by Jon Davis, Sergeant of Marines. Fought in Iraq during OIF. Amateur military historian.
When I went through boot camp, upon enlisting with the United States Marine Corps, I had this one drill instructor. Every platoon has that one drill instructor; the one that takes an interest in a … creative sort of way. He’s the one who they invented words for like “sadist”, “psychopath”, and more colorful terms which we are too afraid to utter because he always seems to be around at the edge of earshot. We try not to even think it too loudly. He is the instructor who, more than the others, embraces the philosophy that, without discipline, a platoon’s members will be unprepared to defend themselves in the event of an actual combat event to the death. He also delights in providing that discipline in the belief that he, in his own marginal contribution, is ensuring their survival on down the road. Or maybe he is just sick and twisted and loves to see grown young men on the verge of tears. I believe either possibility to be equally true and plausible.
Well, for me and the platoon of Fox Company 2094, that Drill Instructor was Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Tucker. At first, he seemed the quiet one, then he seemed to come into his own by the end of our first month. By about that time he also got to know me better… which is always a bad thing.
It was July and as I said, we had been in training for a month. It was also my birthday, which isn’t itself an important fact, but for this story it is. SSgt Tucker had forbade me from “treats” at the chow hall. I wasn’t heavy enough to rate being part of any weight control program, but I was heavier than many of the others, so SSgt Tucker just said that I wouldn’t have desserts for any of my meals. You might be surprised that a Marine Corps boot camp story would center around the mundane events surrounding a pastry dish. You might be surprised that such desserts happen at all in boot camp. You imagine the place as depriving a person of every necessity in the hopes of forging some well honed warrior; sleep deprivation, love deprecation, deprecation of food. These things build character right? Well yes, there are times when all these are true. Sleep is a chaotic luxury when you get it. Any form of affection comes only on Sundays from a small letter, if your lucky and there are times when you aren’t given enough to eat. In general, however, the military understands that training can not take place if the recruits are on the verge of starvation. A proper caloric intake is always provided, training schedule permits. We even get a little desert with our meals. Well, most of us did. As I mentioned before, I did not. I was not allowed to partake. Not exactly a huge problem really, but today was different. Today was my birthday and I was having a stinking doughnut.
Yeah, so that was stupid.
As I made my way to the end of the chow hall line holding my tray, to my dismay the instructor at the end of the row was him. It couldn’t have been any of the others. It had to be Tucker. Maybe he wouldn’t remember what he said a month ago. That is at least what would have happened if I was a lucky person. I’m not a lucky person. I made my choice, and yes, it had chocolate frosting. My good fortune of deciding to make my courageous act of defiance on a day when my favorite tasty treat was in stock was the last fortunate thing I experienced for a while.
As might be expected, I turned the corner after clearing the line and there stands SSgt Tucker. I knew him immediately, though I really didn’t know what he looked like. We had been taught never to look directly at them. You know the line, “You eyeballin’ me?” They never really said that, but it’s really surprising how possible it is that you can actually not know the subtle details of the face, or even what it looks like at all, of someone who runs your life literally every single day. Provided, this probably only happens if you have been trained on threat of reprisal never to look at them. What I could recognize from my peripheral vision as he came into view was the way he stood. He was tall and thin, with remarkably long arms and features, otherworldly really. I did get a clear view of those when his outstretched arms invaded my personal space for what Marines affectionately call the “Knife Hand”, with which I was already acquainted.
As I tried to walk past, attracting as little attention as possible, he stopped me and looked down at my meal. He looked at my food and back at me, back at my food, and back at me. He picked up my doughnut, his rangy fingers and long arms brought the evidence slowly and purposefully to his face. His every movement was punctuated by a robotic forced tension throughout his body. He looks at the contraband hauntingly, looks back at me again and even mockingly stares at me through the hole, perhaps I suppose as if he were the god of the underworld peering through the gates of Hell before devouring his victim’s soul for all eternity. From what I could see of his face, I knew he was angry, or at least I thought the feeling was anger. The scowl on his face bemoaned his displeasure with my poor judgement. His mouth was the only communication tool I had with the man since I could practically see it from every angle. He had an unimaginably large mouth, perhaps amplified in my memories at the thought of seeing it unfurl in one of his extremely auditory reprimands as would be dealt to other recruits and myself. Though he had a mocking tone with his movements, his the down turned corners of his sneer made very clear that this was not a moment I would soon forget. Knowing of his own omnipotence and the fact that he had irrefutably caught me guilty of perhaps the single greatest sin ever committed in the history of mankind, he spoke to me in the slow and condescending manner, complete with the raspy, hissing growl of a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, about to strike upon his frightened, quivering prey.
“Is that right Davis? I guess you like treats then… Good to go…”
He placed the pastry back on my tray, every muscle in his arm apparent with every one of his deliberate movements. Still growling demonically and almost in a whisper he said to me:
“You enjoy it…”
I cried out my acknowledgement of what I perceived to be an order. I shouted “Aye-aye, Sir!” and walked away as fast as I could, shocked that he would let me have it, just like that. I sat down and looked at my breakfast, not knowing if the correct action was to eat or just shoot myself. My head was spinning with a mild panic and confusion. As I shoveled my breakfast into my face a dozen questions circled like a swarm of panicked bees.
“Why did he let me go? – How much more time do I have to eat? – This isn’t over, is it. – Did he know it was my birthday? – I wonder what my family is doing today. – Now that I think about it, the thing doesn’t even look that good. – Another Drill Instructor to the left. – What was my third General Order again? – Should I just not eat the doughnut and throw it away? – No, the damage is done. – Should I just eat it? – He’s going to kill me.”
I realized that I should just enjoy it while I had the chance. This was probably going to get worse before it got better. I ate the doughnut. It was marvelous, but as the first bite entered my mouth I suddenly realized something that horrified me.
“Oh God. That was the first time he has spoken to me using my real name. He now knows who I am.”
It was actually the last time he would do it for quite a while. For the next month, he only called me “Treats”. That was my name. Treats. Every time he had a bone to grind, I was his grinding stone. Every time he stood over the quarterdeck, there I was. Extra duties, there I was. Two turns at firewatch on the same night? You guessed it. If you don’t know that much about Marine Corps lingo, I’ll clarify briefly by telling you that my life sucked for that month because of him. It got to the point that all that he had to do was cry out “Treats!” and the platoon would know to echo, “Recruit Davis!” though none of them quite knew why. Looking back, it must have been quite odd to them, since I didn’t tell anyone why he did it and SSgt Tucker wasn’t exactly courteous or social enough to let them in on it. He defiantly didn’t believe they deserved to know anything more than was absolutely necessary. All the platoon needed to do was make sure I got the message. So to him, I was called treats, and in that month, the two of us became very, very much more acquainted with one another. It’s safe to say that SSgt Tucker went above and beyond the call of duty to aid me shed the calories from my tasty act of rebellion.
That marquee stuck above my head, like I said, for the rest of the month. I didn’t shake the stigma until the Crucible, the Marine Corps’ grueling three day, fifty two mile test of character and its final main obstacle, known colloquially as the Reaper. I did really well, I’m proud to say. So well, that on the way down I was literally dragging other recruits and griping out the slow movers, lollygaggers and loafs. I remember a moment when I didn’t realize he was there. I gave it hard to one of the recruits who was slowing down the platoon. I gripped him out for the weakness he displayed, though perhaps no so eloquently as I’ve just stated with you. As I did that, from the corner of my vision, I saw him standing there. He had come from behind and would have heard the whole thing. I knew he was going to get mad about it. I didn’t know why exactly, but I knew that I was going to be in deep for the tongue lashing I gave the fellow recruit. But I didn’t. He didn’t say anything. In fact, he really didn’t say anything noteworthy to me again after that. I think I regained his respect with that. Perhaps I showed some shred of leadership. Perhaps it was all the extra training I had endured. Perhaps it was also my sudden weight loss while not losing strength in my legs, which miraculously seemed to be very strong indeed. The world will never know. He never called me Treats again anyway, and he didn’t give me any more extra attention. Others had replaced my name on his list.
What I was certain of was that he was the one face I wanted less than any other to see again after boot camp was over.
A year and a half later I found myself in Iraq. I was on the phone with my wife when I thought I would be cute. I told her that someone just joined the unit and asked her to guess who it was. She needed a hint and all I told her was that it was the one Marine in the world who I hated more than any other. She said immediately, “Tucker.” I was actually surprised that she arrived there so quickly, but I guess she remembered the deep and colorful language I gave for the man in the letters she received while I was at boot camp, or perhaps the stories I told afterward. I laughed since I got her. It was a joke after all. I mean really, what are the odds that in all of the Marine Corps, Staff Sergeant Tucker would join my unit?
Six months later I was back in California. Iraq went smoothly and now we were back at home. One thing that many don’t realize about the US military, is that after a war, we have to spend the “down time” fixing uniforms and getting back into a working, presentable order as individuals. We spend fortunes getting our uniforms up-to-date and perfect, or as they say, inspection ready. We stand in endless formations awaiting inspection. Honestly, it is a lot like boot camp all over again.
So there I was in one such formation. We were in a company level Alphas uniform inspection. You don’t need to know what those are, just that they are our version of a civilian’s three piece suit, along with thirty more pieces. The formation is at Rest and free to adjust our uniforms or talk among ourselves. I’m good. My uniform is immaculate so I am just looking around, investigating the rest of the company, from my spot in line. As I did I noticed a Marine I wasn’t familiar with. I had lived elbow to elbow with all these people for the last year and a half so I knew all of them by their smell. When someone new shows up, you recognize it immediately. He was a new Staff Non Commissioned Officer. This must be the replacement for the SNCOIC of the S-4. There was an odd familiarity about him, though. I glanced over at him a few times trying to fill in the blanks in my mind.
Then he reached over to one of his Marines. In a slow and methodical way his long and gangly arms reached around to correct the Marine’s belt, which was an odd thing to do for someone in the fleet. His outstretched fingers purposefully and precisely moving with a mechanical perfection of a movement he’d performed perhaps thousands of times before. I was suddenly struck with an emotion I can only describe as the feeling somewhere between déjà vu, nostalgia and a post-traumatic stress flashback. I had been here before! I had been exactly here before. I had been standing right here many times before, in a formation exactly like this one, in uniforms exactly like this one, with a Drill Instructor making corrections exactly like that one! Oh dear God! That’s him! It’s Tucker!
I thought it couldn’t have been possible. The questions surged back into my mind just as they had before.
“How is this possible? — Is it really him? — Did I earn this by lying to Jennie about this very event? — This can’t be possible. The odds aren’t possible. — Why don’t I recognize him? — Is it possible that I never once actually looked at his face? — He should have a DI ribbon. Damn, there it is. — Did he try to find me? — They look totally different without the Smokey Bear cover. — Maybe it’s not really him. — It couldn’t really be him. — Would he even remember me? — Would he remember the doughnut?”
As I thought all these things in my head, he must have noticed me glancing over at him more than a normal Marine in my situation would. He looked me over for a time. I noticed his stillness as he glared at me. As my pulse quickened a bit, he said to me,
“I know you from somewhere…”
There was a pause. It was true and undeniable at this point. Against all odds, here he was; Staff Sergeant Tucker. Of all the Marine Corps, he had to land here, Marine Wing Support Squadron 372, Headquarters Company. My company and right there in my formation, standing just as he had so many hundreds of times before not two years earlier.
Not wanting to carry the pause too long I said the only thing that came to my mind that I could think to say.
“You called me Treats through all of Second Phase, Staff Sergeant.”
He looked at me inquisitively through another pause as he contemplated what I had said. Then a wide smile overcame his face and his arms went up in exclamation.
The conversation after that was surprisingly normal. I was incredibly nervous. He just thought it was cool that one of his recruits was in his unit, now a fully actualized and bonafide war veteran.
He was surprisingly normal on the outside, as normal as Marines get, anyway. Mind you, in three months I had never once seen him, or any other Marine on the recruit depot, smile. So his opening expression upon realizing where he knew me from was a startle, to say the least. We visited for a while before the inspection. In talking to him, less his forced “frog voice”, I began to really realize that Drill Instructors really are just great actors rather than actual psychopaths. They act the way they do for a purpose, which, upon reflection years later, gave me a deeper understanding and respect for all of them, not the least of which Tucker. Of course, the time spent since “Treats” also helps to mend old hatreds as well. I worked with him and we would be around each other for the next year or so, but it was still interesting that the two of us, apart from all the other Marines of the unit had such a unique relationship.
A few months later I found myself to be a rifle and pistol coach for the Squadron and a Non Commissioned Officer. It seemed I had a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of weapons marksmanship. In the Marines everyone has to qualify with their weapons at least once a year. That’s all Marines, including former Drill Instructors, certainly not to exclude my former taskmaster, mentor and tyrannical despot, Staff Sergeant Tucker.
As opposed to his much more encompassing understanding of what makes a good all around Marine, I was in possession, now, of in the specific techniques for making marksmen and the minutia of what makes a good shooter. I shared with him the knowledge I had as he, from time to time, could find it of use. On the first day of training week, we still mostly talked and visited for a while. Perhaps he spent that time coming to grips with the cognitive dissonance of one of the men he trained in the use of the weapon, now his coach.
His confusion, likely was accentuated by the moment he was practicing, aiming in with an empty weapon on tiny painted silhouettes on a white painted barrel, myself standing behind him, inspecting his form. The occasion, as Marines know, is oddly reminiscent of boot camp’s Second Phase, the time this man called me by another name besides my own. When the shooters were dry fire practicing I did take a moment of pleasure. I walked up behind him and watched him as thoroughly as I could to find anything I could wrong with his form. As he pulled the trigger, I found it.
“You’re yanking the trigger Staff Sergeant… Slow, steady squeeze.”
He looked up with a somewhat shocked, “Why you little Son-of-a…” face. I smiled a cocky little smirk I’m known for, turned and walked away. It was a small victory, to say the least, but a brief moment of vengeance and vindication, more than Marines could ever hope for. What gave the moment real meaning was that he knew it was true.
There is a tradition in the Marines, that when you qualify each year, if you thought a particular coach went above and beyond in helping you cross that barrier of expert, then you give them your chevron, the small insignia of rank all Marines wear on their uniform. Two weeks later and after qualification was over, the results came in from the pits and the math showed what I expected to happen. I was standing near him. He got expert. He walked over to me, with an interesting look on his face. He took the pins that held his insignia off, removed the chevrons from his collar and pinned it to the pocket beneath my name tape.
I’ve since left the Marine Corps and gone on to other adventures, but I still keep all the memories. I still have all the chevrons given to me by shooters in a small wicker box on a bookshelf beside my desk. I call it my treasure chest, ironically filled with worthless trinkets, themselves worth nothing, but to me they are a priceless collection. His is there, perhaps among them, one of the crown jewels. In particular, though, this little trophy will always be special.
If you’d like to know more about Marine Corps boot camp and my adventures within it check out my answer here: Jon Davis’ What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like?
If you’re interested in more information or just to hear the ranting of a lot of bored Marines check out The Marine Corps Board. Thanks for reading. Semper Fi.
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