CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Robert Shipp died twice at boot camp Wednesday.
Once was during a training exercise that had him swinging by a rope while wearing a gas mask. A few hours later, the young Marine recruit from Hauser Lake was again killed in action while scrambling across a cable bridge that had come under heavy attack by fake machine guns and simulated mortar fire.
Sgt. Brennan Kriner, a drill instructor seasoned by a combat tour in Iraq, watched from the sidelines, shaking his head.
“You’re dead, Shipp! Get up!” Kriner yelled. “You failed twice. That’s garbage!”
Robert Shipp finished the obstacle course, then jogged over to a pile of wooden pallets, where his twin brother and the rest of his squad had been granted a few minutes to sit, catch their breath and wolf down a portion of the one meal they would be allotted for the day. It was barely 9 a.m., and the air was cool and damp thanks to the nearby Pacific. The grease paint-smeared faces of the Marine recruits, however, were already covered with clear beads of sweat.
This was the start of the Crucible, a 54-hour training exercise near the end of boot camp meant to stretch the recruits to their limits and provide a sneak preview of what they could face several months from now in Iraq or Afghanistan. Along with one meal a day, the recruits were allowed just four hours of sleep a night. Bathing was done with a moist towel. A rain poncho provided cover at night.
“This is fun. It’s what we came here for,” said Robert’s twin brother, Matt, during a hastily arranged four-minute interview between obstacle courses Wednesday morning. A Marine sergeant stood a few feet away listening to his every word.
Matt and Robert Shipp fulfilled a longtime dream by enlisting in the Marine Corps in June, shortly after graduating from high school. The young men are nine weeks into the 13-week basic training course, but are already galaxies apart from their relatively carefree upbringing along the shores of a North Idaho lake. Marching in tight formation has now become second nature. They’re learning how to conduct ambushes in pitch darkness, as well as several different ways of killing a man. Their eyes have been seared by tear gas. Their hands have memorized the grip of an M-16 rifle, which was issued to the recruits several weeks ago and now carries a label listing their blood type.
The Shipps have also learned what it feels like to sleep on a bunk in a hot barracks crowded with dozens of other young men. They are no longer called by a first name. They’ve lost all privacy – including in the bathroom. They’ve learned that nothing tastes better than brownies baked by their mom, certainly not the cold chow eaten out of a plastic sack in a dusty desert. They were told boot camp wouldn’t be easy, but the toughest part of the training hasn’t been the pushups, the wall climbs or the long marches.
“Being away from home,” Matt Shipp replied, when asked about the most difficult aspect of basic training.
“Everything,” Robert answered. A few seconds later, he narrowed his answer to: “This recruit’s mom’s homemade food.”
Robert and Matt Shipp are in Kilo Company, Platoon 3019. They share bunks with another set of twins, the Studer boys, from Iowa. After basic training, the Shipp twins will be given 10 days leave, then they will fly their separate ways and be apart for the first time in their 18 years. Matt will go on to receive additional training as a forward observer. Robert expects to return to Camp Pendleton for infantry training. One of their recruiters said the young men have a “95 or 96 percent chance” of being sent to Iraq. The Shipp twins want to go to war and fight for their country.
In letters home to their family in Hauser Lake, the Shipps have admitted to initially being “terrified” of standing out in basic training because of being twins, but about the only difference between their experiences has been if one twin gets into any sort of trouble, the other is often assigned pushups. The same is true for others who enlist under the military’s buddy system option.
“Our drill instructors always show us off, and we don’t get shit for being twins, either,” Matt wrote in a recent letter to his mother, Leslee Shipp. “I figured it would be hell.”
Robert wrote to his mother, “Me and Matt get to talk all the time. Our racks are right next to each other. Sweet, huh?”
These letters home provide a glimpse of how the Shipp twins are responding to their new world. There are ample references to the boredom of military life, but not one of the many letters expresses regret over enlistment or anxiety over deployments to come.
Matt wrote about the “great feeling” of finally being issued an M-16 rifle and of seeing the Pacific Ocean at Camp Pendleton. “It is never ending.” His spirits were also lifted by the nights when he could see fireworks explode over the nearby Seaworld theme park, and the time when he and other recruits were cheered by passers-by while they rode on a Marine Corps bus.
Early on, Robert wasn’t quite sure what to include in his letters. “Hey mamma, what you been up to?” Robert began one of his first letters from boot camp. A few lines down, he admitted, “I don’t know what to write ‘cause I ain’t written letters before.” It was obvious the words were jotted quickly – if they’re lucky, recruits are given an hour of personal time per day.
The letters from San Diego carry the twins’ longing for the cool forests and lakes of Idaho. “There ain’t nothing here except concrete and sand and all the hills have houses on them,” Robert wrote. But more than homesickness, the letters are filled with pride over the accomplishments of Platoon 3019, which currently has the highest performance ratings out of seven platoons now going through boot camp.
Before joining the Marines, Robert had no intention of ever going to college. He struggled through high school, dropping out at one point. Now he is writing home about one day studying for a business degree or a pilot’s license, courtesy of the GI Bill. Matt, who has a stronger academic track record, is also considering college or flight school.
For now, they just want to earn the right to be called Marines. If everything goes well, the Shipps will be given the military branch’s globe and anchor pin in about four weeks. Their parents, younger brother and older sister will fly to San Diego for graduation. Both Robert and Matt have made repeated requests in their letters that a pan of their mom’s brownies also attend the ceremony. Most of their recent letters also include menu proposals for their short leave: prime rib, lasagna, barbequed ribs, twice-baked potatoes, tall glasses of milk, chocolate cake and trays of homemade brownies.
Their parents are ready. Leslee has plans for more food than her sons will have time to eat. Dennis has also prepared for their return. He was planning to wait until after graduation, but Dennis recently had his arm tattooed with “Proud father of two Marines.” The Shipp twins have struggled, but their dad has never doubted his sons’ abilities.
On the morning of July 18, 1918, Sgt. Louis Cukela crawled through a forested battleground in France. His fellow Marines warned him to stay back, but Cukela pushed forward, eventually crawling into a German machine gun nest and bayoneting its crew. Cukela then captured another machine gun, plus four prisoners.
On Wednesday, the Shipp twins and 23 other Marine recruits were told the tale of how Sgt. Cukela earned his Medal of Honor. They were then ordered to crawl over a 15-foot-wall bearing his name. Matt Shipp was placed in charge of a makeshift team. It was his job to make sure the four other men made it over the sheer wall.
The obstacle was one of at least 30 stations in the Crucible, which is considered the most physically challenging portion of basic training. Recruits march about 50 miles, including a final hike up the 10-mile hill known as The Reaper. They bayonet dozens of dummies, crawl under low-hanging webs of razor wire, jump walls, hunker into foxholes and navigate mock battlefields at night.
“It just smokes their body physically, then they’re sleep deprived. They get beaten down. But they need to know they can do it,” said Gunnery Sgt. Scott Forth.
It’s where recruits are taught to work as a team, said Sgt. Jason Harbison, a drill instructor. The results are usually dramatic.
“It’s a world of difference, just the way they march, the way they carry each other back on base,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Matt Shipp’s first decision for his team was to hoist the lightest person over the wall to a ledge near the top on the other side. The lightest recruit was Robert. From the top, Robert helped haul the other recruits up the wall. The last couldn’t make it, however, prompting Matt to slide back down the wall to help.
“Get your platoon over! You’re wasting daylight,” Sgt. Kriner barked. It was 7:55 a.m. and the recruits had been awake at least four hours.
After finally scaling the wall, the team laid belly-first on the ground in a half-circle, their rifles aimed into the Southern California desert. They were also ordered to keep one boot in the air. If a foot suddenly drooped, the recruit would be assured a swift visit from Kriner.
“That’s how we can tell if they’re asleep,” Kriner explained to a visitor. He turned to the squad and, in a booming voice asked, “What would happen if I threw a grenade in the center of you right now?”
The team replied, “Killed, sir,” then shimmied apart.
Although drill instructors say the core skills learned at boot camp have changed little over the years, minor adjustments have been made to better prepare the young men for deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. The recruits are now given some training with AT-4 rocket launchers, as well as the squad automatic weapon, which can spit out 725 bullets a minute.
After the wall, the recruits marched, then were given a few minutes to sit in the dust. A gut-shaking rumble came out of the distance, likely from an artillery range. About a mile to the west, just across the interstate, hovercraft rode clouds of mist as they shuttled Marines from ship to shore for amphibious landings. Helicopters always seemed to be thudding above.
The recruits never looked up from their precious few minutes of rest. They continued gulping water and chewing crackers with gobs of peanut butter from their meal packets. The air around them smelled of sweat, dust and canvas. Kriner ordered the men to clean their rifles. “A Marine can do more than one thing at once,” he said.
Matt and Robert continued eating from their meal pouches. Robert chewed on a disc of lemon poppyseed cake.
“This recruit’s favorite MRE is meatloaf,” Robert admitted, after receiving permission to talk.
Both Robert and Matt wear blue “double rat” tags on their uniforms, which gives them access to extra rations. They barely had a gram of fat between them before basic training. Matt has dropped 18 pounds in the last eight weeks. Robert lost 15 pounds but has since regained 5. Keeping their pants hitched around their bony waists is a constant battle.
Kriner said hunger and sleep deprivation define life for a Marine in combat. He was with the first Marines to invade Iraq in 2003. The advance was so fast the supply convoys couldn’t keep pace. The Marines kept moving forward, though.
Although the recruits were eager to hear actual stories from combat, Kriner and the other drill instructors kept them focused on the obstacles at hand, such as the proper way to conduct a patrol: Look around constantly, use hand signals, keep the butt of the rifle against the shoulder for quick shooting. When one of the instructors shouted “Contact left!” the recruits faced to the left, stopped moving and began shooting blank cartridges.
The instructor’s face reddened. He wanted them to continue advancing. “Marines take the fight to the enemy!” he screamed. “You understand that? Is there any confusion over that?”
During one exercise, they were ordered to retrieve and drag a supposedly wounded comrade. One recruit quietly shuffled past a drill instructor, dragging a mangled battlefield-torn mannequin known as “Dead Fred” – in most other exercises, the dummies were subjected to countless bayonet jabs or face smashes from M-16 rifle butts. The silent drag prompted a drill instructor to shout, “Talk to him! Keep him alive! Tell him a story!”
The recruit deadpanned a reply, saying, “He can’t hear. He doesn’t have a head, sir.”
A group of nearby drill instructors tried to stifle laughter. One stuck his face in front of the recruit, heaved his shoulders and opened his mouth as if he was going to roar. The recruit slumped and waited for the verbal pounding. A few moments later, the young man was again dragging Dead Fred through the sand, but was now chatting with the headless mannequin like a long lost friend.
Between exercises, the recruits were given a few seconds in a portable bathroom. The plastic units were built for one, but the recruits squeezed in two at a time. Those standing in line had their pants unzipped and ready for their 10 seconds, or so, at the trough. Meanwhile, drill instructors shouted and pounded the thin plastic wall. “Piss and go! Piss and go!”
The recruits didn’t flinch. They jogged out of the portable bathrooms with the same expressionless faces as when they entered. Only their reddened eyes carried a hint of the exhaustion brought on by the weeks of training. Staring out of grease paint and dust-covered faces, these eyes offered reminders of the young men who only weeks ago were wearing graduation gowns and kissing their girlfriends and mothers goodbye.
Despite seeing familiar faces from home, Robert and Matt Shipp knew better than to risk any attempts at conversation. Like the other recruits, their goal is to fit in, follow orders and contribute to a larger cause.
But Robert, always a bit of a rebel, stepped out of his leatherneck-in-training persona for a brief moment Wednesday. When a drill instructor’s back was turned, he whispered in a hoarse voice to a photographer visiting from his hometown, “Say hi to my family, please.”