For nearly 80 years, young men have been coming here to see if they are tough enough and disciplined enough to become U.S. Marines. When the first would-be warrior arrived in 1923, San Diego was barely a village and the Marines' West Coast boot camp sat on reclaimed marshland safely on the outskirts of town. Now this is the sixth or seventh largest city in the country and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego is caught in an urban squeeze unlike any other training facility in the U.S. military.
This week a group of Marine Corps officers will arrive from headquarters to study whether the time has come to shift the boot camp to a less cramped locale—possibly to the former El Toro base in Orange County. But many plan to fight any attempt to move the Marines out of town, where they are viewed as delivering both a psychological and economic boost .
Yet there are challenges for the old base that can't be ignored. For one thing, noise from adjacent Lindbergh Field is so loud it can accomplish the near impossible: silencing the booming voices of Marine Corps drill instructors.
"Boot camp is meant to be a communicative experience," said Commandant Gen. James Jones, who has ordered the study. More important, the depot is too small to accommodate weapons training and a grueling 54-hour field maneuver called "The Crucible." For those activities, recruits must spend four of their 13 weeks of training at Camp Pendleton, 35 miles north.
By comparison, the Marine Corps' other boot camp, at Parris Island, S.C., is entirely self-contained and there is no distracting noise, save the squeaking of the island's infamous sand fleas.
But not everyone at the San Diego base is convinced its drawbacks are serious .
Gunnery Sgt. David Palm said the periodic pauses caused by jets roaring overhead allow the drill instructors to catch their breath before resuming their high-volume instruction. And while trucking recruits to and from Camp Pendleton chews up some time, it is not seen as a detriment to turning out squared-away Marines ready for advanced combat training .
"We just don't see it as a huge disadvantage making the trip to Camp Pendleton," said Col. Thomas W. Spencer, the depot's chief of staff.
"We feel the Marines trained here are every bit as good as those turned out at Parris Island or if they were trained at El Toro or somewhere else." The civic attachment to the recruit depot is financial and emotional.
The depot pumps $200 million into the local economy, including $20 million from 90,000 parents and family members who come to San Diego to attend graduation ceremonies each year, according to a number of economic studies. A business park or biotechnology campus might be just as financially beneficial, but many locals doubt that other uses for the property would provide the same boost to San Diego's civic psyche.
"The Marines are part of San Diego's identity," said politically connected lawyer Louis Wolfsheimer. "Letting them move makes no sense." Civic die-hards are girding for political combat if needed.
"I will not let [the boot camp] go without a fight," said Councilman Byron Wear, who represents the area.
Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-Escondido) has suggested that moving the depot to El Toro would allow for a necessary expansion of Lindbergh Field. But Reps. Susan Davis (D-San Diego) and Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) want the depot to stay put. And Hunter is a prime contender to be the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "We appreciate Orange County's offer to take [the recruit depot] off our hands," Hunter said archly, "but the answer is 'no.'" On 388 acres, the depot has 148 buildings, most in the red-tile roof and canyon gold color of the Spanish Colonial Revival movement. Training continues apace, oblivious to the San Diego-El Toro debate. More than 21,000 young men from west of the Mississippi River—average age 19--come here each year for the longest and toughest basic training of any U.S. military service. Eleven percent wash out .
"This is an extended 13-week job interview, to see if they have what it takes to be a Marine," said Lt. Patrick Savage.
Days begin with reveille at 5:30 a.m. and end with lights-out at 9:30 p.m., with only an hour free time squeezed in between physical training, marching, instruction on Marine history and myriad other tasks and tests.
The key to basic training is repetition and more repetition and no-nonsense remediation—until a recruit has mastered a skill.
"A lot of them have never had any intensity," said Lt. Scott Kelly. "We try to find something inside them that will respond to intensity." The Marines' presence is woven deeply into the surrounding community. The base museum is a major tourist attraction and Marines are involved in numerous charities and public events in San Diego.
The Marines often invite groups to watch training—like the recently added 28 hours of martial arts instruction. Even in the era of laser-guided weapons launched at 15,000 feet, recruits are taught that a swift knee into the groin of an enemy can be handy .
"Max aggression, max aggression, Charlie Company!" a drill instructor bellows as recruits repeat and repeat again the martial arts drills. "Max aggression! Kill!" Many recruits arrive with few, if any, swimming skills. Before they leave, they will have learned how to swim a 50-meter pool in full combat gear, including rifle and helmet.
"Tighten-it-up-tighten-it-up!" a swimming instructor yells at a line
of sopping-wet recruits emerging from the pool. Tired, drenched, and a
little dazed, the recruits nevertheless respond crisply: "Yes sir!" It's
a response heard often here.