Walking in my dad’s footsteps at Camp Pendleton

For about two weeks in the third grade, my friends and I took a break from playing princesses at recess and joined the boys (and the class tomboy) in a new game on the playground — boot camp. Every recess, we climbed up the school yard’s tire tower as fast as we could and crawled on our elbows under the climbing structure — annoying our parents and probably our teachers with the amount of dust the gravel that got on our Catholic school uniforms.

For the next 15 years, that remained my only personal “military” foray, despite the fact that I come from a family of servicemen. My grandfather had been a corporal in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany after World War II (which was how he met my Bavarian grandmother), and my father is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, having served in locations such as Japan, the Philippines and, after 9/11, Bahrain. I’ve always been very proud of our military and my family members who have been part of it, but it would have never occurred to me to carry on the tradition and join the military myself. (I’m not God’s gift to athletics.)

So when the Marine Corps reached out and invited me to cover a story of local teachers attending a workshop for educators in San Diego, I jumped at the rare opportunity to have a glimpse of my dad’s former way of life. I thought it would be a few days of attending interesting seminars on Marine Corps life in comfy conference rooms, touring the premises of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and, perhaps, taking photos as the teachers tried out a very watered-down military challenge.

Nothing could have prepared me for what the workshop really entailed — a one-week pass to boot camp, complete with shouting drill instructors, forward marches under the desert sun and challenges that I’m still feeling in my muscles four days later!

I flew in Wednesday night (missing the first half to complete deadline at the office), but it didn’t really hit me until the 5:50 a.m. reveille Thursday what I had gotten myself into. We all lined up outside the hotel in squads, and having missed the first three days, I was not sure where to go (a pattern that I repeated throughout Thursday and Friday whenever we lined up). After breakfast in the briefing room at Camp Pendleton, we all got ready to, once again, line up and march outdoors. I took my time gathering my things from my seat and told the person behind me, “You can go ahead.” Then I looked up and realized everyone was waiting on me to “stand tall, lean back!” Oops! Note to self: in the military, you don’t take your time — you get yourself ready as efficiently as possible.

Out in the desert in a much hotter, drier heat than our Washington bodies were used to, we acted out the part of recruits and completed the same challenges that they face, such as obstacle courses and a problem-solving simulation. Though I happily put on the helmet and vest that everyone else got (for both authenticity’s and safety’s sake), I initially stood to the side taking photos and video as the teachers simulated carrying a wounded comrade across a rope bridge. As the squadron of teachers carried cans of ammo (30 lbs. each) across a field and back, the sergeants supervising us asked me if I wanted to join. I picked up a can in each arm and ran after them. On the walk back, we were really beginning to feel the 60 lbs. in our arms (even my overpacked suitcase wasn’t that heavy!) so we began singing, “Left — left — left, right, left!” to make the walk go by faster. It was in that minute that I became part of the team. By the time I put the ammo down at the finish line, I was sore, sweaty and shaky, but felt I had made my dad proud.

From then on, I completed the challenges with the teachers. Two of them in particular caused me to face my fears — weapons and heights. Not coming from a hunting family, I had never even held a gun — or for that matter, seen one up close, apart from the gun hanging from a police officer’s belt. So when it came time to shoot M16s at the legendary Camp Pendleton rifle range — after just 10 minutes of instruction and perhaps 20 minutes of practice with unloaded rifles — I was quaking. I was surprised at how heavy and difficult to hold it was, and also at the overwhelming feeling of knowing what this weapon has the power to do. Even though I am much more likely to harm myself or someone else on my commute on Interstate 90 every day than at that moment at the every-precaution-taken shooting range, I couldn’t help worrying that something could go wrong. Though in the end I didn’t have the courage to pull the trigger, it was a big step that I was able to hold a rifle that was both loaded and cocked — and not just any rifle, but a Marine Corps M16.

I also somewhat faced my fear of heights at one of the obstacles, a sort of A-frame structure with logs for ladder beams with a net down below. I did not have the guts to climb the entire way up or drop into the net, but even getting as far as I did was an accomplishment for a person who normally has trouble walking over a too-high bridge. I was also proud of myself for completing the tightrope walk (walking the length of a rope bridge while holding on to a rope up above) without freaking out, backing out or falling.

Perhaps the most surprising challenge came in the most unexpected place — the mess hall restroom. Since female recruits normally train at Parris Island, South Carolina, there weren’t too many female bathrooms around. After “chow” (translation: lunch), I joined my squad members in taking a trip to “hit the head,” as they say in the military, at the only female facility we could find. I opened the door — and promptly closed it again. It was a bathroom without stalls — with everything out in the open. A female sergeant walked in and told me that it was irregular, but nevertheless proceeded to do what she came in for. With a sigh, I followed suit — after having downed the contents of my water bottle out in the hot sun, there really wasn’t a choice. Other team members came in and were just as shocked, but resigned themselves as well to yet another discomfort of military life. To be fair, I can see why a recruit bathroom is set up that way; nothing bonds you with your comrades like having even life’s most basic walls removed!

What made the biggest impact on me, however, was meeting the recruits that day during chow. I talked to Christian Lee, a recent graduate of Sumner High School in Sumner, Washington. I figured cell phones were off-limits in the field, but that recruits must be free to use them in the barracks during down time. Lee told me, however, that any use of electronics was strictly prohibited for the duration of boot camp and that furthermore, even if the recruits did have internet access, there would be no time in which to use it, for they never had a moment of free time to do so much as read a book. I asked him how he kept in touch with his family, and he answered that he had been allowed to call his family upon his arrival on June 19, and that he wouldn’t talk to them again until the week of graduation in mid-September. As someone who struggled with homesickness while studying abroad, this really shocked me; I can’t imagine having no contact with my family for three months, especially while going through the most physically, mentally and emotionally taxing period of my life. Additionally, living without modern life’s pleasures such as phones, music players, novels and a well-earned free hour at the end of a long day seems impossible.

Hearing a lifestyle that sounds to me worse than jail being spoken of so matter-of-factly by this 18-year-old man really instilled in me respect and appreciation for the young men and women who voluntarily put themselves through this to keep all American citizens safe. And this is just the difficulties of boot camp, without even getting into the immense dangers of serving in some place like Iraq. How can we ever thank service members enough for their sacrifices? The experience made me realize how much I complain about petty, day-to-day annoyances and I resolved to be more grateful for the many blessings I do have. Having seen Marine Corps life up close gave me a new understanding of my dad’s experiences as a lieutenant colonel, and I feel even stronger pride and admiration for him than I did before.

The greatest moment of the entire week was hearing the Marine Corps band play “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Marines’ Hymn” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the color ceremony at sunrise on our last morning. As the soldiers marched past carrying the colors to the tune of the band’s moving music, I felt a great pride swell up in my chest and tears come to my eyes. I have never felt prouder to be American than at that moment. Regardless of political beliefs, regardless of the arguing going on in D.C., we can all agree that our military is a force to be very proud of — and that we can all be very proud to be Americans.

Walking in my dad’s footsteps at Camp Pendleton
Reporter Nicole Jennings suited up in Marine Corps style at Camp Pendleton, CA. Photo by Sgt. Travis Gershaneck

Reporter Nicole Jennings suited up in Marine Corps style at Camp Pendleton, CA. Photo by Sgt. Travis Gershaneck