SAN DIEGO – Matt and Robert Shipp struggled to stay alert Tuesday morning, their first morning at Marine boot camp. The twins from Hauser Lake, Idaho, had already gone 30 hours without sleep and would need to muster the energy to last another 12 hours before any rest would be permitted.
Their eyes were bleary. Their heads were still tinged red from being shaved bald hours earlier, shortly after arriving at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Snarling drill instructors walked the room at the recruit processing center. Shouts flew through the air and echoed down the hallways of the building.
“Wake up you knuckleheads!”
“You’re all brain dead! Brain dead! Brain dead!”
“You eyeballing me, recruit?”
The drill instructors inspected the 120 young men of Platoon 3019 for tattoos, brandings or any piercings that might be the souvenirs of gang affiliation or criminal activity. It was just one of countless tasks involved with recruit processing. The Shipp twins, like the other recruits, stared at the ground and did their best to avoid drawing attention. One young man near the back of the room tried to suck back tears.
For better or worse, Matt and Robert Shipp’s longtime dream of joining the Marines was finally coming true.
The 18-year-olds spent much of the last year preparing for the Marines. They had practiced target shooting near their family’s forested North Idaho home. They worked their bodies, hoping to build up the muscle needed to survive basic training. For Robert, who had once dropped out of high school, the decision to join the Marines also prompted him to return to school and study hard enough to earn a spot on the honor roll. Both young men had also kept close tabs on the war in Iraq – that’s where most newly minted Marines are sent.
Robert and Matt could not offer any gut reactions to their all-night baptism to the Marine Corps. They could not say if they were satisfied or terrified. That’s because the first lesson recruits learn is to shut up – for the most part, the only words allowed in boot camp are “Yes, sir!” “No, sir!” or “Aye, aye, sir!”
Along with a young woman from Medical Lake, Wash., the Shipp twins were sworn in as Marine recruits at 9:50 a.m. Monday in a windowless room on the second floor of the federal building in downtown Spokane. Lt. Col. Yolanda Kern administered the oath. She also asked the twins, “Are you ready for this challenging adventure?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said, both standing ramrod straight.
Leslee Shipp, the twins’ mother, cried during much of the ceremony. So did Matt’s girlfriend, Jessica Whetstine. Afterward, Leslee hugged her sons and told them, “I’m proud of you guys.”
Before boarding an afternoon flight to San Diego, the twins were given a few moments alone in the federal building cafeteria with their parents and their brother and sister. Matt and Robert ate cheeseburgers and smiled. Nobody talked much. Their only contact for the next 13 weeks would be one postcard and a single phone call.
At 9:22 p.m. Monday night, the twins arrived in Terminal 2 at the San Diego airport. Apart from the clothes on their backs, all they carried were copies of their orders to appear at boot camp. Signs in the airport led them past the food court and down an escalator toward the USO lobby. The recruits arrived in clusters – they bantered and joked as they approached the lobby. Some carried bags of fast food. This wasn’t the military base. This was a carpeted, well-lit room with sofas, chairs and a big-screen television that played ESPN. There didn’t seem to be any reason for worry.
Until they spotted the telltale green “Smokey Bear” campaign hat of the Marine drill instructor, who was waiting just inside the lobby. Sgt. Alex Madrid offered no pleasantries to the twins. His greetings were belted out in short, terrifyingly loud blasts.
“Look at me right now!” Madrid shouted in a voice reminiscent of Wolfman Jack. “Hullo! On your left forearm you will write 3019 right now! You understand that? You understand that?”
Robert and Matt did as they were ordered, then stood waiting with others in the platoon. Platoon 3019 will not receive their team of drill instructors until 1 p.m. Friday. “That’s when the real fun begins,” Madrid said. Friday is the start of physical training, marksmanship practice and countless miles of marching. The first five days at boot camp, though, are spent waiting in lines for dental and medical checkups, filling out countless forms, waiting in more lines and learning the many mundane tasks of military life, such as the correct way of wearing a belt.
Sgt. Derrick Small, who works in the recruit depot’s public affairs office, said the first week of boot camp can be especially difficult for recruits.
“This week gives you too much time to think. That’s why I didn’t like it,” Small said. “You have all this time to think about the stuff you coulda did, shoulda did.”
The main lesson Monday night seemed to be the importance of avoiding the wrath and attention of Sgt. Madrid, or any of the other drill instructors who stomped the halls of the processing center. The lessons were not offered as advice. They were revealed only when mistakes were made, such as when one recruit told Madrid his marker ran out of ink.
Madrid turned and faced the recruit. His face reddened like a boiled beet. His eyes bulged out of his head. He bared his teeth. For about five seconds, the drill instructor’s lips moved, but no sounds came out of his mouth. He seemed unable to come up with adequate words to express his rage. The recruit wilted. Finally, Madrid simply pointed toward the wall and shouted, “GO!”
Some of the other recruits’ hands shook. Active-duty Marines relaxing on sofas in the USO lobby smiled and whispered to each other – perhaps remembering their own initiation into the smallest branch of the military, a branch with a reputation for the toughest training and the meanest of drill sergeants.
Matt and Robert Shipp were always at each other’s side those first hours. They enlisted through the buddy system and were guaranteed a spot in the same training platoon. After boot camp, the twins will split. Robert plans to attend infantry school and hopes to qualify as a sniper. Matt will go to artillery school and hopes to serve as a forward observer, or maybe as an elite member of force reconnaissance. Both hope to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
During a short break Monday night, Sgt. Madrid said he never had twins in any of his training platoons over the last 2 1/2 years. Matt and Robert will be able to help each other through the difficulties of boot camp, but the buddy system has its own drawbacks, Madrid said. When one buddy screws up, the other often has to do extra pushups, for instance.
At 9:56 p.m. Monday, Platoon 3019 was ordered to stand and march in formation out of the airport lobby to school buses waiting in the parking lot.
“Hey knuckleheads!” Madrid shouted. “I’ve got some guys waiting for you back at the base. They got your name. They got your picture. You better take a little breath now and enjoy your freedom. You’re about to feel pain! You got that?”
“Yes, sir!” the recruits shouted back. The platoon marched past manicured shrubs and palm trees in the parking lot. Through the warm, humid night air, they could see the skyscrapers of San Diego. For the Shipp twins, it must have seemed so very far from the pine trees, crickets and lake sounds of their childhood home in North Idaho.
Robert and Matt Shipp’s bus arrived at the recruit depot at 10:55 p.m. Monday. When the door opened, Staff Sgt. Ferman Payne was there and ready to shout. “Get off my bus now! Faster! Faster! Faster!”
They scrambled down the stairs and stood on sets of yellow footprints painted on the concrete. The footprints showed the recruits the proper way of standing at attention: heels together, toes apart at a 45-degree angle. Payne wandered through the crowd of young men, his campaign hat cocked forward, revealing a black leather strap tight against the back of his shaved head.
“If I ask you a question, it’s without addition ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’!” Payne shouted. “If I tell you do something, you’ll say ‘aye, aye, sir!’ … Now, you’re going to open your fat mouths! You understand that?”
The young men thundered back a reply, “Aye, aye, sir!”
Another platoon was already being processed inside the building. Shouts from their drill instructors echoed out the door and into the courtyard, where the Shipp twins stood at attention. A total of about 500 recruits cycled through the depot Monday night, some arriving well after midnight. Most of the young men come from states in the West or Midwest. Male recruits from most states east of the Mississippi and all female recruits attend basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
At 11:38 p.m., Robert received a recruit’s haircut. Thirty seconds and 20 swipes of the electric razor later, it was Matt’s turn in the barber chair. Neither twin had more than an inch of hair to begin with, but that didn’t matter. Recruits are shaved to the skin. Hair trimmings from Platoon 3019 nearly covered the ankles of the two barbers on duty Monday night.
Across the hallway, in the “contraband room,” the bald recruits were ordered to surrender all badges of individuality and any remnant from their former lives – clothing, jewelry (except wedding rings), mobile phones, iPods, books, wallets. Only a few small snapshots of loved ones are allowed in a recruit’s footlocker. Drill instructors walked from recruit to recruit in the room, tossing books, toothbrushes and packages of gum onto the floor. Staff Sgt. Payne stopped in front of Robert Shipp. He began throwing papers on the floor.
“You bring enough garbage to boot camp?” Payne asked.
“Yes, sir!” Robert answered in a loud voice. He stood at attention with his chest jutting forward and arms at his side.
Matt didn’t bat an eye. Doing so would have been an open invitation for more wrath from the drill instructor.
Once relieved of their personal possessions, recruits were issued all they would need: cotton swabs, writing paper, four-packs of underwear, a shoeshine brush, anti-fungal foot spray, padlocks, socks, a training uniform.
By midnight, most of the recruits were red-eyed and shining with sweat. The processing center was stuffy and filled with the smell of cut hair and body odor. In their weariness, some of the recruits began making simple mistakes, such as raising their left hand when the drill instructor says right, or not saying “yes, sir” in response to an order, or not saying “yes, sir” loudly enough. The mistakes brought only more shouting and commands from the drill instructors.
The orders seemed to run together in one continuous shout: “Do it this way! Now run! Pick it up recruit! Run recruit! Are you eyeballing me, recruit?”
This will be the soundtrack to Matt and Robert Shipp’s lives for the better part of the next 13 weeks. The twins hope that by following the drill instructors’ commands, they will be presented with the eagle, globe and anchor pin of a Marine on Sept. 15. Their drill instructors hope these lessons will help the twins and the rest of Platoon 3019 stay alive in combat.
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