SAN DIEGO — As their darkened, 44-passenger bus slowed to a stop, two Lake Mills High School graduates continued to rest their heads between their knees, hearts pounding and palms sweating.
A steady cadence of footsteps broke the white noise of an idling engine as someone they couldn’t see climbed aboard the vehicle.
The interior lights switched on, and Jonah Ringham, 20, and Tyler Knudtson, 21, snapped upright to a seated position when instructed, catching sight of a formidable man illuminated at the head of the bus.
The two young men — who were entering the Marine Corps’ 13-week boot camp April 18 — had just met their first drill instructor.
His biceps bulged out of the sleeves of a crisp, tailored tan blouse, which was tucked neatly into forest green trousers. He narrowed his eyes, showing little expression as he surveyed passengers beneath the brim of a chocolate brown campaign cover, tilted forward slightly to obscure his forehead.
“You are now aboard the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego,” he screamed, the sound of his voice spilling out of the bus and reverberating off nearby stucco buildings. “You have taken the first step toward becoming a member of the world’s finest fighting force, the U.S. Marine Corps.
“From this point forward, you will only answer me with a ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ and ‘Aye-aye, sir.’ Do we understand?”
“Aye-aye, sir!” the recruits yelled in unison.
Any Marine, sailor or civilian they encounter is to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am,” and recruits must now refer to themselves as “this recruit,” eschewing the use of singular pronouns, the drill instructor shouted.
With an order of “get off my bus,” the drill instructor sent Ringham, Knudtson and the rest of recruits scurrying into the warm southern California evening, seeking a set of yellow footprints on an expanse of concrete.
Every male west of the Mississippi who has entered the Marine Corps has stood on those footprints as they learn the first step — standing at attention — as they begin the transformation from civilian to recruit.
As airplanes revved their engines, preparing for takeoff at the neighboring airport, the recruits stood silently in neat rows, with heels touching and feet forming a “v,” shoulders back, arms at their sides and hands curled into fists, thumbs touching the seams of their jeans.
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With only the clothes on their back and toiletries tucked into their pockets, Ringham and Knudtson had taken a much more relaxed position as they processed-in about 24 hours earlier at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines.
Sports memorabilia lined the walls of the third-floor Military Entrance Processing Station, giving it the feel of a den instead of a hotel room. Beds and other typical hotel furniture were replaced by leather couches, multiple TVs and video game systems.
A poster on the wall instructed recruits to be courteous, safe and mindful. And, appropriately, even the carpet — scarlet with gold stars — represented the Marine Corps.
After quizzing the men on what time they should be ready to go to Camp Dodge in the morning — 4:30 a.m. — the official peered over his glasses as he asked one final question.
“How are you feeling?” he said. “These are going to be the biggest changes you’ll go through in your life.”
“I’m excited, absolutely,” Ringham replied.
The Lake Mills native just wrapped up his sophomore year at Iowa State University, where he was studying civil engineering.
“It’s an experience I wanted to have while still being able to finish courses,” he said.
Knudtson, who lives in Kiester, Minnesota, said he wants to make more of his life than working at a factory. He’d been working at Rembrandt Enterprises since graduation, but couldn’t advance any further in his job.
“I just want to serve and do something for my country,” he said.
Both say their families have been supportive of their choices.
As for selecting the Marines, Knudtson and Ringham credit that to Sgt. Jeremy Spaunhorst, a Mason City-based recruiter they say is easy to talk to and work with.
“I just like the air of confidence they have,” Knudtson said of the Marines.
Breaking down, building up
Whatever confidence they did have was being broken down as the India Company recruits were hustled single-file into an adjacent yellow building, where a sign above double doors proclaimed “through this portal walks the future of the U.S. Marine Corps.”
There they were required to sort their few belongings, call home, have their hair buzzed and receive uniforms and other basic items needed during training.
It was a chaotic scene as recruits strained to listen to instructions while harsh criticisms loudly echoed in the gold and scarlet contraband room, their first stop. Members of their group who didn’t comply with orders or failed to do so in a timely manner quickly found one — or two — screaming drill instructors in their face.
Voices blended as recruits began making scripted phone calls home, the only call they’d be able to make during their 13 weeks of training.
“Hello, this is recruit (last name). I have arrived safely at MCRD San Diego. The next time I contact you will be by postal mail so expect a letter in two to three weeks. I love you, goodbye.”
While the group scrambled out of the contraband room for other receiving matters, a recruit dressed in a blue and white plaid shirt and jeans stood in the hallway, left arm extended — and trembling — as he directed others to stay “tight to the right” of the Pepsi machine down the hallway.
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“Follow the yellow arrows!” the voice of another recruit boomed as groups entered the barbershop, where clippers continuously buzzed and brooms swished as other recruits cleaned hair clippings. Artwork on the wall across from the four barber chairs featured Marines in uniform and the reminder haircuts are part of the recruit training regimen.
Spaunhorst had taken Ringham and Knudtson into the dimly-lit hotel hallway for a pep talk the night before, telling them each of their weekly haircuts should be viewed as a marker of surviving another week of physical and mental challenges.
“The best advice for boot camp is to live haircut to haircut and chow to chow" (meal to meal), Spaunhorst said. “It gives you something to anticipate.”
Trained and tested
During their 13 weeks of training, Ringham and Knudtson will be trained and tested in physical fitness, marksmanship, martial arts and swimming, among other skills.
They will also complete the Crucible, a 54-hour combat training exercise that involves limited food and sleep, hauling 45 pounds of gear and relying on others while completing obstacles and team-building courses during a nearly 50-mile hike through the rugged, mountainous terrain of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside.
At the conclusion of that exercise, they earn their eagle, globe and anchor, or EGA — the Marine Corps emblem representing the U.S., worldwide presence and naval heritage — and are called Marines for the first time.
Ringham and Knudtson will then graduate July 15 and return home for 10 days. After that, they begin School of Infantry training at Camp Pendleton before attending school for their military career specialties.
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Jacob Schroeder of Dubuque earned his title April 21, receiving his EGA as the sun rose above the hills of Camp Pendleton, drenching the desert landscape in vibrant yellows and oranges.
“It was really hard and I really wanted to quit,” the 19-year-old said, energetic despite what he'd just completed. “But I told myself, 'If everyone else can do it, I can do it, too.'"
Schroeder said he joined the Marines because he loves his country and wants to do his part. But for someone who has spent little time away from his parents, boot camp was a stark change.
“At receiving, I was way scared and shocked,” he said. “It was terrifying. I’ve never went through anything like that before, and have never been away from home.”
Although stoic upon receiving his EGA, Schroeder is certain the tears will flow once he sees his relatives again.
“I miss my family,” he said softly as he smiled. “The longest I’ve ever been away from them is a week, so I’ll probably cry when I see them again.”
After completing the Crucible, recruits graduate the following week.
Under sunny skies dotted with puffy cumulus clouds, families and friends of 378-member Alpha Company packed bleachers April 22 at the Recruit Depot.
Flags snapped to attention in the light breeze as the 650-yard parade deck became a swarm of navy and brown as new Marines began marching to the music of John Philip Sousa.
Recruit Depot Chief of Staff Col. Mark Tull said the men “represent the best America has to offer” and are “true patriots.”
“He will never regret becoming a U.S. Marine,” Tull said of the graduates.
With commands to behave and conduct themselves as Marines — and remain semper fidelis, forever true — the graduates were released to their families.
Tristen Lawson of Orange, Texas, hugged relatives close on the parade deck.
The 19-year-old, who says he felt proud and honored to now be a Marine, admitted he sneaked a peek at his family as he marched by.
“I wasn’t supposed to, but I was so happy to see them after three months,” he said.
Wearing a scarlet T-shirt proclaiming she was a proud mother of a U.S. Marine, Misty Lawson said she felt nervous and scared — but proud — while Tristen was in boot camp.
“I’m not used to not being able to call or see my babies,” she said. “But no matter what, I stand behind my boys. I’d do it all over again.”