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By  Pat Lisi – Southern Utah Vets Aid
         There are certain assignments in the military that stand out as being different from anything else one can do while serving. These ‘billets’ do not necessarily come with the tag ‘elite’, although piloting a fighter jet would be a case where that word might apply. So, let’s just say for the sake of argument that some military occupations are not meant for everyone, and that it involves a careful screening process by those in charge before one finds ones self actually in those roles. In the United States Marine Corps, orders to the Drill Field stands out as being a job that requires careful consideration to place the people most suited for this difficult mission.
            Whether you are an active or a former Marine, Soldier, Sailor or Airman, you probably vividly remember that first team of men or women who greeted you at the receiving barracks in boot camp, smiling faces and all. In fact, I’ll bet you can still recite their names. I know I can – there was SSgt Christie, SSgt Butts, and Sgt Conner. Christie was the platoon commander and could be nice or not, Butts always seemed to play the role of ‘good cop’ even though we could never really goof off or take advantage of him, and Sgt Conner was simply the ‘enforcer’ who was always crazy and mean. It was February, 1968 when I first met these fine human beings and I can still see them in my mind’s eye as if it were yesterday.
            As time went by in the Marines and I had completed a combat tour in Vietnam, I was chosen for drill instructor duty in December, 1969 and sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego to attend the DI Academy. I’m not really sure why my commanders thought highly enough of me to give me such an ‘opportunity’, but it was actually an honor and so I packed my sea bag and reported for duty. It’s not like I had a choice or anything, so I reported for duty and went through the academy with my classmates. I got my first ‘herd’ of brand new recruits in March, 1970. Platoon 3032 graduated two months later in May. There would be several more platoons of new Marines from all over the United States reporting for basic training.
            I’ve been asked many times over the last 4 decades what it was like to be a DI and if I have any regrets. The simple truth is that it was a wonderful job for the most part, and very rewarding in the sense that 80 young men would get off a bus at receiving barracks one night, and then a couple months later your team of 3 DI’s had fashioned these guys into upstanding, accountable brave hearts, ready to get on with advanced training and then head to war. It was an incredible transformation to say the least, especially since the Vietnam War was still going on and most of them were initially scared as rabbits.
            As a DI you always strive to have the best platoon among the 4 platoons that end up graduating at the same time. The best group of newly graduated Marines is still called the Honor Platoon. So, the competition is tough, rough, furious, frightful, constant, and you could never let up for even one moment for fear of another platoon working just a bit harder than yours and taking home the coveted honors. In order to accomplish this, the DI’s have to spend most of their waking lives at the recruit depot with their fledglings. This commitment comes with a price, however.
            The divorce rate, for example, among active DI’s back when I served on the drill field was dreadfully high. Many of us ‘took our work home with us’ and ended up treating our family members like recruits, which doesn’t go over very big with most spouses. The problems to a marriage while working on the drill field are probably one of the reasons why there are 5 DI’s to a platoon now instead of 3. I actually did have a captain one time tell me, after I reported to him that my marriage was coming apart due to all the new recruits coming aboard, that if the Marine Corps wanted me to have a wife, they would have issued one to me.
            Another problem with being a drill instructor during times of war that I experienced back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was there were so many recruits coming to San Diego for training that the platoons actually overlapped each other. In essence, this meant that the day you got rid of a platoon of new Marines, you often times picked up the next batch of brand kids at receiving barracks either that night or the night after, with no time in between to rest, regroup, rethink, or do anything else; things like patching up a marriage with your spouse! That part of the job I did not like as much and, even though my marriage survived the ‘drill field’ it was still shaky at best, and it finally did fall apart a few years after I left the Corps.
            Certain assignments in the military carry extra monthly pay and in the Marine Corps the drill instructors receive a bonus as ‘pro pay’. It isn’t much, but every bit counts, right? You could also receive a fairly decent bonus for re-enlisting while in a billet like drill instructor, recruiter, or a few others. Most of the DI’s I knew who re-enlisted while on the drill field spent their entire bonus on a fancy, speedy car of some sort, which I thought was kind of silly even back then when I, too, was still infatuated with the awesome power of my ‘ride’.
            Most of my ‘pro pay’ went into expenses that I did not know were part of being a Marine Drill Instructor going into the gig. For instance, back in those days if you had a set of “dress blues”, you bought them! To my knowledge the only people who ever got a set of blues for free were the recruits who ended up as the 4 “platoon guides” at graduation. A full set of dress blues cost about $350 at that time which was major money to an E-5 sergeant like me.
            Something I spent some of my pro pay on, which I thought was a really great investment, was a 2nd complete set of clothing for when the drill instructors were inspected. DI’s have to be perfect at all times, and our gear was inspected at a moment’s notice, and often. A prepared drill instructor keeps a complete set of perfectly folded and pressed uniforms, including t-shirts, skivvies and socks, packed tightly and ready to go all the time.
            As you might imagine, a drill instructor or a drill sergeant (Army) has to be better at anything and everything than any single recruit on the entire base. Your uniform must  be impeccable, your posture and drill skills absolutely top shelf with no mistakes ever, your professionalism better be way above reproach and your demeanor, though sometimes gruff and seemingly rude or insane at times, needs to be business-like and purposeful for the most part. And, you had better not ever be bested by a recruit at any of the physical fitness tests! The Marine Drill Instructors Code reads like this:
            “These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of God, Corps and Country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality and professional skills.”
            Some DI’s have strayed from this code of conduct and ethics, but it was never alright nor has it ever been militarily legal for them to do so. If you as a Marine or former Marine had an abusive DI in boot camp that didn’t get caught, then I’d say that DI was pretty good at hiding his bad behavior. Some DI’s have been found out, though, and I knew of an entire team of 3 DI’s one time that was relieved of duty immediately for badly mistreating their recruits. They each lost a stripe and were sent to other billets to serve out their time in the corps.
             Even minor incidents can cost a DI his or her ‘pro pay’ for whatever period of time the company commander deems appropriate at a ‘Captains Mast’, which is the typical arena for disciplining a drill instructor instead of taking their case to a judicial settlement. I lost a month of pro pay ($50.00) one time for greeting the recruits upon Reveille, at 0430, by pushing over a couple of their ‘racks’ (beds) to get them to move faster. Unfortunately, the recruits kept their M-14 rifles padlocked to the frame of the rack, and when I tipped them over it broke a piece off the safety of each rifle for which I had to replace out of pocket. The captain took a month’s pro pay away as well. It was poor behavior on my part, I admit, but it did catch the attention of my recruits who were much faster at getting out of their racks from that morning on!
            Fortunately, the majority of the drill instructors I knew lived and died by the DI’s Code. I hope it’s even better today. While there is great need to carry on the tradition in the Marine Corps of making boot camp one of the toughest physical and mental tests that any human being should ever be subjected to, there is no sensible reason to injure a recruit or to cause them to drop from the program due to a DI’s carelessness, stupidity, or malpractice.
            My DI’s, especially Sgt. Conner, pushed us to the very breaking point and they  knew right when to turn it off, and then on again. I was glad for this, because I knew damned well where I was headed after boot camp and advanced infantry training, and I wanted it to be rough. Yes, they were SOB’s, but there is no doubt in my mind that they all had a part in making it possible for me to survive in Nam. In the end, I respected all three of my DI’s for what they did to me and for me.
            DI’s tended to associate with each other off duty, when there was such a thing. I remember a couple of outings on a rare Saturday when all the DI’s and officers of the recruit training battalion would hire a big boat and a sea captain to take us out fishing off San Diego. The crew would ‘chum’ the water with smelly bait after which we would all lower our anchovy baits to the bottom and then pull up all sorts of weird colored fish. One of us hooked a hammer head shark once, and all hell broke loose when he got it to the boat. The skipper cut the line, though, as he didn’t want the monster on deck.
            A DI by the name of John Presnall, and I, worked part time on evenings off the base at a sleazy bar in downtown San Diego called the “Apache Club.” It featured strip dancers and booze – that was it. The club tended to attract navy sailors fresh into port, and commercial fishermen. The latter group was much harder to control than the ‘squids’, and John and I had to join forces more than once to wrestle one of the fishermen out onto the street. For the amount of pay it wasn’t worth the nightly brawls.
            Drill instructors’ wives also hung out together, back in San Diego in the 60’s anyway, and so the entire group, families and all, formed a unique community of professional misfits.
            One thing I am sort of puzzled about is that of all the recruits who I trained in boot camp, none of them ever looked me up later on to let me know where they went from San Diego or how they fared in the corps. There is an association of Marine Drill Instructors, one on the west coast and one on the east, where one can go in and find their former DI’s. Just search under “Marine Corps Drill Instructor Associations” to see if your DI’s are listed as members in either outfit. I’m in the West Coast DI Association which has almost 500 former DI’s listed.
            In the end I’m glad I was a Marine Drill Instructor. Those were some of the best times of my life. Maybe one of the biggest things I enjoyed was the respect and admiration that came my way from most enlisted recruits, officers, and other active duty and former Marines. DI’s are, actually, a fairly elite bunch; not like Marine pilots and other aviators of course, but close enough. I’m thinking it’s because the drill instructor is the very first person that a new recruit meets or spends any amount of time with, besides their recruiter back at home. Basically, the DI’s and drill sergeants get them first. We take ‘mommy and daddy’ out of their lives for a few months while they get a jump start on a new experience unlike anything they ever dreamed possible. And, that’s the way it’s going to be, forever.
Sgt Lisi with Platoon 3032’s graduation colors

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