SAN DIEGO – When the recruit staggered out of the Thunderdome pugil-stick arena, he had the early signs of concussion: glassy eyes, confusion, unsteadiness on his feet.
His face had been gashed by a smashing blow from his opponent – another would-be Marine desperate to please drill instructors with a display of unrelenting aggression.
Not that long ago, the drill instructors might have ordered the woozy recruit back into line for another session.
But times have changed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
An athletic trainer watching the pugil-stick training spotted the signs of a concussion and soon the recruit was sitting in the back of a cart for transport to the medical clinic, like an injured athlete being taken off the playing field.
The Marine Corps, while still reveling in its reputation for having the toughest recruit training of any military service, has realized that boot camp injuries cost time and money and can be demoralizing to injured recruits and their buddies.
To reduce the number of injuries, the Marines have hired 27 certified athletic trainers – most with experience tending professional and college athletes – to oversee training for enlisted recruits and officer candidates at sites throughout the United States. Seven of the trainers are assigned to the San Diego boot camp.
Of the two Marine boot camps, San Diego outpaced Parris Island, S.C., for bragging rights as the toughest of all military training facilities. Recruits at San Diego had 688 fractures of lower-leg bones, mostly from running, marching and jumping, during the six years ending in 2010, according to researchers.
In January, the Marines will open a $15.5 million Sports Medicine Program facility at the San Diego depot to help in the diagnosis and rehabilitation of injured recruits. The 30,000-square-foot facility will include whirlpool tubs, “anti-gravity” treadmills and other special equipment.
This may not be your father’s Marine Corps, but for some former Marines the new concern over injuries is a welcome improvement over the hell they went through as young recruits.
Former Oceanside City Councilman Rocky Chavez remembered that when he was in officer candidate school in 1974, he reinjured his toe, an old injury from college sports. A Navy corpsman noticed Chavez limping and sent him to the drill instructor.
As a test, the drill instructor bounced a rifle off the damaged toe and demanded to know, “Does that hurt?” Chavez, desperate to finish his training, quickly answered, “No, sir.”
In truth, “it hurt like hell,” said Chavez, who retired as a colonel and was named by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as director of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dan Hottle, who was among the first Marines into Afghanistan in 2001, said there was no discussion about injury prevention during his boot camp training in 1991. Injured recruits were sent to recover at what was derided as the “pork-chop platoon.”
On long marches over the hills at Camp Pendleton, a recruit with a turned ankle or other injury ended up a passenger on “the truck ride of shame,” Hottle said.
Judged by bones broken and fractured, Marine Corps boot camp is physically tougher than Navy boot camp, much tougher than Army recruit training and exceedingly tougher than Air Force or Coast Guard training, a Pentagon study of injuries from 2004 to 2010 found.
One reason that San Diego boot camp has more injuries than Parris Island may be terrain. Recruits here are taken to Camp Pendleton to run and march up the hills. Parris Island is flat.
The most common injuries are shin splints, ankle sprains, stress fractures of the tibia and fibula, and an occasional concussion. The sports medicine approach is designed to reduce these kinds of injuries.
“Marine training is just as tough as always – we’re just being smarter about it,” said Brian McGuire, the Marine Corps-wide physical readiness program officer.
Within a week of arriving at basic training, while recruits are still being lectured on Marine Corps history, a trainer urges them to be brave enough to report an injury.
“The more motivated recruits are reluctant to tell us when they’re injured,” said Melissa Mahoney, coordinator of the San Diego base’s injury prevention program. “We don’t want to coddle them. But with injuries, it’s so much better to catch them in the early stages.”
Drill instructors are warned to look for injuries and not to assume a limping recruit is malingering.
This was not always the case.
Novelist Steven Pressfield (“Gates of Fire”) said drill instructors at boot camp in 1965 were not above giving recruits “the odd ceremonial shot to the chops” even for small errors.
Like many former Marines, Pressfield is convinced that as rough as it was, boot camp was great training. “Not only did the poor bastard who was singled out learn a lesson, but so did everyone else who witnessed his mortification,” Pressfield said.
Jack Lyon, who served in Vietnam as an infantry officer and now is a volunteer mentor for the Wounded Warrior program at Naval Medical Center San Diego, said the attitude toward injuries during his days was “forget it, carry on.”
The sports medicine approach, Lyon said, “is a great effort to prevent the kinds of injuries that lead to attrition. The Marine world is an ‘us’ culture not an ‘I’ culture. When one kid goes down with an injury, it can be terribly demoralizing to an entire platoon.”
By its nature, Marine Corps training is bound to have injuries.
Marine boot camp is 13 weeks, compared with the Army’s 10 weeks. The Army has dropped bayonet training in exchange for knife fighting. The Marines do bayonet, knife fighting and martial arts training; pugil-stick training is seen as particularly essential.
“A lot of these young men arrive in boot camp without ever having been in a fight, without ever balling up their fists and hitting another person,” said Sgt. Chris Woidt, a drill instructor who has done two combat tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan.
“Pugil-stick training develops the aggression, the blood lust that we want,” he said. “They stop being afraid of hitting someone and of being hit.”
Before entering the Thunderdome, each recruit dons a football helmet with face guard and mouthpiece, and is padded with chest and groin protectors. The pugil sticks are like enormous padded Q-tips.
The goal is to bowl over your opponent, knock him to the ground and pummel him. The matches are fast and furious.
The rigors of such training notwithstanding, there are signs that the sports medicine approach to reducing injuries is working.
Injuries at San Diego decreased after the hiring of Mahoney and the other trainers, according to researchers. If the trend continues, the Marine Corps may eventually have roughly the same injury rate as the Army.
The Navy has decreased its injury numbers by increasing the amount of sleep allowed for recruits and decreasing the amount of marching.
Mahoney, who has a master’s degree in public health, and the other trainers keep a close eye on the recruits – trying not to interfere in the grueling process of turning civilians into Marines, but watchful still for injuries that could slow down, or truncate, that transformation.
“It’s a battle,” she said.