Reporter’s Notebook | Spending a week with the Marines

Having returned from covering the 2018 Marine Corps Educators Workshop, I find that I have been left with a few impressions.

While my capacity may have been strictly as an observer, reporting on the group of educators from South Kitsap High School attending the event, it was definitely a learning experience.

Upon landing in San Diego, there was no doubt that the week would contain a fair amount of propagandizing from the U.S. Marine Corps. While the propaganda was undeniably present, there was also a lot of transparency. The willingness on the behalf of the service members in charge to answer their questions was something I did not expect to see. I half expected to spend a week following the educators as they were repeatedly told to, “sit down, shut up and drink the Kool-Aid.”

This was not the case.

On the first day, the educators were roused at 6 a.m., an hour they’re probably accustomed to during the school year. Not being a teacher myself, waking up was one of the more difficult tasks I faced that day. Before the group boarded the two buses, they were addressed by Staff Sergeant David Moore, a drill instructor.

“You will give me the respect I deserve,” Moore said, informing the group that they were to address him as “sir” throughout the workshop. Moore also coached the group on how to properly form their ranks, something they were required to do when marching between various parts of the depot.

During the previous evening’s dinner, I had noticed Moore sitting at one of the tables. He stared directly forward, seemingly emotionless, looking every bit the part of a drill instructor. Later, I would learn that Moore is nearing the end of his tour as a drill instructor.

Later, he spoke candidly with me as he outlined the extreme difficulty of becoming one of the Marine Corps’ most-feared motivators. His time as a drill instructor, he said, included some of the worst times of his life as well as the best times of his life. Ultimately, he said, he would miss the job.

My conversation with Moore stands out because drill instructors effectively serve as the guardians of the gate between civilians and marines. They are the ones who shape recruits into fighters. To have a frank conversation with Moore, wherein he “took off the mask” for a moment, was both surprising and incredibly intriguing.

Shortly after arriving, the group’s bus was invaded by a drill instructor, who entered like an over-caffeinated wolverine. Even though the instructor yelled with a sincerity that was enough to get under the skin of a number of the “recruits,” it still seemed that the group was only being given a small dose of what the actual recruits receive.

This hunch was corroborated by some of the organizers who explained that from the moment the new recruits get onto the bus, they are told to keep their heads down. This causes a good deal of disorientation, and when the silence is shattered by the screams of the drill instructors, disorientation compounds the stress.

The day’s events included a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program and a chance for the teachers to take a crack at the combat fitness test. It was during the CFT that I deviated from my previous status as an observer and regrettably became involved. During what would prove to be the hottest day of our trip, I decided to give the CFT a go. The test consisted of a sprint, cone weave, low crawl, a simulated grenade throw, carrying of ammo cans and carrying a partner close to your own weight. I am going to add a caveat here that I’m not an out-of-shape guy. I run regularly. I try to watch what I eat, and I make an effort to stay active. The CFT shouldn’t be too much of a problem for someone like me, right? Wrong.

I later learned from an instructor that I started off wrong. By giving it my all during the first sprint, I set myself up to be completely smoked when I reached the later obstacles. When it came to the low crawl, I was trying to move so fast to the next station that I didn’t notice the turf field taking the skin off my knees. When I finally got to my partner and it was time to carry him, I was already huffing and puffing. I shouldered the man and made it a few yards before setting him down. The drill instructor who had been working to motivate me throughout my attempt was not impressed and she let me know it. A lifetime Washington resident, I was unaccustomed to the unusually hot weather and almost immediately began to feel the dizzying effects of heat exhaustion, although my bloody knees seemed to become the primary concern for those around me.

With the pain of donating a large amount of my knee skin to the MCRD athletic field came the lesson that the Marine Corps requires a great deal of physicality, which is above the standards of those who simply exercise and stay active. It also requires the resilience necessary to perform the CFT under a blazing sun, in full uniform and boots – a test that I could not complete while only wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

With the third day came a trip out to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar where we were treated to a tour of the flight line. Having seen the film Top Gun as a kid, I was pretty excited and was constantly on the lookout for a Tom Skerritt lookalike chewing out a cocky, young pilot for his dangerous-but-effective exploits. The day was pretty straightforward, but I was impressed with the candor that one pilot displayed when I asked him about the V-22 Osprey’s early notoriety as a death trap. The pilot shrugged a bit and said that while the unique tilt-rotor aircraft had been prone to crashes early on, “most of the kinks had been worked out.” I thought that was a very Maverick thing to say. According to the pilot, the V-22 Osprey had become renowned for its safety record in recent years.

As I looked at the myriad wires, hydraulic lines and other connections running throughout the aircraft, Staff Sergeant Jason Howton, a recruiter from the Kitsap area, provided a humorous adage from the Marines regarding their aircraft. When boarding a helicopter, Howton said, if you don’t see at least a little fluid leaking out from somewhere, don’t get in. The reason being, Howton joked, if it isn’t leaking, that’s because it doesn’t have any fluids in it at all.

Day four was our final, full-day with the Marines and included a trip up to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton for a little weapons training. I had been looking forward to this for a while. I can appreciate the skill necessary to be a good marksman and was looking forward to punching some paper with the Marine Corps’ M16A4 rifle. Before the range came a trip to 12 Stalls — a series of 12 obstacles.

At stall number four, one of the teachers from South Kitsap, Chris Korbel, managed to fall from an elevated beam while negotiating one of the obstacles. Korbel landed on top of the 55-gallon steel drum he had been holding, splitting open his chin. The corpsman told Korbel he would need stitches and the teacher was carted off to get patched up.

Korbel’s ordeal stood out to me because it seemed to connote a sort of raw authenticity to the whole event. If he could be injured while doing this, then it must’ve been at least a somewhat genuine experience. Korbel later agreed that he held no animosity for what he called a “boo-boo” and that it was all just part of what he signed up for. While being treated by the corpsman, Korbel expressed as his only concern the fact that he “killed” his whole team by falling from the beam. Korbel’s comment prompted Howton, who was standing nearby, to say, “You should’ve been a Marine.”

Following an accelerated weapons briefing, everyone was taken to the range and given the opportunity to pop off five rounds at a time. Korbel even made it back in time, having had his chin simply glued together before being sent on his way. After having the opportunity to fire my weapon, I was satisfied that my shot grouping, which while not all center-mass did manage to stay clustered tightly right around the center of my target’s throat.

By 11 a.m. the next day, the massive patch of asphalt where the new Marines in Charlie Company had gathered was being distorted in the distance by heatwaves. Still, the Marines of Charlie Company stood at attention, patiently awaiting their graduation. It was hot even in the shade, and I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would take to keep me out there on that hot asphalt, standing at attention, in a uniform. Charlie Company had endured 13 weeks of rigorous training, and it was clear as I watched those young men march that for them it was probably all worth it. I could only imagine the amount of pride each one of them felt.

In getting the final impressions from the teachers from South Kitsap High School — the group I was assigned to follow — each one’s response was essentially the same: I can’t believe how much I’ve learned this week. Korbel was candid in his answer, explaining that his previously negative outlook of the Marine Corps had been completely reversed and that he would certainly recommend the Marines for students he felt would be a good fit.

It appeared that if the intent was to convince educators to consider the Marine Corps as an option for their students, then the workshop had succeeded. However, it was not a success through propaganda alone. From my vantage, the success of the workshop came from the organizers’ willingness to provide clear answers to all of the questions asked by the members of the group. There were certainly moments where aspects of the workshop were “dressed up,” but from what I could tell, these instances were far outweighed by an open transparency that allowed educators to learn what a career in the Marine Corps can mean for their students.

– Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Nick can be reached at ntwietmeyer@soundpublishing.com

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