The Soul Collector- A Female Marine Boot Camp Story

Imagine that you are hit repeatedly in vulnerable places on your body to conduct “body hardening”, which damages your nerve receptors to prevent flinching from the pain when you are struck. Imagine being thrown, flipped, punched, verbally degraded, choked and thrown up against the wall, slapped, spat on, stepped on, sleep-deprived, and starved.

Then imagine being taught how to defend yourself. Imagine being taught how to kill with your bare hands in less than eight seconds. You know how to go with less food, you know how to keep hiking for over ten miles on less than three hours of sleep. You know how to ignore the pain of the broken bones in your body as you keep going. You are trained to do more with less. You are taught how to kill. And your body wants it. Your body is heightened by your own physical pain that you are ignoring and you want to kill.

The Marine Corps taps into a person’s primal desire to survive. It tears a person down to their barest minimum to break them before training them to be killers. The MC takes people from around the world (yes, the world), from all different backgrounds, and breaks their spirits together over the course of twelve weeks. Some people break faster than others. Some people need to be taken to the tree line and given a little more attention to get to the Marine Corps’ desired state of broken.

For me, I took extra attention. What was used to break the softer recruits didn’t work on me. I grew up with a dad who screamed and yelled, who verbally and emotionally abused me and my sister and my mom, and who shot firearms INSIDE of the house while we were cowering upstairs. I was used to being yelled at and hit. So the Marine Corps drill instructors’ psycho actions were just a regular Tuesday for me. It worked in my favor for a long time. I didn’t flinch, I didn’t care about being forced to do push-ups until my arms gave out, and I just ran faster to get away from the weaker crowd and the drill instructors intent on making the weak strong.

The drill instructors saw me though. It is hard to hide in a platoon of 35 women and five drill instructors, especially when you are the guide, or the leader of the recruits. As the guide, it was my responsibility to lead the rest of the recruits and to be the prime example of order, discipline, and perfection. I was seventeen, and couldn’t lead a cat out of a wet paper bag. The drill instructors punished me with every single other recruit who was punished to teach me leadership. If Sanchez was a little slow, I had to run sprints with her. If Bullock lost her canteen cup, I was taken to the pit with her. Everyone else’s mistakes were my own, which is the epitome of leadership. If your subordinates mess up, it is your fault. The Marines taught that lesson through physical pain. But it still didn’t break my spirit. Physical pain can be borne indefinitely, or so I thought.

During range week, when we hiked through the swamps of South Carolina to reach the range and “learn how to shoot”, I broke my ankle. It was during an early morning hike of probably six miles. We had our rifles and our packs, and we were walking through dark and wooded paths in the swamp. As guide, I also had to carry the guidon, or the troop identification flag. It had to be carried a specific way when marching, with your right hand holding the flag pole closer to the bottom, positioned with your thumb pad directly on the thumbtack, while your left hand clasped closer to the flag. You held that thing perfectly while you marched, next to the company commander, and you didn’t look down.

The company commander was speed walking. She didn’t have a pack or a rifle or a guidon. She was going for a stroll and wanted the recruits to move quickly. So we moved. And we sang cadence. And we didn’t look down. Blindly marching, I led the company with Speedy Gonzalez, and stepped straight into a hole. The snap was audible, and my yelp wasn’t muffled enough to not gain the attention of one of my five drill instructors. Still marching, my voice quivered to the cadence and tears welled in my eyes. The DI offered to fire me, in less than tactful terms. I picked up my pace and kept going.

Range week was horrible. My combat boot kept my right ankle together as much as possible. I would tie it tighter each day, imagining it was a removable cast. I had to get my bunkmate to pull my boot off at the end of the day because my ankle had tripled in size. The known distance (KD) range is broken into three different yard lines to shoot and qualify from. The 200 yard line required shooting standing up, kneeling down, and sitting. 300 was kneeling and sitting rapid fire, and 500 was the prone position, belly down and legs splayed. Standing was fine, sitting was fine, and prone was fine. The kneeling was the most excruciating pain I had felt up to that point in my life, including the body hardening exercises where we beat the living shit out of each other. I was forced to fire dozens of rounds in the kneeling, with my weight on my broken ankle as I knelt upon it. I couldn’t move to any other position because it just wasn’t allowed. After a time, I crouched to where I wasn’t putting any weight on my ankle. It was less steady and my aim suffered immensely, but my ankle wasn’t screaming at me.

On the fifth day, qualification day, I was doing fine…until the kneeling position. The same DI who heard me on the hike from Monday stood behind me, and when she noticed that I was protecting my ankle by hovering, she shoved me down onto it by slamming my shoulders down in full force. As my eyes watered in pure pain from broken bones moving around damaged tissue, she smiled at me. I began to anticipate each shot as I pulled the trigger, aware that the kickbacks would cause further pain on my ankle.

Anticipation is probably the number one reason people miss when they fire a weapon.

I failed the range by two points. I unq’ed (pronounced “unk”). I was unqualified. When “every Marine is a rifleman”, this was unacceptable. I knew they were coming for me. I was publicly fired as guide before the hike back to the squad bay. Public humiliation was really no big deal since I was eight and had accidentally farted on the cute boy behind me while performing a fish dance rendition of some classical piece. So I still wasn’t mentally broken, although I was scared shitless that I would be dropped from the platoon.

That night, I was awoken to covers being snatched from my body and a disembodied voice that told me to get the fuck into the head (bathroom, for you civilian types). Scrambling, I sprinted while the DI who had shoved me onto my broken bones on the range hissed threats into my ear. She pushed me against the wall and kicked my ankle a few times, asking if it hurt. Refusing to give in, I kept saying “no, ma’am.” If I was smarter, I would have acted like my spirit had been broken by my disqualification on the range. Instead, I kept up my spirit, which gave her the desire to break me for good. She had all night. I couldn’t scream for help, that would have shown weakness and surrender. I was already supposed to be broken. This was Week Eight of training. Most girls broke by Week Three.

We stayed in that bathroom for what felt like an hour. I ran the length of the bathroom, bones crunching away. I did pushups. I did jumping jacks (practically one-legged). I whisper-screamed my responses to her. Everything out of her mouth was said to mess with my head. I tuned it out until she found the one thing that hurt. “You failed today. No one is surprised. That’s all you are and that’s all you’ll ever be: a failure.” She didn’t notice at first that she had found the chink in my armor. She didn’t notice until she started saying other stuff like I was a piece of shit, which just reminded me of everything my dad had called me growing up. All it takes is one comment to chisel away at the crack in someone’s facade. She had called me a piece of shit before, but this time it was well-placed after identifying my biggest fear, and showing me that I was, indeed, a failure. I had nothing to prove her wrong. I was unqualified on the range and I was fired as the best recruit after holding the title for over a month. I lost the meritorious promotion that would have gone with graduating as the guide as well. I was a failure, and I got into my own head.

Supposedly verbally and emotionally abused children have a tape that plays in their head on repeat with the shitty stuff they have been told. My psychologist taught me that when I was 16. He worked hard with me for one year to try and break the tape that was on repeat of the things my family and classmates and church mates had said to me. First he made me tell him everything that I had been told or called or blamed for. Then he made me promise that I would catch myself with every self-deprecating internal comment and try to logic out why it wasn’t true and to remind myself and repeat back that I wasn’t everything I had been called:

Lazy, selfish, crazy, tissue in the wind that blows away when there’s work to be done, Lolita, fickle, unwanted child, the reason my parents fought, cheater, weirdo, waste of space, Femme fatale, vivacious, narcissist, slut, too young, five-head, cunt, liar, bitch, impossible to please, draining, rude…a failure.

So the DI had tapped into my self-deprecating tape and turned up the mental volume without knowing it. My face must have changed because she stopped short and laughed before taking her right hand and grasping me by the throat. She shoved me into the wall and then slid me up it, by my throat, with one hand. My feet dangled an inch off the floor and I began to struggle to breathe. As one tear leaked from my right eye, she reached up and wiped it away with a finger on her left hand.

“I have your soul.”

She placed my soul into her pocket.

In retrospect, as a demented veteran, this is hilarious. Props to her for breaking me. I understand it’s necessary to provide mentally and physically hardened Marines for the fleet and drill instructors are amazing for this aspect of training. They are ruthless because our lives depend on it, in combat and in life. They break us down, make us tap into our primal desire to survive, and then teach us how to kill. With them, and further training, Marines become the best war fighters on the planet.

When she gathered my soul and delicately put it into her pocket, that drill instructor made me primed and ready to learn how to kill.

Thanks, Soul Collector. You fucking suck.

Side note- it took two years for my ankle to “heal”. Yes, I receive disability for that ankle because I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just give out on me once a week and cause me to fall face first without warning.

Side side note: I qualified on the range as expert the very next week (although Parris Island only allows you to be named a lowly marksman until you qualify in the fleet when you unq in boot camp) and for the rest of my career. Shout out to my husband for teaching me how to shoot when I got to the fleet, even on my shitty ankle. Third award expert. Yes, this is matters to me.