A Day at The Basic School

BASE QUANTICO, VA.-Both for the romance of it and for the practical purpose of understanding better what HUMAN EVENTS has been writing so much about since 9/11, I wanted to learn more about the military.

I spent 14 hours at Quantico, a large Marine base located in Virginia about 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. There, in the Camp Barrett subsection, stands The Basic School (TBS), where all newly commissioned Marine officers go for their first six months of training. There I found a world much further than 45 minutes removed from Washington in its ideals and culture.

The Corps lives by the adage “Every Marine a rifleman,??? and TBS focuses on making every Marine officer capable of leading an infantry platoon regardless of his ultimate military occupational specialty (MOS). All Marine officers are line officers, qualified to lead under combat conditions, which is not necessarily true of officers of the other services.

TBS provides a grounding common to all Marine officers and also produces their differentiation. It is here that their instructors decide which specialties, from infantry to pilot to supply officer, the new lieutenants, whose wishes may or may not be accommodated, will enter. They are graded in three areas: leadership, academics, and military skills as they spend ten to 12 hours a day, five days a week, under instruction.

A public affairs officer had me arrive at Quantico at the military hour of 6:15 am. Inside and out, the small cluster of Camp Barrett’s buildings resembles a community college. The classrooms in which I sat were not heated, at least not on that particular cold day. Living accommodations for the Marines are close to Spartan, with three or four sharing two cinder-block rooms plus a bathroom.

When I entered a classroom named “Chosin Reservoir,??? the instructor was reading, to a company of about 250 Marines, the Medal of Honor citation of a lieutenant who had given his life for his country. Photos of the bitter and infamous “Frozen Chosin??? Reservoir battle, in which Marines waged a successful fighting retreat during the Korean War, decorated the walls.

Row after row of fit-looking camouflaged young men (there is not a single extra pound of fat among all the student officers at TBS, as far as I noticed) with extremely short, white-sidewall haircuts sat attentively. The proportion of the Corps that is female has risen to 6%, and a few women sat among them. This day, the company’s members would perform a land navigation exercise. Given several sets of coordinates, the students were to use maps and compasses to find boxes in the woods.

I sat with 2ndLt Neva Gerke, one of three women in a platoon of 41. The 6th platoon staff commander, Capt Prescott Wilson, had assigned her to me when I arrived. “She is one of the best Marines I have,??? he said. One of the problems caused by affirmative action arose. Did he say that because it was actually true or because it needed to be true to satisfy the established religion of political correctness?

The Corps chooses from among its best officers to send to TBS as instructors, and Wilson, though not fearsome, seemed to inspire fear in some of his students.

“He has the most power over our MOS,??? said Gerke, who, as an enlisted Marine just made an officer, knew a lot more about the Corps than the officers late out of college.

I spent several hours wandering in the woods with 2ndLt Michael McAlinden, who had some trouble finding his boxes. “We’re like a family in my platoon,??? said McAlinden. “I’m proud to be a Marine and a Marine officer. I am more proud to be a McAlinden.??? He had that pride in his family that lingers in some Irish and other ethnic enclaves in this country. McAlinden, a Catholic who had gone to Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, and a Catholic college, believed that his profession might contradict his religion. “It’s against my religion to kill people,??? he said. I tried to dispel this bit of limp-wristed modern Christianity with an explanation of Catholic just war theory. Do Catholic military chaplains not teach just war doctrine to Catholic Marines?

There was no time to go to the chow hall for lunch before the next class, on how to call for artillery. The classroom featured a wide projection of a photo of Oklahoma-presumably the Ft. Sill artillery school’s practice range-and a machine that projected targets onto it and provided sound effects when they were blown up by correct calls from the students.

In the middle of the afternoon, half of us went outside where the Marines broke up into small groups and practiced calling for artillery on a field with enlisted instructors, compasses, lawn darts, mock targets, and a small precision cannon. Off in the distance, Force Recon Marines parachuted to the ground. A fierce-looking helicopter flew overhead. Then we switched places with the rest of the group.

At the end of the afternoon, the Marines got a dressing down. They had finished their outdoor practice early, not getting in as much practice as they could have.

“I bet you would have stayed out there if it were 70 degrees and sunny. You can’t fall into making comfort-based decisions,??? a displeased captain told the lieutenants. “I don’t know how much you know about the world situation right now, but you should think about what is going on in Iraq and North Korea.??? A Marine feebly blamed the enlisted instructors. Wilson later gave his own criticism of “comfort-based decisions??? at a platoon meeting in which graded written tests were handed back and remedial instruction for bad land navigators was announced for Saturday morning. “This is the worst criticism we’ve received so far,??? said Gerke.

Marines told me that in fact, they did not think or talk about Iraq or other world affairs much. “We’re too focused on what we’re doing here,??? said one. (I visited before President Bush issued his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.)

The Marine Corps, like the Army, considers unit cohesion and discipline to be essential in any combat unit. Trust, a sort of trust rare in the civilian world, in one’s comrades and superiors must be created. A Marine officer at the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) in Indian Head, Md. had told me that “trust in dictatorship??? makes up a major part of an effective Marine’s character. “He has to believe that what his superiors tell him to do is important, or they wouldn’t be ordering him to do it,??? he said. “He has to believe his superiors care about him.???

The food at dinner reminded me of college but the chow hall itself was aesthetically pleasing, as was the “Hawk,??? the bar for the lieutenants. I ate with 2ndLt Gregg Day and 2ndLt Barret Bradstreet, a Harvard graduate straight from WASP casting. Day seemed a little cynical. He said that most of the young Marine officers were idealistic and would say that they joined the Corps to serve their country, but he joined to serve himself. But later he said something impossibly idealistic to a civilian.

Bradstreet gave the best response that I have heard to the question, why did you join the Marines instead of the Army? He threw his head back and said, “Aw, come on!???

Day and a few other Marines said that they trusted their leadership, truly trusted their senior officers all the way up to the commandant. “I believe they are dedicated to doing the right thing and that they are looking out for us,??? said one female Marine. I told them that in Washington, it is different.

“We would die for each other,??? said Day. “I would die for any other Marine. Any Marine would die for another Marine.??? I expressed skepticism. They insisted it was true, and I believed them.

For more information about The Basic School, go to In the “Downloads??? section, there is a short video about the school.