As I have aged over the past fifty or so years, I look back at the varying physical challenges that I have overcome. Many of my friends, Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and other special forces share these memories. For me, those physical challenges included Marathons, Half Marathons, working in the fishing industry, Tough Mudders, even basic training in the US Marines. All of them had their own unique obstacles and all had some blocking point that had to be overcome. As I look back, probably the most challenging of them was the UNQ platoon in basic training for the US Marines. This isn’t part of the normal training within boot camp. This was, well, unique to a small band of schmucks that couldn’t qualify with the M16 on qualification day.
I was in second phase of Marine boot camp, snapping in at Camp Pendleton when I caught pneumonia for the second time during several “pit calls” (we will get to that in a minute). While in the Navy hospital at Camp Pendleton, I had some young Marines warn me that I may get recycled, but if they offered me the “UNQ platoon” which is short for “Unqualified” that I would be better off getting recycled, and under no circumstances should I pick that platoon. They didn’t say why, but the impression that I had was that the UNQ platoon was a “super bad” place to end up at for any period of time. One of the thoughts that echoed quietly in the back of my head was that “First and foremost, all Marines are basic riflemen, and the Corps takes great pride in that”. That alone should have been a red flag. To discredit the Corps by not being able to do something as simple as shoot a rifle was about as bad as it could get.
I returned to the rifle range, to be greeted by one of my own Drill Instructors, Sgt. Rovenek, the “good DI” who was now the Senior DI for this “UNQ Platoon”. These were recruits that couldn’t qualify with the M16-A1 rifle during qualification day. So, instead of going on to Mess and Maintenance, the Marines instead created a platoon for the “non-hackers”. Sgt. Rovenek told me I had a choice, get recycled (again, due to pneumonia) or stay with him and the UNQ platoon and I could catch up with my regular platoon during ITS (Infantry Training School).
Hell that was an EASY call; I told him I would go with the “UNQ platoon”. I had already been in boot camp for three weeks longer than I wanted to be due to two weeks in Balboa hospital with bi-lateral pneumonia and I had NO intent of staying any longer, much less getting recycled to another platoon.
I am not sure if he smiled or frowned, but either way, the decision was made. Sgt Rovenek assembled the platoon of “unqualifying f****” on the first day and in his normally loud voice he pronounced that we owed him one hundred bends and thrusts at his cadence, and if we failed to deliver on that? We would owe him two hundred bends and thrusts, and each time we fail, it would be one hundred more on top of whatever we owed him. I knew that we could bust out one hundred easily, so no worry about that issue.
Over the two days of shooting, I noticed that ALL the DI’s were very reserved in their treatment of us “unqualified f****”. I qualified the first day, high expert, and most did, a few did not. However two days into it, we all qualified. Sgt Rovenek, true to his word, marched us to the “pit” at the snapping in range. This Pit sucked. It was about four maybe five inches deep of very fine powdery dirt. It was kind of like what women’s make up is made of; very fine, very light, goes everywhere you don’t want it to go. We assembled our weapons outside the pit and marched into this “dirt circle”.
We began with bends and thrusts. Hands go down, feet go out, feet come back up, and the body goes up. “One Two Three Four, I love the Marine Corps”, along with other entertaining chants, and this went on to the count of about ninety something when somebody screwed up. Now? Two hundred bends and thrusts. All the while the other two junior Drill Instructors are in your face, screaming, yelling and doing very well at just pissing us off.
We were about 45 minutes into this “thrashing” when Sgt. Rovenek uttered the words “STOP!” “SIR STOP! AYE AYE SIR!” was our response. He had us run to the ladder-well (stairs) going down to the .45 caliber pistol range, beating each other with our covers (hats) to knock the dirt off.
We then ran across the .45 range, twenty yards or so, up the other ladder-well, went into the concrete head (bathroom) that was 50 feet from the stairs, washed ourselves off as best we could, used the head if you had to, and get into formation outside the head. We were so relieved; it was OVER! Holy crud, that was a tough thrashing! “Forward march” were the words, and then?
“Column left” and right back into the pit. And we went at it again. DI’s yelling, screaming, and kicking dirt in your face, pushing you down with a boot on the back. Recruits scream, some started crying, others just getting angrier, many in a pretty serious daze. Another 45 minutes goes by, we are up to about 500 bends and thrusts when we do the same thing again, run to the ladder-well, hitting each other with our covers, across, back up, into the head, out into formation and then? “Forward march” then? “Column left” and back into the pit we went.
This was repeated over and over from about 0700 until chow time around 1100, at that point? We were mud-caked, sore, beat, angry, tired, and owed who knew how many bends and thrusts to Sgt. Rovenek. But we were thrilled, the thrashing was over. We chowed hard, seriously starving after that kind of beating and as I got into my second mouthful of that outstanding noon chow it dawned on me… We had nothing, absolutely NOTHING to do for the next three days. NOTHING.
I stopped eating and put my fork down. I realized what was about to happen to us for the next three days and the rest of today, we were going to thrash. And that is ALL we were going to do. I quit eating, and focused on drinking water… and not too much, I had seen what happened if you puked in the pit, you got to cover it up with dirt, and then? Put it in your pockets.
Been there, seen that. And no thanks. I nudged one of the guys I had made friends with, and told him what I thought. He said “No way” they won’t do that. I said ok, but I wasn’t taking chances. When we finished chow, most of the guys were fat and happy at that point, in mud caked utilities and covered from head to foot in half inch deep cracked mud. Our faces were grime streaked from sweat and fine powdery filth. The other recruits were content, chow was had, and they had survived a serious thrashing. We began marching back to the pit, and one by one, I saw the lights come on. Every recruit there had an epiphany. We had just been introduced to WHY you don’t go to the UNQ platoon.
For the next three days we spent close to 6 hours a day or better in that pit, bends and thrusts, grenade drills, push-ups, side straddle hops, or being cockroaches that bury themselves when they die. Grenade drills involved running as hard as you could across the pit, and when the DI screamed GRENADE! You dropped like a rock into the dirt. Then when he yelled CLEAR you got up and started running again, full tilt boogie. I saw recruits puke, cry, pass out, get revived and start again. That was a thrashing that is probably the worst the military has to offer including Hell Week from the Seals or any other elite force.
By the end of the week, almost all of us were barely able to get out of the rack, and our utilities stood in the corner by themselves. I don’t know that the dirt ever came out of those “cammies”. The “UNQ Platoon” was a serious motivator…. And Sgt. Rovenek motivated the hell out of that entire platoon. It took me days to recover from that kind of beating. I didn’t know it was possible to exercise that hard, and still keep moving. Shortly after we left the rifle range, we caught up with our platoon for ITS. Infantry Training School.
ITS was the Marine equivalent of the Navy Seals “Hell Week”. By far, the UNQ platoon had been my “Crucible”. Today, the Marines have changed ITS into the “Crucible” where you are given little sleep, little to eat, and pushed to your limits physically, mentally and emotionally. Many times in that pit I questioned what in the hell I had got myself into, but? Quitting was never an option. Giving up was never an option. This is what separates the recruit from becoming a Marine.