punished for it. Also, it would never happen again either.
I once read on a t-shirt the following: The “H” in United States Marine Corps stands for Happiness. It’s true.
Now, tomorrow is my beloved Corps’ 247th birthday. To all devil dogs old and young, those to come, and those long gone, happy birthday! Semper Fi and OORAH!