Those Yellow Footprints
by Lori Howard
We stopped abruptly and a slight woman with a wide-brimmed hat pulled down to her eyes came screaming aboard as if she were hijacking the bus. The air brakes could not drown out her words: “Get off my bus! Get off my bus!” We filed out into the steamy summer darkness where we were met by her twin, screaming “Get on my footprints! Get on my footprints!” We moved quickly and quietly, strangers merging with anxiety, excitement, and fear, with one common goal: to become members of the elite group called “Marines.”
The screeching women were drill instructors (DIs), and there appeared to be an endless supply of them, barking orders and intimidating us into submission. I did everything I could to follow their directions with the naïve hope that they might stop yelling, but these women were relentless. As one of the male drill instructors was bellowing about rules, expectations, and other things that we would probably never remember, the other DIs ran around ensuring that our feet were aligned on the yellow footprints painted on the pavement. When I looked down to see if mine were aligned, I was immediately greeted by two of them who yelled in tandem not to look down. Apparently, rolling one’s eyes while being corrected is not a desired response and will set off a silent alarm that summons several more DIs to the fray.
After what seemed like hours, we were rushed inside and given paperwork to fill out. I had driven from Adrian to Detroit, Michigan, then flew to Charleston, South Carolina, and took a bus to Parris Island, SC, where I faced an assault of screaming and swampy smells, and now they wanted me to fill out paperwork. We muddled through it and then met with our interim drill instructors who would do the preliminary activities with us like getting uniforms and filling out more paperwork. Since it was close to 3:00 AM when we finally got to our beds (“racks”), I assumed that we would be able to sleep in a bit that first day. I was wrong. As the lights went on and the DIs started yelling and banging on metal trash cans at 5:30 AM (0530), it was surprisingly comical to see 55 young women from various backgrounds trying to wake up and do what they were being told to do. They were screaming, “Get on line! Get on line!” but we had no idea what that meant. We were directed to stand in a line by our racks and then informed that we had five minutes for all of us to be showered and back by our racks. We had eight showers and 55 women, so this was the first of many challenges, but we figured it out. We quickly became a synchronized movement of frantic nudity, trying to get washed and rinsed without someone screaming at us. Typically, a shower is a relaxing place where nobody yells at you, but at boot camp nothing is “typical.”
Much to my amusement, the path to becoming a lean, mean fighting machine started with group showers and trips to the dentist, doctor, and tailor. After a week with our temporary drill instructors, we were moved to our permanent barracks and assigned 3 new DIs for the remaining 12 weeks. The first thing they did was to cut our shower time from 5 minutes to 3, and our eating (“chow”) time from 15 minutes to 10. I looked forward to every meal, although it was rushed, because it was a chance to sit down and refuel. The food was better than expected, but there was no chocolate or Coke, which would have provided some comfort or at least some familiarity
Unfortunately, the only comfort we were allowed were letters from friends and family. It was sad to see girls crying after reading letters of love and support that they received daily from their parents, but it was even sadder that I didn’t receive anything from my mother in 13 weeks. I don’t know why I expected letters from the woman who told me I’d never make it through boot camp, but I was turning over a new leaf so I was hoping she would, too. I received occasional letters from friends and one of my sisters, and my father sent me Newsweek to keep me aware of the outside world, but otherwise we were in our own bubble. There were no phones or music or television shows. We had one hour each night to shine boots and buckles, iron clothes, and read or write letters. During that time, we could talk and watch Armed Forces Network on the TV that they wheeled in for that hour.
Our drill instructors completely controlled what we did and how we did it. They were like our parents, the strictest ones you could imagine, teaching us to do everything with integrity and purpose. We relearned how to walk, talk, and dress. We spent hundreds of hours in classes that enlightened us about everything from Etiquette and Make-up Application to Hand Grenades and Claymore Mines. We learned about military history, ranks, and customs. We qualified for badges in shooting M-16s and built our self-esteem by rappelling, swimming, and tackling obstacle courses and gas chambers. We became well-oiled machines on the drill field, marching in step with precision and becoming increasingly confident and skilled.
I learned more in those 13 weeks of boot camp than I did in the two years of college that I had attended before I went. I had chosen to take this step to leave behind a despondent life, in search of self-discipline and a sense of purpose. I discovered a lot about the world, but even more about myself. I realized that being raised by neglectful parents made me fiercely independent, but it also made it difficult for me to trust or rely on others; I had to strike a balance. I learned (after being ejected for “fighting dirty” with pugil sticks) that fighting is not just about winning, but also about being fair. I realized that I am lucky to have been born with certain abilities, and it is my responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. Although I had never been a proponent of teamwork because I was so independent, I began to view teamwork as a necessity to accomplishing goals. The irony about this learning to trust and to be fair and helpful is that during this time I also learned how to kill people using several different methods. Those skills come with tremendous responsibility, but also build self-confidence and courage.
When I arrived at Parris Island and stepped on those yellow footprints, I was desperate to leave behind my desolate life with no solid foundation and no foreseeable future. I was angry at life and had no confidence or direction. When I saw those footprints again on graduation day, I was a very different woman. I was proud, excited, confident, and hopeful. I had overcome my childhood, my doubts, and my fears. I had earned the title to become one of the few and the proud…a United States Marine.