Did you ever run across one of those people who are great
people but absolutely have no clue in the area of their profession?
Enter Private Vanegas. Wonderful person, lost recruit.
You may think it harsh to slam on this poor boy so let me
explain something before I begin. I really liked Vanegas. It
was not as though his heart was not into recruit training; he
really tried. But he was just one of those people who do not
do so well under the pressure of bootcamp. Marine Corps history
is replete with individuals who falter under the pressure of
bootcamp yet distinguish themselves in the crucible of combat.
Vanegas falls under this category. I would not be surprised
at all to learn that Vanegas was a Gulf War hero. Personally,
he was a gentle soul. But as a recruit, well..... he was Vanegas.
I do not even know how it happened. Everything is so regimented
in bootcamp that it seems out of place. I should have never
been bunked with Vanegas. Normally, the set up in bootcamp is
You live in a squadbay that is basically a large rectangular
room. Standing in the middle of this room and looking on either
long side, you see windows running the length of the squadbay.
Looking at the "tail end," you see a single door that is the
back exit. Looking at the other end, you see a double door to
the left, a single door in the middle, and an open passageway
on the right. The double doors are the main entrance and the
passageway leads to the head. The middle single door is a "whiskey
locker" which is a closet for cleaning supplies.
The first 20 feet into the squadbay are reserved for two
things. The left half (nearest the entrance/exit) is called
the classroom. This is where the DI's will give instruction,
mail is given out, and a place where the platoon can be placed
for a myriad of purposes, few of them on the positive end of
the spectrum. The right hand side is the DI's duty hut. It is
just a room sectioned off in the corner of the squadbay. It
has an office, a head, and a cot. DI's live a Spartan existence.
Five feet out from the windows are the racks. These are
metal bunkbeds two-high. They are aligned all the length of
the squadbay with the long axis pointing toward the middle of
the squadbay. Two wooden footlockers stacked on top of each
other are placed at the foot of the racks toward the middle
of the squadbay. The area between the footlockers, in the middle
of the squadbay, is no-man's land. Since the "man" in "no-man's
land" connotates "human" and DI's do not fall in this category,
they are the only ones allowed to tread this hallowed space.
Recruits are assigned a bunk according to their last name.
They are arranged alphabetically starting at the bunk nearest
the entrance/exit of the squadbay. This is why it seemed strange
that I, Grose, was bunked with Vanegas. Regardless, this was
Mario Vanegas was a Mexican kid from San Diego. Bootcamp
was just across the street for him. He was your basic recruit:
young, strong, hard-working. But Vanegas had two differences
that contradict each other. He was a rather rugged-looking recruit.
Even looking at his picture, he is what the public would expect
a Marine to look like. I was always envious of his visage because
I still looked like a child back then. The other difference
was that he was utterly and completely lost most of the time.
All recruits run about looking like a bunch of monkeys humping
the same football, but Vanegas raised this to new levels. You
had to feel for the guy but at the same time, we paid for his
lack of awareness.
Every morning is the same thing. The lights come on and
the DI's emerge from the duty hut like a hurricane. Within minutes
we had to have the bunks made, get dressed, clean the squadbay,
and fall out below in formation for morning chow. This is not
an exaggeration: a dead sleep to at attention in formation in
under 5 minutes. All the time, the DI's are going ballistic.
The only way to be successful at this routine was teamwork.
You had to both work on one bunk to get it done in time. Since
Vanegas was my bunkmate, we had to work together. Inevitably,
Vanegas fumbled and thrashed to get the sheets and blanket to
cooperate. Inevitably, he failed every time. It was almost comical
to watch.....almost. By the time we got his done and then started
on mine, others were already heading out the door. We were always
last and we paid almost every morning. True to my forgiveless
nature, I griped at him every morning. True to his gentle nature,
he never retaliated. Sometimes it was so hard to be mad at him.
The DI's did not have that problem.
The squadbays are never locked. Whenever the platoon goes
anywhere, one private is left behind as gear guard, which equates
to walking around relatively safe from the DI's who are with
the platoon. Four recruits are designated chow privates: 2 early
chow and two late chow. This means that the DI's will send early
chow to the mess hall to eat. When the platoon leaves for chow,
the late-chow privates are left behind as gear guard. After
the early chow recruits return, the late chow recruits go to
chow. After they are done, they return and you have four gear
guards. It is a nice job to have because you eat alone and get
away from the DI's 3 times per day.
I was a late-chow recruit and Vanegas was one of the early-chow
recruits. We were enjoying the status for awhile and hoped it
would last. One day, SGT Robinson gone extremely angry at the
platoon. Big surprise, huh? To punish the platoon, he did one
of the worst things that he could think of. He made Vanegas
the guide. The guide is basically the recruit leader and is
symbolic of the platoon as a whole. The biggest rule is that
the guide goes EVERYWHERE with the platoon. By putting Vanegas
in that position, SGT Robinson was punishing the platoon because
he knew that the most lost private would embarrass the platoon
at every turn.
The platoon fell out for noon chow and I was left behind
as late-chow private. I watched the platoon form up below from
the window of our second-deck squadbay. Pretty soon, SGT Robinson
came out and I could see the look on his face. He exploded,
asking were the guide was. The meek answer from the platoon
sent him into a frenzy. "Early-chow, Sir."
My laughing rivaled SGT Robinson's ire in intensity. I could
not believe that Vanegas would go to early chow after being
promoted to guide. Neither could SGT Robinson. Then again, Vanegas
was the one private who would make that mistake. Needless to
say, when he returned, he was brutally tongue-lashed and relieved
of his recent post. Classic Vanegas.
I had many opportunities to talk with Vanegas. To this day,
I consider him a great guy with whom I shared as many stories
as I listened to. That was the one gift Vanegas gave me and
the most valuable commodity in bootcamp: someone to listen.
I spent visitors' Sunday with him and his family and could see
the pride in his parents' eyes. They probably knew about his
nervous reaction to stress and probably worried endlessly during
his training. But I think they liked what they saw that Sunday.
It was a week before graduation and I still wondered if Vanegas
was going to graduate. If anyone could blow it at this point,
Vanegas would be the one.
On October 16th, 1987, I was standing at attention on the
MCRD San Diego's parade deck. After three months of sweat, pain,
and stress, I waited for the magic words from Senior Drill Instructor
Staff Sergeant Wertjes. In a booming voice that carried to the
heavens, they came as though from the mouth of God.
PLATOON 3075, .......... DISMISSED!"
As I performed the best about-face up to that point (and
since), my heels popped together signaling that I was finished
with recruit training.
Standing next to me, proud and tall, was Private Mario Vanegas,
United States Marine.