Written by Nathan Luther for WCT class, March 9, 1998
Standing at attention on the slightly raised stage, I knew I still had a chance of winning it. During the past six days I had done well, but thoughts of doubt were running through my mind. I had wanted to do well at Freshman Orientation before I even showed up, but when I got my own copy of the Battalion Regulations on Monday, the second day of Orientation, and I read about the ribbon given for the best freshman, I set my sights on winning it. Despite my doubts, I still felt deserving. I had known my stuff, I was in good shape, and I had tried hard. Now I was a minute away from finding out whether or not I would get my ribbon.
I imagine that all of our parents in the audience were a little frightened by what they were seeing on stage. Six days earlier they had dropped off normal kids a week away from starting college. Now they saw a khaki wall of twelve midshipmen, standing stiffly at attention, staring "at a point 1000 yards ahead, 10 degrees off the horizon," as they had been taught. I hoped my parents weren't frightened, though, and I wanted them to see me leave the stage with a ribbon for my new uniform.
I'm sure my parents would have liked to see me win because they had seen all the preparation I had done for that week. After my acceptance letter from the Naval Academy came in January I started preparing mentally for my entrance into military life. If I went to the Academy, I'd be leaving home July 1 for two and a half months of hell and indoctrination. I wasn't about to show up unprepared for that. Though I decided to go to Stanford and be in Naval ROTC instead, I still knew that I would have to prove myself at Freshman Orientation, even if it was only six days.
My summer was spent anticipating getting yelled at and doing my fair share of pushups. To prepare physically, I ran farther and more regularly than I ever had before, running a little over three miles at least four days a week. I did pushups and sit-ups every night, gradually increasing the number and the speed. I knew I'd have to pass a sailing test, so I read Learn to Sail by Dennis Conner. There were three pages of leadership and military information we had to memorize, which I put on flashcards. This information was what we'd be reciting when yelled at. After a week with those flashcards, I was confident that I'd do well and, in fact, I was looking forward to the week. I wanted to prove myself. In an e-mail I sent to a friend just before I left, I wrote, "If they want the answer to a question, I know it. If they want push-ups, I'll do them. I'm ready for this."
After I arrived on Sunday, it didn't take too long for me to realize that I was ready. Less than an hour after our parents had left, we had changed into standard Navy-issue bell-bottom dungarees and chambray shirts and we were facing the loud, rapid fire questioning I had previously imagined. The three squad leaders, clad in the khaki uniforms we would all be wearing at the end of the week, were swarming around the room, pouncing from all directions. The Platoon Sergeant, who wore all camouflage, was coming at us too, and he seemed to enjoy ridiculing us. "Look at your nasty surfer-boy haircut," he yelled at one freshman who hadn't yet adopted a military hairstyle. "Did you think you were coming to the beach?"
A squad leader or the Platoon Sergeant would get up close to one of us, about six inches away, and then fire away with questions about the information we were supposed to have memorized. "What is the second Leadership Principle?" they might ask, or, "Who is the Chief of Naval Operations?" While the questions came, we had to stand at attention, maintaining our stare. If our answers weren't right or fast enough, they let us know loudly and harshly, and then they continued the questioning. The times I was inspected, I saw the flashcards in my head and I was able to give my inspector what he or she wanted. After a few times, the squad leaders and Platoon Sergeant stopped coming to me and they focused their attentions on the people who hadnít memorized the information very well.
After the first few days of Orientation, I saw myself at or near the top of the class. My knowledge was good, I had no trouble with physical training, and I was doing well with military courtesies. Itís true that I was tired and sore and I wasn't always having the greatest time, but when I went to sleep at night, I was confident that the ribbon was mine.
Captain Beason was at the podium now, telling our parents about the Freshman Orientation Honor Graduate Award. It had been a close decision for the staff, he said, and the final decision hadn't been made until the night before. Then he broke my heart. The award this year, he announced, had been won by a girl. I hadn't won my award.
On Thursday, the twelve of us freshmen were standing at attention in platoon formation, in three evenly spaced squads of four people each, waiting for the yelling to end all yellings. All week our squad leaders had been striking fear into our hearts about the dreaded Staff Sergeant inspection. We stood in formation waiting to meet the infamous Staff Sergeant Reginald W. Johnson, United States Marine Corps.
Staff Sergeant Johnson had obviously made an impression on our squad leaders. They had all seen his unforgiving wrath during inspections before, and all week they made sure we knew what was coming. "Yeah, we yell at you," seemed to be their message, "but Staff Sergeant will yell at you." As new members of the military just learning how to follow protocol when dealing with anyone else in the military, the idea of a senior enlisted Marine was scary enough, but Staff Sergeant Johnson was almost larger than life in our minds because of what we'd been told about him. The stories about his gold tooth, which he liked to flash during inspections, and his black Mercedes with its GOTMEONE license plate could belong only to a tough man, proud of his toughness. It was clear that there would be no room for error. Because I'd been successful in inspections earlier in the week, though, I wasn't all that worried about the Staff Sergeant inspection.
We'd had a formal inspection from our Platoon Commander on Wednesday, and I seemed to be calmer than she was. When she asked if I had a name tag and had me pull it off, I knew she was talking about my ID card, but was just saying the wrong thing. She seemed a little embarrassed when I pulled off my masking tape name tag instead of the military ID she thought she had asked for. For the Staff Sergeant inspection, I also had the advantage of being in the third squad. I'd get to hear eight other people get inspected, learning the Staff Sergeant's tendencies.
When the day of the inspection came, I thought I had things pretty well figured out. Sure, he'll yell at me for a while, I figured, but it only lasts a few minutes and all I have to do is give him the information that has been etched into my mind for the last four days. I didn't foresee dealing with the Staff Sergeant as being much different our previous inspections.
The first people the Staff Sergeant attacked had some problems. They mixed up ranks, forgot things, and stammered because of the unrelenting pressure. The Staff Sergeant was as hard as we had imagined, getting plenty close and plenty loud. Mistakes were not treated kindly. The girl who went right before me, however, the girl I knew was really the only threat to my ribbon, did well. She was clearly nervous, but she got her answers out and she did a good about face when instructed to. As she finished, I, as a squad leader, called my squad from parade rest to attention. That's when things started to go wrong.
My call to attention was not loud enough for the Staff Sergeant. "Why are you whispering?" he asked in a booming voice. "Do you want to ask me to the prom?"
"No, Staff Sergeant," I sounded off. I was a little rattled.
He parked his face too close for comfort, right by my right cheek. Then he went into some basic questions I didnít have trouble with. That part is a blur to me now. Next he started in on my weakest link, the rank insignia for enlisted Marines. We hadn't been asked much about enlisted ranks that week, and I had been confused by them during my initial studying because in the Navy, Marines, Army, and Air Force the same ranks have different titles and insignia. Staff Sergeant Johnson wanted to know what the insignia for a Gunnery Sergeant was. I could see the picture in my head, but I couldn't remember if it was one or two stripes down. "Three stripes up," I said, describing what I knew for sure. Before I could continue he interrupted with a loud, "What?" I knew the answer now, but I couldn't quite get it all out because he kept questioning me, verifying that I was sure of every part of the answer I gave. When I finally spit out the whole thing I committed a deadly sin. I called the crossed rifles in the center of the insignia guns, a mistake Marines don't tolerate. "What's a gun?" he inquired harshly. I corrected myself, but then he called my entire definition into question. I repeated it. He doubted it. I gave up. "This freshman does not know but will find out, Staff Sergeant," I said in a loud but not completely composed voice. "Why did you let me change your answer?" he asked, his face inching even closer to mine. "If you know you have the right answer, say the right answer." Now I was quite rattled and my mind was rolling and bouncing downhill at a nearly uncontrollable speed.
The Staff Sergeant took a little step back and told me I was looking off to the right. I moved my head, and now he was dead center in my field of vision. Under no circumstances is one to make eye contact with one's inspecting officer, but he was everywhere. When my eyes hit the unavoidable, he pounced again, moving closer, raising his voice and asking, "Did I tell you to look at me?" Then he had me raise my hands from my side so he could see my fingernails. My hands were noticeably shaking. He wasn't pleased with that. He wanted to check the back of my uniform so I did an about face. Unfortunately, I did the world's ugliest about face. My feet were all over the place and my arms came out from my side. I had to turn back around and then try again. When I faced forward again and the Staff Sergeant moved to the next person, my face didn't feel quite as hot and my breathing returned to normal.
I heard my name called. Captain Beason had left the podium and was now giving me a letter certifying that I had completed Freshman Orientation. I wasn't ready. I took it and thanked him instinctively, though. Then I returned to the position of attention and my cold stare at a point 1000 yards ahead, 10 degrees off the horizon.