The purpose of boot camp — regardless of the branch of service — is to erase the individual and create instead a member of the team. There are various strategies and procedures to accomplishing this, some physical but mostly mental.
The amazing thing is that even if you know what is going on, what the organization is trying to accomplish, more likely than not you will be swept up in the process and end up as a Sailor, Solider Airman, Coastguardsman or Marine — or an officer of those services.
In the middle of my first day at Officer Candidate School it came as no surprise then that I began to see the boot-camp pattern playing out. During one of the infrequent breaks given during that first day’s hectic initiation process, I joined with a group of prior-enlisted Sailors in the middle of a men’s head (bathroom), and we all agreed we knew what was going on, and what we had to do.
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Simply knowing what was going on at OCS didn’t mean the prior enlisteds were able to fake our way through to becoming Navy officers. Quite the opposite, it made the process of merging ourselves into the larger team simpler because we had done it once before. The folks running OCS also knew what we knew, and they wisely used it to the advantage of everyone.
Each prior enlisted — and there were a few of us, male and female — was paired up with a civilian. When the civilians screwed up, like as not the prior enlisteds were the ones yelled at because it was our job to show them how things were done. I taught my roommate to make his rack, fold his clothes, shine his shoes and then after lights-out we practiced marching in step in the common passageway of our company area.
He was as stubborn as a mule and didn’t pick things up quickly, and at the halfway point of OCS — at the eighth week officer candidates advance from “juniors” to “seniors,” ending a probationary period of sorts — I recommended to the company officer that he be held back to repeat the junior period so that he could work on his military skills.
It was an incredibly hard recommendation to make, but I did it because I thought it was in his best interest. I had been selected to be the company commander, which meant I had direct access to the Lieutenant assigned to oversee our training. He pressed me to make an honest assessment of each officer candidate and give him a recommendation as to their readiness to advance.
He was testing me — to this day I don’t know if I passed or not — and after hearing my assessment the Lieutenant directed me to tell each candidate what I had recommended as to their fate.
For one of my company mates the recommendation had been easy: he carried a failing grade in mandatory classwork and would be held back as a matter of course. For my roommate, it was a tense, painful discussion and I took my share of the blame for not teaching him better. He advanced anyway — seems only failing coursework or the strong objection of the company officer could be cause to hold a candidate back — and over the final eight weeks of OCS the relationship between us was formal and business only.
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When we advanced, our company gained two candidates who had been held back to repeat the senior section of OCS. One, who became my assistant company commander, had contracted an illness and been hospitalized partway through the senior section. The other was having some trouble with academics and the swim test.
I won’t use his full name here, but his nickname was Chevy — as in the comedian and suburb in Maryland, not the car — and he was a prior-enlisted Marine. Chevy looked every inch the Marine, with creases on his uniform that could cut through a mooring line and a ramrod-straight posture. He should have been the company commander instead of me, but the company Lieutenant wanted Chevy to focus on his coursework.
Officer candidates could only be held back once, and if Chevy didn’t get his grades up he would be returned to the fleet as a Marine, not a Naval officer. He had an advantage in repeating material he had already seen once, but even so the Lieutenant felt — or so he told me — that Chevy would make the kind of officer the Navy needed and he wanted to make sure that happened.
Although Chevy was not happy being excluded from a leadership role in the company, he understood the reasons why. I had several chances to talk with him one-on-one, and often asked his advice on issues dealing with the company. I can’t say I followed his advice every time, but we built a rapport that I appreciated having.
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Coursework aside, the bigger problem Chevy faced was in the pool, particularly the deep end where the dive tower was located. Officer candidates had to become qualified as second-class swimmers to graduate which involved a series of progressively tougher swimming, floating and diving tests throughout the 16-week course.
Candidates who failed or barely passed tests were assigned to “Swim Extra Instruction” which was held every weekday morning before breakfast. Even if the candidate passed the failed test with flying colors the very next day, he or she stayed assigned to Swim E-I until the next round of tests, usually two weeks later.
Like a surprising number of candidates including myself — why join the Navy if you can’t swim? — Chevy struggled in the pool, but no more so than the dive tower. Candidates were required to simulate abandoning ship by jumping feet-first off the 12-foot dive tower — legs together but crossed at the ankles, arms across the chest with hands on the opposite shoulder — and then swimming to the opposite end of the pool while pushing through imaginary burning oil.
Even when he didn’t have to, Chevy regularly attended Swim E-I to work on his watercraft, but the tower was different. It was a one-shot deal, you either did it or you didn’t — there was no Swim E-I for the tower for safety reasons — and Chevy didn’t do it his first time through as a senior. A 12-foot jump into water may not seem like much, but for some like Chevy it was a paralyzing prospect.
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On the day for our company to take the jump test, Chevy was one of the first up the side-by-side ladders to the platform. He stood next to another candidate, wrapped up his arms and legs at the instructor’s command, but when the whistle blew he didn’t move. Another candidate joined him on the platform, the routine was repeated and yet once again Chevy stood there when the whistle blew.
While I don’t believe the regulations permitted it, the instructor allowed Chevy to step aside but stay on the platform while the rest of us cycled through. Chevy was told, however, that if he didn’t jump before the last of us had gone he would fail — ending his chance at becoming a Navy officer.
I was in the middle of the group climbing the ladder to the platform, and when I got to the top the Chevy I saw was unlike the ramrod Marine from our company spaces. I could see the fear on his face. He was afraid of the height and the water, and proud as he was Chevy was also scared of failing, especially in front of his peers.
The rest of the company tried to help Chevy. Each candidate who climbed to the platform offered words of encouragement and support, or offered to hold his hand on the way down — leading the instructor to yell that Chevy had to do it on his own — no physical help from others was permitted.
After completing their swim to the far end of the pool, the rest of the company swam back to a spot near the tower and they called encouragement up to Chevy, telling him he would be fine, it was over in a second, he could do it. Even candidates who he had run-ins with were caught up in the moment, trying to will Chevy off the tower.
Finally, with no more candidates waiting to make the jump, the instructor — a Chief Petty Officer who knew what was at stake but had only so much patience — announced that it was now or never for Chevy. He had to shout to make himself heard over the noise from the pool, but with that ultimatum it seemed like all activity in the pool building stopped and everyone — regardless of their company or status — began to yell at Chevy to make the jump.
* * * *
Chevy jumped. He jumped into a pool filled with shipmates shouting for him to join them, and although his form was less than textbook, the instructor overlooked it. As soon as Chevy’s head broke the surface he was surrounded by the rest of his company and we swam alongside him to the far end of the pool — careful not to touch him and void his hard-earned accomplishment.
I recall that the march back to the company area from the pool that morning was one of the high points of my 16 weeks at OCS. We laughed, sang and joked with each as we marched through the darkness, claiming Chevy’s victory as a win for us all. Soon enough we would again be deep in the grind of studying — damage control, tactics, naval history and leadership practices — military drill and physical training.
The last I heard of Chevy he was the top division officer on an amphibious ship in the Pacific fleet. That was several years after OCS and we were both Lieutenants; I was serving as a supply officer on a guided-missile destroyer in the Atlantic. I would have enjoyed serving with him in the wardroom of a ship, but that wasn’t the path for either of us.