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Heather Jackson Diary

Boot Camp Survivor

Carrollton woman takes readers
inside Marine Corp’s Parris Island

By Heather Jackson,
Guest Columnist

(March 2002) PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. - Editor’s Note: Pfc. Heather Jackson, 22, in January graduated from U.S. Marine Corp basic training in Parris Island, S.C. She is a Carroll County High School graduate and the daughter of Rick and Becky Jackson of Carrollton, Ky. She wrote this diary about her experiences at boot camp. Because of its length, it will appear in three parts over three issues.

Part I - Arrival at Boot Camp
The infamous yellow footprints. Nobody can really understand the meaning of them until they stand on them as they begin the challenge of their lives. I remember the night very well. The bus pulled up to the footprints at about midnight on Oct. 30th, 2001. We had arrived at our destination: The U.S. Marine Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.

Heather Jackson

Heather Jackson

The receiving drill instructor came on “his” bus and ordered us to exit quickly. We scurried off the bus and got on the footprints. From here, we were rushed into the receiving building to make our phone call home to let our parents know we arrived safely. My father answered the phone, and all I said was, “I’m here. I’ve got to go.”
That would be the last call I made until my 10-minute phone call on Christmas. Any other contact with the outside world was made through letters.
In receiving, we were up for more than 24 hours doing paper work, clothing issue and giving up our personal effects. Finally, we were bused over to our squad bay, where we would spend the next three months with our drill instructor.
Here, we learned to do everything quicker than we’ve ever done anything in our lives – everything from getting dressed to using the restroom (“head”). The drill instructor would literally count us down usually 30 seconds, knowing full well that we weren’t going to finish in time.
Looking back at those first days, I fully realize the mental stress that was put on us. After a couple of weeks, it was nothing to hear the drill instructor start her countdown. We actually didn’t know how to handle it if she didn’t count us down. If feeling particularly feisty, she would stand behind us during chowtime and count us down. It’s interesting seeing how much you can eat in 60 seconds.
Now I see that everything we did had a point to it. Everything from holding our canteen a certain way while walking in a cool down circle to sitting a certain way on the floor (“deck”) during a class.
The first “big” thing we did was swim qualification. It depended on a recruit’s MOS (job) as to what level she or he had to pass, with Level 1 being the most difficult. Since my MOS is Aviation Support and has nothing to do with water, I had to qualify at Level 4, which is the level everyone had to pass.
We first had to swim across the shallow end of the pool to weed out the nonswimmers. If you touched the bottom, you were considered someone who needed further instruction. If you made it across, you went down to the deep end and got in line for the 10-foot tower. As the instructor shouted “Go!” two recruits started across. We had to cross our arms across our chest and grab our collars. If you let go, you had to start over. I didn’t let go.
After everyone jumped off the tower, we had to get in the water and use one of four different life saving methods to float for four minutes. I remember two methods. One was simply treading water, the other was to pull your blouse tight around your neck, pull one side out, go under water, blow air into that side, close the blouse and surface.
The blouse holds air, turning into a floatation device. This is the method I used, and after getting the air into my blouse, I just laid back and floated around for four minutes. It was pretty relaxing.
We were then required to swim 25 meters. I only heard bits and pieces of what the other levels were like, but only two girls qualified at Level 2. They said it was pretty hard.
Some stuff the other levels required was to jump in with a helmet, pack and flak jacket on. I’m not sure how far they had to swim, but I know they all came back exhausted. If you were a good swimmer, you probably wouldn’t have too much of a hard time, but being one who didn’t have to do it, I can’t really say this for sure.
I could be leaving some important events out because the whole time has pretty much blended into a boot camp blur. Most everything was done quickly and made to be stressful, even if it was just getting from point A to point B. I want to add for those who cringe at the words “boot camp, that things are made to be stressful to prepare you for combat and any other thing that comes your way. This was explained to us often.
Part II - The Rifle Range
During my experience at U.S. Marine Corp boot camp, the rifle range proved to be one of the most stressful times for me. I didn’t expect it to be
this way at all. I have lived on a farm all my life and used a gun almost as long. The big difference was that I have never shot with open sights
before. I also never had to adjust the sights on my own. I always had my dad at my side and a trusty scope with crosshairs. This time I had neither, and I almost didn’t make it to graduation with my original platoon. Six girls who didn’t qualify were sent back four weeks in training.
We lived in a different squad bay while at the range. The squad bay itself was very disconcerting. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Full Metal
Jacket,” you know what the rifle range squad bay looked like right down to the red floor.
During this time, the drill instructors played more games with us than before. I’m not really sure why, but they did seem to enjoy themselves – like the Ken and Barbie dress up where we had to get dressed and undressed while being counted down. There was always one recruit who wasn’t up to speed, so for us all to be alike, we would be forced to repeat the dress-undress again. After we looked back on it, it was pretty humorous.
We also had to do the two sheets and a blanket. This is where we had to rip our blankets off the racks and get the lint out of everything. This was usually done after cleaning the squad bay so, of course, we had to clean it again. After the drill instructor thought our blankets were lint free, we had two minutes to make our racks. Of course, we never did make it, so we ended up playing more games.
Now, as for actually being on the rifle range, it wasn’t too bad. The coaches kept it pretty light and joked with us. My coach was great, even
though he did eat Pop Tarts in front of us. I’ve never had to shoot without a scope, so the concept of lining the front sight up with the rear sight was
completely beyond me for some reason.
My coach and PMI (Professional Marksmanship Instructor) nearly pulled their hair out because of me. It took me three times to qualify on the range, and it was only by five points. But I was very happy with those five points.
Another thing that happened at the rifle range was pulling pits, which was pulling the targets as other recruits were firing at them. This was an experience in itself and where some of us recruits had the most fun. We were allowed to talk and joke around while doing the targets.
When we left the rifle range, I swore I never wanted to see that side of Parris Island again, but I ended up there two more times. The next time I was to see it was during A-line. During A-line we did a lot of the crawling in the dirt, going under barbed wire and shooting that you associate with boot camp. We learned how to do the high crawl and low crawl. These two things I hated doing because it was very tiring and your elbows were raw, since the sand made its way into your blouse while wallowing around in it with the M16. You can only imagine the amount of sand shoved into the muzzle. Cleaning your weapon became a major chore during and after A-line.
The coolest thing we did during this part of training was the night firing. After it got dark, we were giving tracer bullets and told to fire at stationary and moving targets. You had to wait until they shot an illumination flare, and then it sounded like World War III had broken out. I’ve never seen tracer bullets being fired in real life, so this was a major experience for me. In a weird way it motivated me.
After A-line was BWT or Basic Warrior Training. As you can tell, we were starting to get into some serious stuff now that we were well into recruit training. In BWT, we did the repel tower, slept outside in hooches and went through the gas chamber. The hooch is pretty much a tent made by using two shelter halves that are made of a heavy material.
During this time, we actually slept with our rifle as if we weren’t tired of it by now. I am very scared of heights, but obviously I had to conquer this fear to do the repel tower. We repelled two times. One time was done without the wall and one time was with the wall. Both times you had to hang your heals over the edge, hold your break and fall backward. That proved to be the hardest part.
Falling into thin air is just not one thing I’m very fond of. But after I was able to suck it up and do it, the rest wasn’t too hard. I saw that there is almost no way that you will fall uncontrollably. Actually, before you do that you’ll either spin around away from the tower or flip upside down, something that happened often.
Everyone is curious about the gas chamber. Yes, it’s pretty rough, but you don’t die. It’s supposed to teach you confidence in your gas mask after you’ve learned how to use it. I must have not learned how to use it right because the second I walked into the building with my mask on, I could smell the CS gas, which is tear gas. My throat started to burn, eyes started to water, and I started having a little bit of trouble breathing.
I was the second girl in the building, so I had to walk to the other side of the building and wait against the wall while everyone else filed in. After everyone got in, they shut the doors and started stirring the gas up even more. The sounds that were in the building would have been enough to scare
anyone. The stirring sounded like a bell being rattled around and all the girls were coughing, gagging and crying.
Then they made us break the seal. After the seal was broken, we put the mask on top our heads for a couple of seconds and then put it back on. Then we were told to take the mask off and hold it out parallel to the deck with both hands. We stayed like that for a couple of seconds and then were told to put it back on. Finally, our time was up and the instructor banged on the hatch for someone on the outside to open it. Nice to know that we were locked in.
During the time inside, the drill instructors were pretty cool. They were there to keep us calm and under control, not to yell at us for once.
Part III – The Final Challenge
The Crucible was the last and biggest test at boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., for us to become Marines. It consisted of being up for 54 hours, only having three meals and eight hours of
sleep the whole time. Our platoon was split up into three teams, with three drill instructors who were more like mentors during this time.
During the Crucible, we had events and warrior stations. The events were mandatory to accomplish, and the warrior stations were there to teach
us how to work as a team to accomplish a mission.
Each warrior station had a Medal of Honor story to go along with it. All in all, the Crucible was pretty fun, even though it was challenging. We used everything we had learned throughout basic training to finish the events. As long as we worked as a team, the tasks were easy. As you can imagine though, 10 or so girls cannot do this without some troubles.
The last thing we had to accomplish to become a Marine was to hike nine miles back in the morning. We were sore, tired and hungry. We hiked to
the Iwo Jima monument near the parade deck on Parris Island. They raised the American Flag and then started handing out our eagle, globe and anchor.
It was a very emotional time for everyone, even the males because this is what we had been working toward for 12 weeks.
When my team leader got to me and put the EGA in my hand, it was a moment I will remember for a long time. I had actually accomplished something only a few have accomplished – and fewer women.
After being hungry for 54 hours, we were treated to a warrior’s breakfast. This was awesome. We were given as much food as we could handle and were allowed to go back as many times as we wanted. For 12 weeks, we were given only a certain amount and one pass at the food. Now we could eat until we were sick, and this we did.
We had a week left at this point. When recruits passed us, they had to give the proper greeting of the day, just like drill instructors or any other Marine. It felt great! We finally had a little respect, although we were still treated like recruits by the other Marines and drill instructors, but not as bad as before.
We were due to graduate on Friday, Jan. 25, and my family came down to Parris Island in time for Family Day on Thursday, Jan. 24. That morning we had a 3.2 motivational run, where we ran by all the battalions and rang the bells that were out front while singing cadence. It was pretty cool mostly because we ran with the males, and it was a big, loud ordeal. We were definitely noticed, although my own parents had trouble recognizing me.
That afternoon was Family Day liberty, and I got to hang out with everyone who came down to my graduation. I was one of the lucky ones who had 14 people come all the way from Kentucky for my graduation. They were ready for me with plenty of food and chocolate. I was allowed to take them around the island and show them most of the stuff we went through. It felt good to see that they were impressed with my accomplishments.
The day came for graduation. We had practiced all week for a two-hour outdoor graduation, but it was raining, so we did a 15-minute ceremony and
were dismissed. Although the outdoor graduation would have been a good show for the families, I didn’t miss all the marching and standing.
If you’ve ever been looking forward to getting somewhere, and its far away, you know how I felt on the long ride home. I had been away from home
for three months and couldn’t wait to see Kentucky. For anyone who is ready to leave home, when you’ve been gone for a bit, you’ll be happy to see your hometown.
During my leave, I visited everyone I haven’t talked to in three months and caught up on some sleep. After my 10 days, I received recruiter’s assistance. New Marines can get this if their MOS school isn’t scheduled until later. During recruiter’s assistance, you report to your recruiting office and go to high schools and out in the area to help recruit people to join the Marines.
I have now come to respect the job of Sgt. McDew and all the other Marines who are on recruiting duty. It is not an easy job, and some people have some funny ideas about what Marines do. I’m sure everyone has heard that Marines are brainwashed, crazy and all we do is roll around in the mud and kill people.
I can say for myself that I didn’t change that much in recruit training; some people may call me crazy, but just jokingly. I haven’t been muddy since recruit training, and we are trained to kill only if necessary.
My next challenge will be combat training at Camp Geiger, N.C., for three weeks. Then it is on to Pensacola, Fla., for 17 weeks MOS training.

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