Experiencing Diversity Through the Marine Corps Training Process – Reginald Hairston

The Marine Corps’ purpose as stated on its webpage is to, “Defend the people of the United States at home and abroad. To do that, we make Marines who win our Nation’s battles and return as quality citizens.”  To the casual reader, the first half of the purpose, which is to defend the United States, is stated in simple terms and easily understood.  However, it is the latter half of the purpose that bears some investigating and begs the question, “What does make a better citizen mean?”  To answer this question, I want to take you on a journey through the process of becoming a Marine, the transformation that occurs and the life-changing impact of being immersed into a sea of diversity creates. 

Citizens from every walk of life you can imagine arrive by bus to one of three locations.  Young men and women who have signed an enlistment contract arrive at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina or Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.  Officer candidates receive their initial training at the Officer Candidate School located in Quantico, Virginia.  For the purposes of this journey, we will focus on the experience of the recruits who matriculate through one of the training Depots.

Phase One: 

Recruits arrive in the dead of night, disoriented and completely removed from their comfort zone.  From the moment they arrive they are ordered off a bus and told to stand on the famous “Yellow” footprints where thousands before them have stood.  Drill Instructors, Marines who are not that much older than the recruits, are barking instructions at every recruit with one simple intent, keep the process moving while starting to teach the recruits how to respond immediately to orders (instructions) in the midst of a stressful environment.  All around you are strangers, and there is a very real possibility, depending on what part of the country you hail from, that would have never had occasion or reason to associate with these men or women you are now sharing a common experience with. 

“What was I thinking?” You wonder, as you second guess why you volunteered to join the military in the first place, and try you remain inconspicuous in hopes of keeping those drill instructors from finding a reason to focus on you (it is a focus doomed to fail).   To make things even more stressful, you are trying to understand this strange Drill Instructor language.  “Get up against the bulkhead now, move!” Your mind draws a blank as you try to decipher, “What is a “Bulkhead?”  What you learn very quickly is the Drill Instructors don’t show favoritism.  They seem to hate everyone equally.  During this phase of training, recruits are immersed in the nuances of military life and quickly realize that regardless of who is to my left or right, we are in this together.  The so-called lines that separate start to fade.

Phase Two: 

Recruits start preparing to learn how to fire a rifle.  By now, the recruits understand the new language, “Bulkhead is another name for wall,” and are given more freedom to carry on conversations during free time.  These conversations are critical to the building of lifelong relationships, because it is during this time that recruits really start asking questions, they would not have been given the opportunity to ask if they stayed in their hometown.  The answers to the question are not as important as the fact the questions are being asked.  It is this interaction that can completely reshape their mental images of the people around them. 

Throughout, Marine Corps training, recruits are immersed into the traditions and history of the Corps and are saddled with the responsibility of living up to the proud legacy left by those who came before.  Once a Marine always a Marine is branded into our brain.  It simply means that you are a part of a new family now and forever, and it doesn’t quantify degrees of separation based on gender, race, religious preference or any other distinguishing characteristic.    

Phase Three: 

By this stage, most of the mental stress has subsided.  You are no longer surrounded by strangers.  You are now surrounded by your brothers and sisters. Men and women who, as history has proven, will lay down their life for you.  You are in the best shape of your life, your confidence is soaring because you have overcome challenges, and you now understand the language of the Drill Instructors and therefore can avoid their wrath…some of the time.  You prepare to face the “Crucible.”  “The Crucible takes place over 54-hours and includes food and sleep deprivation and over 45 miles of marching. The Crucible event pits teams of recruits against a barrage of day and night events requiring every recruit to work together to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and help each other along the way.  The obstacles they face include long marches, combat assault courses, the leadership reaction course, and the team-building warrior stations. Each warrior station is named for a Marine hero whose actions epitomize the values the USMC wants recruits to adopt…”  

At the conclusion of the Crucible, the recruits are awarded the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and for the first time are called, Marines.  They are congratulated by the Drill Instructors and officers who have been responsible for their training and are then treated to good meal.  It is a beautiful sight to see individuals who started as strangers now see and greet each other as brother and sister Marines.

Graduation day: 

Parents, spouses, and friends arrive to see their new Marine and beam with pride when they catch a glimpse of him or her standing there in those magnificent Dress Blue uniforms.  The ceremony is relatively quick, and as soon as it is over, family and friends rush out to congratulate their Marine.  What they find is a very different person than the one who departed for training 13 weeks ago.  Before them now stands a man or woman with more confidence, one who utters strange words like, “Yes ma’am and Yes sir,” and one who introduces the same individuals they would not have associated with 13 weeks ago to their love ones.

The next phase: 

The journey does not end when they graduate boot camp.  In fact, the journey is actually just beginning as the Marine Corps attempts to surround them with leaders who will motivate them to always give your best effort, treat others with respect, whether in a leadership or followership role, and respect differences inherent in the different people you meet.  Marines are continually reminded to try to live up to the core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment while serving this nation in and out of uniform.  The goal is to return quality citizens ready to make a positive contribution to the nation, because the Marine Corps understands that whether you serve for four years or 40 years, we all will hang up the uniform one day.   

Close to 30,000 civilians successfully pass through recruit basic training every year.  Most will only serve four years before joining the private sector.  I am not blind to the fact that some Marines miss the lessons so many try so hard to teach them.  They fail to appreciate the privilege of experiences perspectives from the viewpoint of someone who arrived at the same point in time by a very different route.  In rare cases, they find notoriety and have their faces flashed across news channels as a result of some misconduct.  However, the many thousands who go on to be key contributors to society as educators, congresspersons, doctors, lawyers, CEO’s, authors, etc. are a far better measurement on the success of the Marine Corps experience in the lives of the ones who make the nightly news.   

It is my contention, that the lessons taught and experienced by Marines can just as readily be taught to members of the boardroom, junior and senior level managers or anyone in a position of leadership.  Leadership is the bedrock from which behavior flows.  Train the leader to accept the awesome responsibility of leading other men and women and get him or her to embrace the power of creating inclusive environments and you will see the problems that executives spend thousands of dollars trying to solve start to dissipate.  No one who feels truly included on a team wants to see the team fail.

Reginald Hairston

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