I Dropped Out of Marine Bootcamp
And I Never Talk About How It Felt
I have a confession to make. I joined the Marines and went into Bootcamp right after high school. If that surprises you, then what do you think when I tell you that I dropped out?
I quit Marine Bootcamp.
But only after most of my training was complete, and with an extended stay on Parris Island in South Carolina to pay for my conduct.
I watched my platoon graduate while I awaited my fate.
To say I was clueless when I convinced my parents (with little effort) to let me join the Marines, would be a serious understatement. I was a troubled teenager with mental health issues and a big old chip on my shoulder.
And I was only 17 when the recruiter came out to enlist as many students as possible from our tiny school in Pearcy, Arkansas.
It was 1981, the first year that women started training for combat.
Welcome to Parris Island South Carolina
We'd partied all the way there, young men and women leaving small towns from all over the mid-west and south to start a new and exciting adventure. After a wild night at a motel near the Greyhound station, they separated us into groups by gender. Then we boarded buses and rode off into the great unknown.
The landscape took on a surreal light at sunrise as the Greyhound bus rolled onto Parris Island military base in the pouring down rain. There was a yellow-green glow from the lights lining the insurmountable electric fences surrounding my new home.
I was in no way prepared for what was about to happen.
Bootcamp started the moment that the bus door creaked open, and the Drill Instructor came roaring in to welcome us to hell. Although we'd traveled for a couple of days and arrived at sunrise, we weren't about to get a nap.
Off the bus. Off the bus now! What are you waiting for, your mama? Well, your mama ain't here private. I'm your mama, your daddy, and YOUR WORST GODDAMN NIGHTMARE!
We're gonna take you slimy civilians and make you MARINES. OOO. RAH!
She wasn't joking. She was my worst nightmare. And I was trapped.
Coming from an abusive home, I knew at that moment this wasn't what I signed up for, but how could I not have known that beforehand?
What was I thinking?
For one, we didn't have the internet. That meant I only had the words of adults to guide me.
I thought that Marines were there to serve and protect. I believed it would be honorable to join this institution that my dad had also served in—my abusive father, who ruled his house with an iron fist. Really? Did I not see how some of his anger could have come from things he'd seen and done?
My best explanation is this:
I wanted to get away from the small town I lived in, and the recruiter said that I could train to be a military illustrator once I had shown them my portfolio. I would go to Colorado to learn to be a professional artist right after Bootcamp.
Yes, I believed him and took my portfolio with me all the way to Parris Island. After taking all of the required tests, I qualified for the special training program that paid over twice as much as regular enlisted.
Of course, I signed the papers.
5 AM Wake Up
In 1981, woman Marines trained with different types of weapons and developed a variety of field skills in an intensive ten-week program divided into three phases.
The training phase was grueling with physical conditioning and daily drills. But, for the first time in my life, my six-foot-tall build was an advantage. I got into great shape fast. Plus, I was underweight (according to them) when I went in, so I always got to hit the chowline first and eat a special high-calorie diet.
All the extra work made me hungry, so I was grateful for the extra servings.
We also had classroom training in first aid, Marine Corps history, and traditions, uniform regulations, and water safety survival training.
In the second training phase, we took classes on nuclear, biological, and chemical defense. And in a strange twist, learned how to apply make-up as per military standards.
While learning how to dismantle and put a service rifle, pistol, and M-16 back together, we also received instruction on how to apply the bright blue eyeshadow and red lipstick that were standard military wear for women.
At this point, I had started to rebel.
I felt good about the physical part of the training; however, there were classes and other procedures that felt like brainwashing, and although I didn't grasp it at the time, my already fragile mental health was cracking.
At one point, we had three-day war games that involved smoke bombs and gearing up with gas masks to make it through a burned-out building.
All that would have been an adventure to me except for having to recite:
When I kill,
all I feel
is the recoil of my rifle,
We were required to repeat the verse every time we had target practice. Eventually, I couldn't get it out of my head and saying it began to make me dizzy and angry.
By the third and final phase of training, I was on a mission to get out before final exams.
Fuck You! I Won't Do What You Tell Me
If I had literally said that, they would have thrown me in the brig. Military jail wasn't my goal. So I used other tactics—most of which I'll write about another time.
But my favorite was laughing all the while the DI screamed at me—"Private Stallings, that footlocker isn't fit for a ROACH to live in!!" It was messy, alright. That was the point.
As this tiny woman in a crisp Marine uniform poked me in the breastbone, screaming at me, I began to laugh. I laughed and laughed.
She made me pay for it, too, with extra physical training. So the next day, I refused to get out of bed. My subversive actions were carefully thought out thanks to mental health issues that caused me to stay up at night—plotting my escape.
Glad I Listened to My Gut
I am sure that joining the Marines is an excellent choice for some women. They pay well, you have tremendous opportunities, and you'll receive a top-notch education—after Bootcamp.
But don't think for one minute that you won't need to protect yourself.
By 1984, women Marines could deploy in the Air Combat Element (ACE) of a Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) and augment a MAB Headquarters, subject to combat risk and transportation factors. (16.3). That gut feeling gnawing at me was probably accurate.
I would have ended up somewhere on the lines if I had continued on that path and finished Bootcamp.
For one, I'm bigger and physically stronger than most women. Plus, I scored higher than most of the class on all of their tests.
Bottom line? I was too young to make a decision as life-altering as joining the Marines. It blows my mind that I was able to see my way out of that bad decision.
Slimy Civilian, I Am
Looking back on it now, some 40 years later, I can clearly see that this experience affected the rest of my life—in both positive and negative ways.
Before they released me back into civilian life, they made sure to tell me that I would always be a slimy civilian that would never amount to anything.
That thought stuck with me for many years.
The thing is that even though I did manage to break free, I felt incredibly ashamed of my failure for most of my life. My test scores landed me where I was, starting as a PFC, and I was likely to become an Officer.
But they didn't care about my silly little artist portfolio.
And the gas-lighting, name-calling, and other mind-games that they use in Bootcamp to turn you into a soldier triggered something in me.
It was a wave of deep-seated anger. I think that's what the training was about—using that anger to become a soldier.
The problem was that my anger couldn't be directed. I believe it's ultimately what led the Marines to give me an honorable discharge. If I had been a man, I probably wouldn't have been so lucky. In this case, my gender saved me.
The experience scarred me in many ways that I'll write about at some point. But more than anything, it gave me this inner strength that I've drawn on time, and again. I know that no matter what happens, I can survive.