A Crash Course in Character Building

Today, a picture on Facebook once again started me reminiscing of the days when I was young. We all go through all sorts of phases of development in life. Each of these phases makes it’s own contribution in making us wFile Aug 17, 8 14 41 AMho we are today.  So, when I saw the this picture, it naturally conjured up all sorts of memories and got me to thinking of how incredibly formative this particular phase of life was for me. Anybody who has been in the Marines, will immediately recognize the picture. It’s a squad bay in Marine Corps boot camp. It doesn’t matter much if you were in recently or if you’re a WWII veteran, the simplistics of boot camp haven’t changed that much from what I can tell. We would all recognize the picture. No exceptions.

I was in the Marine Corps just four years (1984-1988). I went into the National Guard when I was 17, and went to Army boot camp in Ft. Leonard Wood, MO  in between my junior and senior years of high school. After graduating high school I went to Ft. Gordon, GA for my advanced training. Therefore, I was not a stranger to military life when I went into the marines in December of 1984. Even so, it was the marines that had the indisputably greatest impact on my life.

I think there is a tendency for veterans to over glorify their time in the corps. It’s been well over 20 years now, but I’ve heard several former marines refer to Marine Corps as the best days of their life. I recall things a bit differently. First of all, hardly any of my peers in the marines stayed in. I can only think of one who made a career out of it. We not only got out, but we were counting down the days until we got out. Still, all of us were changed by the Marines; most for the better, a few for the worse. It wasn’t the best time of my life nor the worst, but I do believe it was the most formative time.

I wish I could say I was a good marine; but I wasn’t. Part of me would like to claim the honor due to those who served in combat; but I didn’t. Nevertheless, when I think of the character traits that have carried me through life the best, I owe them to the Marines for developing them more than anything else. It was the Marines that took a rebellious teenager, and made him into a man. Before the Marines, I barely graduated high school with a 1.46 GPA. I went into college on probation, and my reading level was so low, I need several remedial classes that would not count for college credit just to survive in the academic world. I graduated college with a 3.96. For my first four years of college I had straight A’s. And that is just one example. I’m not at all saying that it was just the Marines,  it certainly wasn’t; but I don’t think it could have happened if the Marines had not developed in me the character traits that prepared me for life. Let’s go over three of these character traits.

Leadership & Submission: You can’t lead before you learn to follow any more than you can run before you can walk. The two are inseparably linked, but this is a difficult lesson to learn for a young man. It was boot camp that taught me importance of taking orders as well as what it meant to be a leader.

marine1Marine Corps boot camp was way different from the Army. There was no washing machines to wash our clothes, we washed our clothes by hand with a bottle of soap and a brush. We didn’t have brooms or mops, we used a whole bunch of towels, but that squad bay was cleaned to a spotless condition every morning within minutes. Few ever get to see the incredible potential of submission and leadership. This is because, as Americans, we have learned to dispute leadership constantly from the president on down to parents. As a result, true leadership does not really exist as it did in boot camp.

In the boot camp, leadership was NEVER questioned. You may not like it. There may be a better way of doing things, but it was not open for dispute. As a result, I was constantly in awe of what could be accomplished in such a small amount of time. In the first picture above, you see organized condition of the squad bay. In the picture connected below, you see what happens when leadership gets angry. You don’t want to make the drill instructors angry. But what’s amazing is how quickly we could take the chaos of the picture below and make it look like the picture above. It could be done in minutes.

marine1Boot camp started the same way every day. Reville would sound at 5:30 and before the tune was finished, you were fully dressed, your rack (bed) was made perfectly , and you were standing at attention before your rack. Next we had to clean the squad bay. The proficiency in which this was done has amazed me throughout my life. All the racks had to be moved to one side, then the other as people were used as dust mop to clean the floors. One private laid down on the ground with a wet towel between his arms and floor placing his body weight on the towel, while another private dragged him by the feet across the floor to get all up all the dirt. The towell was then thrown to another private who threw it to another where it was washed by hand, and another towell was thrown to begin the process all over again until the entire floor was clean enough to eat on. At the same time others are dusting and cleaning windows. Nobody was idle. As a result, within 15 minutes the squad bay was cleaned to perfection, and we were out front ready to go eat. That is just one example of the proficiency that is accomplished through leadership and submission. I have hundreds of other examples.

Most of us want to be leaders, but only a few really have the ability. Never was this more apparent than in boot camp. Leaders, didn’t just bark out orders, they lead by doing.  Drill instructors were known for going through some of the most rigorous training the marine corps offered. Few make it through the training. Those that do have one of the stressful and demanding jobs in the armed services. Among all the other physical and emotional strains ,drill instructors  have to be impeccably dressed, they can show no weakness, or  any indecisiveness. They work long hours and must be away from their families for long periods of time. Competition is fierce as competitions are held to determine the best platoons. The drill instructor’s reputation is always at stake. There is hardly any margin for error. For this reason, drill instructors have the potential for gaining rank quicker than other positions, but there is also equal potential to lose it. Only a few, have what it takes to do such a job, and all that can are worthy of the highest respect.

Leadership has little to do with barking orders, it has to do with being the type of person his followers desire to be. There is not much room for the lazy, the stupid,  the cowardly, or the weak. It’s not a job for everyone. Leaders are leaders because they rise to the top. Not everyone has the ability to rise to the top. In the real world, we all find ourselves in positions of leadership and submission. We all have people we look up to as the examples of what we want to be, and hopefully, we have people who look up to us as well. That is what leadership is about.

Self-discipline: For those who are strangers to exercise, boot camp can be a traumatic experience. I was not one of these, and even though boot camp was physically demanding, it wasn’t really anything I hadn’t been exposed to before. Self-discipline wasn’t learned in boot camp, it came later. In boot camp, you don’t have any options. You are told what to do from the moment you get up till the time you go to sleep. Self-discipline has to do with forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do or have to do. I was in the infantry, so exercise was pretty regular as a platoon. But that isn’t enough. If the only time a person ran was when the platoon ran, he would be more of a hinderance than an asset when his physical condition was demanded. A platoon runs at about a 6 mph pace. If you run the physical fitness test at that pace, you would fail. Therefore, you had to exercise on your own as well.

Furthermore, self-discipline is not just about physical conditioning. It’s about pushing yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. Of all the traits I developed in the Marines, this one helped me to excel academically. I was far from the most intelligent, but my discipline kept me near the top of the class.  Discipline taught me to face fears, to give when I thought I had nothing left to give, and to think ahead.   It is why I can still fit into my 3o year old uniform, and I can still pass a the physical fitness test at age 50.

Endurance: Closely related to self-discipline is endurance. They may even be the same thing. However, endurance has to do with the long haul.  Life is more like a marathon than a 100 yard dash. I was what they call a “hollywood marine.” Meaning that I went to boot camp in San Diego instead of Paris Island. Paris Island is known to be tougher largely because of the sand fleas, but Paris Island doesn’t have “Mount Mother”. Hollywood marines get to go to Camp Pendleton for some training which has some pretty steep terrain.Marine Mt Mother Everybody hears about Mt. Mother at the beginning of training. It’s one of those things that you dread till it’s finally done. Mt. Mother was so named because, in the words of my drill instructor, when people climbed it, they cried out in exhaustion, “Mother. . .” I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, so I would eventually see the worst it had to offer, and in my opinion the worst certainly wasn’t Mt. Mother. But Mt. Mother was my first exposure to the massive hikes we would take together as an infantry unit.

What nobody really mentioned was that it really wasn’t the mountain itself that was so bad, it was walk to the mountain. You are dead tired by the time you see this last bit of steep terrain, and it’s at that point where you people cry out, “Mother. . .” Another thing they don’t tell you is that just over the top of Mt. Mother is your destination. Just like life, your biggest challenges seems to come just before you reach your goal.  My most difficult semester in college was the last one. Raising children too, the worst part was when the children were ready to leave the nest. In marriage our darkest moments preceded our greatest triumphs. Way too often, people give up right before achievement. Mt. Mother was nothing in the vast scheme of life. This spring I ran a half-marathon up the the second highest hill in Arkansas. That was a whole lot more challenging than Mt. Mother I assure you. And a half-marathon is nothing compared to other tasks I have faced requiring endurance like 25+ years of marriage, or trying to provide for a family after job loss and various health problems.

I am grateful for my experience in the marines. It wasn’t easy, but the most beneficial things in life rarely are. No those weren’t the greatest days of my life nor the most difficult. It wasn’t my greatest learning experience either, but it did form a foundation from which many more learning experiences could take place. I needed the marines to make the transition from being a drug using rebellious teenager into a mature adult. I don’t recommend military service for everyone. The military can do more harm than good in many cases. If it wasn’t for the church’s influence towards the end of my duty, I’m sure that would have been the case for me. I drank way to heavily while I was in and did way too many drugs. But the marines also helped me get sober which would eventually lead to Christianity and a complete transformation in my thinking. I am convinced that I needed both.

Today, I’m not the person I wish I was, nor the person I hope to be, but I am so grateful that I am not who I was. Most people can develop the character traits from family and other influences in life. I needed more. I would not have been ready for college if I wasn’t in the marines first. For me it was a crash course in character building. I haven’t always been faithful to such disciplines, but I always seem to return to them. Marines have a bond that I don’t see with other military services. Some say, “Once a marine; always a marine.” I suppose in some ways that is very  true.

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About Ken Sayers

I'm currently employed by a children's home where my wife and I care for a cottage of girls who have been displaced from their families. I'm a middle age man with two grown children of my own and one grandchild. I have worked as a United States Marine, a youth minister, a preacher, a childcare worker, and a truck driver. My hobbies include photography, horses, playing guitar, writing, and fitness.
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