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What Do Drill Instructors Do on Their Own Time?

By Pat Lisi

Anyone who ever went through boot camp remembers their drill instructors or drill sergeants.  Their faces are indelibly etched upon your minds till the day you die.  And, that’s all part of the scheme; that’s how it’s supposed to be.  If life goes by after the military and you forget most things about basic training, it’s highly unlikely that one of those will be those big, ugly, foul-mouthed, crazy sons of you-know-what’s who either pulled or shoved you to graduation day.

But, no one can be grumpy and mean all the time, right?  So, what do these highly motivated, hardened professionals do when they are not training recruits?  Do they have wives and kids, and what happens during the ‘lag time’ from graduation of one herd to the day the DI’s pick up another batch of wanna-be Marines, Soldiers, Airmen or Sailors?

I was a Marine drill instructor in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  The Vietnam War was going strong when I reported for duty on the drill field, but it was winding down towards the end of my assignment.  Early on, this meant we had very little or in some cases no lag time between platoons of recruits.  In fact, in 1970 there was a period when we picked up a fresh batch of recruits 3 days before graduating the platoon we were already dealing with.  That was strange, because back then a platoon was trained by teams of 3 drill instructors.  Today, there are 5 to a team and can theoretically split resources if need be.

When it comes to socializing drill Instructors are so unique that they tend not to fit in with folks outside their work ‘circle’. This same phenomenon exists in law enforcement and fire fighters, to name a couple of professions.  During their time off most cops tend to hang out with cops.  Fire fighters do the same thing.  War veterans of particular eras tend to socialize with other vets who were ‘there’, too.  So in San Diego during the Vietnam War the DI’s in our battalion were like Family, and our wives and kids were included in that group.  We socialized most of the time with each other, as few of us had friendships outside the drill instructor rank and file.

When it was family time, meaning spouses and kids, we would take over a pavilion at a nice park in San Diego, maybe on a sandy beach, and have a picnic.  The wives prepared the chow, the DI’s carefully figured out who was responsible for what kind of alcoholic beverage.  The variety amounted to pretty much anything you could think of; just so all the bases were covered.  The cheaper the better.  You could buy a ton of “Strawberry Hill” for just a few bucks back then, and beer was almost free compared to today.

Sometimes the outing did not include the entire family; it was DI’s only.  A small group of the more crazy drill instructors I worked with liked to sky dive, for example.  Most of them had served in recon units during the war and were frustrated that they never got to practice their specialty for real in combat.  I was happy to keep my feet on the ground and do things that did not involve knocking on Death’s front door asking to be let in.

One of my favorites pastimes was when our whole company of drill instructors, enlisted and officers would chip in and hire a “party boat” to take us out fishing for yellow fin tuna.  We had to meet the fish skipper and his boat real early before the sun came up in the morning, because the best fishing grounds were several miles off the coast.  There were usually about 25 of us on board the boat, which was very capable of providing everyone with plenty of room to hang our baits over the sides.  Of course, we brought plenty to drink in large coolers and sometimes the first bottle might be opened long before 10 AM.  This would cause a ‘frenzy’ of its own aboard the boat, each of us wanting to make sure we got our fair share.

The boat captain would get us out to the area where schools of yellow fin were known to congregate, and the chumming would begin.  On the back deck there was this very large tank of water where the ‘chum’ (herring or other type of bait fish) was stored; the crew would take nets and dip them into the aquarium and then simply throw the thrashing bait into the ocean where all types of game fish would quickly school to attack.  At that time, we’d all lower our saltwater rigs into the drink with a single bait hopelessly impaled on the hook.  Though the prize was a nice yellow fin, you never knew what you’d find chomping down on the end of the hook.

One time the company XO (executive officer, a major) latched onto a Hammerhead shark and the fight was on!  When he got it up to the side of the boat a crew member reached over and released the 10-foot fish by cutting the leader line.  The most common varieties of fish we’d catch, though, were various species of bass and ‘Ruffy’.  I caught a 10-pound Grouper once and was amazed at the rows of sharp teeth it displayed when I got him on board.

But, yellow fin was the real prize and out of our entire group of drill instructors turned fishers for a day, we’d land maybe 10 per trip.  This fish is extremely powerful and it takes time to get them into the boat.  When someone yells, “Fish on!” it means it’s a big one and everyone alongside that angler needs to bring their line in to avoid tangling gear and subsequently losing the monster.  Yellow fin are absolutely scrumptious on the table; my favorite way to cook them was on the grill with lots of butter and lemon sauce.

After a couple or three days of picnicking, sky diving and fishing, it was usually time to get back into drill instructor mode and meet our next group of scared, all-American boys who landed aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego for their ‘time in Hell’.  There was almost no recreation during those long weeks, at least not as a group.  Another DI and me worked at a downtown San Diego bar as bouncers for awhile, but that’s another story altogether!  The point is drill instructors do have real families and real lives outside the recruit camps, something I never realized until I lived it for myself.



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