Thirty years ago today (May 10th, 1983) I arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. I was unceremoniously greeted with a Drill Instructor’s boot to my hindquarters, which seemed to remain permanently affixed there for the next three months of my summer vacation. I was not a Christian or a particularly religious young man when I arrived, but I did soon learn that the anti-Christ was alive and well and masquerading at the time under the name of one Sgt. Kirkland—USMC.
Sgt. Kirkland liked me, I think. At least he took a particular interest in me, which is a bad thing on the island. He often said, as he was thrashing me about, that I was funny and entertaining. His appreciation of my often ill-timed snarky comments and facial expressions faded quickly when he caught me one day mocking him and doing drill instructor imitations behind his back. As fate would have it, he caught me when we were out at ICT (Individual Combat Training)—a two week stint in the marshes of Parris Island where we lived in our bivouac shelters and were constantly on the move, immersed in military combat training. At least that was the official explanation of ICT. In reality, ICT provided the seclusion necessary for the drill instructors to increase the torture and to field test their most fiendish schemes—the swampland swallowing up even the most robust recruit’s scream.
Well aware that my own death might very well lie before me, I braced for the sure beating that was coming my way. Sgt. Kirkland surprised me, though, when he announced in front of the entire platoon and our company commander that if I could make him laugh, there would be no punishment. Having nothing to lose, I gave it my best shot. I suppose with the crystal clarity of hindsight I should have picked any other drill instructor to mock that day. I had practiced them all and had plenty of material to pick from. But with Sgt. Kirkland standing before me, I just couldn’t resist. I had the opportunity to send this one belligerent jab his way. So I took it. I launched into a full Sgt. Kirkland rant—his voice, his mannerisms, and his quotes.
I was good, quite good if I do say so myself. Sgt. Kirkland thought so too, as he laughed so hard I thought he would pass out. For a fleeting moment I thought he might actually honor his promise. But no such luck with the spawn of Satan. As soon as the company commander left our camp, Sgt. Kirkland went nose-to-nose with me, his Smokey tapping on my forehead. Doom crested the horizon.
You could usually tell the difference when the drill instructors were just faking mad or were really mad; that being said, Sgt. Kirkland was in a psychotic frenzy, frothing and all. I had really stepped in it. I did pushups, sit-ups, side-straddle-hops (jumping jacks), bends and thrust, and repeated the list until well after everyone else bedded down. I was finally allowed to go to my tent near midnight. In the unknown early morning hours, my tent was kicked down and me and my innocent tent mate were beaten and dragged around in circles in the dirt. I was too exhausted to react.
“The ICT Monster strikes again!” the foul beast cried out in a voice remarkably similar to Sgt. Kirkland’s. We had been warned that there was a monster in the swamp—the ICT monster—that would randomly attack without provocation. As elusive as the Yeti, the creature would thump poor unsuspecting recruits and disappear into the night.
In the remaining days of ICT, Sgt. Kirkland (and the ICT monster) unleashed a reign of terror at every opportunity. Whenever we would stop or take a break, I was exercising at the front of the platoon while they got to eat and drink water. The ICT monster continued his night visitations. On our last day of ICT, I was jogging in place with my rifle over my head and my backpack on. My platoon was eating lunch and enjoying the show, each person just glad it wasn’t them. Black dots clouded my vision and sweat stung my eyes. The brutal summer heat bore down on me. The relentless pressure had broken me. I staggered and the world turned up-side-down as I crashed headfirst into the dirt. I awoke to my platoon mates pouring water from their canteens on my face. Sgt. Kirkland stood just behind them, grinning.
“Yo, Mynheir! You’re looking good, buddy. Looking good!”
Victory was his.